Building your own Garden
Once you have planned out your garden you are ready to put it together. Garden building requires work. Deliberate and directed effort will have the greatest payoff for the energy expended.
Begin with the most critical and elemental tasks and continue with those that will give you the most for your effort.
If you want the healthiest vegetables and the most productive garden building your soil is the best place to start. Work on developing the best soil in each of your garden beds. After that you can focus on the structures in your garden, such as paths, trellises, and fences.
Preparing your soil
In the garden building good, healthy soil is your first task. By now you will have your soil test results in one hand, and your garden plan in the other. You are ready to get to work.
Mark out your garden area on the ground, either with corner stakes and string, or with a line of lime or builders chalk drawn on the ground. This denotes the area in which you are going to dig your garden beds.
If you plan on putting in permanent paths, you may choose to mark those and not dig them up, but since roots will grow beneath the paths it is a good idea to improve all the soil in your garden, even under permanent paths. This is good practice, and the only time you will be able to dig up the path area.
Since you will be digging the entire garden area, plan for a staging area. This is the work area, upon which you will store bags of soil amendments, lay down tools you are not presently using, and the place you will be putting the soil as you dig it up.
One point of garden building is to create rich soil with good tilth, so you will be digging it all up at least this one time.
You will be setting it to one side, breaking up clods, removing debris and rocks, adding amendments, and replacing it into your garden. A tarp laid in the staging area is the best place to do all this.
If you have space adjacent to your garden, use that as a staging area. If you do not, divide the garden in half and stage on one half of the garden building up the the soil from the other half.
Once the work on one half is complete, move the staging area to the finished half of the garden building up the soil on the old staging area.
Stretching and Pacing:
Garden building, especially digging can be a strenuous activity. If you haven’t been exercising recently, are getting on in years, or lead a sedentary lifestyle a stretching and warm-up regimen is advisable before you begin digging. Pick long-handled tools that are appropriate for your height.
Even after you’ve warmed up and stretched, remember to pace yourself. Garden building, in general, and digging, in particular, requires a lot of bending and lifting, putting stress on your back and legs. If you find yourself short of breath or red in the face, stop working. Assess with your physician if you are up to the task.
Break the job down into a series of small goals. Garden building doesn’t have to be done all at once. Besides, it is supposed to be pleasurable, not strenous. For example, in heavy soil you may decide to dig only ten square feet at a time between rest breaks. It is far better to take longer to do the job right. And it will do you no good to injure yourself.
At a minimum, preparing your garden soil means that you have dug out your entire garden to a depth of one shovel blade, or about ten inches. This is a garden building task known as single digging and for many gardens will be all that you have to dig out. After you have removed the top level of soil, examine the floor of your garden to see if you need to dig more. Pour in a half-bucket of water to see how well it drains.
If the soil in the bottom of your garden is compacted, doesn’t drain well, is hard and clayey, or full of rocks or debris, then you will probably want to double dig the soil at the base of your garden. If the base soil is soft and drains well, then your will not need to double dig.
This garden building task has an unfortunate name, since it implies a lot of work. Fortunately, double digging is not simply digging out the soil to another shovel blade’s depth. The aim instead is to loosen the soil rather than remove it. This is best accomplished with a garden fork, but can be done with a shovel. Insert the fork as deeply as possible and rock it from side-to-side to loosen a section of soil. Repeat the process, working from one end of the garden to the other end. Once loosened, avoid stepping on and compacting the soil.
You will have placed the single-dug soil on a tarp or in a pile in your staging area, and sorted out the rocks, roots, and other debris. Refer to the recommendations of your soil test report to determine the types and amounts of soil amendments that you will need to add to your soil pile. Mix it all together with a rake, hoe, or shovel.
Shovel all the amended soil back into the garden building low mounded rows as you go, and raking it smooth to fill in the beds. You may notice that there seems to be more soil to put back than you removed. This is because, in addition to the added soil amendments, your digging has entrained air into the soil making it more fluffy and giving it better tilth.
Making your beds
For perennial herbs and vegetables, the logical choice is to create permanent garden beds. In the remainder of the garden building permanent beds with permanent paths will probably serve you best.
This layout helps you maintain your soil more easily and keeps the soil from being compacted, since foot traffic is directed to the paths only. With this arrangement you should step into the beds seldom or not at all.
If you have a need to reconfigure your garden building it and rebuilding it on a regular basis, or plan to grow crops on a large scale, a plan with temporary beds with soft-surface paths might be a good option for you.
For example, you may want grow corn in a large rectangle of rows in one part of your garden and intensively plant tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers in another part.
