Tag Archives: soil

Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!

This is a great time of year to plan and build raised beds. This is how I built my raised beds and I have given them no supplemental watering in the last two years of San Antonio heat and I’ve had bumper crops with almost no input outside of planting and occasional weeding! This has been a super fantastic bed for me and I will only build duplicates of these from now on!

2014 mother’s day raised beds:

I had a fantastic Mother’s Day!


My boys and my husband made me a cake!

The best part of the weekend? I got another hugelkultur inspired raised bed! Don’t know Hugelkultur? Learn more here: http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/


This is the second year I’ve gotten a raised bed on Mother’s Day and I am super excited! The first one we built is here on my post: “Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas”. We did this one a bit differently, but kept the main ideas we used on the original  Hugelkultur inspired bed.


This is a cinder block bed. The inner dimensions are 6 by 10 feet. We lined it with cardboard.


You need to wet this as you go. Cardboard and paper take a ton of water. It works well to step on it as you water. That will squeeze the air out and help your dry materials absorb the liquid.


There’s a layer of packing paper. This is a great use of all the stuff you end up with after a move! We chose to add the wood chips again. These wood chips will eventually absorb water and act like a giant sponge. Through each new addition to the bed make sure you wet it well. It will be impossible to wet it thouroughly later on.

Expect to have the giant grubs if you are in Texas. You can see my solution on my post “When Life Gives You Grubs, Serve Them Nematode Tea!” I’ve seen a lot of queries about giant grubs on search engines from people down here so I know I’m not the only one!


We used about 5 bags of mulch in this bed. I just bought the cheapest mulch I could find which ended up being pine bark mulch. The larger the chips: the longer the chips will last. Remember to wet as you go!


The next layer is compost. I don’t buy anything I haven’t touched. I won’t buy anything that feels like there’s a ton of sand in it. We went to a local rock yard and were disappointed as usual. I’ve always done price comparisons between hardware stores and rock yards and have chosen hardware store bagged soil every time, but this rock yard had really poor quality soil as well. Bagged soil at Lowe’s was about a dollar less a yard and much, much better quality. I haven’t found good soil at Walmart or Home Depot locally, but you can certainly check whatever is near you and see if you have better luck. I skipped the hay in this bed. Since we’re in a severe drought: hay is not a cost effective option right now.


Your access to brands of bagged soil will depend on your location. If you see this stuff at Lowe’s, it is what I choose for amending. It’s a good price and a great quality soil. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need something that has a certain “type” of soil listed on the bag. Touch it and judge the soil by what you feel. This bag says

“compost”, I call it: great soil. The only thing you need to stay away from (as far as it being too rich) would be manure (composted or not). Watch your added Nitrogen levels with manure. It will burn your plants if you add too much and will be full of the salts they add as supplements to animals in feed lots.

Please refer to my post “Making Sense Of Old Sayings” to help you learn the importance of building great soil and how to recognize good bagged soil.

Don’t know if you are dealing with hot or cold manure? Read up on adding valuable natural fertilizers to your soil here: http://www.garden.org/ediblelandscaping/?page=201104-animal-manures and here: http://www.moongrow.com/organic_gardening_guide/fertilizers/manure.html

Here’s a site that explains why our rabbit is my favorite source of fertilizer: http://www.vegetablegardener.com/item/8156/rabbit-manure-in-the-garden


We added a bale of peat humus to lower the pH and help hold water. Everything down here (including the water from the tap) is basic. The water has such a high pH it will kill acid loving plants even if they are potted in low pH soil. I make my coffee in a coffee press. When I’m done I pour more water in, let it sit in the old grounds and then go water my gardenias with the water. Be careful with the grounds themselves. You can easily kill a plant with coffee grounds…even acid loving ones. This is the voice of experience.

