By Cassie Johnston
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After 10 years of gardening, last year, my husband and I decided we needed a break. We didn’t plant a single garden bed. It felt incredibly strange, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. We needed a season to rest, reset, and rediscover our love of gardening. And you know what? IT WORKED. By the end of the summer last year, we were desperately craving gardening again. Absence definitely made our hearts grow stronger when it came to gardening.
But before we started flipping through seed catalogs and shoveling compost, we sat down and decided exactly what we needed to do to avoid another garden burnout. We created a list of garden commandments:
Once we had our garden guiding principles, we were ready to actually start planning our garden. Our biggest change was cutting our growing space to a quarter of what it used to be. We went from 6800 square feet of gardening space to 2125 square feet—only about 30% of which we are planting this year. We used the leftover garden space for a playset for Juni, compost bins, and eventually, we’d love to put in a greenhouse (wayyyy down the road, though). Once we decided which space was going to be our new garden, we hired someone to come in and level it all out. We had previously dug wide raised rows, which meant our garden was…uh…lumpy! After 15 minutes with a Bobcat, it was lumpy-no-more.
The reason we needed to level it out? We decided we wanted our garden to be entirely raised beds. This is something we fought for years—we really wanted to make growing directly in the ground work because it’s expensive to built raised beds and you greatly diminish your growing space—but when we referred to our commandments, it was obvious raised beds were the right answer. They are the lowest maintenance. They are the easiest to control (with weeds and soil amendments and animals), and they are beautiful. We talked through so many different layouts and plans, and eventually, we landed on this setup for the entire garden space.
Except for the very back beds along the fence and the medicinal garden in the front, every bed is a raised bed. For this year, we are only building and planting the beds in the front—the ones that are white with the black outline. If budgeting stuff goes well, we hope to be able to build the rest of the beds by growing season 2019.
The plan is that the narrow beds along the edges butt up to the fence, and that’s where we’ll grow climbing plants like peas and pole beans. The long beds in the back are where we’ll grow sprawling vines like sweet potatoes and winter squash. And everything else will live in the standard 4′ x 8′ beds.
I’m planning a whole post with a tutorial on how we’re building our garden beds (they are turning out BEAUTIFULLY), but here’s the basics: we really wanted to avoid having treated lumber up against our garden soil. We’ve heard some bad stuff about the chemicals leeching into the soil. So originally, we were going to build fully cedar beds (cedar is naturally rot-resistant), but HOLY MOLEY those babies were going to be expensive—like only build one bed a year expensive.
Eventually, somehow, we had the idea of using galvanized steel roofing panels in combination with some cedar supports. We did a lot of Googling and found a lot of folks doing this, but most people were just building full wooden frames and then using the steel panels as decoration—the steel panels are thin enough that they’d bow when filled with soil if not supported. Eventually, we found this blog post where someone buried steel conduit along the sides to support the panels, and BINGO, we knew we had found our answer.
These beds are so simple, I could literally explain how to build them in one paragraph: screw steel panels to 4″ x 4″ cedar corner supports and middle supports. Hammer conduit into soil at regular intervals along sides. Honestly, that’s all you need to do to have a bed that “works.” Buutttt, the edges are pretty sharp, so then we covered the outside corners of the bed in roof flashing and placed cedar boards on top—which is such a nice spot to sit and weed.
And, before you ask, YES, having 26″ high beds was intentional, for two reasons.
(1) Girrrrrllll, there is something about being in your mid-thirties where you suddenly feel the need to protect your back at ALL COSTS. So I’m all about reducing the amount of hunched over weeding I’ll be doing.
(2) We have both a serious weed infestation and a massive mole problem—we knew we wanted to put landscape fabric below our beds to prevent both of those from coming up into the beds (which we’re going to cover with pea gravel once we have this year’s beds built, FYI). If we’d done this with a regular 12″ height bed, our plants’ roots would be incredibly cramped. With 26 glorious inches of soil to grow through, our plants should be able to stretch out and be über happy.
We are filling our beds with 40% topsoil, 10% sand, and 50% compost—ammended with lime, bloodmeal, and potash after doing soil testing. We had it delivered by a local company. We could have found soil to use on the property, but, according to one of our commandments, it just wouldn’t work. We’d be fighting weed infestations from almost any place we dug on our property. It’s easier (although wayyy more expensive) to start from scratch with seed-free soil and compost.
We’re planting only 10 beds this year, so we had to be pretty particular about what veggies (and how many of each) made the cut into our new garden. After lots of different versions (LOTS), here’s where we landed for our spring and summer gardens.
We’ll also do a fall garden, but I haven’t gotten around to even thinking about a 2018 garden plan for that yet. Part of me is hoping the money fairy will drop a load of cash on our doorstep so we can have more beds built by fall!
The front 15 feet of the garden is going to be a medicinal herb garden, which is going to be much more organic in styling. It’s my baby, and I’m going to be working on landscaping it and making it beautiful for the next few years. Right now, this is my rough planting plan, but I’m sure it’ll change and adjust.
We’ve of course already started almost all of our seeds. Our cool weather crops were started on a chilly mid-February day at our kitchen table. And our summer crops got their start over St. Patrick’s Day weekend. We’ve had a lot of different seed starting setups over the years with varying levels of success, but I think this year’s is the best so far—and it’s all thanks to my dad. Our house is completely surrounded by woods, so we don’t have a sunny window to start seeds at. My dad said that he got around this when they lived here by putting their seeds out on the deck on top of an electric blanket and covering them in storage totes. We tried that one year, and it didn’t work for us—our plants got leggy. Turns out, the trees around our deck have grown a lot since my dad’s seed starting days here—we just don’t have the hours of sunshine needed anymore to grow healthy seedlings.
