Open Raised Beds
As I work on putting my garden to bed for the winter I’m realizing how much I like working with open raised beds. I’ve been working with them for nearly thirty years. Soon after starting my Wisconsin garden in 1986, I knew that, for me at least, maintaining a relatively large garden did not require power equipment and I gave away my rototiller. All the work in my raised bed garden is done with hand tools.
I’ve become an advocate for growing food intensively in open raised beds. It’s a great way to grow a lot of food without a lot of outside inputs. Open raised beds have been around about as long as people have been growing food, but the method I’ve developed and refined over the years is based mostly on the well-known book HOW TO GROW MORE VEGETABLES by John Jeavons. The book was my rudimentary instructor, but I’ve modified things to suit my garden and what works well for me.
The overview of the system is that instead of planting crops in rows, the garden is composed of beds of loose soil. The gardener only walks in the paths surrounding the beds, thus soil compaction is nearly eliminated. The beds are seeded or planted so that as the crops mature they cover the bed with leaf growth which helps suppress weeds. Plants spaced in a pattern covering the entire width of the beds yield far larger harvests per area than possible by traditional planting in rows.
As I prepared the beds for winter this year several things that make this system work so well became very apparent. Because I’m constantly adding organic matter, because I never walk on the beds, and because I’m constantly rotating different crops though the beds, my once impossibly hard clay soil is continually getting softer. Much of the garden has achieved a friability that I could only have dreamed of just a few years ago.
I use my old five-tined cultivating hoe to occasionally rip the paths loose and put the rich soil back into the beds. The paths build up as the beds flatten out so I have to put that build-up back into the beds every second or third year. I did a major path clean up this year and moved a lot soil back into the beds.
What I find quite interesting is that the paths, for all their dense clay texture, seem to hold more worms per cubic area of soil than the beds. Clay is not the enemy a lot of gardeners make it out to be.
16 Inches of Super Soft Soil
In the bed pictured above, you can see a yardstick that I easily shoved 16 inches down into the soil. Unlike row gardening, the soil in these beds never gets walked on or driven over with a tiller or tractor, so with the continual addition of compost and leaf mold, coupled with the effect of rotating different crops though the beds, the soil gets softer and softer.
Raised Beds Can Help Weed Control
Raised beds can be quite easy to weed The paths can be scalped clean with a scuffle hoe and the weeds in the beds can often be scalped off or pulled out using a stand up tool (we find our CobraHead Long Handle does a good job, here), and in the beds the soil is often so soft that weeds can be removed by hand with no tools at all.
Keeping the paths weed free also helps confine weedy areas to a manageable situation. I do not have the time I wish I had to garden, so at least if an area gets out of control, it is confined and corralled by cleanly weeded paths. This is especially important in areas where I have perennial plants, herbs, and strawberries in particular. The weeding in these beds sometimes gets away from me, and occasionally the only logical option to get them back in shape is to rip them out totally and replant, which I have to do for strawberries, every third year anyway.
South Beds with Leaves
North Beds with Leaves
I try to get the beds completely covered with leaves every fall. An alternative to this would be to use cover crops, but leaf cover is proving to be very effective and I think a lot easier than maintaining cover crops. In spring I just rake the leaves into the aisles where they act as a weed suppressing mulch and eventually break down into leaf mold.
I’m just about done with the garden until spring. I still have some leeks and Brussels sprouts being protected by a cover of leaves. They will need to get harvested soon, and there are some carrots and beets and a few edible greens under the hoop tunnel. I’ll work at getting a few more leaves into the beds, but mostly the garden is finished and the work is under control. Now I can start planning for next year.