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Building a Raised Bed on a Hill

14 April 2012

We’ve had more cold weather and even some frosty nights, so I’ve delayed planting in the garden and focused on building the raised herb bed.  As soon as I pitched the idea to my father, he saw it as a permanent addition to the landscaping of his property and took the lead on its design and construction.  I was more than happy for him to do this, because he’s been practicing woodworking as a hobby since before I was born.

We bought five 8’x4″x4″ landscaping timbers for $33.45 and six 40 pound bags of soil for $8.40 (I only used five bags).  My father already had all the tools needed, which were a mattock, an electric handsaw, an electric drill, a device for measuring angles, and a small sledgehammer, as well as a couple dozen metal spikes.  I would not have spent so much money or built such an elaborate structure if I owned this land, but I respect my parents’ need for a certain aesthetic.  Were I to build something similar by myself, I probably would have scavenged the wood, and it would be of much lower quality.  It certainly wouldn’t have fit together with the near-airtight precision my father produced.

First, we dug trenches where the timbers would lay and removed the old cedar stump.  Then, my father planned, measured, and cut the wood, explained to me how best to lay them, and I drilled and nailed them together.  After we finished constructing the frame, my father moved on to other personal projects.  I loosened the soil in the bed, which required the mattock since the ground was mostly packed clay.  Then I mixed it with the purchased soil and some compost using the spading fork and watered it.  I was roughly following Jeavons’s steps for a single dig.  The next day, I transplanted the herbs from the main garden into the bed.

The gallery for this post, including pictures of every step of the process.

My neighbor alleviated my concerns about the bed not getting enough sun.  Now my biggest concerns are that these herbs are already much too big to survive the transplant and that the soil in this bed is too different from the soil in the garden for them to adapt.  If they do survive the transplant, then my concern will be that this location is not sufficiently different from the garden to allow them to survive the heat of the summer.

Perhaps the oddest moment of this whole ordeal was purchasing soil.  The whole concept of buying soil seems strange to me.  Soil is everywhere, after all.  Could we not dig it up in one spot and simply move it?  My parents would not approve of that for aesthetic reasons, of course.  However, even if I did own this land, I’m still not sure that would be the best option unless I was already displacing soil elsewhere for a different reason, since simply removing topsoil without putting anything in its place would be causing ecological damage, though on a tiny scale.  The top few inches of soil are where most of the life resides (and around here, beneath the top four inches is almost entirely clay), and the ground where I removed that soil would remain bare for most of the year, and would take many years to fully recover (though it’s likely all the topsoil was removed and sold from this land when the house was built).  While I disapprove of the whole topsoil industry (which is really just peripheral to the bulldoze-and-flatten construction style that is prevalent in this part of the country), it does seem like a solid case could be made for moving small amounts of topsoil from one spot to another for the purpose of growing food.  I’m not sure I can totally reconcile that yet.  Regardless, I’m curious to see if the soil now in this bed will change to become more like the local soil in the next few years.


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  1. Carrie permalink

    The thing is that unless you manage to get some land with existing topsoil, you would need to spend a lot of time composting and amending the soil in order to make it able to grow food if you didn’t want to buy topsoil. I bet it would be a year or two before you could grow much. I’m basing this guess on the state of the soil at my place — thick, sticky clods of clay, mixed with rocks and gravel, and pretty much nothing else.

    This problem is caused by the bulldoze-and-flatten construction style — everything is dug out for construction, and then quickly filled in with crummy clay and gravel. But I can’t go back in time and prevent that from happening, so I have to deal with the soil as it is. That means either a very long, slow process of composting and amending bit by bit, or purchasing soil amendments.

    And if you want to make a different shape to the land — as you’re necessarily doing if you want to make a raised/tiered bed — you really can’t do that without removing soil from one place and putting it on another place. I think the damage would be small-scale enough that microorganism and earthworm activity would help things recover quickly. But I’m not an expert in this field (no pun intended), so I could be wrong.

  2. Yeah I agree. The area immediately around the house definitely has no topsoil, and the soil under the new bed is almost entirely packed clay. The soil around the rest of the land is better, but my parents don’t want any of it moved. The soil in the garden is decent quality, but I don’t want to remove any of that.

    Composting to build good soil does take time, and my parents have kept a decent compost pile (and rarely taken any material out of it) for two decades, so I have used a good bit of that. It definitely wasn’t enough to fill a raised bed, and it would be too rich, anyway. I mixed probably 10-20 pounds of it in with the 200 pounds of purchased soil and equal amount of clay I dug up to construct the bed.

    Probably my biggest ethical problem with buying soil is that the money is supporting our ecologically destructive construction industry. But as you point out, there’s not much of a recourse, especially when my parents (as owners of this land) don’t want to remove any soil from anywhere else.

    Jeavons talks in his book about how growing soil should recieve just as much focus from a gardener as growing plants and has a whole chapter dedicated to composting. After 5-10 years you can produce a (mostly) closed system where you are maintaining a high quality in your soil through a combination of crop rotation, composting, and his double digging method, and advocates after the first few years not adding any fertilizer or outside organic material other than compost produced only from material in and around the garden itself. He says soil quality should improve initially, then plateau after a few years.

    I don’t think I’ll find a perfect solution to this quandry. But I think the fact that we’re considering and discussing this issue from this perspective is a good first step. I often remind myself that the goal of becoming an integral and beneficial part of the ecosystem will be a perpetual process for humans individually and collectively, and won’t ever really be “complete”.

  3. Becca permalink

    The biggest advantage to buying soil instead of locally moving it is that the stuff you buy doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have weedseed in it. It gives your plants a chance to really get established before they have to compete. If you’re willing to do a lot of work, go for it. If you’re someone who doesn’t get a huge kick out of playing in the dirt, it’s a lot better to buy. Ditto with buying compost. If you don’t use grass clippings, it’s not a big deal, but most people do for volume.

    One of the big advantages of a raised bed, too- you just plop that dirt down OVER the grass there and it smothers it without the need to fight the roots.

    Hmm if I knew how to get pictures off my phone I’d put mine up so we could compare. Ah well.

  4. Becca permalink

    Here’s the site where I’m getting a lot of my info: Don is a great guy. Hope you find something useful in there!

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