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6 Tips for Building Soil for Your Raised Garden Beds and Planters

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Here are some tips for building productive soil for your garden beds and planters – while there are some differences based on locale, these tips pretty much apply anywhere…

By Greg Seaman Posted Jan 31, 2012

Cedar Planter with LettuceWhen my wife and I first started gardening in earnest, the results were discouraging. The seeds we planted would sprout and begin to grow, but soon the rate of growth would slow and produce undersize vegetables. Some would succumb to damage from insect pests and slugs, and even when we purchased healthy seedlings for transplanting, they failed to grow to the size we expected.

During our first few seasons of gardening we spent more time weeding than anything else. Our undersize plants left much of the topsoil exposed, and local weeds took advantage of the sunlight and available ground space. Although we watered the beds regularly and applied mulch to supress the weeds, the harvest from our early vegetable gardens was pitiful.

Over time we learned what most successful gardeners know: building soil is what gardening is all about. Once we turned our attention to the condition of the soil, our garden began to grow. Today we enjoy bountiful harvests from all our garden beds, and we spend almost no time weeding or dealing with insect pests.

With hopes of sparing you the mistakes we made, here are some tips for building productive soil for your garden beds and planters. And while there are some differences based on locale, these tips pretty much apply anywhere.

1. Buying topsoil is no guarantee that it will contain organic matter.

We purchased a half-dumptruck load of soil to develop a perennial bed for blueberries. The soil looked nice – dark brown, clean and well-screened. We transplanted small blueberry plants and expected them to take off, but the plants just stayed the same size. We became suspicious of the soil quality when weeds didn’t even appear. The soil, we learned, was ‘dirt’, a great growing medium but lacking organic matter which is key to growth. If you are buying soil for your garden beds or planters, ask the seller about the origin of the soil, and assume that you will need to ‘feed’ the soil to get it up to gardening standards.

2. Even the richest soil will need to be revitalized annually.

cover cropIt is common that new gardens do well in the first year, even without additional soil inputs. This is because available organic matter, trace minerals and nutrients have been untapped. But after a season or two of gardening, these nutrients will have been taken up by the crops you have grown. You will need to revitalize your soil regularly.

After one or two crops have been grown in a garden bed, we plant a ‘green manure’ cover crop. These easy-to-grow crops benefit the soil in several ways. Once the green manure crop is mature, it is chopped up and dug lightly into the soil, and this replenishes the soil with fresh organic matter. Leguminous green manure crops also fix nitrogen which serves as a fertilizer for subsequent crops. The roots of the green manure also break up the soil and pull up deeper nutrients making them available for future crops. And the chopped up green manure also ‘fluffs up’ the soil which aerates the soil and improves drainage. After tilling in a green manure crop, we see the soil level in the garden beds raise several inches. The soil is loose and no longer compacted.

3. Soil should be light, crumbly and ‘fluffy’.

Roots need to travel through the soil to access available nutrients which are essential to plant growth. If the soil is dense and compacted, much of the plant’s available energy is directed to the struggling roots. By lightening the soil, you will facilitate root growth and, as a result, vegetative growth.

Our simple test for soil density is to poke a finger into the soil. It should easily go down all the way to the third knuckle. If your soil fails this test, you will probably want to add some peat moss to your topsoil to lighten it. This is easy and inexpensive. In most cases you will then add lime, since peat is acidic. If you have purchased soil, ask the vendor if he knows the soil ph. This will let you know if more lime is needed. Most areas have acidic soil which needs lime, although some parts of the country have regions with alkaline soil. Vermiculite is also used by many gardeners to lighten the soil, and it doesn’t break down as quickly as peat moss. However, we don’t use vermiculite anymore, since our regimen of planting green manure has worked to keep the beds light and well aerated.

4. Compost is the best amendment you can give your soil.

Most gardeners keep a compost pile as a necessary complement to the garden. Compost adds the organic nutrients that change ‘dirt’ into ‘soil’ for good gardening results. Since compost is such a valuable resource, we use it carefully. Rather than add compost after harvesting a crop, for example, we wait until a few weeks before planting the next crop to ensure that none of the compost nutrients are flushed through the soil during rainy spells.