The section with corn need not have any internal paths, while the other section will need some temporary paths to access the individual plants. Since next year the whole scheme will be relocated in a crop rotation, garden building with temporary beds and paths will work best.
Traditional garden building usually includes flat beds planted in rows or hills with a lot of space in between. This layout comes from a time when most of the country lived and farmed in rural areas and had plenty of land available for the family’s garden. This is still a fine scheme if you have the space for it. It has the advantage of less competition between vegetable plants and allow your crops to reach full maturity. If you don’t have the space, you can still intensively plant a flat bed.
The advantage of a flat bed is that it is easy to make. Simply work the soil and rake it out smooth. If your soil drains well and doesn’t have extraordinary problems, this is a practical and workable choice for your garden.
Raised beds have become more popular for a number of reasons. Raising the bed allows for the soil to be worked and fluffed so it drains better. This is especially helpful if the underlying soil is dense and drains poorly. Also, raised bed soil will heat up more easily in the spring, allowing for earlier planting, especially if the base soil is dense or clayey.
Raised beds lend themselves more readily to intensive planting. Since the soil must be worked more to become raised, it is easier to add in the soil amendments that will support more closely spaced plants.
This scheme can give you more crops in a smaller space, a boon if your gardening space is limited. If you have a small garden building raised beds may be your best bet, and will pay back your efforts many-fold.
Building your garden paths and edging
Garden paths are for stepping; garden beds are not. They are intended to provide a stable place for you to walk or roll your wheelbarrow.
They must be able to take the weight of your walking and your fully loaded cart.
They should be flat, durable, and wide enough to suit your purposes. In your garden building permanent paths with permanent garden beds is the most common and most effective plan.
While they may be labor-intensive, once built they will not have to be built again, so in the garden building them right is important.
In many gardens it may be advantageous to include temporary paths in addition to permanent walkways, particularly in large gardens that must be reconfigured year after year.
These need only be narrow footpaths to gain access to certain plant groupings. Once they have served their purpose, they can be spaded up and turned into usable garden space.
Temporary paths or stepping pads can be useful in specific locations to access a particular plant for a particular reason. In any garden building them is usually simple and easy.
For example, a single stepping stone set in your bed may give you a place to stand to harvest tomatoes that you cannot reach any other way. A board laid between two trellises of beans will allow you slip through and pick beans without crushing the soil.
A garden path need not be anything more than packed earth upon which you walk. While simple, this type of path will often be muddy and will definitely grow weeds, which you will eventually have to pull. In the garden building soft-surface paths only require two elements: edging and materials for the path surface.
If you want a realtively clean path that is easier to maintain, apply a layer of mulch, such as wood chips or nut shells. These will decay over time and must be replaced, but this is a simple soft-surface pathway that will keep the mud down and still allow rain to soak in.
A more expensive and more durable soft-surface path covering is crushed rock, pulverized brick, or gravel. Pulverized rock paths are usually edged with metal striping. These last a long time, drain well, and don’t easily support weeds.
Permanent paths that will take a lot of foot traffic, or will need to repeatedly support the weight of a fully loaded barrow or cart are the best candidates to be a hard-surfaced path. This is a garden building project that will be labor intensive, but will provide the most benefit of any of the garden building tasks you undertake.
These are usually the primary pathways to the garden, the main paths within the garden, and the walkways you use to move materials to and from your garden.
The most common and most durable of hard-surfaced pathways is the concrete walkway. It is impervious to sun and weather and requires very little maintenance over its long life. Other possibilities are brick or stone walkways laid over a bed of sand.
If your soil is very rocky, a path can be made from the rocks removed from your garden beds, laid into a deep bed of sand. The gaps between the rocks can be planted with moss or with low-growing herbs, such as wooly thyme.
Edging is used at the boundary of your paths and keeps the path from spilling into the garden and vice versa. The interface between your pathway and your garden bed will determine the type of edging that you are likely to use. In your garden building a particular edge depends on the material of the path and how the edge of you garden bed is made.
A hard-surface path, especially a concrete or grouted brick path, will not need any edging. However, a loose-laid brick or stone path will likely need an edging to prevent the smaller pieces at the edge of the path from separating and breaking off.
A soft-surfaced path will need a good solid barrier to prevent materials from spilling in the adjacent beds. Path materials like bark mulch or gravel are likely to be kicked into the garden bed by foot traffic so a curb or edging with a little height is desirable. A material that settles and stays put, like pulverized rock, needs only a minimal edging, such a pliable metal edging system.
