by Leigh Mills

I learned the value of raised beds when I first started high-desert gardening in the Arkansas Valley over 20 years ago.  My next garden in the Baca Grande subdivision near Crestone had beautiful, sandy ground that was easily worked and I made short raised beds there to keep the amended soil in place.  The Crestone Conglomerate rocks made wonderful borders and looked great in the garden.  After moving across the Valley and into a volcanic caldera, my husband and I built our current garden on a south-facing hill in pinõn and juniper country.  What a big difference!   The soil is volcanic clay and filled with rocks.  I’ve had to build our garden bed by bed, and bring in amendments like sand and compost to create a balanced growing medium.  This article describes what I’ve done to make our raised garden beds and gives you an idea of what you can do in your garden.

There are several reasons why raised beds are good for growing plants.  Better drainage, a height that reduces the amount of bending and kneeling, esthetic appeal, and “workability” name a few.  The Saguache Community Garden at the Mountain Valley School also uses raised beds and it helps keep the students from walking on the growing areas.  Different materials like cinder blocks and old tires can be used to build raised beds.  We started with slab wood here at the Heyokah, but switched to 2”x 8” rough-cut wood from our local mill, (Mountain Valley Lumber), after seeing how durable and pleasing it was at the school.

Since our ground is so hard to work, I have to use a pick to break up the soil.  My husband built a screen which fits over a wheelbarrow and I screen the dirt to remove the rocks and other organic material I don’t want in the beds.  I make separate piles of the soil and rock to use later.  As mentioned before, our garden sits on a hill and our beds need to be dug into the earth so they are level.  Some of our beds are dug in over a foot deep on the up-hill side and are flush to the earth on the down-hill end.  It translates into a lot of picking, digging and screening.  Each bed can take almost a day to dig out and hours to build back, depending on the bed’s size.  In addition to digging out the basic bed area, I also pick, dig down and screen at least another foot of soil to ensure the ground is broken up enough to provide adequate drainage for the beets, carrots, garlic, onions or other crops with long roots like broccoli and asparagus.

We have a variety of garden bed sizes, 5’x 8’ big rectangles, 4ft x 4ft squares, 3ft x 5ft “skinny”beds and a couple of other sizes in-between.  Some of the squares are layered with another small bed on top and are great for the strawberries.  We use two layers of frames so most of the beds are at least 16 inches high on the exposed ends.  The board’s 2” top width makes a good platform for resting feet or tired bums.

After digging out the new bed area, the frames are placed and attached together with small wooden gussets that are screwed together in each corner and middle of the bed.  This keeps the beds from separating over the years or shifting when using a wheelbarrow or shovel to fill or turn the dirt.

Once the frames are in place, then it’s time to fill the beds.  First I’ll put in some of the original screened dirt, a few inches or so and rake it over the bottom of the bed.  I then hose it with water to get it real wet.  I want the beds to be moist from the bottom up so the plant roots have nourishment from the top down.  Next, I’ll fill a wheelbarrow or two with organic material provided by our rabbits and goats, (straw, hay and lots of their poop).  I’ll spread that on top of the first layer and water that, too.  Then I take a hoe and mix those two layers up a bit and water it again.  The next layer is more dirt, usually something not so dense and clayey.  I brought over van-loads of sandy dirt from the Baca Grants, (Thank you!), and mix that in with other dirt I’ve dug up somewhere and transported to our homestead.  I did mention that building our Heyokah beds was a huge chore, right?  I’ll continue layering dirt, compost and wetting those down until the bed is full.  I’ve learned to leave a little bit of headspace and not fill the beds all the way to the top.  This provides new seedlings with protection from the winds.

As eager as I am to plant, I like to get the beds filled and let them set for a while.  This allows the new dirt and compost mixtures to cure and settle a bit.  Building new beds in the fall is preferable; however, I’m usually too busy doing other garden chores and end up getting any new beds in by early spring.  I like to wait at least two weeks to a month before I plant any seeds in the newly mixed soil.

Some schools of thought will recommend lining wooden beds with plastic to protect them from the water and make them last longer.  We did this technique in our greenhouse beds and the very first two beds around its perimeter.  It really does work, as I found out when working those 6-year-old beds this past winter.  The plastic is another building cost though, and when you’re building a hundred square feet of beds every year, it can add up and actually be a hassle to install.  By using the thick rough cut wood, we know that our beds will last for probably 15 or more years without showing a lot of wear and tear and not have to worry about the plastic deteriorating before the wood does.  It’s a lot of work to make new beds here at the Heyokah Homestead and it’s worth it!

Check out the “As the Worm Turns” column this month for an addendum to this story.  For more pictures of “Building Raised Beds—Heyokah Homestead Style”, visit Leigh’s new gardening blog: