Raised Beds and Mulch --
A Knockout Combination!
When I moved to my
present home in
Kentucky, raised beds
were the only option.
With rock-hard soil,
gravel and ledges, even
a tractor with heavy
rototiller refused to
break the surface!
How was I ever going to get the organic vegetables
I needed to stay healthy?
Remember those legendary railroad men and miners, like John Henry? So did I, and I attempted double-digging to loosen the soil and get out the rock. But I soon realized it was too much.
I looked around, to see what could grow here, and noticed a lot of trees. I thought about tree roots. When a root encounters rock, it takes its time, but eventually splits it. In the meantime, the tree enjoys the moisture benefits of a rock mulch.
So I decided to imitate the patient trees, and do things the slow way, by manufacturing soil, right on top of the ground, where I needed it.
My mulch resources were meager, and buying wasn’t an option. So I couldn’t just spread it over a large area, the way Ruth Stout did. French Intensive gardening came to the rescue again, with the idea of raised beds that concentrated the materials in a small area, not wasting them on walkways. I began to build 4’ x 8’ wooden frames, one at a time, and filled them with any kind of rough mulch I could get – weeds, grass clumps, wood chips, kitchen garbage and manure. And I just left it all there, to compost on the spot.
At that time I already knew about mulch gardening and the French Intensive method, but not Lasagna Gardening, so I worried some about departing from the ways I knew. But after three months, when I was able to sink a spade four inches into the stony ground, it wasn’t hard to adapt! (My arthritis is thanking me, too!)
This was the first of my new style of raised beds. I planted lettuce there, and it grew just fine. Sure, there was still a lot of rubble underneath the mulch, but if the lettuce didn’t care, why should I?
I discovered later that the rock could be lifted out easily in off-season times, without a pickaxe and backbreaking work. NOW I know that you could leave that rock down there for good, if you wanted to, but I found it kind of relaxing to spend ten to fifteen minutes hooking it out with a cultivator (the one shaped like a long-handled claw). Getting really deep soil is a gradual process, but you can start growing things in new, raw raised beds after several months, regardless.
Right now, I have fourteen beds with about sixteen inches of soil under the mulch, and fourteen more in various stages of progress. One of my newer raised beds is happily growing volunteer tomatoes and purslane, a favorite cooked vegetable of Europeans.
I’d always read that plants needed deep, friable soil (3 feet deep, ideally!), but my real life situations forced me do a lot of thinking about that. And when I came across an article in “Organic Gardening Magazine” that said almost all microbiological activity takes place in the top six inches of the soil, I thought, Bingo!
It takes several years to bring one of my raised beds into top condition (by traditional organic standards), but on the other hand, it does the work almost all by itself! During the first year, I just grow less-demanding crops, like lettuce, mint, sage and green beans, until the bed matures.
When I need a new bed, it’s no big thing. I just lay down a frame, and start piling mulch. This naturally occurs when I’m clearing plant wastes from an old bed, or weeding the pathways. My garden isn’t huge, and the new bed always seems to be within tossing distance. I’m happy, and it works!
Raised beds and mulch gardening can REALLY minimize your work and maximize crop yield! And think about this: If it can work on impossible ground, think what it can do for land that’s clear to begin with!
Now, here's a scaled-down version
almost anyone can manage --
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