If you plan on having raised beds adjacent to your paths, edging with some height is needed. Concrete curbing or stone walls are the most durable candidates. Simple wooden timbers can also suffice and are less expensive, especially if they are salvaged materials, but they will rot over time and must be replaced.
Garden structures: Trellises & Fences
Trellises: Trellises are a great way to increase the available space in your garden! Growing a row of vining plants vertically instead of letting them sprawl across your garden bed has many advantages.
First, a trellis will free up more real estate in your garden for other plants. Trellised plants receive more sunshine and grow fuller and more robust.
They are exposed to more air and breezes, reducing the likelihood of airborne fungal and bacterial diseases.
The fruits will be healthier as well, will form more rounded and ripen more completely, since they are not lying on the ground where they can be deformed by weight, hidden from the sun, and exposed to soil-borne diseases. Finally, they will be easier to harvest since they are easier to reach.
Any vining plant will do well on trellises. The most obvious candidates are pole beans, and cucurbits since these have winding and gripping tendrils that can support the weight of the growing plant.
Other vines without tendrils, such as tomatoes, will still grow well on trellises provided you tie them to the trellis to support the weight of the plant.
There are a multitude of trellis designs, each with its own advantages and drawbacks. For your particular garden building the trellis to meet your specific needs is your best bet. Major design considerations are:
- Will it be permanent or seasonal?
- Will it need to withstand wind?
- How much weight can it hold? A fully loaded tomato plant can weigh as much as eighty pounds.
- Do you want to reuse it season after season? Select your materials for the durability you need.
- Do you want it to shade other plants, or not? This will help you decide its sun orientation.
- How and where will you store it in the off-sea.
Fences: At some point most gardeners, especially suson?
Urban and rural gardeners, will consider enclosing their garden with a fence. The main reason is to prevent unwanted and untimely visitors to the garden and to protect your vegetables from damage.
Sometimes it is a matter of keeping running children or pets from straying into the garden, or to preclude an accidental “pruning” by an errant soccer ball.
In other cases, a fence is a means of combating more significant marauders such as rabbits or deer.
In your garden building a fence is a major undertaking and must be considered with thoughtfulness and care. In designing it you will need to consider the extent, height, and strength of your enclosure in relationship to your needs.
Material considerations and the look of the fence will be a major design issue. And since the fence will be in place for a long time, you should build it with durability in mind.
Green houses are hot! Both literally and figuratively, greenhouses are a desirable item. Most serious gardeners have probably held a secret desire to have one.
A greenhouse offers a host of possibilities:
- tomatoes in winter,
- tropical flowers and fruits,
- warmth and comfort,
- a place for solace.
Yet it is ironic that many greenhouses sit empty and unused.
Greenhouse gardening is very different from typical organic gardening and success means good management, care, and control.
Because a greenhouse is an enclosed environment, all elements of atmosphere and cleanliness must be continuously monitored and adjusted.
Imbalances can grow quickly and infestations can be devastating. Given all that, the advantage outweigh the disadvantages.
The potential for growing the heat-loving plants that have eluded you in the past, the prospect of extending your season by months instead of weeks, and the idea of gardening in a sheltered warm place all make a greenhouse a good idea.
Greenhouse construction is the most daunting garden building project of all. Designing and building a greenhouse from scratch is beyond the skill level of most casual carpenters. Even assembling a greenhouse kit is major garden building task, a large undertaking but still worth it.
If the season were just a few weeks longer, you could grow so much more! You could enjoy fresh greens early in the spring when there is still a nip in the air, or after the frost has knocked down your garden plants.
In the garden building any number of season extenders can give you those extra few weeks, but coldframes are probably the best and most versatile of them all.
A coldframe is simply a low, wide, floorless box with a glazed roof. Placed in your garden, it will create conditions several degrees warmer than the surrounding open garden. It is as if a piece of your garden is enjoying weather a thousand miles south of your locale.
The glazed roof is usually hinged or loose-set so that it can be left open a few inches to prevent the interior temperatures from rising too much. The more sophisticated coldframes have a temperature sensitive spring latch that will ‘pop open’ the roof when it get too hot inside.
Coldframes vary in width, length, and height but all share the same characteristics. None have a floor, since they are intended to ‘box-in’ a section of your garden for this special purpose. The walls are made of a solid, durable material that should last years in contact with often damp garden soil.
The top is always glazed; with plastic or glass material. Using a salvaged window sash is a traditional glazing material. The top must be inclined to shed rain, and should be placed ‘facing’ the south. This roof must be able to be vented, either by hand or with an automatic system.