Those unfamiliar with composting may think a compost pile is a smelly, unsightly mess. But this is not the case if the process is done correctly. An active compost pile hardly smells at all, and veteran gardeners enjoy the rich, earthy aroma of finished compost. For urban gardeners and people with small lots, sealed composters are available which contain any smells and have a tidy appearance. These sealed composters, also called compost tumblers, will also keep racoons, dogs, mice and any other interested critters away from the composting materials.

Another reason composters are a good complement to gardeners is that they provide a way of dealing with the dead plant matter after a crop is harvested. For example, once we finish harvesting the last of the tomatoes, the plant ‘skeletons’ are chopped up with a hoe and tossed into the compost. This way, even the plant residue from the garden is reused as it contributes to building compost for subsequent crops. However, if evidence of plant disease shows on the plant residue, we do not add this to the compost.

5. Choose an organic fertilizer.

Chemical-based fertilizers may be appealing as you read the product claims on the packaging, but the benefits are short-lived. Commercial fertilizers need to be reapplied with successive plantings. These fertilizers may give impressive results, but do not contribute to overall soil condition. And remember, gardening is all about the soil.

Organic fertilizers are also available, and we use these from time to time in garden beds where we may have a shortage of compost to add, or when we want to give young seedlings a quick boost. Our current favorite organic fertilizer is canola meal. Canola meal is a finely ground material which is lightweight and easy to spread. It is weed free (unlike some manures) and relatively inexpensive. However, mice are attracted to canola meal, so it needs to be lightly tilled into the soil, and it is important to store the bag well-sealed in a dry, safe place where mice can’t get to it.

6. One last thing – rock phosphate.

You will likely get a year or two out of your basic soil, but soon you will need to add a source of phosphorus. Crops with adequate phosphorus show steady, vigorous growth and earlier maturity. This means larger fruits and vegetables in the fall. Earlier maturing crops are less susceptible to summer drought, disease infection and frost. In addition, rock phosphate is rich in minor elements such as boron, zinc, nickel and iodine which plants need in small amounts for optimum growth. Long term and slow-release feeding, rock phosphate becomes naturally available as the plant needs it.

Phosphate is essential for growth, and is commonly overlooked by gardeners. Buy a sack of rock phosphate and sprinkle some into your bed. The bag will last years, and it stores well. We add a little rock phosphate to our beds every two years.

By turning your attention to ‘what lies beneath’, the structure, drainage and organic matter in the soil, your garden will live up to your expectations and you will spend more time harvesting than weeding or dealing with plant pests and diseases. Happy Gardening!

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GregAbout Greg
Originally from Long Island, NY, Greg Seaman founded Eartheasy in 2000 out of concern for the environment and a desire to help others live more sustainably. As Editor, Greg combines his upbringing in the cities of New York, Boston and San Francisco with the contrast of 31 years of living ‘off-grid’ to give us a balanced perspective on sustainable living. Greg spends his free time gardening, working on his home and building a wooden sailboat with hand tools.

 

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  • Mikeanderson1970

    Great article! Thanks for posting. As a fellow gardener I can tell you really know what you’re doing.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Thanks Mike. I think the more experience you have with gardening the more you realize how little you know! Gardening is a constant learning process, and that’s what makes it interesting.

  • http://www.techotalk.com/ rohit kothari@technology blog

    nice post i am going to show this post to my dad he love gardening and use to do experiment to grow more flower and keep our house ever green.

  • http://degrandt.com/ grandt

    I live in an area near the sea, where marine windy and the air is dry.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      You’ll want to use mulch to keep your beds from drying out to fast. We live in a similar environment. Since you live near the sea, be sure to take advantage of one the best mulch materials  –  seaweed.
      Here is an article which gives you tips for using seaweed for mulch:
      http://eartheasy.com/blog/2010/09/how-to-use-seaweed-to-mulch-your-garden/

  • Mike

    Very informative article. It is very helpful as I m involved in terrace gardening.

