The Saga of My Vegetable Plot

When we moved to this suburban house about 9 years ago, one of the things I loved about it was its mature trees. Unfortunately, those trees have also been a bit of a headache. For the first several years, we had a vegetable garden, but it never received a full 6 hours of sun. Still, it did fine. Then our first baby came along. She was born 3 1/2 months early, and by the time life calmed down enough to think about having another vegetable garden...Well, that was about 5 years ago, and now baby #2 is over a year old! Even then, I faced several challenges in my desire to reinstate a veggie plot.

First, our largest maple tree was shading the area almost entirely. Not having thousands to hire a pro, my husband eventually convince a friend (a former arborist) to trim the tree - and then we had to wait for him to have time to do so. Then the area had to be cleaned of limbs, which meant waiting for my husband to have time on the weekends to chip smaller pieces and cut apart large logs. Finally, I had to wait for my hubby to have time to till the soil. Unfortunately, for years my husband used the space to cut and chip wood. This meant the now sunny soil was totally depleted of nitrogen and phosphorus* My gardening friends told me I could either skip having a garden this year and spend the summer and fall adding organic matter to the area, or I could fertilize chemically. But if I fertilized chemically, they said, then added organic matter in the fall, I might end up with another imbalance come spring 2011. Therefore, I chose to do something I've never done before: I purchased garden soil. This actually worked out pretty well, I think, because I wanted raised beds for the first time ever, but my husband wanted to be able to still use that area for cutting wood in the winter. (We have wood heat in our home.) Because he didn't want permanent raised beds (and because we weren't sure we wanted to spend money on materials to build permanent beds), I thought I'd try raised beds without frames - that is, berms. I talked to a number of gardeners about this because I was concerned the soil would erode too much. All the gardeners I knew who'd tried this method assured me I was wrong. I also remembered that berms were, in fact, the original raised beds, used frequently during Colonial times - and, as far as I know, even before. So this is why, although
I've had winter sown, cool season veggies ready to plant for well over a month, I didn't plant them until a couple of days ago. Ta da! Finally, there are peas, carrots, beets, Brussel spouts, parsnips, spinach, cabbage, collards, and Swiss chard in the beds. I have left overs, and I completely forgot about my broccoli, but I'll intersperse them with the ornamentals in the front yard. The berms were a little work, but I'm pleased with the look - and my toddler is less likely to smash my seedlings than if I planted them in a flat bed. If you'd like to try berms for your next garden, here are some tips: * Measure out the beds and use ordinary spray paint to mark their location on the soil. Remember that since you won't be using frames around the raised beds, the sides will slope. Therefore, make the beds a bit bigger than you would otherwise, or you'll end up with berms that are narrower than you'd like. Make sure the berms are no wider than you can easily reach across; part of the bonus of berms and raised beds is you never walk on the soil - which is better for plants. * Dampen the soil before working with it. It shouldn't be muddy, but if it's moist, it will shape into berms a lot more easily. * Pile the soil in place with a shovel. Use a hoe to level it out and to firm the sides. Add more soil until you have the height and size you desire. Walk around the sides of the berms to firm them a bit more, or use your hands to pat them down. Remember, you only want to firm the sides, not the the tops. * If you won't be buying soil, you'll have to till your garden space first, then dig a trench along one side of the berm. Place the soil you're digging out onto the berm until it's the size you desire. * If possible, use mulch for the walkways. I used wood chips, since I had them in abundance, but straw or bark mulch are also good choices. If the mulch is organic, it will improve your soil over time.

* Several readers have emailed me to ask who I used to test my soil. The answer is, nobody! I bought a $14 kit at a gardening center and did it myself. Trust me, it's easy.

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  1. oh, WOW. One day I will have one too. :)

  2. YOu are really an inspiration! I was reading some of your posts and re-read this and saw my comment of 5 years ago! Not only do I have a garden now, but every season it grows and improves. This fall I am adding ground leaves to all my raised beds and mulch on top to encourage the worms to come in. I am also adding chicken poop to my soil. Last summer we planted corn for the first time, and I didn't have to buy one tray of strawberry because my strawberry beds produced so many. I still can't grow tomato very well, but my greens (kale, mustard, turnips, broccoli rabe, arugula, collards) are amazing. I always have enough okra and peppers for our Latin dishes. We get sick and tired of eating green beans before summer is over too! :D Thank you so much, Kristina, for posting all this info. :) You blessed me tremendously!!! :)

  3. Tereza, thank you so much! I'm thrilled to hear that my little post inspired you and changed your life for the better :) I feel privileged.