Prepare the soil inside the coldframe and plant or sow seed of crops that do well in cool, but above freezing temperatures. If you plan of growing greens such as lettuce or spinach, the coldframe can be low. But if you are enclosing larger plants, the height should be increased accordingly. The ideal height should enclose the minimum volume of airspace to accommodate your plants, and the tips of the leaves should be just short of touching the glazing.
Another effective way of using the coldframe is as a place to start seedlings in flats or pots. The elevated temperatures will help seeds to germinate earlier than they would in the open garden, and slower than those sown indoors. By the same token, the coldframe is an excellent place to harden off young seedlings that were started indoors. By growing them in controlled, but cool temperatures they will develop stronger less leggy stems and will be able to adapt to the conditions of the open garden much more readily.
The air and soil temperature can be artificially raised as needed for the many uses of the coldframe. Adding heat to the soil can be achieved by placing a commercially manufacturer soil-warming grid in the soil under the flats and pots. This is called a hot bed and is often used when germinating seeds. The air can be heated by simply placing an incandescent 40 watt light bulb within the coldframe.
Two things come to mind when the topic is hoop houses; the low plastic tunnels that are used as season extenders in the garden, or the walk-in enclosures that are economical greenhouses. The two are similar in construction, but differ in scale and serve two entirely different functions.
A hoop house for a small garden is way of tenting over a section of garden to keep off frost and to raise the internal temperature for favorable growing. It is often simply a series arches covered with a sheet of plastic. For garden building, it’s an inexpensive and effective way to cover as much garden with little cost as possible. The magic of it is that it works really well as a season extender! The only drawback is in its small dimensions. An arch six feet wide is only about three feet tall at its center. Access is gained from the ends and often involves crawling to harvest your vegetables. This can be awkward, but kind of fun too. It’s like gardening inside a pup tent!
A walk-in hoop house is a more serious garden building exercise. The framework is larger, more involved, more labor-intensive, and more expensive. But compared to the cost of a greenhouse, it is a bargain, because it can, if properly constructed, act almost as well as a real greenhouse. Bear in mind though, that a hoop house is not as durable or weather-resistant as a greenhouse. The sheet plastic will need to be replaced regularly.
The temporary nature of the hoop house covering can be a disadvantage, but can also be used to great effect, making the hoop house far more flexible than a greenhouse. In your garden building the framework is often so involved, it is seldom removed from the garden. However, properly managed, the structure can be used for a variety of garden tasks.
Once the weather has warmed, remove the sheet plastic. Then the framework can be used to attach trellises, bean poles, and tomato cages, giving them added stability. If you have hot summers, cover the frame for a shade cloth, shielding your garden and keeping it reasonably cool. The frame is a natural place to attach rabbit fencing, and the overhead structure will prevent deer from leaping into your garden.
In much of the county, particularly the northern states, the summers are warm, fall and spring are cool, and winter is cold.
Every additional day you can add to the growing season is a bonus. This is where season extenders come in handy.
These are structures and enclosures large and small that are placed over a portion of the garden or around individual plants to provide protection from the elements, giving your garden plants a few more days or weeks of seasonal growth.
In most cases these are meant to prevent cold weather and frost from damaging early spring crops or allowing fall crops to produce just a little longer.
By contrast, in hot southern climates, the summers are brutally hot and dry, causing vegetables to lapse into a heat-stress-induced dormancy, or to dry up and die.
Season extenders of a different type may be used to eke out days or weeks of productivity by creating a favorable microclimate within your garden.
Composting is one of the fundamental activities of the organic garden. That is why compost is sometimes called black gold; it is so valuable. In your garden building good strong, functional compost bins will have the most benefits.
Garden waste is just rubbish unless it is composted. Building a proper compost bin is the easiest and most efficient way to make compost.
The simplest compost bin to build or purchase is the single bin. This is basically a big floorless box into which you place materials to be composted. It nicely keeps the waste materials confined and tidy, but you will need to pull it all out to turn the compost and then replace it.
This makes for a lot of work. As a result most single bin systems don’t get turned, which isn’t really active composting. However, the materials will eventually decay and you will have nice compost, but plan on waiting for a long time.
Passive composting takes three to four times as long as active composting.
A good design for garden building is the three-sided bin. This has three permanent sides, and an open four side with removable planks.
As you fill the bin through the open side, you put in a plank to contain the materials. After it is filled and when turning the compost, you simply remove the planks to pull out the materials.
The three-sided bin is the most effective bin design, but it can be made even better. A two-bin system gives you a place to put the turned compost and allows you to manage two bins of compost at the same time. Turn the unfinished compost into the second bin to let it finish and start new compost in the first bin. But even this system can be made better.
