Vegetable Garden Series Part 4: Design For Easy Care

Updated with new photos and information in January 2015.

Easy Care Vegetable Garden

I should probably start this part of the series with this confession: I have never grown vegetables in the “traditional” way of tilling a large spot of land and planting in long rows. To be honest, the thought just scared me when I was a beginning gardener on a number of levels: I’d never used a tiller (and couldn’t afford one), I didn’t want to wait until mid-May or later to plant (I read in Organic Gardening magazine that you have to wait for the soil to dry out some- hello? This is Oregon!), and most importantly – I didn’t want to deal with the weeds.

Ugh, weeds. My limited experience with gardening came as a kid and involved having to go out and weed the little (tilled) patch we had at our house. All my sisters and I could see were a sea of weeds, but we were told there were lettuce seedlings in there somewhere…

So when I read in Organic Gardening (way back in 1992 when we bought our first house) about raised beds and how they help to lessen the weed problem, I knew they were for me! My first tip for designing an easy vegetable garden, then, is to build raised beds. There are so many reasons to have raised beds and even if you like to use a tiller, you should make room on the edges for a couple of beds:

  • Root crops like carrots and parsnips will grow so much better and be easier to harvest.
  • Early crops of lettuce and greens can be started, as well as peas, which can go in as early as February in mild areas in the north.
  • They make gardening easier- less bending, easier weeding (when needed), planting, and watering.
  • No spending time with a hoe on paths: create permanent paths between the beds with gravel or large wood chips or seasonal paths with cardboard and straw. They don’t get watered and you don’t trample the delicate planting ares. And the few weeds that sprout are easy to pull.
  • When the beds do need weeding, the soil is so nice and hasn’t been compacted with walking on them that the weeds just pull up easily. For example, I can weed a 4′ x 12′ bed in 10 to 15 minutes with just hand tools AND only a few weeds come up the entire remainder of the season. I just pull them here and there when I’m out harvesting. I NEVER have to spend hours weeding the garden and I can always find my plants even if I go on vacation!

Have I convinced you yet? :)

I started with 6 raised beds in our old house in the city that were 3’x6′ each. I quickly caught the vegetable bug (that thrill of serving food you get to say you grew…who knew?) which started our desire for larger acreage to grow more. Our garden now is huge by many standards and I’ve created a hybrid raised-bed-permanent-path garden with both traditional 4-foot wide beds as well as four larger 9’x20′ beds with permanent edges designed for easy care. This is the design I came up with for our new area:

Easy care main garden plan

And this is my second tip for designing a vegetable garden for easy care: sketch out a plan! As you can see, it doesn’t have to be fancy or well-drawn, but it should be as much to scale as possible (each square on the graph paper above = 2 feet). Think about what you want included (fruit trees? perennial vegetables like asparagus?) and the direction of the sun. Aligning your raised beds north-south, for instance, is best to minimize shadows from rising and setting sun patterns. Read more about how I plan my vegetable garden here.

I planned raised asparagus beds on one edge (top in plan above) since they are permanent (asparagus can produce for more than 20 years) and I knew nothing else would be able to grow with them once they were established. Along the other edges I set strawberry beds and beds to grow fruiting bushes like currants and blueberries.

Easy care raised bed garden - less weeds, less time, more harvest!

The 6 “traditional” raised beds are my main vegetable beds (pictured here in very early spring). They are 4 feet x 12 feet with 10″ sides and I use soaker hoses to water at the roots. I rotate crops through them each year to lessen disease and group like plants together (tomatoes in one, broccoli and cabbage in another), which leads to tip #3:

Quickly plan your garden crops each year, rotating and keeping track of what did well and what you liked (or didn’t).

Easy care vegetable garden in spring - using raised beds makes it easy to cover early crops.

Using raised beds also makes it easy to cover early crops and to give summer crops, like the tomatoes covered above, an early start in areas with cooler springs like ours. You can read more about how to plant tomatoes and get them earlier here.

Note: We put in the cold frames (boxes with old windows on them) one year for hardening off seedlings as I read in a number of books, but as you can see using old windows isn’t actually a good idea. The glazing came off within a year and the glass started breaking. Plus, the lids where heavy with real glass. In the future I’d only use plastic or a plexiglass product. Now they are just storage boxes. 

Easy Care Vegetable Garden Raised Beds Examples

You can make beds out of untreated wood, cinder blocks, stacked concrete or other stone blocks or even just raised dirt sides (though they are harder to maintain). One other benefit for people who will see the beds from their house is that it’s easy to make them look pretty and they look neat and tidy even at the end of the season with their permanent sides.

