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Building an In-Ground Garden Bed

  1. Select the site. Plants are stationary beings, so make sure you pick a good spot where they can get everything they need. What constitutes a good spot?

    1. Sunlight. Since we’re growing in the Northern Hemisphere, a clear view of the Southern and Eastern sky with some Western shade is best; this will give us plenty of sunlight in the Winter months when the sun is low in the horizon, as well as provide a break from the hot Western sun in the Summer months. A slight South-facing slope (try to say that 5 times fast), is extra nice. If pickings are slim, you can sometimes manipulate the light by using shade net or moving sun-blocking objects, just make sure the plants are getting an average of at least 6 hours of sunlight per day.

b) The main concerns here are large rocks and adequate drainage. Rocks larger than a ping-pong ball will need to be removed. If you’re growing in the desert, caliche layers can hide under the soil and cause a layer of calcium so thick that it can impede water movement; caliche can be remedied, but it’s not fun... more on that later. Perform a percolation test in the spot you want to grow in:

i) Percolation Test: Dig a 1’x1’ hole, fill it with water. The next day, put a measuring stick in the hole and refill it with water. Now, if the drainage is less than 1” per hour, you’ve got drainage issues and will either want to pick another site or get ready to do some serious soil amending. If your drainage is at least 1” per hour, you’re good to garden.

c) Water. A water line can be trenched or run above-ground with a water hose. Find the nearest water source and ask yourself if you‘re able/willing to run water to the garden bed. Make sure your supply can put out at least 2 gallons per minute.

d) Tree roots. Eucalyptus and Black Walnut trees are considered allelopathic, meaning they can be extra-competitive against vegetables in certain situations. They should be nowhere near the garden. Tree of Heaven and certain desert native trees may also be in this category, but sources vary.

e) Pests. If you have a site in mind that already has a fence, that’s great, otherwise you will want to provide an appropriate barrier for whatever pests are in your area.

f) Call 811. If you’re not sure if there are utility lines running where you want to place the bed, dial 811 and someone will come out to show you where utility lines are.

2) Test the soil. A soil test can tell you exactly how fertile your garden soil is, as well as exactly what nutrients you need to add to get it firing on all cylinders. This isn’t a must-do step, but it’s highly encouraged. Tests run about 70$ and if you’ve got a few different sites you’re considering for your garden, a soil test from each site could show one spot is more favorable than another.

3) Prepare the soil. Finally, it’s time to build your garden bed(s)! To avoid hyperextending your back, don’t use beds that are more than 4’ wide. We’re fond of 30” wide beds with 18” walkways. If your soil isn’t compacted or rocky, you get to skip straight to step 3c.

a) Loosen the soil. If your soil is compacted or has cliche, you’ll need to fork down to 18”-24”; a broadfork is the best tool for this. A roto-tiller will loosen the soil, but it is very destructive to any soil structure that’s present and won’t work well if there are large rocks present, so we discourage its use. Don’t forget to soak your soil to make this step MUCH easier.

b) Remove rocks larger than a ping pong ball from the top couple inches of soil. Remove rocks larger than a softball from the top 6 inches of soil. This is probably the least-fun step in this entire process, but it makes a world of difference for your future plants.

c) Amend the soil. If you did a soil test, you know exactly how much fertilizers and amendments to add. If you didn’t do a soil test, find a balanced organic fertilizer like cottonseed meal (6-2-1) or chicken manure (3-2-2), and apply the lowest recommended application. It’s like cooking, you can always add more salt later, but you can’t take it away once it’s in. Fork in the fertilizers with a ½” layer of compost and finish the bed with a 1” layer of compost.

i) If you’re using Bokashi Composting, simply apply the fertilizers and amendments first, then bury your bokashi second. Curious about bokashi?

Install irrigation. Once you’ve built your beds, you’re ready for irrigation. You don’t need automated irrigation, but we highly encourage it to make watering a worry-free task in the garden. Our irrigation system is in this order: house spigot, spigot timer, ¾” water hose, ½” poly supply line, ¾ PVC adapter that switches the ½” supply line over to 12mm Netafim dripline, 3 driplines/bed. You can also use irrigation ollas in combination with drip irrigation. Test your irrigation by running it for 30 minutes; this will saturate the soil and make it ready to plant. Here’s a guide to help determine how much water is enough water for your plants.

5) Plant! You’ve come this far; no need to start procrastinating now! Plant out your hard-earned garden beds a.s.a.p. Curious what to plant right now?

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