Of all of your garden building projects, the three bin compost system should be your top priority. Three bins seem to be the optimal number for timing the decomposition of your compost. In bin number one, you begin by adding raw materials.
In a few weeks, you turn them into bin number two and begin a new batch in bin one. In a few more weeks, you turn the unfinished compost from bin two into bin number three, move the materials from bin one into bin two. And then you begin another batch in bin one.
Properly timed, the compost will be finished in bin three by the time you are ready to turn the bins. With this method you have a way to continuously process your garden waste and have fresh compost.
Rather than building compost bins, it may make sense to purchase a compost bin. Most manufactured bins have four stout sides with a removable panel through which you dig out the finished compost, and a lid for the top.
They are perfect for passive composting, but problematic for active composting. It’s cumbersome to dig them out and turn the compost. It’s often easier to disassemble them or knock them over to get the materials out. They are generally not designed for this abuse.
Other manufactured bins are designed for turning. These bins are either tumbled or rotated to turn the materials inside. Of course, the bigger the bin and the more heavily loaded it is the more work it takes tumble or rotate. These bins tend to be way too small for processing materials from all but the smallest garden.
Of course, you don’t need to have a compost bin to make good compost. A compost heap or pile can also do the job, just not as easily or as effectively. A caution: In your garden building a pile of random garden waste in the corner of your plot is not a compost pile! It is a pile of rubbish.It will rot and it will be a decent additive to your soil, but it isn’t compost. It’s rotten organic matter, which is good for your garden but lacks the balance and nutrient richness of compost.
A compost heap must be carefully constructed and well managed. To get good compost the pile must be turned regularly, and kept neither too dry nor too wet. It’s essential to keep it covered to protect it from rain and sun, and to keep vermin out.
An alternate method of processing waste materials is a labor-intensive passive composting system known as sheet or trench composting. To sheet compost, you spread waste materials across the surface of your garden and cover it. Trench composting is similar, but materials are placed in a trench rather than spread. In both cases, it is imperative that the materials be properly covered! The cover, at a minimum, should be twelve inches deep of soil. Anything less is an invitation for rats and raccoons!
Worm Compost Bins:
Worm composting or vermiculture is a specialized way of composting kitchen waste by feeding worms in a closed bin and harvesting their rich excrement, called worm castings. Castings and the small amounts of liquid (worm juice) from a worm bin are incredibly fertile and potent fertilizers.
Of all the garden building projects, worm bins have the greatest benefits for your garden. At its simplest a worm bin is a cool, ventilated box with a removable lid and bottom that will drain. It is intended to provide a comfortable home for worms to live and feed. Vermiculture bins can be made from scratch or built from off-the-shelf products such as storage bins or tubs. Worm bins can be placed indoors or outside, depending on your weather and the logistics of your dwelling. You can even put the worm bin in the ground. A bucket with holes in it can act as a worm ‘restaurant’ where the worms you introduced into your garden can come to feed.
When we garden, we are to a large extent at the mercy of the elements. We can’t control how hot or cold it is, how much sun shines, or if we get too much rain. We can, however, water the garden when there is too little rain, if we have a water utility or a well with a pump. If we don’t collection of rainwater is an effective and necessary garden building project.
The plants in our gardens have certain water needs that cannot be compromised. Too little water and plants will be stressed and will not produce quality crops. There is no getting around it; adequate water is a requirement to garden. However, in much of the country there is simply not enough rain at the right time to keep our garden healthy.
We can rely on our local water utility, at a cost, or we must find a way to retain the rainwater that has already fallen on our property. Rainwater collection is an excellent garden building project that will pay itself back over time. If you live in an area that is dry in summer and rainy in the winter, rainwater harvesting will benefit you most and the payback time is the shortest. This is the case in most of the western states. Even if you have abundant summer rain, you may not have enough to get through the dry spells in between. Rainwater collection may work for you as well.
Garden plants require a certain minimal amount of water to survive and even more to produce vegetables.
Give them adequate water and they will thrive; give them less than they need and they will falter or fail in any number of dramatic ways. These are the facts of gardening.
In very few places in the country will rain be sufficient to meet the water needs of your garden. A water delivery system is, therefore, a must.
The simplest, most common means is watering through your hose. It’s easy, direct, and gets the water exactly where you want it without a lot of waste. On the other hand, it takes a lot of time to water thoroughly.
In your garden building an effective, well-planned irrigation system is well worth the expense of installation, especially if you live in areas with prolonged dry seasons, dry and hot wind, or intense sunshine.
Considered over the long-term, an irrigation system is one of the most cost-effective garden building projects.