Friday, July 28, 2023

The beginnings of our garden

Several readers have expressed interest in how Don is constructing our garden beds. I suppose it's time for a garden update to let everyone know what we're doing.

First, let's back up a bit. We've lived in our new (to us) home for two and a half years now, and one advantage of delaying a garden is we now have a better understanding of the "traffic flow" of the property. We've also had a good long time to think over how to make things efficient.

Our land is mostly sloped, with a weird pie-shaped wedge of flatness where the house and barn are located. The barn is on the narrow tip of the wedge, and the house at the wider end. The widest part of all is the driveway. For this reason – and also because it's already covered with heavy weed cloth and fine pea gravel for built-in weed control – we initially thought about constructing the garden in the driveway itself and parking vehicles behind the house by the barn.

That's why we put the two strawberry beds where we did – in the driveway, all by their lonesome and boxed in with horse panels draped with deer netting.

But two years of traffic flow and understanding how we use the property have made us realize the driveway has better uses than a garden. Instead, we chose to place the garden on a gently sloped area right beside the yard. The space is long and narrow. (You can see Don at the far end to give an idea of scale.)

Our old garden was made of tractor tires, and it worked spectacularly well. However tractor tires aren't as easy to come by in our new location, so we had to think of alternative (and cheap) ways to create raised beds.

Thankfully the previous owners of the house had left behind a large stack of old sheet metal siding.

This free resource, we decided, would become the basis for our garden beds. Each sheet is 11 feet long and two feet wide. After taking measurements and deciding on dimensions, Don knew he could get one bed from each sheet of metal. To frame the beds, he purchased a unit of pressure-treated 2x4s.

Each bed would take two 2x4s to create.

Don used a Sawz-All to cut the 11-foot sheets to size: Two eight-foot lengths and two three-foot lengths, to make a bed of 3x8 feet and one foot high.

He made a separate frame for each side. The long side has a central "rib" for extra strength.

He learned staples are the best way to fasten the metal to the frames.

Then he screwed the frames together and started stacking them up. He made ten beds for the first batch.

By the way, some have wondered if the sheet metal sides wouldn't buckle or bulge from the pressure of the soil. Well, the two proto-beds have been planted with strawberries since last summer, and they've worked perfectly. No bulging, no buckling.

Then we had to start prepping the garden space itself. In our old garden, we used drip irrigation to great success and knew we wanted to do the same thing with our new garden. So last year we ordered all the drip irrigation supplies we would need.

In mid-May, when the ground was soft but not muddy, we started prepping the garden space.

Using the tractor, Don scraped off the top layer of dirt...

...and piled it to one side.

We had plans for this pile of dirt, even as clay-y as it is.

For this year, we're concentrating on developing only about half the garden space.

The idea was to make four rows of beds. Once the ground was prepped, we ran string lines and spray-painted those lines onto the ground.

The big difference between this garden and our old garden is we're burying the drip pipes in the ground. The old garden kinda just grew organically, with very little planning. This time the garden is being meticulously planned, with underground plumbing and each bed having its own hose bib that comes up.

Therefore the next step was to dig trenches to bury the irrigation hose. Don used the subsoiler attachment on the tractor.

This useful gadget rips a neat trench. The depth of the trench is determined by how high or low the tractor's PTO is placed.

Following the spray-painted lines, Don ripped four trenches. Notice the heavy clay "bricks" that resulted.

After this, we had to hand-dig the trenches to clear them out.

Down the length of the trench, we laid 1-inch black plastic irrigation hose. At 11-foot intervals, Don put a T-connection to a bib that came up out of the trench. After this, we buried the hose. And can you believe I didn't take photos of these steps? Next go-around, you can be sure I will.

The result is a series of bibs that stick up out of the ground along one now-covered-up trench (center-left of this photo).

Here's what one of the bibs looks like. It's pinched off until we need it so insects don't crawl down the pipe.

Next step: Weed control! Several months ago, we purchased several rolls of industrial-strength weed cloth. Now it was time to use it.

We broke open one roll and laid it out.

Then we dragged it over the top of the hose bibs, and Don cut holes in the fabric to let the bibs poke out. The weed cloth is wide enough to cover two trenches, so we rolled up the excess so it wouldn't get damaged by any tractor activity.

Here's a hose bib, stick up out of the weed cloth.

Then it was time to lay down gravel to anchor the weed cloth and provide drainage for the garden beds. Earlier, we had a neighbor (who is a heavy-equipment operator) deliver us a load of gravel right next to the garden area. Don used the tractor to scoop up buckets of gravel...

...and dump it on the weed cloth. (Notice how the wheels don't crush the cloth because we rolled up the extra.)

It took a little practice to figure out how much to dump so it would spread out to an even layer.

