Belle of Dirt

Missouri Ozarks mom, mover of earth, photographer, maker and plant enthusiast


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Quick raised bed

004My daughter threw a few zinnia seeds at the end of our driveway this spring, which resulted in a slightly haphazard patch of gorgeousness by midsummer. I mulched her spontaneous flower garden in August to help protect them from drying out too quickly in the horrible dirt they’d been planted in. When we cut away the last remaining stragglers last week, (zinnias bloom forever!) I promised her a much nicer medium for next year’s seeds.
This is my basic recipe for any raised bed I do in our yard now. It’s part hugelkulture mound, part lasagna gardening. Both are just fancy terms meaning I layer a bunch of organic material and then plop some plants in at some point and watch them grow.
I was breaking down a previous very large bed I built nearly 12 years ago, so I pulled rock and small boulders from that to use as a border. Some of my beds are made with scrap lumber, some with purchased landscape blocks. Most of them are rocks from various places on our property- because they are a) free and b) look organic instead of overly formal and contrived.
Build your border out of whatever you like. Just remember you’ll want it high enough to accommodate several layers of material, unless you mound the bed (tall center, near ground-level edges.)
First layer, if you are concerned with underground lovelies, such as moles, should be hardware cloth. Our “soil” here is clay and rock, rock and more rock. I seldom bother with hardware cloth. If you are lucky enough to have wonderful, silty soil, you probably have critters to go with it. Put down hardware cloth, save yourself grief later. (Hardware cloth is not actually cloth. It is a metal grid with holes small enough to put your finger through, but not small enough for rodents to climb through. I’m not sure why they call it “cloth” at all.)
FernWalk 006
MY first layer is cardboard and/or newspaper. I receive a ridiculous number of catalogs and papers stuffed with ads from every grocery and hardware store within a 30 mile radius… And the occasional phone book. I use them for weed barrier. Worms like this stuff, MUCH better than they like that black weed barrier on a roll crap you get at the garden center. Put a nice thick layer on the bottom of your new beds in the fall, water well, you’ll have 99% fewer weeds to deal with later. I’ve also used cardboard boxes ripped up like in the photo with the ferns at right. Cardboard lasts longer, but it’s harder to place around delicate plants.
107To the newspaper, I add a course layer of twigs, leftover mulch, chopped leaves yard clippings, whatever I have around for drainage. I avoid grass cuttings though, because we have a lot of crabgrass that sprouts everywhere and that stuff is vicious if it gets a foothold.
Over the roughage, I’ll add the actual soil or planting medium. How amended this is depends a lot on what I’m planting. For annual flowers like zinnias or marigolds, native clay with a bit of last year’s compost is usually fine. If I’m planting veggies, I use a lot more nutrient dense mix. I may add blood meal, peat moss, mushroom compost.

By now you’ve probably built things up enough it’s time for the second course of border (if you used rocks). Some people mortar these together or use landscape adhesive. I used it when building the pond and can vouch that it holds pretty well. I just use clay to hold together most of my rock borders. Since our native soil is 70% clay and 30% rock or clay that has turned to rock, it makes great glue when it’s wet. Start the base of your border with newspaper or cardboard to keep weeds from growing up between. Add the first course of rock. Fill your raised bed to the tops of the first level of rock, covering the tops with a bit of earth. The lay the top course over the bottom. If you’re doing this with landscaping blocks, bricks or concrete that you purchased, you’ll need to level each course and use sand/mortar to secure them in place. Rocks are a bit more forgiving. Kids can even sit/climb on the big boulders without damaging the bed.

On top of leftover straw, I added a couple wheelbarrows of burned  up trash from our burn pile. Over this I added 3 wheelbarrows full of native soil. This spring, I’ll add the plants, maybe a little blood meal to give it a nitrogen boost and mulch on top of that. Water each layer well to settle the bed and prevent air pockets.

In seriously weed prone areas, I sometimes newspaper between the plants again, on top of the soil, to keep weeds from taking over between my plants.


