To many people, my garden just looks like chaos. That is when it is in full swing, right now it mostly looks like a bunch of hay and straw with some garlic, daffodils, and nettles randomly popping out in places. I do have somewhat defined walking paths, but even those are of various widths, shapes, and styles.
To the untrained eye this can look a lot like like a bunch of randomness. In some ways it is, I am experimenting with a few different types of grow beds to find out what is going to work best for me with my style and my climate. I’m pretty set on transitioning to a no-till garden though. I like the deep mulch, and I feel like some form of a raised bed is going to get me the best results in this climate.
So first off I’ll start with why no-till. I’ve chosen to pursue the no-till path primarily for the benefits it provides the soil. With the lack of disturbance you can garner greater long term fertility from this system. You end up with a plethora of soil life from worms to beneficial bacteria thriving in your garden soil. These are the things that create true resilience in a garden space. The increased presence of bio-diversity in your soil profile increases nutrient uptake from your plants making them more nutritious for you and increasing the plant’s resistance to external stressors. Susceptibility to disease and other related plant stress maladies are less common when the plants have full access to the nutrient profiles in the soil. The production of your garden will go up overtime with less inputs of labor, and soil supplements. Hand in hand with no-till comes no-walk… stay off of your garden beds! When you stay out of your growing areas and use designated paths you eliminate soil compaction. This eliminates anaerobic conditions in the soil, once again increases soil and plant health. With this system you will also increase the amounts of organic matter in your soil. When you till the soil you can lose five percent or more (I’ve read up to 30% loss) of the organic matter in your soil. It doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that this is a losing proposition. You must bring in outside inputs to offset this loss or you will eventually lose all fertility.
When you till the soil you get a massive release of nitrogen from killing everything living in the soil when you pulverize it with a tiller. All of this nitrogen binds up with the carbon (i.e. organic matter) available to decompose and it burns up your organic matter into stuff like CO2. Just in case you weren’t aware organic matter in your soil is a bit of a cure-all. If you have fast draining sandy soil add organic matter, if you have slow draining clay soil add organic matter, if your soil dries out too fast add organic matter, if you want more worms add organic matter, if you… ADD ORGANIC MATTER!!! Now with that said you have to be smart about it or you could end up with some adverse effects. Sure mixing wood chips into your soil will increase organic matter, but you will have low fertility from Nitrogen lock-up with all of that carbon mixed into the soil profile. Now if you just put a nice thick layer of wood chips on top of the soil without disturbing the soil profile… well then you have deep mulch!
To me deep mulch is like composting, tilling, and fertilizing all in one without any of the work. Deep mulch and no-till seem like they are a package deal in many ways. They compliment each other so well that it seems foolish to do one without the other, although many do. All of your intact soil life present from not tilling work to break down your mulch into compost and then pull that down into the soil. Oh yah did I mention it retains soil moisture like nobody’s business as well! You can use whatever suitable materials you have available to create your deep mulch layer. You can use things like wood chips, straw, hay, composted manure, kitchen scraps, paper products, or any combination of these things. I prefer to use mainly spent hay and straw because that is what is abundant and cheap/free in my neck of the woods. Ideally you would be able to grow your own mulch materials on site and mix that in with your kitchen scraps and garden waste. Currently I compost my garden waste or process it through the chickens, but in time I see myself just cutting spent plants at soil level and tucking that under the mulch to compost in place. Having the soil covered in plant life or a deep layer of mulch provides constant shade to the soil keeping it moist and loose. A constant layer of mulch also attracts earthworms to your garden like nothing else that I know of.
The worm castings and tunnels they leave behind increase fertility and aerate the soil as well. Deep mulch emulates the natural systems of fertility that God has set in place. You may lose some early production if you don’t pull the mulch back to let the sun warm the soil, but you gain on the end of the season as the mulch will keep the warmth from summer in the soil longer into fall. For my garden having that late start is acceptable considering our unpredictable spring weather, and lengthening the system on the backside more than makes up for that. With our volatile, short growing season I need all the help I can get.
This is were the raised beds come in. We get an early warm up and longer growth into the fall with the raised beds. I use a couple different style beds in my garden. They all have a few things in common though. I try to create at least a little southern aspect to the beds, and they all have a defined walkway associated with them (no walking in the beds!). I’ve utilized the wood core style Hugelkultur beds to create texture and micro-climates in some areas of my garden. These have a mound structure with varying zones of moisture and solar exposure so I get dry, wet, warm, and cool all in the same bed. I also created smaller mounded beds of just soil and compost. These were built on a strictly East/West axis to maximize southern exposure. The mound structure increases the surface area available to grow as well. They have fairly steep sides so I get an earlier warming effect from the low horizon early spring sun. I’ve created a small keyhole style bed with a compost bin in the center as well.
This is a relatively flat topped bed that is watered through the central compost bin. The nutrient rich moisture leaches out into the surrounding grow bed. I plan on using this area for heavy feeders like squash and corn (two sisters?). The final raised bed is a flat topped soil mounded bed with sunken walkways surrounding it. This bed is on a North/South axis with a slight cant towards the South. This is my single largest bed and I should be the closet looking to a conventional garden plot. With all of these different styles and appearance of grow beds it’s no wonder that visitors just kind of scratch their heads in disbelief. I understand that to most people this apparent chaos can be confusing or offensive. The look is unconventional at best, especially once I start planting. Each bed is planted differently with mixes of perennials and annuals, random seed mixes, specific combinations, clumps of the same plants, you name it. My garden in full swing can be a bit of a mess, but I like it that way! It is productive and relatively low maintenance. My goal is to produce the most food possible in this space with the least amount of work. I could grow a conventional garden half the size with same amount of work, or I could grow half the garden I currently have an lounge around more… the choice is mine!