While he continued dumping buckets of gravel at intervals down the line...

...I started spreading it out. It wasn't necessary to make it any thicker than "one rock" thick.

Once all the rock was spread out, we ran a string.

This allowed us to line up the beds nice and straight.

Then we brought up the first row of beds.

We made sure they were all snugged up against the string line...

...and spaced them three feet apart with the hose bib on the outside.

We left a gap between two of the boxes (a bit down the row) because we have a future project planned for that space.

Then we started preparing the soil to fill the beds. For this, we used a great deal of organic and inorganic material. We started by carting away all the accumulated sawdust Older Daughter had created in the woodshop so far.

Next, we ordered a dump truck load of compost from a local landscape business. (Once we get livestock, we'll be able to create our own bulk compost, but for now we had to purchase it.)

We also got a dump truck full of sand, but I forget to get a photo of it.

We also emptied the bin of leaves by the side of the house.

What the heck, we even tossed in a bucket of ashes from the wood cookstove.

We were left with multiple piles of material to mix up to fill the beds: Dirt, compost, sand, sawdust, and leaves.

(Although it doesn't look it from this angle, the piles of sawdust and leaves are actually quite small compared to the other piles. We're fully aware of the folly of putting too much undecomposed sawdust in garden beds.)

Don started scooping up buckets from the various piles in a 9:6:3:1 ratio: 9 buckets of dirt, 6 buckets of compost, 3 buckets of sand, and 1 bucket each of sawdust and leaves. (We would have used more leaves, but we didn't have that many.) He spread it out in a long line.

Then using the rototiller attachment on the tractor, he started churning it up.

The result was a beautiful, friable mixture.

Remember, that pile of dirt he scraped off the garden top is heavy clay. Mixing it with both organic (compost/sawdust/leaves) and inorganic (sand) material breaks it up and will allow the plants the ability to extract the nutrients without getting baked into hard clay. We've been down that path before and weren't about to repeat our early gardening mistakes from many years ago.

(Comical aside: We have some neighbors who moved in from the city about two years ago, eager to embrace a rural lifestyle. Since they had done some successful backyard gardening in their urban home, they felt confident about their skills here. They plowed a good-sized garden space, planted a generous garden, and were happy when things started growing so beautifully – until summer arrived and the ground hardened up. No matter how much they watered, their poor plants got baked into rock-hard clay soil. Now they know about the wonders of raised beds as a solution to this problem and can look forward to more success in the future.)

Before filling the beds, though, we were a little stymied by the gaps between the boxes and the uneven ground. Would soil push through? We didn't know, and started batting around ideas how best to block those gaps.

We tried pushing the rock aside to let the beds rest directly on the weed cloth, but that was just a pain in the patookus and we didn't like the results.

Then Don had a brainstorm: Why not line the inside edges of each box with leaves to block the gaps? By the time the leaves decompose, the soil should be packed enough not to spill out. So that's what we did. (I knew those leaves would come in handy.)

With that obstacle out of the way, Don started scooping up the mixed soil and dumping it into the boxes.

It took a few tries to figure out how many scoops were needed to fill a bed.

Some of the far boxes are filled, and we raked them flat.

That's where the garden stands currently. We have the first row of beds fully installed and ready to plant (I'll be planting strawberries and garlic in them later on). We have the irrigation hose buried for the second rod, with the hose bibs standing upright and ready to go.

Right now Don is hard at work, making lots more boxes. We hope to have 36 beds in place before winter, with plans to double that as time permits. Additionally, the garden area will be fenced larger than where the beds are, and we'll have a small garden shed (for tools) and un-boxed areas at either end for field crops such as corn and wheat.

It's just the beginning of what we hope will be a vastly satisfying project over the next couple of years.


  1. I have missed your garden exploits. Glad to see you getting back into it. Has it really been 2.5 years?

  2. What happens with too much undecomposed sawdust? He does such good, precise work.

  3. That is an awesome amount of work. With excellent results.

  4. Fascinating- and exhausting just reading about all the work involved. Blessings that all that effort will produce great results.

  5. With all that underground plumbing and Idaho winters-- (if you haven't already) make sure you have built in an easy way to blow out all those sprinkler lines
    It takes alot of air (both volume and pressure to get a good blow-out), and you may have to do each row separately (separate valves and air (in and out) access points on each line) -- so before it's all covered up, now is the time to devise that plan.

    Also-- you'll need access to a BIG compressor-- the usual home size unit won't work with that size tubing.
    Commercial sprinkler contractors use a trailer mounter diesel unit to get the air needed.
    Repair after a freeze is time consuming and expensive, so it may be wise to line up someone with the right equipment now.

