How to build A Supercharged, Low Maintenance Garden Bed
It’s taken me years to hone my garden bed game. As I’ve studied regenerative agriculture, permaculture, and sustainable gardening practices, I’ve incorporated techniques that have turned my garden beds into supercharged plant-havens. After many modifications, these beds have it all: water conservation, pest exclusion, at least five years of self-fertilization and of course, soil optimization. Oh, and aside from the occasional cover crop and new mulch, I do nothing to maintain them. Ready to up your garden bed game too? Here’s how to make them.
Finding the perfect place for your new bed.
The first step to creating a luscious, productive garden is finding the right place for the bed. At the most basic level, plants need food, water and sun to grow and produce. You can always create shade, but you can’t create (real) sunshine! My first attempt at a garden in my late 20’s was tantamount to plant murder. I stuck a bunch of tomato starts in a shady patch of bare soil underneath an avocado tree. Then I forgot to water them consistently. I did not reap a harvest that year.
Position each garden bed to follow the path of the sun across its length, so that it gets at least six hours of full sun per day. Here in the northern hemisphere, that means facing it south. Don’t know how the sun travels across your particular address? You can look it up right here! I like to enter June 21st and December 21st (the longest and shortest days of the year) to get a good overall picture of my sun expectations.
Not every situation will be perfect. My house and fences cast shadows before 8 am and after 4 pm in the summer. Just get it as close to ideal as you can.
Build your garden bed box
After you’ve picked the right spot, measure the space and construct the frame. I use & recommend raised beds. They allow you to control soil composition and make it easy to screen out the garden varmints.
The ideal height (or depth) for your supercharged garden bed is twenty, to twenty-four inches. You’ll have enough room for hugelkultur (I’ll explain what that is when it’s time to fill the bed), compost, soil, and mulch. You can do this by digging a hole and placing a shorter raised bed box on top, or you can create a raised bed to the total height. I’ve done it both ways and find it more convenient to build the taller raised bed box.
Making a raised bed is pretty simple. You can use metal, wood, rocks, or even concrete blocks to form your raised bed frame. I’m a big fan of wood because it’s easy to work with and insulates well. Check Craigslist for cheap/free useable, untreated planks!
There are Youtube videos, and DIY tutorials abound on how to construct raised beds. Go nuts and get creative; there’s no wrong way to make a raised bed as long as it holds moist soil.
Make sure you keep the dimensions manageable so you can access all the plants you put in the bed. My beds are long and no more than thirty inches across because that’s what works for the space I have.
Gopher & vole screening
Once you’ve got your raised bed box constructed, it’s time to screen out the tunneling thieves that aim to cash in on your garden goodness! I didn’t know how devastating a single gopher could be until one got the memo about my garden. Entire plants- gone in an instant! If you have a garden, it’s only a matter of time before the word gets out and the neighborhood wildlife comes to feast. You can save yourself a lot of grief by planning for it in advance.
To exclude the would-be harvest munchers, take half-inch galvanized or stainless steel hardware cloth (also called mesh) and cut it to fit along the bottom of your raised bed, all the way out to the edges of the box. Then screw or staple (I recommend a furniture stapler if you go that route) the hardware cloth onto the bottom of your raised bed. I like to use three-quarter-inch truss head screws instead of staples. They’re more durable and less likely to be ingested by chickens if they come loose down the line.
Hardware cloth caution
If you haven’t worked with hardware cloth yet, lemme tell ya, it’s not fun! The one time I have gotten frustrated to the point of throwing something in the recent past, it was tin-snips at a roll of hardware cloth. Then I kicked it. Twice.
It was ridiculous and solved nothing of course, but it happened.
To save you similar frustration, I recommend getting a great pair of tin-snips. Wear long sleeves, sturdy pants (not yoga leggings), and close-toe shoes in addition to leather work gloves. I haven’t experienced hardware cloth ire since I instituted those guidelines here, lol!
Once the bottom of your bed is screened in:
If you opted to make the taller raised bed box, place the bed right-side-up in the place you’ve selected for it.
If you’ve dug a hole and made the shorter box, set it to the side for now and skip ahead to filling up your new raised bed (below). Then come back to this section once your materials are in the ground
Now that you’ve got your raised bed built, gopher-proofed and appropriately placed, fence it in. You can go as simple, or as fancy as you want! If you plan on mouse or rat-proofing your bed, now’s the time to do that.
Because citrus rats are a problem here, I chose to build a sturdy top-frame with space-saving removable panels. Hardware cloth screens keep the rats out. I cover it with mesh netting at night and leave it open on top during the day for pollinators to get in.
If mice are a problem in your garden, you’ll need quarter-inch hardware cloth to exclude them. If it’s rats you’re focused on, half-inch will do just fine.
If you’re more concerned with keeping the dogs/cats/chickens/kids out, you can easily create removable panels with chicken wire or leftover hardware cloth. I made these a few years ago, and they worked well until citrus rats became an issue.
There’s also a great (and easy) tutorial over on The Owner Builder Network’s site you can check out here. I would use electrical conduit though instead of PVC pipe for the sleeves. Just say no to plastic.
