Preparing new garden beds

The kids have been busy this fall with swimming lessons, art class, skating, and other adventures. In between times I’ve been heading outside whenever the weather permits in an effort to build my new vegetable garden before the weather gets too cold and wet.

I’m following the method espoused by Steve Solomon in his book Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades (my gardening bible). I’m digging a series of six raised beds for a total of 800 sq ft of planting space (the photo above shows one 4 x 25 foot bed complete, and a 2 x 25 foot bed almost complete). It has been hard work, and I made the mistake of doing too much too fast when I first started. I’ve since given myself permission to take the time needed to do the work without stressing my body, and I’m feeling much better about the project now.

The ground I’m working was cleared this past spring and seeded with a mix of grasses and legumes (clover). The heavy mats of sod break up fairly easily with my Rogue Hoe rake hoe (can’t say enough good things about their hoes – we own four of them), but it does require some muscle power and it’s quite a workout. What makes my task so much more difficult is that, while we have lovely topsoil, it is very rocky. I’m constantly tugging out large rocks and occasionally large boulders, too. To get them out of the ground, this country newbie referred to another tome I own and love, The Self Sufficient Life and How to Live It. In the chapter on land clearing by hand, John Seymour describes a method for removing large boulders from the ground. Using a pry bar one lifts an edge of the rock as high as possible and slips in a rock or two underneath. Continue doing this until the boulder is propped up on a few rocks, then repeat on the other side of the boulder. Work back and forth on both sides until you raise the boulder up to ground level and can then roll it out of the way. I found this technique to be as simple and effective as it sounded, and there is something quite satisfactory about seeing a boulder almost 3 feet in diameter sitting atop the grass, knowing that I got it up there myself!

Once I’d chopped up the soil about 12 – 18 inches deep with the hoe and raked it back in, I then went over the top few inches with a metal yard rake and removed any clumps of sod, sticks, smaller rocks, and other debris that I could. I mixed a bit of sea soil (a compost mix made mostly from kelp and fish) into the top inch or two. I’ll follow that with some lime (our soil is acidic) and finally some complete organic fertilizer (a la Steve Solomon) before seeding it with small-seeded fava beans. These are not for eating: they will serve as a cover crop. Their roots will keep the soil light and fluffy over the winter, the cover of leaves will hold off some of the heavy winter rain so the soil doesn’t get overly wet (and thus lumpy and hard to dig), the roots will absorb the rain and transpire the moisture through the leaves, and by early spring I’ll be able to yank out the plants and have a nice fluffy bed in which to plant vegetable seeds.

The final piece of this project is to build a fence around the entire garden area to keep out deer and elk. We’ve just had some lumber milled and the edges (flat on one side, bark on the other) will make good fence boards (they’re fir, and won’t last long, but this garden is only to last 3 years according to the long-term rotation plan in Solomon’s book). I will make fence posts out of saplings that we cut down (and will likely have to cut down a few more to get the 14 I need). I love that this fence will cost me almost nothing to build (I’ve recently developed a very healthy respect for the cost of farm fencing) and that I will be doing it myself. Finally, I’ll rig up a couple lines of electric fence tape to keep the large ruminants from attempting to jump the fence, and I’ll tack some netting up around the inside to keep out our local wild rabbits.

I’m very proud of this project, as it the first time I’ve attempted something on this scale with respect to hard, physical labour (as a side bonus I’ve lost about 2-3 pounds). And of course I’m very excited about the prospect of having a “real” vegetable garden for the first time. Mostly though, I’m happy that this work has felt so satisfying – as much as I dreamed about having a homestead, part of me wondered if it would be all I thought it would be when we got there. I’m pleased to report that, so far, I’m enjoying it all very much!


3 responses to this post.

  1. […] You may recall last fall when I spent hours and hours hacking away into our rocky soil to create a series of six 25′ garden beds. I only got five of them done before I pooped out. My plan was to seed them with small-seeded fava beans to serve as a cover crop over the winter. However, I left it too late and a few days after I scattered the seeds it snowed heavily. They never germinated. This at least solved the problem of me having not completed the fencing around the garden – I got three sides of it planted with poles (small diameter trees, mostly alder, from our early land-clearing adventures) before winter set in and never did get it enclosed. Thus the deer and other animals were free to trample the soil. […]


  2. […] year I just about broke my back digging raised beds out of our hard, rocky soil. I’d planned to green manure the beds but an early snowfall […]


  3. […] on our property because there are simply too many rocks in the soil. I just about broke my back digging those beds two years ago, but even after that it was difficult to stick a shovel in there more than about 4 – 6 […]


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