  • http://wilwillamettevalleyhomesteader.wordpress.com/ Willamettevalleyhomesteader

    Nice article.  Been gardening for years and never knew about the rock phosphate.  Love learning something new!

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Phosphate is essential for plant growth and needs to be replenished after several crops have been grown in a garden bed.

      Here’s some more information about phosphate:http://eartheasy.com/blog/2009/01/peak-phosphorus/

  • http://www.logofox.co.uk/ Logofox

    Thanks for this, I just ran it past my mum who loves gardening and is very knowledgeable herself  – she thought your article was great! 

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Thanks Logofox. An endorsement from a fellow gardener is a compliment indeed!

  • http://www.poptropicanas.com/ Poptropica

    Finally, I got something worth of my time looking around for this.Awesome. Thanks and keep it up! Surely I will come back.

  • http://www.cactusfacts.com/ Ryan K @ CactusFacts.com

    Great and helpful information. I Been debating on using rock phosphate and after reading your helpful article here I think I know which route I’m going now. Thank you again for this well written information.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Phosphate is one the essential elements for plant growth. Your soil will become depleted of phosphorus after successive crops and it needs to be restored. Rock phosphate is easy to apply and it stores well. And since phosphate is in diminishing supply, we think it’s a good idea to stock up on it.

      Here’s some more information about phosphate:
      http://eartheasy.com/blog/2009/01/peak-phosphorus/

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    Grass is usually cut before it goes to seed, so this is not usually an issue. If you do add grass clipping which have seeds, the heat from the composting process should kill the seeds. If any seeds survive the composting process and appear in your garden bed, a top dressing with mulch should supress them.
    While on the topic of seeds, if you use hay for mulch or to add to your compost, you will be inviting seeds to your garden. Be sure to use straw, not hay, since straw should not contain seeds.

  • David Zwickerhill

    This article in combination with the link to the raised planter kits is exactly what I was looking for. Trying to get a little urban garden going and last year’s attempt was not too successful. Our area is in between 2 buildings and I think we need to give our raised beds some extra height to get more sun.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      The more sun the better! But developing rich soil is also key. Good luck with your garden. I admire urban gardeners.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jack-Sander/100003236403285 Jack Sander

    I want to grow my own vegetables, starting with this spring, as I don’t trust anymore the producers. I will have to make a significant investment, but at least I will get fresh vegetables for my family. I will bookmark your blog, to help me with my project.

  • Eh

    I am famous for killing plants, this information should be helpful to me. 

  • cbrown78501

    I have 4′ X 16′ double-dug beds which I weed and dig up with a fork each year, adding a lot of compost.  I’m trying the no-till approach this year with heavy mulch and a cover crop in the summer, which is our off-season in south Texas.  When I pull out the last of my veggies at the end of May to start my sunn hemp, do I plant the seeds in among the heavy mulch or do I pull it off so the seeds are not smothered?  Then, when I chop down the sunn hemp in September and leave it on the ground as mulch, how do I direct seed in the midst of the mulch?  I think I’m confused.  Thanks for any help.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      You should pull the mulch off when spreading seed for green manure. Use the mulch elsewhere because mulch is not used with green manure since there is no bare ground to cover. When the green manure is chopped doen it is lightly tilled into the soil to break down. Wait two weeks before planting a new crop so the material has more time to break down and incorporate into the soil.

  • http://www.amazeline.com/681 Julie Wright

    Even if you’re not a green thumb, when you can find some of the best tips from people who’ve actually experienced not having a successful start in gardening, you can actually make yourself a green thumb.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Neighbors who garden are often the best source of information since they have similar growing conditions.

  • Autumn

    I began my first raised bed last year (16×8). I had pretty good luck. I’m not sure what I need to be adding to my soil – will a truckload of manure suffice? I read about phosphorus and compost, but I don’t have a compost pile. What can I buy to make my soil ready for this year? last year, I just planted organic gardening soil around each plant that was supposed to have nutrients. I’m so new at this I don’t want to keep anything from growing this year! This website is awesome btw! I’m sharing it with everyone!

