The Grovestead

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Category: Garden Design (page 1 of 2)

Planting a No-Till Garden, Step-by-Step

No-till garden planted

A few years ago I watched the documentary Back to Eden, which describes how master gardener Paul Gautschi uses a revolutionary but forgotten method to suppress weeds and rebuild soil fertility. If you do any gardening at all it’s a must-see (the whole video is free on the website).

This past season I finally got a chance to test out the method, which has come to be known as “no-till” gardening. Unlike traditional gardening where the soil is tilled under every season, with no-till gardening the soil is always covered and therefore never becomes hard and compact. Also, the weeds are virtually non-existent because of the thick mulch.

I sectioned off a portion of the garden and set about converting it to a no-till plot.

No-till garden plot

I’m pretty sure there’s no wrong way to create a no-till garden, as long as you put down enough organic matter. My no-till recipe goes like this:

  • 1-inch compost
  • Sugar (carbohydrates activate the microorganisms in the soil. can also use molasses)
  • Biodegradable paper mulch (for weeds)
  • Another inch of compost
  • Organic fertilizer (a.k.a. chicken droppings from the last coop cleanout)
  • Leaves
  • 4-inches shredded woodchips

Dumptruck leaves giant pile of woodchips

Wood chips arrive.

Layer of compost added to soil

Bare soil is covered with 1-inch compost.

Paper mulch laid down over no-till garden

Paper mulch from the garden store acts as a weed block.

Added organic fertilizer to no-till garden plot

Pine shavings from the chicken coop.

Leaves added to no-till plot

A layer of leaves.

Woodchips spread over no-till garden plot

The shredded wood chips are put down last.

Watering no-till garden

Final step is to soak everything thoroughly.

I came back two weeks later to plant the tomato seedlings and found the ground beneath the wood chips was still moist from this initial watering (it hadn’t rained since).

Seedling transplanted into no-till garden

While the ground right next to it was hard and cracked.

Bare soil is dry and cracked

The results speak for themselves:

Comparison of corn grown in no-till garden

Comparison of onions grown in no-till garden

comparison of plant growth till vs no-till

There was a significant difference in both the growth of the plants and the size of the produce from the no-till plot.

However, there were a couple of drawbacks. There is a cost to getting the woodchips, and the general prep was a little more than just hoeing dirt into rows. But the time saved weeding more than makes up for it. The biggest problem I experienced was low germination rates. Many of the direct-sown seeds did not germinate. But of the ones that did, or of the transplants, they grew significantly better with far less input (I never watered the no-till plot after initial planting the whole summer). I have a couple of theories as to why the seeds didn’t sprout. Mainly, the wood chips have a tendency to fall back over the soil where the seed was placed, making it more difficult for the seedling to sprout. Also, since the black soil wasn’t exposed, the ground would have been cooler in that plot. Some vegetables like corn require very warm temps to germinate.

So as I said it was definitely a success but also had some challenges. I will continue to grow the no-till plot next year and, as always, keep learning.

 


Building raised bed gardens, step-by-step

Selecting lumber for your raised bed gardens

I normally wouldn’t detail how to build a raised bed garden–its just a box, after all. But when a friend of mine who is starting his own backyard garden asked for blueprints I thought it might be a good idea to throw a few pictures together.

There’s no wrong way to build a raised bed, this is just my preferred approach after a few years of trial and error.

What you will need:

  • Lumber:  
    • 4 pieces of 2″x10″ untreated boards in whatever dimension you want your garden
    • 4 pieces of 2″x2″ (buy one 8′ 2″x2″ and cut it into 12″ lengths)
  • Tools:
    • Miter saw (hand saw would work fine too)
    • Socket wrench (probably 7/16″ head, depending on the bolt)
    • Drill with 5/16″ bit
    • 2 Clamps
  • Hardware (for each bed):
    • 16 qty 1/4″ x 3 1/2″ bolts (hexagonal head)
    • 32 qty 1/4″ washers
    • 16 qty 1/4″ nuts

Hardware used for building the raised beds

Step 1: How big?

The first step is to decide how big you want your bed. This is a purely personal preference and depends on where you will situate your bed on your property. In my case, I have a huge space to fill, so my beds are very large, 12′ by 3′ each.

A couple of tips:

  • Unless you are planting shade-tolerant plants, you will need at least 6 hours per day of sunlight for your garden to thrive, the more the better.
  • Don’t make the ends of your beds wider than 3 feet, or it becomes difficult to work in the middle when you need to.

Step 2: Buy, measure, and cut your lumber

After you know the dimensions, go buy the lumber from your favorite hardware chain. I recommend untreated lumber for the sides and ends. Treated lumber isn’t made with arsenic anymore, but just to be safe I’d rather err on the side of rotting wood than seeping chemicals. One caveat, I use treated lumber for the stakes holding the edges together because the wood is so much stronger and the exposure is minimal.