The mulch I start as a light layer, then build to about 3-4 inches deep as my plants mature. The idea is to retain moisture and soil nutrient content without smothering your plants. If your mulching material is fine (like shredded leaves) you may need to add to it a couple times a season as it breaks down.
117That’s it. Follow that recipe for your raised planting beds and they will be low maintenance and grow very healthy plants for several seasons. As the organic materials break down, you may need to re-layer every 4-5 years or so. On this bed, I’ll eventually have to replace that big stump with rock as it rots… but it looks kind of cool for now. 🙂
Raised garden beds are MUCH easier than raking, tilling and hoeing all season. Healthier for the micro-organisms in your soil and for your plants too!
B

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Raising Dirt

Raised BedThis article originally started out as a planting guide for those seedlings I’ve been raising, but then I realized there might be a bit I could say on the subject of where those seedlings will be going once they are ready to move outdoors. Most of you already have your gardens in for this year, unless you live in the northernmost climes. Here in Missouri, I normally have my garden in and established for several weeks by the middle of May; however, it was still snowing the first week of May this year so everything got a late start.

I garden mostly in raised beds, so this article will be relative to that form of gardening. If you are planting directly in the ground, then obviously there is a bit more prep work involved. The soil here, unless you venture into the woods, has very little or no topsoil and is almost all rocks and red clay. It isn’t impossible to grow plants in with a lot of amendment and effort, but it’s certainly not the easiest in the world to work with. For trees, bushes and large landscape plants, I cope with the clay. When it comes to planting flowers and vegetables though, I prefer my raised beds.