So instead, this year, we decided to set them up on folding tables out in the open in front of our pole barn. We bought roof de-icing cables to run under our seed flats and keep the soil warm, and then we set each seed flat into a big clear plastic storage tote turned upside down. We left them closed on cold days, and vented them on sunny, warm days. On sunny days—even when it’s only in the 30s or 40s—it can get into the 90s in those totes!
This has worked UNBELIEVABLY WELL. It definitely doesn’t fit with our “make it pretty” commandment—holy heck is it ugly—but I’m okay with it because it’s just for out for a few weeks. And we spent less than $100 to make it happen! Our plants are happier than ever.
Since we use soil blocks, we eventually just removed all the blocks from the flats and put them directly on the lids of the totes—that way we could fit a lot more plants under each tote. They also are mostly self-watering, because the upside-down-totes aren’t watertight and they collect a bit of rainwater. The blocks just soak up the water when they need it!
In years past, we’ve used plastic deer fencing (like this stuff) strung up on T-posts around our garden as a temporary barrier to keep out deer. It served it’s purpose, but it was incredibly unattractive and it was incredibly temporary—we had to replace it every year (and ofter repair it throughout the growing season when a deer or…ahem…dog…decided to try to run through it). This year, we decided to put in a real, grown-up fence around the garden. We’re doing wooden posts with woven wire fencing, plus an arbor and two gates. I’m excited to not have to deal with deer fencing ever again.
So far, we have our spring beds all planted—that’s three out of the 10 total we’re planting this year. In the ground, we have spinach, lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, kohlrabi, green onions, radishes, and carrots. Our summer plants (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc.) will go in the ground the first weekend of May—weather depending.
We’ve been composting for years—we’ve made both “hot” piles (where you create a pile all at once with the right mixture of ingredients to get it to heat up and break down quickly) and “cold” piles (where you just toss whatever scraps you have into a pile and let it break down over months/years). But this year, we’re trying something new—worm composting! We just placed our first worm order and plan on setting up our first worm bin this weekend. The idea with worm composting is that the wormies process the compost SUPER fast compared to both hot and cold regular compost piles—you feed them your food scraps each week and they reward you with gallons of glorious worm poop, which is one of the best organic fertilizers in the world. I’m excited! Our hope is to not have to have compost delivered ever again after our beds are built—just top dress the beds each year with compost made by our herd of worms.
Alright, I think that about brings you up-to-date on our garden setup! I’d love to hear about what you have planned in your garden this year. Happy Spring, friends!
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Nice work! Most of this is way over my head, but what a beautiful thing you have going!
I love this post! Since I had shoulder surgery at the end of February, this is my year “off” gardening (except for a small salsa garden), so I have lots of time for planning next year’s garden – and you have given me lots to think about. The raised beds are a great idea – I had an in-ground garden last year and struggled with weeds, so starting over feels like a good step. Thank you for your blog and adventures in gardening!
You are forever my garden role model! :)
I just moved to a new place, which will mean the jump from a small balcony to a sizable backyard. I’m sure I’ll love watering will be much easier (especially in the supposedly dreadful DC summers), but dealing with pests and weeds will be a whole new thing to get used to.
I’m so excited for your upcoming posts and I’m looking forward to going through your archives to educate myself. :)
How fun! I loved all the information in this post and look forward to your garden updates.
Ohhh I so know what you mean about scaling back! Our first year gardening I just went crazy using up all available space (which was a lot for a beginner gardener) and also bought all the beautiful but impractical heirloom seed varieties! Lesson learnt! I live the idea of a medicinal herb garden…can’t wait to hear more about that in time ?
Cassie this was fascinating! I’m a huge garden nerd and love hearing about new ways to get the same result. garden-wise. I’m intrigued by the soil blocks. From the look of the tool, you use it to make your own soil plugs?
You look so different on the first photo, good different though :)
Very inspiring post
Really inspiring & nice work. Thanks for sharing.
Okay but really – Come do my garden! lol!!!
In all seriousness, I’m excited to see how your garden flourishes and grows, and what it turns into as time goes on.
How much did each 4X6 raised bed end up costing you? I’m in Canada so I’m sure it will be different but a ballpark would be interesting to know!
About $150 per bed (not including dirt to fill). Full tutorial is here! https://wholefully.com/raised-beds/
We actually thought about doing these garden beds as well for next year. There’s a house in our neighbor with them and they are just beautiful. Sharing these posts with my husband!
BTW, it was so random I stumbled onto your blog again (it’s been years!!). At first I didn’t think it was you because I was like….they totally did a giant garden when they first moved into the house, why would they do this? (and of course you look different) But I totally get it and it just warms me with respect and inspiration to decide to start over and small and do what’s right for you. Love love love!
SO– I sent the hubs to DIY off of your raised bed plans. We had previously discussed 3′ wide, so he had that in his head (vs. 4′)…aaaannnnnddddd now I have 3’x8′ beds…vs 4′. He says he can fix for around $50… (he built two). Should I do that? Or just go with the wonky size? Blaaaahhhhh!!!! Hahaha. Also…they are. so. tall. Do you find that you’ve had any drainage issues? We have lots of livestock = poop/hay/compost so I’m not too worried about filling… I just want to succeed (I haven’t had a good garden since 2010…lol).
No drainage issues! And I think 3′ would work just fine. :)
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