Filling your new garden bed
This is my favorite part. The contents of your new raised bed are what will take it from meh, good to omg, how did I grow anything before this?!? We’re gonna supercharge your new bed with hugelkultur.
Hugel-what?!? Hoo-gul-culture. It’s a German word that means mound culture or hill culture. Traditional Hugelkultur beds are made by stacking logs, branches, and twigs on the ground, then covering them with nitrogen-rich materials, compost and soil. Doing this forms a mound or hill, hence the name.
The logs act like sponges, soaking up water and retaining moisture in the soil. They help with infiltration and drainage. As they break down, they build incredibly rich, ideal growing soil and continually release nutrients that feed your plants. The decaying wood generates heat for the first couple of years (extending your growing season), provides air pockets for plant roots and supports hosts of beneficial soil microbes.
Hugelkultur works equally well beneath in-ground and in raised garden beds. With a hugel-bed, you use less water (if any at all), and you don’t need to dig, till or fertilize your soil. You get a highly productive garden bed that will last years (sometimes decades), depending on the size, amount and type of wood you use. Here’s how to assemble your hugel-raised-bed.
Get your supplies
You’ll need logs, branches, compost, topsoil and any combination of twigs, leaves, kitchen scraps, or manure.
You can use any non-allelopathic tree for your log/branch/twig layer. Use what’s available from your yard or neighborhood. Hardwoods tend to be better than softwoods for annual veggie/fruit beds. They break down slower and provide a longer lifespan for your hugel-bed. Stay away from cedar, black walnut, pepper and any other wood that resists rot or inhibits the growth of other plants (allelopathic).
I use pine logs and needles for my berry beds because they love the acidity. In my annual beds, I used avocado and oak because they were plentiful and being given away for free on craigslist. Go with what’s at hand. Ideal logs are old, seasoned and starting to rot.
Stack your logs in the bed
The first step to fill your soon-to-be supercharged garden bed is to make sure the wood layer makes good contact with the earth. Sometimes my gopher screens bow a little, so in beds where that happens, I toss a thin layer of soil down before I put in my logs.
When the logs will make good contact with the soil, go ahead and lay them in with any branches, woody prunings and dead leaves you have.
In a twenty to twenty-four inch bed, I stack my wood layer about twelve to fifteen inches high.
Add the nitrogen
Once your woody layer is in, add a layer of kitchen scraps, grass clippings, green leaves, manure and any other nitrogen-rich material you have. This layer should cover the logs & branches, so put down a few inches.
Wood, being carbon-rich, requires nitrogen to start the decomposition process. It’s important to add enough nitrogen in this layer. If you don’t, the logs will pull nitrogen from the surrounding compost and soil for the first couple of years which will stunt your plants instead of boosting them.
Cover with compost
Next up is the compost layer. Spread a couple of inches of compost over the whole nitrogen layer. I like a thicker layer of compost than usual, so for my beds, I use three to four inches, depending on how high I stacked the logs. Once the compost is in, spray it with water, so it’s nice and moist.
For shorter raised bed boxes, fill the rest of the hole with compost, place your gopher-screened bed on top of the newly filled hole, and build your garden fencing before filling the rest of the bed.
Once your garden fencing is in place, lay the rest of the needed compost in the bottom of your raised bed box.
Top it off with soil and mulch well.
At this point, you should only have a few inches of room left, which is perfect. Add a couple of inches of organic topsoil, and your bed is nearly complete.
Moisten the whole bed and cover with a thick layer of mulch to finish the bed off. Voila! Your garden bed is now a supercharged, low maintenance, fruit and veggie growing oasis!
Planting in your new hugel-bed
Just like compost, your new garden bed will take a while to hit its stride in the decaying process. It’s perfectly fine to plant your seeds or seedlings right away, but you’ll need to watch and make sure they’re getting enough moisture until the bed starts supporting itself.
As your bed collects rainwater (or irrigation) and the wood begins breaking down, you’ll notice stronger, larger, healthier plants that provide a tastier bounty.
Irrigating your new hugel-bed
Depending on where you live, you may need to water your garden bed periodically throughout the growing season. I live in San Diego though, where we get an average of ten inches of rain per year. I have soaker hoses set up between my soil and my mulch to moisten seeds and seedlings until their root system reaches the decaying log layer. In the summer, I turn the soaker hoses on a couple of times per week for about half an hour. During the fall and winter, I rarely have to irrigate my annual beds.
Maintaining your hugel-bed
Season to season, you’ll want to top off the bed with compost and mulch, but that’s all the maintenance your garden bed will need. Your plants will get all the nutrients they need from the decaying logs. If you find that you’re not getting the vigor that you hoped for, you may need some more nitrogen. An easy fix is to grow a cover-crop and turn it under. This will add the nitrogen your log layer needs and get your plants thriving.
Enjoy less work and more harvest!
Now that you’ve got a (virtually) maintenance free garden bed, you can watch your garden grow and rest up for the harvest. No need to keep track of fertilizing schedules, set gopher traps or go without a garden because of drought. Happy growing!
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