So, you have filled your windowsill with seedlings. You have stacked’em, racked’em, and packed’em all those containers onto your balcony or patio. But what if you have a slightly bigger space? A larger patio, a backyard, or front garden? What is the best way to utilize that?
When my mother and step-father moved back in with me and Nanny, one of the first things that my step-father did was till up a huge part of the backyard and a smaller patch on the side of the house for those plants that liked a bit more shade. Every year was the same: tiller in spring, chemical fertilizer, dig rows, plant, water extensively, and weed. And it worked…for a while.
The thing is that this traditional method of growing fruits and vegetables is exhausting – for the farmer/gardener and the soil.
The dig/till method of growing is not sustainable long term.
After a few years, no matter how much of those chemical fertilizers he used the yield was less and less, even with crop rotation and some composting.
So, what does work? And what is cheapest and easiest?
Raised beds – and specifically a type called Lasagna/layer/or no-dig.
And they don’t need to be expensive or fancy either.
I was first exposed to the idea of raised beds over a decade ago. I was married to @PanKwake’s dad at the time. We lived on the large council estate where he had been raised. At one of their monthly meetings, I suggested a communal fruit and vegetable growing area.
Of course, sitting around the table with no less than three politicians, this was corrupted from a simple community-led initiative into an expensive, make-their-party-look-good, hire their middle-class friends, and then drop it after the photo op disaster. The council spent thirty-thousand pounds. Yes, I said over £30,000 on about twenty raised beds, dirt, and seeds.
In the end, things got so nasty that I was bullied, verbally abused for being an American and having an autistic child, when I complained to the council, they did nothing, and to my knowledge, the last time I was there about five years ago those expensive beds are sitting there growing weeds. Unused!
The point of that rant is…
Raised bed gardening does NOT need to be expensive or time-consuming.
You would think that I would have learned my lesson from that, right?
Nope. Last year when I decided that I wanted to expand from simply container gardening to something more substantial, Alan and I talked about it. I looked at beds on Amazon. Simple wooden ones ranged in price from a little more than £50 to a few hundred (far, far less than the council paid might I say). But wood does rot. So, we decided that in keeping with our ‘posh’ a$$ neighborhood we would build a more permanent and eye-appealing one from brick, well builder’s blocks.
This is what we ended up with…
Okay, not bad. It will outlive us. But I had problems with aphids on the beans and slugs on the kale. The carrots grew wonky. And the cost…
Blocks = £250
Top soil = £120
Compost = £40
Labor = £120 (and that was only counting our young handyman, not my own)
Total = £530
Still, cheaper than what that council paid their ‘friends’ for those wooden beds. But that is more than most people can afford.
Then YouTube recommended a video called Lasagna Gardening. Sorry, I have NOT been able to find the brilliant one that I watched over a year ago. And the ones I do find aren’t quite as good, primarily because most are sponsored so recommend products you just don’t need. When we build our new ones later this week, I will try to video it.
The gist is to use primarily recycled materials, things like cardboard or old newspapers, grass clippings, leave mulch, kitchen waste, and layer this with a bit of topsoil or garden compost. The basic recipe is…
- Lay cardboard on fresh-mowed grass or your patio.
- On top of this place a thin layer about an inch or two of heavy matter (mulch or wood chips).
- Then add a couple of inches of topsoil or compost.
- A layer of 6 to 8 inches of grass clippings, dead leaves, straw, and kitchen waste (NO cooked foods though).
- Another two inches of soil or compost.
- Another layer of mulchy stuff.
- Finish up with a layer of richer compost and sprinkle with a bit of potash or wood ashes (no charcoal or light fluid).
Now, one of the reasons that I am not linking to the dozen or more YouTube videos that I have watched lately is that they all say you need to leave this to mature for a season. That original one said that it was perfectly fine to plant out immediately. So, I did.
The advantages that original video listed for planting out immediately included:
- The decaying matter releases water – so you need less water. True.
- The decaying matter also produces some heat – this can be beneficial to those tropical plants like courgettes, peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
And my personal experience says that it does work. In fact, of those seedlings that I bought that day, only two others survived. And those had zero yield.
This is the one that I built last year. In the dark, in less than half an hour. For less than £5. And planted out hot peppers, courgettes, pumpkin, and cucumbers – immediately. In fact, I did it in the dark because I was racing Mother Nature and her rain. I had bought several seedlings at the local market that day. They were a bit sad – and needed planting out asap. I had been busy all day, but it was starting to mist with rain forecast overnight. So, I rushed.
I tossed it down quickly and planted it out immediately. Out of the six or seven plants that I put in that night, one pepper, one cucumber, and two courgettes survived. I only got one cucumber and one small/medium-sized pumpkin. I got a handful of hot peppers – more than enough for us. But those courgettes! I got over a dozen HUGE, giant ones. For half an hour and £5?!?
I was sold. So, in the fall, we began our second lasagna bed. Over the winter, I have continued to layer it and that original one. I have never seen such rich, dark loam. The only problems that we had were 1) the birds kept pecking at worms and spreading it all over and 2) it collapsed all over the place due to the heavy rains.
So, before we planted it out this year, we bought one of those cheap wooden beds off of Amazon and put it together last Sunday afternoon. We lifted it over the existing mulch and spread it out a bit. This is a shady area so perfect for our winter staples such as kale, brussel sprouts, and cabbage.
But until then, I have tossed in a few eyed potatoes that I had in the cupboard. I am experimenting with another new method, where you don’t actually cover the potatoes with dirt/compost but use straw or mulch instead. That makes harvesting them even easier. Even if I don’t get a yield that’s fine because the potatoes will help to break up and condition the soil for those other plants to come.
We are waiting for three more cheap-beds to arrive today. One of those is to frame in that original raised bed. And the other two are to expand our capacity even further. But please remember that framing them in with wooden beds is not necessary. That one which produced so well for me last year was simply a mound on cardboard.
Of course, if you are a visual person, then go and watch some of those videos. Just remember, you don’t need to buy stuff.
In fact, I could have done it completely free (or almost) if I could have gotten to my council local recycling center where they give out free compost made from our garden and food waste. But since we don’t drive that is not as easy as ordering compost online or buying it in nice sealed plastic bags from the store. (Taxi drivers and friends don’t worry about those spilling the way they do open bags from the council center.)
When I think about all the work, time, and money that my stepfather put into that garden and how much easier and more productive it could have been if he had known about lasagna beds, it makes me wish for time travel.
But you don’t need to time travel into the past to begin planning now for your family’s food security in an uncertain future. I know that we are at our @HomeCrazzyHome. I have gone from thinking of this as a vegetable garden to seeing it as an urban farm. Yes, we live in a posh a$$ neighborhood, but I don’t care. Right now, food security is more important than what my neighbors think.
Tomorrow, we will do part 2 of raised beds as we look at the idea of intercropping and square foot planting. Until then…
Goddess bless and provide for you and yours,
From our @HomeCrazzyHome to yours.