  6. Practical Parsimony - Raw sawdust does a lot of good things in soil, like water absorption, carbon addition and to some degree, pest control. But it also eats nitrogen in the initial decomposition. But a little in the mix is OK and it's a great way to manage sawdust from a wood shop.
    Anon - Already set up for blowing out the water in the pipes. Cleanouts at both ends and a portable high pressure/high volume compressor. And the connections planned between each row and the control valves will be made of removable garden hose. More on that when we get to that stage
    - Don

  7. 36 raised beds is a lot of planting space and when you do double that to 72 raised beds that will be a huge resource. I am jealous. But I still have that question I asked awhile back; how much garden space or raised beds is enough to grow a years supply of food for a family? Would 36 raised beds do it? I do recognize that you plan to have some orchard trees too and perhaps some grain in the future and of course livestock. But to restate the question how much garden space would be required to raise enough food for four people? Not the perfect variety of food or fodder for live stock but the minimum space that would support a minimum but adequate diet.

    1. There may be too many variables in the question for the answer you seek. Maybe only trial and error over time will tell. Just my Two cents worth. I'm curious too.

  8. This is all great to read. It certainly illustrates the importance of taking time to plan before undertaking a project like this.

  9. I am not sure if you have the same gopher problem we do here in Eastern Washington but we put 1/2 inch hardware cloth down and then 2 layers of weed barrier and are putting our soft pot (bags) on them. We lost most of our garlic this year to gophers, they hit it about every 3-4 years. We decided to use the bags for the garlic because we are tired of losing it. Made our hillside into a terrace in one of our gardens and did the same thing for those rows of bags, hardware cloth and weed barrier. One row might have been enough but with the wire of the hardware cloth we decided to not take a chance it would cut through the barrier.
    I also was concerned with the burial of the main line due to the freeze we get. I am not sure what your winters are like but they seem to be a lot like ours. We freeze to 3 foot. All our pipes are that low or lower. We just laid our mainline along the edge of the bags and brought it up the side of the bag for each bag with a T. Hubby made a circle of pot drippers to completely water the bags, hooking them together with dripline T's. We are not able to use driptape in the bags. Every year we take at least a day per garden to lay out the drip lines and tapes and weed barrier. Every year we also gather it all up and drain it then hang it on the inside of the fence.
    If you have hard water the filters that Dripworks puts out work well and you can clean and reuse them. Also the pressure adjuster goes after that before it goes into the mainline. But I am sure Don knows about all that.
    Glad to see you getting back to gardening and thanks for the info about the Fort Laramie Strawberries, mine are doing well and we might even get berries from them this year.

  10. It's beautiful! Clay may get hard as a rock, but it makes the most fertile soil when properly amended. I keep a lot of worms, not in bins, but in my big pots. The soil winds up turning to black clay and then has to be emptied and remixed with vermiculite and peat moss or that coconut coir stuff, then repotted. So the pot collection is now pretty massive to accommodate all the worms and dirt!And of course many worms have escaped to surrounding areas outside of the pots and multiplied, much to the chickens delight! Greens seem to grow best in the worm dirt, not tomatoes. Different setup for tomatoes.
    Glad to see all that tractor work evening the garden spot out. Even flat we have so much rain my pots overflow quickly. One of several reasons for the big (unmanageable) pots is to keep the dirt several inches below the top to try to keep the dirt in when the many fast deluges occur.

    Gardening is very different in different parts of the country and ya'll
    seem to do it very well. Can't wait to see future pictures!

  11. Whew, that's a whole lot of work y'all have accomplished! It looks great, and I'll bet you'll have some good garden success there.

  12. Sorry cant help myself,mechanic life showing through. I believe the trench depth is set by the 3 point hitch height. The PTO is the Power Takeoff for running equipment that needs to be power driven by the tractors engine. Crazy fact I lived over the mountain from your Gold Hill place at the same time you were there. Good days --now on the Idaho Panhandle for the rest of my life!

  13. A lot of places in the food-growing portions of the USA have been hit with extremely adverse weather events. Good thing that you are getting your raised bed gardens in.

  14. In the late 40's I can remember that in the fall my father would buy to large burlap sacks of potatoes and laid them on a sandy area in our basement. He would also put winter squashes, apples, rutabagas, and other things there. My mother would regularly ask me to go down and bring up some potatoes or squash or whatever she wanted for supper that day. I was also the one to go to the basement once or twice a week during the winter to pick through the stored food looking for anything on the verge of spoiling. My mother also canned food, most notably tomatoes, but numerous other things too but we had a small pantry off the kitchen where these were stored. These stored goods were a necessity as my father had seasonal jobs and often would be out of work in the winter months.

  15. The way you're laying those beds out would lend itself to hoop houses should weather become more of a problem. It also might extend your growing time increasing crops and options.