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Hi Autumn,
      Bringing in some manure is a great start in preparing your beds for a new year of gardening. But a truckload sounds like a lot for a 16 x 8 bed. I would think a couple of wheelbarrow loads would suffice. Till the manure in several weeks before planting to let it mellow. (Well aged manure is preferable to fresh manure.)It is likely that your soil has compressed a few inches since last year. If it is not light and fluffy, you should add some peat. We usually add lime at the same time as peat, since peat is acidic. (If you had planted green manure then you may not need to add peat.)Phosphorus is another essential soil ingredient that needs replenishing each year or two. We use rock phosphate for this. You can also add bonemeal. Wood ash is also good to use if this is available to you.
      This time of year we focus on developing the soil. We suggest that you wait till the soil is warm and well drained before setting out transplants.
      Greg

      • Autumn

        Thank you so much for your quick response!!! So I need manure, peat, lime and rock phosphorus or bonemeal. How do I know how much of each to use? I am extending the garden this year to 21 x 11. You talk about mulch as well… do I mulch all plants or only some? I just bought a bunch of seeds and am going to try that route this year instead of buying all plants to save a bit of $! I find gardening to be very enjoyable… it’s so exciting to see something grow and I love that I know there are no pesticides! Again, I really appreciate your help!

        • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

          It’s difficult to suggest how much of each amendment to add, since each garden has different characteristics. However, you will probably want to add a wheelbarrow load of manure or maybe two. The peat helps lighten the soil. (You should be able to push a chopstick all the way into the soil.) Bonemeal and rock phosphate are used in much smaller amounts, look for directions on the bag. Mulch where the ground is exposed, being sure not to block seedling growth. We mulch most of our beds, but not carrots, potatoes, or crops which grow closely and cover the soil. Growing from seed is more challenging – we plant extra seeds to allow for some to fail. Start seeds indoors or in a greenhouse and keep the soil from getting cold or too damp. For crops like lettuce, start only a few seeds, then wait two weeks and start more. We repeat this through the season to get successive crops and not too much produce all at once.
          Good luck!

  • patricia

    I live on 6 acres in nw Kansas and there are wheat fields on the east and south of my acreage. The farmer of those wheat feilds sprayed the wheat with fertilizer and pestisides. If I plant a garden, will the fertilizer and pestisides harm my vegetables and flowers?

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      The extent of the spread of your neighbor’s fertilizer and pesticide depends on several factors, such as the prevailing wind direction, the weather on the day of application and the amount used.
      This should not discourage you from growing your own vegetables and flowers. The quality of your soil, which you will be replenishing continually, is the main factor in growing healthy productive crops.

  • http://composttumblers.info/ Jhughes

    I concur with all of these, cover  crops are an easy way to get organics back into  your soil, and make compost, lots and lots of compost!

  • Prov31chicky

    Dear Mike,

    I live in Long Island too and on the water. I am thinking of doing a raised bed and growing a garden this year. How deep does the soil need to be for fruit and vegetables, I am trying to decide how big the bed should be? I will need to buy soil, since the area I want to use already has pressure treated wood. I don’t want to use the existing soil and am going to build something to sit inside that area with either cedar or kiln dried wood. Any places you can recommend for organic soil in the area(Babylon, but willing to travel)? Also what should the proportions be between soil, compost, peat moss, etc. in the garden? When bags say organic do they not have any chemicals or do they consider it organic, because it is organic matter–none of them say certified organic so I am not sure. I am really trying to be careful of what I put in my body as I have an autoimmune disease and think there is a corrolation between that and pesticides and chemicals. Any advice would be helpful. Thanks, great

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      This article has information about soil depth:
      http://eartheasy.com/raised-beds-soil-depth-requirements.html

      Your garden supply will have premixed bags for planters which combines soil with peat and compost. Or you can build your own soil. This page has more information about building soil for garden beds: http://eartheasy.com/grow_backyard_vegetable_garden.html

