A few of the 52 raised beds of the Beekman 1802 Heirloom Vegetable Garden

A few of the 52 raised beds of the Beekman 1802 Heirloom Vegetable Garden.

Okay. We’re bad.  Maybe even a little lazy.

Most all of the information you’ll find about raised bed gardening will instruct you to clean out your beds each fall before they freeze and are covered with snow.
But, if you’re like us, by the time late October comes around, you pretty much don’t want be in the garden again until next spring – if ever. After having sowed, thinned, weeded, watered, harvested, shelled, peeled, husked, canned, and frozen your crops during every spare minute for the last eight months, you could care less if the wilted beanstalks are left alone to endure the winter uncomposted. Unless a crop was particularly affected by a fungus or nematode, we just let it collapse on itself.

And you know what? We don’t think it really matters come spring. (Don’t tell the experts.)

Red Rock Cabbage

Untamed beds can be pretty in winter.

While the idea of a completely denuded and prone bed might be a sexy springtime fantasy for gardeners, we like the experiment of seeing how winter affected the beds. This year we even found kale and spinach still growing. Who’d have predicted our first harvest already?

One of the biggest questions facing a gardener is the phrase “as soon as the soil can be worked.”  That’s a little vague. When desperate enough for spring, an avid gardener could feasibly work the soil with an icepick in January. But that doesn’t mean it’s ready.

We prefer the “chocolate cake” test. When a handful of soil feels and looks more like crumbly chocolate cake than either an icecube or mud pie, it’s ready. If you work the soil when it’s too wet, you’ll risk losing all of its natural air pockets and your seeds will suffocate and rot.

"Ready to work" soil

Ready-to-work "chocolate cake" soil

We aggressively amend our beds each year. In early spring, Farmer John starts removing the winter goat bedding from the barn, and depositing it in the beds. The mixture is about 50% straw and 50% manure. (note: unlike most manures, goat manure doesn’t need to be composted before adding to the garden.)

Each spring we amend our garden beds with the winter bedding of the goats.

Each spring we amend our garden beds with the winter bedding of the goats.

Many gardeners are now trying a “no-till” approach to soil preparation. They feel that tilling destroys the soil’s natural structure. Which, to be fair, it probably does to a certain extent. But we believe that the straw in our winter compost mixture helps keep adequate aeration in the soil when we lightly till it under.  Plus, we simply like the satisfaction we get from roto-tilling. (We use this small handheld one in our beds.)

And having nice, evenly-raked soil makes planting seeds that much more uniform. And even though we might be a little lazy come fall, in the spring we’re full of perfectionist vigor.

One of our raised beds, completely ready for planting.

One of our raised beds, completely ready for planting.

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  • By: Carolyn Dumas

    I was so impressed with your raised garden when I toured your home last fall that I couldn't wait for spring to build our own. We made 5 boxes out of cedar, just planted carrots and radishes.

    Going out now to do the onions.

    What is the size of the wire that you use for the arch?

    • By: Dr. Brent

      Hi, Carolyn

      We use cattle fencing to make the trellises. It bends easily to make the arch or you an cut smaller pieces and tie them together along the top edge to form a triangle

  • By: lynda wilkie hemond

    I love your show, can't wait till fall for MORE

    I have gardens but I am going to try the raised beds, I have lots of goats so

    i can fill them. please advise me of the proportion of dirt ,old

    hay and barn manure and shavings to use.

    thank you so much

  • By: Carri Stover

    I'm thinking of how to copy this without the little tiller. Maybe I could plant a winter green manure/cover crop to condition the soil. What do you think? Isn't rabbit manure another one that could go in with first composting it?

    • By: Dr. Brent

      Hi, Carri

      Rabbit manure is great (we have plenty of that, too). You don't need a tiller. If your bed is small just do it with a hoe. It will be great exercise

    • By: Dick Babcock

      i have been gardening in raised beds for 4 years. Can’t work on the ground so i built my beds 10″ deep and table top height. I only use hand tools about 12″ long and i lined my beds with roofing paper so as not to rot my bottom 3/4″ plywood, frames are 4″ square and some 4′x8′.
      i really enjoy gardening pain free and yield awesome crops. Another plus being above the ground is min. if any weeds

  • By: Louise Vierra

    Love your site!! I am in the process of starting a raised bed heirloom garden, and would like to know what kind of wood you used for the raised beds. I have recently read that a lot of wood, such as Pine, is chemically treated. The chemicals are cancerous; from the wood they seep into the soil, and are then absorbed by the roots of the plant. This would of-course defeat the purpose of organic gardening. I would love to hear if anyone has info on what wood is save to use. Thank you and happy gardening!

    • By: Josh Kilmer-Purcell

      Hi Louise. Yes, you're correct about not using treated lumber. Unfortunately, that means that the beds will not last as long – but then again, it's easier to replace wood than it is our health. We used rough hewn hemlock from a local saw mill. If there are any saw mills in your area, they may have some of the best, and cheapest, options for you.

  • By: Jack Etsweiler

    Josh!

    The rustic charm of a bed that was not cleared at the end of last season probably won't outweigh the leg up you are giving the cooties that might not have made themselves known the season before! As for growing tomatoes in bags (done to ease end-of-season cleanup and to avoid diseases), the roots of the tomato plants in bags, planted that way to avoid blight, went down through the slits made for drainage and pulled up a nice dose of blight into the plants. This year, bags on heavy plastic – might be a way to conserve moisture as well! Good luck with this year's harvest!

    Jack and Merrill in Ann Arbor/Chelsea, MI

  • By: Jack Etsweiler

    Josh!

    The rustic charm of a bed that was not cleared at the end of last season probably won't outweigh the leg up you are giving the cooties that might not have made themselves known the season before! As for tomatoes in bags, to ease send-of-season cleanup, the roots of the tomato plants in bags, planted that way to avoid blight, went down through the slits made for drainage and pulled up a nice dose of blight into the plants. This year, bags on heavy plastic – might be a way to conserve moisture as well! Good luck with this year's harvest!

    Jack and Merrill in Ann Arbor/Chelsea, MI

    • By: Josh Kilmer-Purcell

      ah yes, good point jack. i should have mentioned that we do make a point of cleaning out our tomato beds thoroughly in the fall, since they're so very susceptible to blight. and, of course, we completely rotate our crops each year, so that the cooties are surprised by new species.

      thanks for the bag tips! will have to give it a shot.

  • By: Kenn

    Gardening in raised beds is definitely the way to do it! The soil looks perfect!

    At the end of every season, I always struggle with the 'clean up.' (a lack of motivation) And, in the spring, I always wonder why I didn't do it in the fall!

  • By: Neil...AKA...Neil

    Very cool info. I'm looking into a raised garden setup myself. Just for lettuce, tomatoes and maybe some cucumbers and herbs. I'll keep an eye out for future articles on the subject. I have a couple books on the subject but sometimes books just don't tell you all the variables….Neil

    • By: Josh Kilmer-Purcell

      We love the advice in gardening books too, but we've found that we just can't get our plants to read them!

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