This year our tire garden is doing absolutely splendidly. I can't believe the difference it's made in terms of productivity over planting directly in the ground.
Recently a couple of readers expressed an interest in putting in their own tire gardens, so I thought now might be a good opportunity to relate what we've learned over the years so others can profit from our mistakes.
To recap: We spent nine years trying to coax fruits and vegetables from the ground. We live on the prairie, and trying to claim a garden from prairie sod is a long and frustrating process. Our biggest issues were:
• Hard clay soil that turned into a gooey pudding in rainy weather (no drainage) and baked to rock-hard conditions in dry weather.
(Yes, that's my boot sinking in.
• Voles, darling little mouse-like creatures that burrow up from beneath and chew roots, strip bark, and cause untold havoc.
• Weeds. Oh heavens, the weeds. They are tough, indestructible, and endless.
(Here's the garlic boat, before weed-whacking)
(Here's the garlic boat, after weed-whacking. These photos were taken in 2012.)
It didn't help that we didn't have a tractor during those nine years. As a force-multiplier, a tractor is essential to move heavy loads and lift heavy things. When the need for a tractor reared its head, we borrowed a machine from kind neighbors.
Possibly -- not sure -- if we'd had a tractor of our own from the beginning, we might have had better luck getting a garden established in the ground. We could have plowed. We could have rototilled. We could have moved manure. We could have done a lot of things that were very difficult or outright impossible using just hand tools and our backs.
So we had to look outside the box -- entirely outside the box -- to find an answer to our gardening woes.
We had some huge beams left over from an old barn we dismantled for someone in our church years ago, and we used the biggest beams to make raised beds for small fruits (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries). Before planting, we put down thick layers of newspapers and hardware cloth to discourage weeds and voles.
These beds were a splendid success -- but we had no more beams. We needed a solution that was cheap and easy. What to do?
It was Don who came up with the idea of planting in tires. It was one of those head-clunk obvious answers we wished we'd thought of earlier. Immediately we started collecting car and truck tires from every obliging source.
Fired with enthusiasm, we borrowed a tractor, plowed the garden space, laid out tires in neat rows, and started planting.
It was an utter failure. By themselves, even filled with good soil, the tires were useless for weed control -- the weeds just grew straight up through the tires and choked out the vegetables. They also took over the paths between the tires until we needed a machete and pith helmet to walk through.
Sigh. Back to the drawing board.
What we needed was a permanent method of weed control. The only way to control weeds on the massive scale we needed for a garden was blockage. Eventually we settled on using billboard tarps anchored with gravel. Originally the gravel was merely to anchor the tarps (and cover the colorful pictures), but as a happy secondary benefit, the gravel provided superb drainage for tires.
By this point we had transitioned away from smaller car/truck tires toward large tractor tires -- and some of these were already in place. When we started laying down tarps, we didn't remove the tractor tires but just cut holes and fitted the tarps around the existing tires. This proved to be a mistake. Since the tires were just on bare ground, they've continued to be plagued with weed issues. Over the years those issues have lessened since I'm ruthless in eradicating whatever weeds grow up through the tires, but I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if we'd just laid the tires on top the tarp/gravel to begin with.
This might be a good time to distinguish between raised beds and raised containers. Raised beds are open to the ground. Raised containers have closed bottoms (though still permitting drainage). Technically our tire garden is a raised container garden.
There remains, also, the myth that planting in tires will result in poisoned plants. Please read this post to set your mind at rest.
So if anyone is interested in started a tire garden, profit from our mistakes over the years and start with some way to block weeds on a permanent basis while still providing drainage for the tires. Our solution was tarps/gravel. We know some people who are using sheets of corrugated tin. Whatever solution you choose, the combination of weed control and drainage is critical. In other words, don't put tires directly on the ground or you'll never be able to control the weeds.