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How to Start a Raised Bed Garden Without Buying Anything (Photo Essay)

Woops! It’s spring… this week got busy! I went to a great SCUMS meeting, the Organic Growers School, and created a huge new garden with the help of three friends. We’re still planning to amend the beds with compost but technically we could just plant in it as is. I did process photos to show you how to make raised beds without purchasing any materials (though you will need a tiller — unless you hand dig with a shovel).

I usually prefer lasagna gardening but we needed a large garden, fast, and this did the trick. Lasagna beds are fantastic if you have a supply of organic matter to pile up into layers. It’s also the optimal method to use if you’re trying to garden over a rocky or rooty area where digging is difficult.

The downside can be that some lasagna beds are hard to keep watered over hot summers if the layers haven’t broken down into compost yet. Because of that I like to start lasagna beds in the fall.

It was a lot more labor to till and dig paths but we feel proud of the results.

For larger versions click on the pictures. I’m the one without odd facial hair. Thank goodness.

Photo Caption: This was the initial plan but we ended up changing it a bit. It's 40' x 40' and each square foot is represented by a square. If you don't have large enough graph paper you can tape it together. The beds are oriented north to south for best sun coverage.

Photo Caption: We used twine to outline the beds and then tilled the outer edges. After that we just had to fill it in. Note that it is important to till on a dry day when soil crumbles instead of squishing into a ball.

Photo Caption: This is the way my teachers WISHED I had colored in grade school. Unfortunately, we found a buried stump in the center of our bed that needed to be hacked out.

Photo Caption: The previous house owners had removed the stump to the ground and covered it over with lawn.

Photo Caption: Every time we thought we had pulled out all the tree roots we would find another one.

Photo Caption: We are sharing our garden among 3 households so we are fortunate to have multiple people to split the labor. If you don't want to share your garden you could bribe your friends with a free meal.

Photo Caption: Be careful when you are prying things out of the ground to use the right tool. Otherwise you can hurt yourself or break your tool. Our hydra tree claimed a shovel AND a pitchfork.

Photo Caption: This heavy metal pipe used to be a pitchfork handle (until we broke it) but the handle continued to serve as a good prybar.

Photo Caption: If you have a light source available you can continue working at night. (We were running back and forth in front of the motion sensor on the back of the house every time it turned off). If you hate heat and sunburns this is one way to avoid both!

Photo Caption: This is what stage we were at the following morning.

Photo Caption: I used twine tied to logs to mark off and dig straight rows. (Note that the pile of unearthed roots continues to grow...)

Photo Caption: While I was digging rows my friend got serious with the root problem. Dirt and chainsaws aren't a great combo so we'll have to replace the chain.

Photo Caption: Some success! If we hadn't encountered these roots we would probably have finished the entire tilling and path digging process in a single day.

Photo Caption: As I dug the soil out of the paths I would pile it up to make instant raised beds!

Photo Caption: The soil we tilled had been undisturbed for a long time and was already full of organic matter from decaying lawn plants. We do plan to add copious amounts of leaf compost but you could plant in this soil without it.

Photo Caption: We changed the garden plan slightly to compensate for areas where we could not remove the stump. It's still very similar to the original blueprint.

Photo Caption: Our pile of roots felt like trophies by the end.

Photo Caption: After we piled the soil from the paths onto the raised beds we smoothed them out to make them more stable. Otherwise they tend to wash away when it rains.

Photo Caption: The finished product! Raised beds without having to purchase materials to build structures to hold them. Each bed is at least 8" deep, but most were closer to 12" - 18" of loose soil.

We are going to add compost to our beds and mulch with shredded leaves. When we start putting the veggies in we’ll use my homemade organic slow-release fertilizers, too. I also want to get a soil test to find out what our pH is. The tree we unearthed seemed to be a pine and that can make soil especially acidic.

Look for further blog posts with updates on our progress!

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