    • Ruminantia

      Prov31chicky, I would guess that if a bagged amendment is not certified organic, then it is not necessarily chemical free. There are two different definitions of the word ‘organic’ at play here. For example, most canola is genetically modified these days. Which probably means that it HAS been sprayed with chemicals such as Round Up maybe. Personnally, I would not use canola meal. I would not even use commercially available compost or manure. While it is ‘organic matter’, I don’t trust that means that it is synthetic chemical free. Last I heard, even the USDA Organic standards don’t require that an organic farmer use manure from organically raised animals. In your case and for everyone who wants/needs to avoid chemicals in their food, then you must go beyond what even the organic standards allow. If you must bring in outside matter for your beds, maybe you can find someone locally who farms synthetic chemical free who would be willing to sell you a truckload. They should be open to your questions of thier practices so that you can feel good about buying soil or organic matter from them for your raised beds. Also, if all of your treated lumber is removed, then maybe you can have a soil test done to test for the contaminants that might have been leached into your existing soil to put your mind at ease. If it has not been removed, then how old is it? I don’t know much about pressure treated lumber, but I think I heard that it was changed a few years ago to a safe or at least safer process. Would have to look into that though.

  • http://twitter.com/MarcusNorth013 Marcus North

    good publish i am going to demonstrate this publish to my uncle he
    really like farming and use to do try things out to develop more plant
    and keep our home ever natural. Thanks for the lovely post.

  • Carla Grady

    All very nice except that I wish organic gardeners would quit recommending peat moss.  We need to find an alternative.  Do some research on the damage created where peat moss is harvested, and I wonder also about rock phosphate.  I’ve read that its harvesting is not sustainable either.  BUT I have a question: I do a nitrogen-fixing cover crop every year, but I’ve been told that some of the benefits of this are lost when the soil is turned.  Do you know anything about this?  I can’t figure out how to get the above ground greens into the ground without disturbing the web of microbials that have developed in the soil and attached to the roots, a fungal web that is ultimately very beneficial for the future vegetables I want to grow there.
    Thanks for being part of the solution.  I strive to be as successful as you have been with getting off the grid, too.  And don’t forget rainwater catchment!! 

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Great comments which go right to some fundamental gardening concerns.Yes, I agree with your concern about peat as a diminishing resource. We have tried coir as a substitute but found it to be quite expensive and tedious to use. In general we use forest duff as a peat substitute, but this is not available to most gardeners. We recommend using green manure to achieve the soil benefits that peat offers, but many gardeners do not have the extra space to set aside for this purpose.
      Regarding phosphate, here is an article which explains why this resource is diminishing:
      http://eartheasy.com/blog/2009/01/peak-phosphorus/And another describing an effort to mine phosphorus from urine.http://eartheasy.com/blog/2010/04/peak-phosphorus-german-recycler-to-mine-phosphorus-from-sewage/We supplement our garden daily with diluted urine which reduces our need for rock phosphate. But most gardeners, I believe, are not open to the concept of saving and using their urine. We continue to experiment with ways to incorporate green manure greens into the soil without disturbing the subsoil. You are right – it is a challenge! The best method we have used is to smother the standing crop with 6″ of seaweed, then cover the works with a sheet of black plastic for 2 weeks. This solarizes the seaweed (but not the soil) and breaks down the green manure crop, leaving the soil undisturbed and ready to plant in another couple weeks.
      If you don’t have seaweed, clip the crop close to the soil and let it lie there, preferably under cover to speed things up, then till lightly with a hoe only into the top few inches. There will still be some stubble but you can plant anyway. This has worked well for us.Thanks Carla.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    Try adding a layer of mulch to your beds, such as dried grass clippings, straw or leaves. This will prevent the rain from running off the bed. Mulch helps disperse water to the soil beneath it. Mulch also holds water and slows its release into the soil.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    An active compost should not harbor insect pests. It is likely that your compost is not generating enough heat to deter these pests. The secret to successful composting is to balance the nitrogen components with carbon materials. To learn more about his, please visit our Guide to Composting at his link; http://eartheasy.com/grow_compost.html

  • Maltha

    I have grown flowers and some vegetable for last two years in a small space in my front yard. Am about to plant more garlic and some more flower bulbs. Should I put fresh top soil with compost right now or wait till spring?

