Saturday, January 19, 2013

New Ground: Making a New Garden Bed

To begin with the end, a sunken raised bed, canted to the sun.

 2012 was a rough year in many ways, including gardening, but the world did not come to an end, and so another garden begins. Only a mile north of the last one, and in the same sandy loam glacial outwash soil, it's basically in the same ground. The main difference is that there is less shade, and should work out better for growing food.

With several days of rainlessness and the earth not frozen, I went out and started a new bed. I've explained before why I don't go for raised beds penned in by boards or stone, and attempted to explain why a sunken raised bed works better, but this post dispenses with the arguments and gets to work. Read on to learn how to start a garden bed and harvest some sod in the process.

10 AM. Ignore the row for beans at the right; the new bed is just a few lines cut through the sod at this point.
This yard has the advantage of a solid half day of sun, level ground, and not a bunch of trees or shrubs in the way, but the distribution of lawn is not what I'd like. The best garden spot is covered in grass, and an area where I'd like some grass is bare. So one objective here is to redistribute some sod. I know, redistribution is a dirty word to free market folks, but I am an unrepentant sodcialist. 

To harvest some sod means that just ripping away is not the way to go, and so I adjusted how I start the garden bed to yield pieces a bit over a foot wide, with enough roots to survive. The diagram below gives an idea of the sequence. 

The bed may expand later, but for now it's 25 feet long and 3 wide, and this image is looking end-on. First, I take the shovel and cut four lines down the length of the bed, as deep as the blade will go. Then, I take a pickax and peel back sod from the center section, cutting mats of sod about 18 inches square. If you want more, skip the middle two cuts and peel off the entire surface. Take the time to yank dandelions free as you harvest the sod; this job will never be easier.

As the green peels away, shake free some of the topsoil and earthworms (grass does not need them the way your garden does). I also chunk out some fo the soil beneath with the pickax to loosen it up, but because the soil is not too clayey and I hate cutting worms to pieces, I don't work too hard at it and this middle section is not cultivated as deeply as the side sections will be.

Speaking of which, the digging on the sides is done, and after you've skinned whatever sod you want, the work consists of shaking soil (and more worms!) free of the grass. I try and keep dirt toward the center of the bed. The grass will go in a heap in a shady part of the yard to slowly rot, or become a berm, or whatever. I am a miser when it comes to organic material, and will not put it, weedy as it may be, in a city greenwaste bin. In my old yard, I piled years' worth of grass by the fence, and eventually it became a berm where I planted berries.

2 PM. Done, with a side of sod.
At this point, all that's left is to go through with a garden rake. Lap after lap, I work up one side and down the other. First, the aim is to break up clumps of soil and remove roots and grass. Then, the job is sculpting the earth. I keep a bit of ditch on either side, and slope the bed surface down to the south to gain a few degrees advantage in soaking up sun. 

Blessed with nice easy soil, no rocks, and no freeze, the whole process took no more than 4 hours. The result is a bed the length of one soaker hose, amenable to making a hoop house (how? look here), and ready for planting. I'll probably toss in some early greens just to make use of the ground, but later in the spring, I'm pretty sure this will be the tomato bed. It may get wider to accomodate carrots or somethign else that doesn't need hoop house cover, or it may just stay the way it is. That's the beauty of working with this soil and not boxing myself in with a raised bed.

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