The lumber for an 8′ x 3′-sized box should run you around $25-30.

Tip: When picking out lumber pick the straightest boards you can find. You may have to pick through 3 or 4 warped boards (or 7 or 8 or 18) to find a straight one, but you will save yourself a lot of time and frustration later.

Cut the sides and ends to your desired dimensions and cut the 2×2’s just longer than the height of the boards (e.g., 12″ if you have 10″ boards). This extra edge will help hold the bed in place when set into position.

Step 3: Drill the holes

This is the most difficult and time consuming part of the project. If you have access to a drill press I would highly recommend using one. Basically, what you need to do is drill two holes through the end of each board and the stakes that hold them together. Because the holes need to line up perfectly, and hand-drilling is always imperfect, this will only work if you clamp the stakes to the boards and drill through them together.

Align one stake with the edge of the end boards. The stake should align evenly with one side and overhang 2″ on the other.

Clamps hold wood together while drilling

Make sure to mark which stake matches which board-end, otherwise your slightly imperfect angles will make it impossible to slide the bolts through later. Also make sure to mark the “top” of the stake and board (the top will be the evenly-aligned side, the bottom will have the 2″ overhang).

Holes drilled through stakes and boards

Repeat this hole-drilling until all ends of the boards and stakes have been drilled. Note that holes in the side boards will need to be inset an extra 1.5″ to allow for the end boards to fit properly.

Clear as mud? It’s not really that bad. Temporarily assemble joints as you go and it will be obvious where you need to drill.

A drill press would greatly simplify this step by allowing you to drill perfectly straight holes in all pieces without the need to clamp and mark everything.

Step 4: Assemble the box

If all your holes are drilled correctly, this is the easy part. Line up your stakes with the end boards, place a washer on both ends and slide the bold through and fasten.

Stake and board of raised bed bolted together

Stand up the side board against the end board and repeat the process. Now your raised bed is taking shape!

Assembling walls of raised bed

I used a socket bit with my drill to speed up the assembly. Its a good idea to assemble the bolts loosely at first, then go around and tighten when all the boards are in place.

Finished assembly of raised bed

You’re finished building the raised bed!

Step 5: Start gardening!

Carry the bed into place. If you have uneven terrain, you might need to dig a little sod out to make a level base. If you are setting directly over lawn, place a biodegradable paper mulch (like newspaper) down first to suppress the grass.

Next, fill with good garden soil. Pre-mixed store soils can be awfully expensive, so if you have access to a community compost site, use it! If you are starting from scratch, a cheap and simple soil mix would be 50% compost, 50% peat moss (coarse vermiculate is a great ingredient too, but very expensive).

Raised bed garden filled and growing


Planting days are here at last!

Preparing the soil for planting

The weather finally cooperated long enough for us to till and begin planting our garden on Monday. I took the day off and with the help of my awesome sister-in-law Lisa and her mom and daughter we got our fingernails dirty.

Girl standing by blueberry beds

Our first project was the blueberry patch. We bought 16 blueberry shrubs from the same nursery where we ordered our apple trees. First we prepared the beds, mixing in peat moss to make the soil more acidic.

Preparing the soil for blueberries

Then the shrubs were planted in two rows of different varieties (Northblue and Northcountry Blueberry), both cold-hardy for our Minnesota climate.

Planting blueberry shrubs

Two rows of blueberries

In a couple of years these shrubs should be producing 3 to 7 pounds of berries per bush.

Next we tackled the large vegetable plot. Using a borrowed tractor, I tilled the 25 x 60-foot plot.

Tilling garden with tractor

Then we set to work dividing it into several rows with walking paths between each. The plan is to put corn, peas, tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers, onions, beets, potatoes, and squash roughly in that order. The taller plants like corn go on the north side of the garden so they don’t shade the shorter plants.

Digging rows and paths in the garden

Last year I created my own drip irrigation out of PVC but it didn’t work as I’d hoped. So this year I ordered a drip system from a reputable dealer. I’m also experimenting with plastic mulch to see if my weed control fares any better.

Setting out the drip tape irrigation

Laying down plastic mulch in garden beds

Dumping wood chips for garden paths

It was exhausting work. We had to dig the beds by hand, lay the drip tape, then cover the beds with plastic and shovel dirt on the ends to hold it in place. Probably would have been easier if we had this:

This is just the first of many planting days. There are still the raised beds to prepare and my no-till experiment. After it warms a bit more, we’ll transplant the tomatoes and start the corn.

Planting days are here at last


Raised beds under construction

Building raised beds

When I laid out the garden last year I left room for some upgrades. This year we have expanded the garden plot and are adding 4 new raised beds. These beds are huge, 12 feet by 3 feet. And they take a long time to build.

We’ll be planting lettuce, spinach, kale and asparagus and devoting two whole beds just to strawberries.


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