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      I suggest you wait till early spring to add your compost and amendments. There will be little growth during winter and rains will flush some of your valuable compost.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    Start small. If you have a plot of earth you can plant directly, or use a raised bed or planter. You will likely need to enrich your soil, so starting to compost is helpful. Read our guide to Backyard Vegetable Gardening for all the information you’ll need.
    http://eartheasy.com/grow_backyard_vegetable_garden.html

  • Paul

    Hi
    Maybe you can help me as I am having to fill a 5x15x2.5 feet deep planter . I am thinking of using a couple of different type of bagged soil from H Depot but all all looks like wood product and I have used this stuff before in pots with no problem ., The soil around here is heavy clay , will not use that stuff

  • Tad

    I have a 6 x 12 raised vegetable garden that has been in place
    for over 10 years. Each summer I have
    grown the same vegetables (tomatoes, various peppers, basil, etc.) although I rotate
    the location of them within the garden.
    Over time the productivity of the garden has diminished somewhat even though
    I add manure at the start of each season.
    Also, the trees have grown around it so it does not get as much sun as
    it used to get. So I have built another
    raised garden identical in size in an area which will receive full sun. My question is should I transfer the existing
    dirt from the old raised garden to the new one or should I buy new top
    soil? If I do buy new top soil, do you have
    any specific recommendation for the type of soil and or any additives? Thanks in advance!

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      The old bed wold need more than manure to keep it vitalized after years of growing in it. I suggest you put that bed in green manure for a season, then add rock phosphate and lime when you chop in the green manure at maturity. Also, if trees are closing in, so are their roots.Check your beds for the presence of roots migrating from the trees. In our garden we are diggin a trench adjacent to our beds to locate and cut any roots from some nearby large trees.
      As for the new bed, you could add new soil and improve it with amendments. We recommend using rich garden soil mixed with peat to lighten it, add rock phosphate and lime, and a fast actiing organic fertilizer such as canola meal, mature manure, and compost of course. The compost will likely be your most valued amendment.

      • Joy Smith

        Yep, I love the green manure. This time of year, the fall, is fantastic time to start winter peas and hairy vetch. Turn it under a few weeks before planting time and before any seeds start up on the vetch, and you’ll be so happy with your addition to the soil. I also notice a dramatic decrease in the amount of weeds when I grow the green manure and use it as a mulch, not turn it under. Turning it under some people think it inhibits growth. New beds love it. And established beds love it for the tunnels it makes in the soil and the mulch it makes. Worms come up and eat it and the cycle underneath the top layer is stable. Disturbing the soil too much upsets that balance of the good microbes, I’ve found through the years of gardening that tilling is not good for established gardens.

  • Nicolás Labadía

    Hello, I have a question, If I want extend the life of the wood of my cedar Raised Garden, may I put a plastic between the wood and the soil? or that can cause the appearance of unwanted fungi?

    Thanks from Chile,
    Best,
    Nicolás

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      In our experience, moisture collects between the plastic sheeting and the wood, hastening rot. I do not think this will extend the life of your beds.

  • Dee

    hi there
    i need help!
    i have made my husband build raised borders around the garden, measures approx 10m long, 1/2 m wide, 1/2 m high X 2. what i need to know is, what do i fill it with? i have a little earth in the bottom from when we laid the lawn but they are still mainly empty. what do i fill it with? im assuming that top soil only goes on the top….so can i buy just dirt?

    thanks for reading

    Dee

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    Yes. As long as your beds are 6″ tall or taller, the soil you add will smother the grass beneath, which will then break down and serve as a nutrient source for your plants.
    However, in our garden we do dig into and turn over the grass before filling a bed. This lets us see what the soil is like, pull out any rocks or woody debris, and aerate the subsoil before additional soil is added.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    What a surprise for you! Sounds like you’ve got a submerged tennis court.
    You will still be able to proceed with your garden, just be sure to build your raised beds at least 12″ tall. If you have the material, an 18″ tall raised bed is deluxe. Easy on the back.
    Good luck with your new garden.

    • Rebecca

      Great! Thank you so much for your help!! This is our first year doing a garden and we are very excited!

      • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

        Thanks Rebecca, have a great season!