I’ve seen raised bed kits in the seed catalogs and in garden centers at the hardware store. You don’t need a fancy kit to build a raised bed and they don’t have to be very high to be beneficial. My first raised bed, the one I use for most of our vegetable garden, was built from rocks I dug up in the yard or found in the surrounding woods.
I learned by watching my dad, who built a raised area in Mom’s yard for her above ground pool to sit on. He started with a layer of large rocks that he buried slightly in the ground, and then added dirt to the top of the first row of rocks. He then added another layer of rock on top of the first and backfilled that with still more soil. It’s sort of like building steps, but with rocks.
In our area of the country, you don’t even need mortar to hold your beds together; the clay will usually serve that purpose. I will say this- if you aren’t using very large rocks and/or you will have small children or animals around the beds, then you may want to use some sort of mortar or landscaping adhesive to hold everything steady. My 4 year old kicks rocks out of the flower bed all the time, so far I just pick them up and put them back in place.
Her dad built a raised bed of her own this year; I had asked for a raised planter next to our composter for extra vegetable space, he added a small rectangle next to mine for her to plant. Both boxes were built from lumber scraps, held together with L-brackets in the corners for strength. We put a few veggies in hers; some garlic bulbs and snow peas, but mostly Mexican sunflower and marigolds. I wanted things that were almost foolproof to grow; she’s been out to check her bed every day since we planted it and was thrilled to find tiny seedlings sprouting after last night’s rain.
Planting things in raised beds is a lot like container gardening, except your containers don’t have a bottom. I’ve seen all sort of materials used; lumber, landscape timbers, railroad ties, concrete blocks, rocks picked up from the yard, old tires, lined cardboard boxes, stacked clay pots and so on. Mostly, choosing a material to build a raised bed is a case of aesthetics. Pick what suits you, your style and your yard. One note of advice however; I’ve seen many pins on Pinterest of people growing vegetable and herb gardens in beds of railroad ties, treated lumber (guilty- although the lumber I used it almost 10 years old) and concrete blocks all of which can leach chemicals into the soil and from there into your plants. If you’re planting for food and the chemicals concern you, consider avoiding these for your raised bed frames.HardwareCloth
We have so much rock here that gophers and moles haven’t been a serious issue, but I’ve noticed further north where the soil is much looser and the topsoil deep, the underground critters are fairly rampant. If you’ve noticed a lot of activity in your yard from root-munching rodents, you might want to lay down a sheet of wire mesh and build your bed on top of that. You can find it in most lawn and garden centers on a roll near the poultry netting and garden fencing. The ¼ inch stuff works brilliantly for this; it’s small enough that most rodents can’t get through, but allows worms, water, air and soil to pass through. I stole this photo from Google, as I would have had to go up to our storage shed where the old rat cage is and take pictures of hardware cloth. We lined the outside of a bookshelf with it as a cage for our fancy rats. They chewed through the bookcase; but couldn’t get through the hardware cloth. It will protect your carrots and potatoes in exactly the same way from gophers and rabbits.
Depending on the soil you intend to use, you may want to put down a drainage layer on top of your hardware cloth. I used native soil and leaves to fill about half my container, then store-bought garden soil and my own compost on top. You can layer fall leaves and small bits of sticks on the bottom for drainage, then a heavier layer of soil and finally compost and lighter materials on top if you like. Top it off with a layer of mulch once your plants are established. You want the beds to be able to drain, but not so fast that you have to water constantly. Raised beds will dry out a bit faster than a garden planted directly in the earth, so keep this in mind when planning your watering schedule.
A little tip I picked up from Paul James, the garden guy that used to do Gardening By The Yard on HGTV, is that a little fall prep for raised beds and even for in-ground gardens can save you a lot of hoeing, tilling and digging in the spring. I saved all my cardboard boxes for a couple of months, starting at the end of the summer. In the fall after I’d cleared the dead plants from my garden, I put down a thick layer of cardboard over the entire area. So I didn’t have to look at cardboard boxes all winter, I covered the boxes with a layer of black weed barrier cloth, anchored by landscape pins. The cardboard breaks down over the winter months. It allows water to penetrate, but helps to keep the earth beneath it soft. If you’ve never had the pleasure of dealing with clay soil, you have NO IDEA how helpful that is. If you have, then you know that clay turns to concrete when it’s dry and tar-like muck when it’s wet. The cardboard breaks down into the soil, loosening up the particles of clay and making it much more workable. It also speeds up the breakdown of leaves or mulch left on top of the garden, adding more organic material to enrich the soil. Where I didn’t have cardboard, I piled up the leaves and left them in place until spring. Rake them off when you’re ready to plant and you have soft, black, workable soil. No tilling, hoeing or hauling of garden soil necessary. Dried leaves help acidify the soil as well, good to know if you’re growing acid-loving plants like blueberries. An added benefit of the cardboard/landscaping fabric layer was that it kept weeds and crabgrass from sprouting and helped to heat up the raised beds for planting a bit faster than the actual ground temperature.
RaisedBedsThis same trick works for an in-ground garden, although it may require more than a single season to see the dramatic results I got in already soil-amended raised beds. The reason there is good top soil in the woods around my house and not in my yard is thanks to the bulldozers that cleared the land before they built our house here. They scraped off every ounce of topsoil and left all the exposed clay and rocks on the surface instead. Conversely, the woods that weren’t disturbed have years and years of leaf buildup on the ground, rotting slowly and turning to rich, dark soil underneath. Trees in the woods create their own mulch and compost. Tilling up the earth exposes the soil to air and water that can rob it of nutrients. It dries out the topsoil layer that protects what’s underneath. If you want your garden to grow big, healthy plants then you have to put back some of what is lost when you clear and till the soil.
MULCH ALL THE THINGS.
I can’t even stress how important this step is and it’s one that is often ignored. Mulch is a young plant’s best friend. It holds topsoil and soil amendments in place, it prevents erosion, and it protects the upper layers of soil from sun scorch. Mulch helps plants and soil retain moisture, so mulched plants need less watering. Organic mulches break down over time and enrich the soil composition, adding nutrients and helping to break up soils with tightly packed particles like clay. In sandy soils, they add bulk and keep the water from just running through. I’ve read studies that claim some types of mulch even encourage your plants to grow faster because of the increase in certain light spectrums when reflected back up to your plant. Tomato plants especially, are said to benefit from red-colored mulch.
I tend to favor pine-mulch; not because it does anything special, I just love the smell.
So… for a post that was originally supposed to be about garden plants, I rather ran off on a tangent. Then again, you can’t have healthy plants without healthy soil. No matter where I start, it always seems to come back around to dirt.  🙂

-B