In the last bed I used another concept called Keyhole Gardening. There is a beautiful how to video from Africa on this concept and it makes the idea really easy to understand: http://youtu.be/ykCXfjzfaco . I tried this with the last bed I built. Over the year that it’s been installed: the feeder areas that I made with chicken wire have collapsed. This year I am going to use different, more permanent materials (three large pvc pipes with holes drilled in it for drainage instead of chicken wire) and add another aspect to it: worms! I got the idea from this blog: http://milkwood.net/2010/10/12/how-to-make-a-worm-tower/

So, I’m creating 1-3 permanent worm bins inside the bed. I may put one in and see how I like it and add others later. The site above calls it a “worm tower”. This is the basic idea of the keyhole garden which is set up to feed and water the beds, but with updated materials…and some red wigglers, which will do fine as a permanent outdoor worm bin in our climate. I love the new addition to the theme because: I have no interest in keeping up with feeding and emptying independent worm bins. I also was wondering how I was going to keep critters out of an outdoor bin full of wonderful kitchen scraps and yummy worms. We’ve already got armadillos in the yard tearing up areas looking for grubs. So far, they have stayed out of the raised bed.


Last year’s melons. I had a bumper crop but had problems with a family of opossums helping themselves to the ripe ones!

On the to do list: My husband is going to enclose the garden with fencing. I had trouble with opossums in my melons last year so I will probably end up using electric fence in conjunction with the fence my husband wants to put in.

This bed is cheap to construct, permanent, easy to maintain and I don’t have to deal with our crummy natural soil. I will be planting it this weekend.


Instead of lining this with plastic tarp like we used on the last one I have discovered that filling the holes in the blocks with soil does about the same thing. We will then cap them with concrete block pavers. I am soo ready to get out and plant this!!!!

Watch for next weeks post! I will teach you a great way to water your raised beds and keep it from losing water to evaporation. Down here in the summer we have days over 100 degrees for weeks at a time on top of water restrictions. They have promised an El Nino year which will hopefully end our drought but will bring torrential rains. Either way, this bed is going to provide us with a great area to grow veggies this year, and for years to come!

Want more information?  The “Gardening Basics” tab at the top of this page will walk you through everything you need to know to start you on the path towards a successful gardening experience. The information is free and I’m genuinely interested in helping you succeed. Let me know if you would like more information on specific topics for future posts. I’m here to help. Good luck and go out and get your hands dirty!

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Making sense of old sayings

“Dig a twenty dollar hole for a ten dollar tree” I grew up listening to my mom repeat this saying every time we’d trudge out the door and start amending soil. Amending soil is hard work. If I hadn’t grown up doing this with every new planting bed, every annual, every perennial and every tree I would probably give up after the first try and attempt to skip this step. Having done this so many times over the years, I understand that this is not one of the things you can cut corners with. If you want to have a great garden you have to start with the soil. Unless you live somewhere where you have pH perfect, deep, nutrient rich soil and especially if you live where builders have graded off the topsoil, sold it and hidden that fact by sodding over it (any subdivision will qualify here) you will need to bring in good soil.

A $20 Hole for a $10 Tree Making Sense of Old Sayings

A $20 Hole for a $10 Tree Making Sense of Old Sayings

Gardening has come a long way since I was young. Ruth Stout was a pioneer in the gardening field. She advocated ways to take a lot of the labor out of growing good soil. But Ruth lived where the topsoil was in place (and I would guess even she would turn in good soil if she had to deal with Texas hardpan.) Deep mulch will improve what is below it by keeping the soil evenly moist but if you remove the mulch your soil will revert back to it’s naturally poor condition. If you have immediate gardening goals the best thing to do is to turn some kind of composted material into what you have.

There are a lot of ways to amend soil. Most of the time, if you are patient, you can do this cheaply. Paper, cardboard, compost, straw and rotted hay are great ways to build soil in place. Rocking a potato fork back and forth is a less strenuous way to loosen your soil, but again, unless you are prepared to turn the soil over the potato fork will have a limited effect.

2010-06-21 20.30.18

I don’t buy topsoil. Most bagged soil is as bad or worse than the soil you are trying to amend. When I buy bagged soil from a garden center I find a leaky bag and run a bit of the contents between my fingers. Most of what you will find is sand (usually sold as topsoil) or slightly composted wood chips (usually sold as compost). There are also trendy things that end up being popular like mushroom compost. You can’t trust what is printed on the outside. Always touch what you are looking at before you buy it. I’ve lived in places where the mushroom compost was excellent and what I repeatedly purchased. I now live in a place that sells mushroom compost that is essentially sand. I never add sand. If what you are buying isn’t going to break down and you have heavy clay: you run the risk of creating a Portland cement type of soil mix. If you do this you will hate yourself as you try and bust it up enough to plant in.