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    The landscape cloth will not deter the roots for long. You need to dig a trench along the side of the bed where the roots are coming from and cut the leader root(s). Then slip a sheet of plastic (we use HDPE plastic sheeting that comes with pallets of feed at the feed store) or old metal roofing before filling in the trench. These materials will serve as a barrier to prevent further root incursion.

    • MrLogic

      I put roofing material at the bottom of the bead. Cheap buy at home depo (metal corrugated 8×2.5 sheets). Drill some holes at the bottom for draimage.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jenn.s.carter.3 Jenn Sam Carter

    I have a question about manure. I just read an article about not using manure on plants you intend to eat. I have a horse and already started a compost with it. While it bothers me to think my food is growing out of poo is it okay?

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Composted, well-aged or rotted manure has been used since the dawn of agriculture as a fertilizer for food plants. Manure is a valued component in the garden soil mix which includes other components such as lime, rock phosphate, green manures, peat and other amendments.

  • Ted

    You Rock! This is a fantastic, thorough guide on how to grow. Every school acroos the nation should teach this. Thanks!

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    Dolopril is the fastest acting form of lime or you can use Dolomite. Dolopril is not so powdery and easy to apply even on windy days. We use both.
    The bulk of your soil should be good garden soil, then add amendments like you list here. Compost is key. Organic manure is also a valued addition – we use mushroom manure and sometimes steer manure. You didn’t mention phosphate – I suggest you add some rock phosphate and reapply every year or two.
    To decide how much lime to use, ask a fellow gardener about local soil requirements. Or you could do a soil test, or look for signs of out-of-balance pH, such as moss which indicates acidity.

  • Theresa

    Thank you, Greg, for all your suggestions!! :-) Your article and added suggestions on my soil mix are very helpful. My raised gardens were terrible last year…

    You had also stated “the more sun, the better”. I live in the burbs of TN and not only did I not have the right soil mix, but it was like everything just burned up from the hot sun. I watered but it just wasn’t enough. What is your thoughts on shade cloth over raised beds?

    Thank you again for your suggestions and articles!!! You are a life saver!! :-) WooHoo maybe this year I will have some healthy veggies!!

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      If your plants are burning up then you need to add mulch to your beds. Plants can handle the heat but the soil surface will dry and harden, increasing runoff and depleting moisture to the shallow roots. If you enter “mulch” in our search box you will see articles about this. Straw, leaves, dried grass clippings, etc are examples of mulches used in gardens.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    If your raised bed is placed on ground, then base layers are not used since the plant roots will be accessing the earth beneath the bed. If the soil beneath the bed is heavy with clay, then I suggest that you break up this soil (before putting the bed in place) and add some peat or screened sandy soil. If the bed is already in place, then add peat to the soil in the bed and work it in with a shovel. This will lighten the soil and improve drainage.
    If your bed is on a patio or solid surface, however, then the small river rock will be a good base layer.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    The simplest way to control weeds is to use mulch. Mulch will cover the soil so weeds cannot get the sunlight they need to sprout. Mulch also keeps your soil from drying out at the surface, conserving water evaporative loss. As mulch breaks down, it adds organic matter to your soil.
    To learn more about mulch, just enter the word in our search box.

  • Sabina Puri

    Thank you I will try that

  • Melody Long

    love this article, thank you! i am wanting to do raised beds next spring.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Thanks Melody. Ideally you would have your beds in place and filled with soil several weeks before planting to let the soil amendments, compost etc, cure, so there will no hot spots to shock your transplants or seedlings.

  • Facebook User

    Very good info & I thank you. I started gardening by the square foot about 4 years ago & everything has done well as I rotate my crops. The fall garden went to pot. The cauliflower has huge leaves but no head! Cabbage is doing the same. I guess it’s time to add, add, add! I use manure & Canadian Peat moss along with corse sand on a regular basis but maybe my soil is just tired. Will try some of your ideas here.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      It sounds like you’re getting good vegetative growth but not an equivalent yield, which can happen when you have too much nitrogen and not enough potassium. You might consider backing off the manure once the plant is established.