Referring back to my hand-drawn plan above, our garden also consists of 4 larger beds with edges made from 4″x4″ pieces of wood. These are what I call my ‘nontraditional’ raised beds since I do have to walk on the soil when planting and harvesting. They are about 9’x20′ although some have the corners angled. These larger beds are to grow corn, potatoes, dry beans and sprawling squashes. In the beginning I was tempted to till them under, but what I read about tilling put me off it for good:

Tilling actually PRODUCES more weeds!

Two things can happen with tilling:

  1. Weeds that propagate from the smallest root fragment (think dandelion and bindweed) will come back ten-fold after being cut up.
  2. Dormant weed seeds that need light to germinate will be brought to the surface so they can sprout anew.

That’s why there always seem to be more weeds after tilling – because there are! (And I’m not even going to go into how tilling can damage the tilth of the soil…). So, tip #4 is to not till the ground, but what was I to do with these big beds?

Easy Care No-Till Large Vegetable Bed

The weedy bed pictured first above is where I grew pole beans, shell beans, cucumbers, and zucchini the year before, and it is pretty much my nightmare of weeds! I swear, if I thought I had to deal with this, I would run screaming far, far away…to the market to buy produce! :) So, tip #5 is: use plastic to kill weeds. In February or March of each year I cover the large beds with black plastic, as shown. Not the most beautiful thing every, but very effective. They use the sun’s power to kill all the weeds underneath for the month or two before I need to plant.

After a few months, I remove the plastic and simply rake up all the dead weeds. There are usually a few perennial weed roots like dandelion that need to be remove, but not many. All that needed then is to add a layer of compost, rake it smooth, and plant! That’s it! And you want to know the best part?

These beds have never been tilled and have never had herbicides used on them.

When we created them, we just put large pieces of cardboard over the pasture grass (mowed short) and filled them with about 6″ of soil (actually a 1-inch layer of manure and then purchased soil/compost mix). I actually wondered about planting that first year – if things would grow or if the corn would fall over because the roots couldn’t go deep enough – but they were fine! Everything grew and it was EASY- gotta love it!

I absolutely DO NOT spend hours weeding my vegetable beds and you don’t have to, either – if I could shout it from the rooftops, I would! Since I can’t (won’t?), I have written lots more about my low-weeding approach (and some tips for flower beds, too) that you can see by pursuing our weeds and weeding category. Some specific titles are:

Planting a Garden the No-Till Way
More On Weeds
How to Plant Corn Weed Free (also how I plant all my bigger beds…)

Mid summer easy care vegetable garden

So, to recap how to design a vegetable garden for easy care:
  1. Use a raised bed system with permanent or semi-permanent paths
  2. Sketch out a plan
  3. Plan your vegetables each year, rotating and keeping track of what you liked and didn’t
  4. Do not till the soil
  5. Use black plastic to kill weeds and layer on compost before planting.

There will be some planning up front and a small outlay of money for the beds, but you will save hundreds of hours of weeding and eliminate the wasteful watering of paths that occur in the “traditional” method. PLUS, you’ll be able to grow things on your timetable and not be at the whim of wet or dry spring weather determining when you can till to be able to plant, which you can read more about in the other parts of this vegetable gardening 101 series.

So, what do you think? Ready to plan for easy care?

 

Comments

  1. Terese @ www.thecountrybasket.com says

    Very good article, very interesting! I’ve been tilling my traditional garden (http://thecountrybasket.com/my-vegetable-garden-how-i-planted-and-the-results-part-1/), but doing things the way you are describing makes a lot of sense. I am planning on trying the plastic, just gotta find it. Home Depot didn’t have it.
    Oh, and I think the hose in your garden looks just fine; no need to clean it up, you’ll just have to bring it back out again! 😉 It makes it look like an active garden in full use.
    Thanks for the information!

  2. michelle lisica says

    Where do you get the black plastic?. Love your garden wish I would have known about the tilling

    • says

      Sorry I didn’t see this earlier, Michelle!! They sell all different weights of black plastic at home centers (like Home Depot or Lowes). Oh, and it’s never to late to stop tilling. 😉

  3. says

    Hello, I just have a small patch, probably 20 x 20. I don’t think I can do the raised gardens. Not enough space. But I love the no till idea. I have been tilling every spring and then laying down black plastic. I then plant my tomatoes, zuchini, summer squash and tried hart covairs, but they did not do well. a few pepper plants, but no luck with them either.
    Then I put mulch over the black plastic because I hate the look of black plastic. Okay, that being said, I am now ready to do no till. What is the best type of compost for me to buy? I have tilled in pnly cow manure in the past. I await your answer.
    Many thanks for such a well written and followable article.
    Noreen

    • says

      If I only had a 20×20 space, Noreen, I would still add a couple raised beds, either along the side or two at the front or back. Mainly because that’s the easiest way to grow root crops like carrots and beets, AND because I can start planting lettuce and spinach a lot earlier. It’s up to you and what you want to grow, Noreen. And you can definitely do raised beds that are just mounded soil with the lower paths mulched with straw or something. And that’s how I’d do the no-till in an area like yours.

      You didn’t mention how you watered under the plastic. Do you use soakers? The tomatoes and peppers should’ve loved the warmth from the plastic – in fact my peppers right now are planted with a black plastic mulch. And I do often add straw over the top of the plastic, it looks better and keeps the sun off it, so it lasts longer.

      Sorry – on to your question: Cow manure is fine, as is chicken – both need to be WELL rotted or they will grow weeds. Don’t use horse, as they eat so many seed heads that it’s near impossible to compost it enough at home to kill them all. I actually find it easiest to buy commercially composted barnyard blend compost – we can get the large amounts we need, it’s not too expensive ($20 for a truck full), and it hardly ever grows weeds like home-composted blends. Hope that answers it!

      • says

        Thanks for the helping. Can I come back at you? Can I also use landscape cloth rather than black plastic to go over the compost?
        I tried to find barnyard compost, but Newport, RI doesn’t seem to have any within easy reach. What I plan then, is to put the cow manure, which comes in bags from Home Depot on top of the soil and then place the landscape cloth over the top and start planting. Is that the way to go?
        Next year I will do the raised beds.

        • says

          The cow manure from HD is fine, Noreen – that’s well rotted and shouldn’t produce seeds. I’m sort of confused about the landscape cloth/black plastic question, though. I only use the plastic to kill the weeds, then I lay the compost layer, plant, and use soakers to water only the plants. The only time I use a plastic mulch is for warm-weather-loving plants- tomatoes and peppers. And then it’s red plastic mulch for the tomatoes (proven to increase production 20%). You don’t have to use it at all. If you’re wanting to cover the empty spaces, grass clippings or hay will do great – you can even lay down newspaper under the hay in paths for extra weed protection. Is that what you were wanting the landscape cloth for?

          • says

            You’re saying that you use the black plastic to kill weeds in the winter months then remove it and toss it.
            I usually just plant tomatoes, summer squash, zuchini and peppers. Can I continue to use it. I can’t find the red plastic mulch.
            I would use the landscape cloth to cover the whole garden. After I put down the cow manure. Is that not a good way to go? Should I just not put any plastic down at all?

  4. says

    I’m sorry, I’m confusing myself here. I use black landscape cloth for the garden. Not black plastic. I did try to find red plastic mulch, but no luck. So what do I do now?

    • says

      Well, Noreen, you can do it however you want, but landscape fabric and black plastic is expensive, so I wouldn’t cover the whole garden. But that’s just me. (Oh, and I don’t toss the plastic – I keep it in plastic garbage bins (to keep the mice from eating it) in the garden shed) The only reason to plant your vegetables with plastic mulch is to increase the temperature of the soil for warm-weather lovers – it also then keeps the soil evenly moist, but that can be accomplished with any mulch. Like I said, I would use paper and straw for water retention and to keep weeds down, but if you already have the landscape cloth and you like it – just use that. :)

        • says

          I’m not sure, Noreen. I just put what I have available, usually a couple inches and then scratch it into the surface. Does that sound doable?

          • says

            Very doable and about what I figured.
            I am going to do the no till. Lay down the cow manure, scratch it in and plant my plants. And then, I am not going to put anything down and see what happens. No mulch, no hay, no black plastic, not landscape cloth, just cow manure, about 2 inches thick. Maybe a little more.
            By the way, I don’t use soaker hose. I guess we get enough rain to keep the garden fairly hydrated. Maybe once or twice a summer, I will run my hose over if it’s too dry and let it go. I also have rain barrels that help out a lot from time to time.
            Many thanks for bearing with me on this.
            Noreen

          • says

            That’s great if you don’t need to irrigate, Noreen! I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to, either. :) Hope that goes well with you – just know that if you see a lot of weeds sprouting, you can always lay down grass clippings or hay then – there’s no time limit, so it’s good to experiment so you only need to do what YOUR garden needs!

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