2010-08-15 13.19.28

I’ve had great luck in our heavy, high pH, clay soil with several products. I really recommend gypsum. Personally, I wouldn’t garden in clay without it. I also use a lot of peat humus. This is a fine textured peat product that comes in large bales. I usually use this in the soil I mix for pots. I have close to twenty 22 inch pots that I rotate most of my plants I am trialing. I use anything for pots. The colorful bowls below are plastic salad bowls I picked up at the dollar store and drilled a few holes in them. The question isn’t: What can you grow in pots? The question is: What can’t you grow in a large enough pot? These larger pots work well for fruit trees and large vegetables like cherry tomatoes and anything that needs acidic soil. I can’t grow blueberries or gardenias in our clay soil, but I can grow them in pots where I can closely monitor soil pH. When I am turning soil into a bed I usually throw some peat in. It’s good at holding water and raises the pH a little.  Canadian peat is a nonrenewable resource (the source will be listed on the bag). There are better products to choose for large applications.


I also rely heavily on bagged compost. We move a lot for my husband’s job. I am frequently short on homemade compost. This is where feeling the bagged soil is important. If you don’t think what you are touching feels like it would hold water, then it’s not going to break down anytime soon and your plants are going to dry out quickly. Deep in a bed you can use chipped wood (look at my hugelkultur/keyhole garden entry) but it needs a thick layer of spongy, porous medium from the surface to least a foot down. You can keep your soil spongy by keeping it moist. Ruth Stout did exactly that with her thick layers of straw.

Hugelkultur/Keyhole Garden: Bridging Ideas

Hugelkultur/Keyhole Garden: Bridging Ideas

If you really want a great bed: put in layers of straw, rotted hay, non-glossy newspaper and/or cardboard. You can find free cardboard by asking people in your neighborhood for moving boxes. Most people move into homes around the first of the month. Drive around, find new neighbors, give them your number and tell them you will pay them $10 for their used boxes and packing paper. Offering money for what most people see as garbage will help ensure that they actually call you back.  (You will still need to remove the packing tape from any boxes.) Another free or cheap resource for cardboard is your local grocer. Talk to a manager and see if they will set some aside for you on the next delivery day. They usually have box crushing machines out back and setting them aside is extra work for them. Again you could offer some cash if they are resistant. Look at the price of hay, brand new moving boxes or bagged soil before you scoff at paying for excess cardboard. It’s still the cheapest source for what will be next year’s soil.


Another old saying is: “Clay on sand, money in the hand/sand on clay, money thrown away.”  This has to do with the fertility and drainage properties of both these kinds of soil. Sand has low fertility but drains quickly, clay is usually a high fertility soil but has slow (if not nonexistent) drainage. If you put a layer of sand on top of a clay soil you have low fertility and slow drainage. You will have wasted your time and your money because your plants need fertile soil and most plants hate wet feet.

If you put a layer of clay on top of sandy soil, you can take advantage of the clay’s high phosphorous and potassium content and the excellent drainage of sand.

So what is the answer for those of us who have clay soil? Humus. Incorporate as much organic matter as you can to add some balance to your clay (you may also need to add iron products to combat iron chlorosis in clay soil. Iron chlorosis is a condition where clay soil offers low availability of iron uptake in plants.) For areas with serious drainage problems: work with raised beds. This takes some effort but as always: you start your garden success with your soil.

$20 Holes

$20 Holes

The last saying I’ll add is “Don’t eat your seed corn”. First off it should be pretty obvious if you eat the seeds you would plant next season you won’t have anything to grow to eat. But in a more subtle way you need to separate your best seed to plant the next season. If you plant big healthy corn kernels you are going to get big healthy plants. Always save your best seed and eat the poorest. That way you improve what you are both eating and growing each season. If you eat the best seed you grow, you are selecting weaker seed for the next harvest.

There’s plenty of old sayings. Some meanings are obvious, some are more subtle but I think most great simple agricultural sayings are in danger of being, or are already, lost. Keeping wise sayings going is part of sharing the wealth of knowledge. I think knowledge should always be free. That’s the main way to keep it from getting lost! So, share what you learn with your family, friends and neighbors. Talking over the back fence is a time honored way to keep the wisdom flowing!

If you like these sayings: Here are a few more (with explanations) from the Farmers Almanac.

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