  • Kristen Espino

    Hi!! I’m new at gardening and live in North FL. I planted a few ever-bearing strawberry plants in raised beds along with some lettuce, herbs, ect. this past October. I have had a few strawberries and a few runners. Now, the leaves are growing tremendously, and there’s hardly any berries. I clipped the runners this morning because I just read that I probably should have clipped them, and the flowers, from the start of planting to allow the roots to be established. What do you think about this? I love your site and have learned so much already!!! Thank you, thank you!!!!!

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Yes, it is a common practice to clip the runners of ever-bearing strawberries to promote root growth. Sounds like you may have applied an over-abundance of nitrogen fertilizer which accounts for the leafy growth. This comes at the expense of fruiting. You may want to add some rock phosphate and maybe a potassium source (your garden store will help you), but hold off on the nitrogen.

  • Kristen Espino

    Thank you! When it’s time, how should I amend the soil if I have a few inches of straw? Do I remove it or lay it on too and then add more straw?

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      The straw will break down and incorporate into the soil. Remaining stubble can be worked in with a hoe at the same time you are top dressing the bed with new amendments. This usually done in early spring, or late summer if you are planting a fall cover crop or overwintered vegetables.

  • Kristen Espino

    It’s me again!! I meant to ask two more questions!! I’ve read that I will need to rotate crops yearly. Do I need to practice this with the strawberries too?
    And the other question is; I didn’t plant a cover crop in time before winter in my extra bed, but the soil in it is new. What should I do with it while it lays idle, or is there still enough time to plant one? There’s a little straw on it now. I appreciate your suggestions! Thank you, again!!! I love this site!!!!

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      The ever-bearing strawberries shoud remain in the same bed without being rotated.
      For your bed without the cover crop, you can either cover the bed with a mulch for the winter months, something like leaves or straw if available. You can drape a net over the leaves to keep them from blowing away. Or you can simply cover the bed with a sheet of black poly and weight it down at the edges.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    Sorry, it should read “over-wintered”.
    Sprinkle the rock phosphate evenly on the soil and cover with mulch so the wind doesn’t blow it off the beds.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    The shaded area might be a good spot for salad greens, peas and cooler crops. Otherwise you have plenty of deep soil for a wide variety of crops. My advice is for you to ask a local gardener or someone at a nearby garden center, since they will have learned which crops and which varieties do best on your climate zone.

  • Ginger Sadler

    This is awesome I’m just starting my own veggie and flower garden. Thanks so much for putting things in simple terms, b/c I am far from a green thumb

  • Bill Truex

    I have a question about compost, can I take last years leaves and run them thru a wood chipper and use the shreded leaves in a raised bed vegetable garden?

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Sure, it would be great for your raised beds. You can top dress as mulch or lightly till them in. If you have extra I could use some!

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    Too bad about the treated wood. The liner should help.
    For the placement, you would do best to remove the rock and landscape cloth, then dig a foot or more into the soil beneath the bed to break up the soil and remove any large rocks. This will give your plants more soil depth.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    We’ve used thin sheets of HDPE recycled plastic for buried barrier applications. If you can get these, they are easy to cut and staple to the inside of the bed sides.
    Try your local feed store – these sheets are used on pallets beneath the feed sacks to prevent tears. They are commonly discarded.

  • Eddie

    Hi Greg, my name is Eddie. I’m new at above ground gardening and I have a question. Everything that I purchased to make my soil is sold in cubic feet except the manure. It is sold in pounds. I’m trying to figure out how many pounds of manure to mix to each cubic foot of soil. Can you help with that?

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      How much manure you use depends on the condition of your soil and whether you use other amendments like fertilizer or compost. A soil test is recommended before you start amending your soil. We usually add a couple 20 pound bags in a 4 x 8 bed, which is very light. More manure goes into the compost bin for further aging. Our primary amendment is compost.
      To use manure directly on your beds, make sure it is well rotted. Some gardeners add manure after the fall harvest. We wait till early spring for most beds. Chicken and steer manure should age 6 months or longer before use. Horse manure is generally safe to use within a few weeks.
      Tilling the manure into the soil will help keep nutrients from washing away.

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