No-Dig Garden Beds (Part 1)

I’m told that in the land of the long white cloud (Aotearoa/NZ) garlic is planted on the shortest day of the year and harvested on the longest. Fair enough. That’s more or less what we’ve done for the past two years. But last week I managed to land right on the 21st. It was a beautiful day and I spent a couple of hours building a new garden bed, taking pictures, planting garlic and missing an afternoon meeting that slipped my mind. Oops.

Even though it is the middle of winter here and the middle of summer in the northern hemisphere, it is still a fine time to put in a garden bed. On my farm in New Hampshire, I remained seeding fall greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard) through the second week in August. If you have a small garden and want to expand it, or you want to start a garden on your lawn, here are a few things I’ve learned over the last 12 years of building beds.
* Please note that we use a number of techniques to prepare the plot before putting in a new bed, but those are not required. It is quick and easy to go from lawn to garden in one afternoon. I’ll explain those prep techniques in another post.
Step 1: Decompress the soil. Assuming you’re converting lawn to garden, the soil will inevitably be compacted by years of foot traffic, mowing, etc. Use a strong (thick tines) garden fork and plunge it into the soil on an angle about like this.
Push down on the handle so that the soil is just “fluffed” a little bit as such.
Work backwards so you don’t compress an area you’ve already decompressed.
Step 2: Sheet mulch. We use newspapers (no glossy inserts), cardboard and scraps of unpainted and untreated plasterboard/drywall (Gib/Sheet Rock). It is handy to have wet newspapers, especially on windy days. You can put a stack of newspapers into a wheel barrow and run a hose over them, or…just leave them outside for a few weeks like we do.
Lay out the newspapers 3 to 6 sheets thick with generous overlap (50 to 100 mm) between each sheet. Don’t be stingy with these. In our present world old newspapers are abundant.
Here I am building the new bed adjacent to an existing bed. Edges tend to be high maintenance areas, so I design to minimize them.

Because we have some very aggressive grasses that tend to invade our beds, I “reinforce” the edge with a bit of plasterboard.
Step 3: Deciding on siding. Almost anything can be used as sides for a raised bed. You don’t even need sides at all. But many people prefer them. I like to use whatever is local, abundant and/or free. In the past I’ve used bricks, blocks, scrap wood, stone, and beams from a barn that was torn down. At present we are using a combination of concrete edging we got on Trade Me and concrete fence posts we got for free at the transfer station. I would recommend against using treated wood, but I’ve seen plenty of people do it.
Step 4: Fill ‘er up! Many people like to use a “lasagna method.” There are lots of recipes you can find by Googling. I prefer to use whatever is local, abundant and/or free. We make lots of our own compost that we use generously. But in this case we had some leftover topsoil that was just sitting in a pile conveniently next to where I decided to build this bed.
We also happened to have plenty of sheep manure that we bartered for French doors that we did not need.
I raked the soil and manure flat in the bed. Please note that I usually make beds no wider than 1.2 meters so that I can reach halfway into them from each side without ever stepping in the bed. This is crucial in low maintenance garden management. Never step in the beds!
But in this case where the bed is wider than 1.2 meters, I placed bricks as stepping stones for access to the middle of the bed.

Step 5: Plant. Depending on what techniques you use, you can direct seed or transplant into the bed straight away. Here I planted seed garlic just wider than a stirrup hoe, which is my main weed management tool.

Over time the grass under the bed will rot down into a “green manure.” The worms will happily munch away and stir it up, and the roots of your vegetable plants will thrive in the loose, fertile soils.
Other options: In the next post I’ll explain another technique that is even faster and cheaper.
Peace, and get planting, Estwing

Update 2: The front half of the house

Here is the second of three posts designed to bring you up to speed on the scope of this project so far (here’s the link back to the first post). This post will focus on the southern four rooms of our house. These rooms actually make up the original part of our house, built around 1910. The northern lean-to, which I will talk about in my next post, was added on about 10 years later.

The original house consisted of four rooms and a central hallway. These are the bottom four rooms in these layouts. They are the ones that have received the least amount of demolition and rebuild, but that’s not to say that the transformation is not dramatic.

The first time we walked into our house, we saw a hallway that stretched the length of the house. It was filled with dust, rubble, and long lengths of Hardiplank.

We have since sealed up an old doorway that was halfway down the hall and have hung a door in it. This has effectively sealed off the southernmost two bedrooms, and created an airlock in the hall entryway. Now when you walk in the front door you stand in this entry, and are greeted with our coats and boots.
When we moved in, the two southernmost bedrooms were filled to the brim with rubbish. I hate to disappoint, but they are still filled with rubbish. Only now its our rubbish. One of the rooms is serving as our indoor tool shed and the other as our indoor bike/ surf shed. They are too messy to picture. Maybe another day.

Moving down the hall (through the new doorway) you arrive at our bedroom on the left hand side. When we arrived this is how it looked:
It was stuffed full of windows, cabinet units, bathtubs, even a kitchen sink! Now it is a cozy little nest with gold curtains and a down comforter. Yummmm.

Across the hall is a room that we called “the dungeon” when we first arrived. It was dark and gloomy with dirty old carpets, moldy curtains, a massive boarded up window, and a giant hole in the floor. We didn’t do any work in here for months. I think we were afraid.
But now, thanks to some demo work, we have converted the dungeon into a great open-plan lounge off of the kitchen. There is still tons of work to do here (like flooring, wall coverings, and doors), but it is already a nice sunny place and joyful space to live in.

I think what amazes me most, is how light can play such a critical role in the transformation of a room. The rooms in our house that were originally our favorites to be in are now the ones where we spend the least amount of time. And ones that we avoided initially, have become our living spaces.

Our intention was to design based on the principals of passive solar, making the most of the sun’s energy to heat our home. But through the remodel we have ended up with a house that is not only warmer and lighter physically, but also more comfortable and joyful emotionally.

So what do you think? Are you surprised by our progress? Did you think we’d be further along by now? Any words of advice as we get to the “finishings”?

-June Cleverer