Building a garden
Apr 21, 2020
A comfy bed for plants
Once you’ve figured out the best location for your veggie garden (did you see last week’s tips?), and whether it will be an in-ground patch or a raised bed, it’s time to build in preparation for your seedlings being ready.
There are square foot gardens, keyhole gardens, spiral gardens, rows, wicking beds, permanent raised beds and probably even more styles of beds for growing plants. It doesn’t really matter which style you choose.
What matters are things like good soil and giving plants what they need.
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Soil for happy food plants
To keep it simple, plants need:
Depth of good soil at least 15 – 20cm
Aerated / uncompacted soil so they can grow roots easily – fork the ground don’t turn over
Drainage so they don’t sit in water and rot – raising or heaping beds up is helpful with this
Some moisture retention so they have a chance to drink – mulch helps with this
Acidity in a range they can cope with – Bellingen soils are acidic and fine for food plants
Food / fertility – our soils around Bellingen are fine to start, any extra is a bonus
The generic solution to any of the above not being quite right is to add organic matter.
In English that’s any shredded/chopped up plant material including manure & compost. Mix it in. There are other specific solutions for each issue, but this is the ‘eat well, get enough exercise and rest’ equivalent for soil. Do this, most other things will come right.
There’s a lot of nutrients you can add for this and that, and a lot of detailed information out there on this. Just pay attention to your plants. They will tell you if they need something with changes in the colour or shape of their leaves or weak growth. Then go to Dr Google. This is why I recommend starting with a small vege patch. There’s a lot to learn about what is normal for each plant.
Final tip, you might find the suggestion to add sand to the soil to improve drainage. This works, but too much will cook your plant roots come summer in Bellingen. Sand retains heat.
Variety of plants
Plan to put in as many different kinds of plants as your space will allow. It really makes a difference. Plant what makes you happy. It doesn’t all have to be edible. Healthy gardens aren’t sterile, they are a web of complexity.
Seedlings vs weeds
It matters to have some sort of barrier to keep the grass and weeds at bay. In this climate they grow so very quickly.
If you don’t have the raised container beds with solid sides, you’ll probably end up needing to keep grass at bay with a hard barrier you can whippersnip against like brick or logs, or paths. I’ve found carpet is the quickest and most effective for paths. Wood chip breaks down here in about 6 months and is a lot of effort to wheelbarrow into place. Cardboard barely lasts that long and dangerously slides about when it’s dry. Hard edges dug down into the soil don’t seem to work that well here because the weeds are so vigorous in colonising any bare soil. Gravel paths don’t seem to stay weed free for very long in this climate. All it takes is a tiny bit of soil to blow in on top and voila, weeds! I can’t comment on concrete paths as I haven’t tried them, YET!
Starting new beds
For in-ground beds you want to start with forking the ground to aerate it and loosen any compaction. No turning sods of soil, that breaks up the structure in not a good way. Just loosen and aerate.
Mark out your garden edges. For straight lines, a string line works well. Getting this step right will last the life of your garden.
If you have time, solarise the grass and weeds in the bed area with black plastic for a few weeks before you’ll start using it. The warmth and moisture encourages everything that could sprout to germinate, and the lack of light then kills it all off. Not to mention the heat that cooks everything under the plastic. Bye bye weeds, no weeding required.
If you’re only going to use the soil you have and not bring in anything else this time around, that will work for about one season with the fertility we have here. Pull the grass out, get your weed barrier in around your plot and you’re ready to plant.
For built raised beds, you can plonk them down and you’re good to fill them up. Garden trimmings, prunings, chips, grass clippings, whatever you can find. Your plants only need the good soil for the top 15 – 20cm. These beds will need to be topped up each season or so.
In both cases, placing down newspaper (at least 4 sheets thick) or cardboard (wet it first so it moulds into place and sticks there) will smother the grass and weeds and add to the biomass. It’s also less work than digging these out.
For in-ground beds you can newspaper over the grass after forking it, and bring in manure and compost to about an inch or so thick. Any added compost or manure (not fresh, it burns plants) or whatever you can get your hands on will be a bonus. By the time your plants are big enough to have grown down to reach the newspaper, it will have broken down and the grass will be dead, and the plants can keep growing downward.
Cover your soil
On top of the soil, lots and lots of mulch is your friend. Especially in summer to keep water in the soil and weeds down. Mulch with almost anything that will decompose within about 6 months and won’t attract critters (or be a weed). Cover the soil even if there are no plants in yet. You’re feeding the soil and preventing weeds.
I did a summer test in my garden a few years back. No mulch vs sugar cane mulch vs bark chip. This was for baby trees in full sun.
Each day each tree would get a 10L bucket of water. After just a few days it became obvious that the bark chip was the stand out mulch. It’s plant did not end up needing watering daily, but weekly. The unmulched plant could not be kept alive even with multiple buckets a day. The sugar cane one was ok but needed daily care.
And even more building…
When you’ve finished building your beds, it’s time to keep building…
You’ll need a watering system in place;
Some structures for climbing plants (snowpeas now, and broadbeans can often do with some support);
Protective fencing, if that applies to your situation;
And for summer it’s a great idea to have a temporary shading system ready for young plants otherwise they fry here.
A head’s up! About a week before planting out your seedlings you will need to toughen them up for life in the big wide world. Especially if they are growing under shadecloth. Gradually get them used to full sun, a few hours a day. This also helps them to be less straggly. Make sure they don’t cook!
Got too many little seedlings in your punnet? Thin out the weakest ones by snipping them off with nail scissors. This leaves the others undisturbed and gives all of the ones left a better chance at being strong healthy plants.
Next week, a bit more about planting out and caring for your no-legged pets.