Is this the year you finally start a garden? Do you long for one more bed of bush beans, or need space for one last pair of tomatoes? Although it’s best to dig or till the soil before you plant, it isn’t essential. Here are several ways to create usable planting spaces with no digging required. Later on, when the season winds down and you have more time, you can turn this year’s instant beds into primo permanent planting space.
Easiest No-Dig Options
The best way to start a new garden bed is by digging a new site to incorporate organic matter and remove weeds. But in a pinch, you can just cover the area with cardboard or layers of wet newspaper, followed by several inches of grass clippings, shredded leaves, or weed-free hay or straw. Use a hand trowel to pull back the mulch, cut away sod, and open up planting holes for stocky transplants, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, herbs, and flowers — but whatever transplants you can buy will work.
If your soil is hopelessly hard and infertile, line your car trunk with a tarp or old shower curtain and head to a garden center for a load of 40-pound bags of topsoil. (If you can’t decide between products and brands, buy an assortment and put them to the test.) Slash drainage holes in the bottom sides of the bags, then lay them horizontally over the area you want for your growing bed. Use a sharp utility knife or scissors to cut away the tops of the bags. Moisten well, then plant the bags with seeds or transplants, and mulch to cover the bags. (When growing tomatoes in bags, allow one bag of topsoil per plant.)
Straw Bale Solutions
At the 2004 Northwest Flower and Garden Show, exhibitors for “Plant a Row for the Hungry” popularized the use of compost-enriched bales of hay to grow salad greens. Since then, thousands of gardeners (including me) have tried straw bale beds, which have their pros and cons. On the plus side, you can put one anywhere, and if it’s kept moist all season, the area beneath the bale will show rapid improvement in drainage and tilth, thanks to the work of big night crawlers, which thrive beneath straw bale beds. On the downside, bale beds need a lot of supplemental water and liquid fertilizer. That said, they’re still a fun and rewarding growing medium.
To get large-scale “instant” results, use bales of straw or hay to frame a big raised bed. (Arranged in a rectangle, a 15-bale instant bed will have an 8-by-20-foot footprint.) Fill the enclosure with as much soil, compost, and any other free or cheap growing mediums you can find. You’ll need a truckload or two, so ask around for a source of well-rotted manure, or see if your local garden center sells its “spent” potting soil. Allow several days of intermittent watering to thoroughly moisten the growing medium and the bales, and then plant vegetables inside and on top of your straw bale barge. As long as you can keep this setup moist (soaker hose coverage and mulch are mandatory), it’ll support a huge array of summer vegetables and decompose into a beautiful bed of organic matter in about a year.
The Frame Game
Other easy ways to create instant beds involve setting up a frame of some kind and filling it with growing medium. The frame can be a temporary affair made from plastic fencing or untreated boards, or you can build frames from scrap lumber, slender logs, or stacked block or stone. Or, talk to a fencing company about recycling rails from discarded cedar rail fencing. You don’t need to build four-sided frames — just lay two long rails or logs parallel to each other, and fill with soil.
If you decide to buy framing materials, plastic fencing planks are lightweight and easy to use. Many work with snap-together corner connectors, and many stores carry matching recycled plastic planks and connectors, which can be mounted on short wood posts. I always need new beds, so I’ve invested in heavy, termite-proof composite decking planks. Recycled plastic corner connectors I bought from Gardener’s Supply 12 years ago have helped me put instant beds in three states, and they show no signs of giving up. My corner connectors are similar to the Lifetime Raised Bed Corners now sold by Gardener’s Supply and the Multi-Level Raised Bed Stakes sold by Lee Valley Tools.
If you want a more natural frame, a “bird nest” made with brush or stalks, and filled to overflowing with compost and soil, is a great way to grow pumpkins or winter squash.
Fill ’Er Up
The fastest no-dig way to get a framed instant bed ready to roll is to fill it with good-quality topsoil mixed with compost. Using a planting mix makes it possible to set up and plant a new bed within a few hours, and because commercial topsoils and planting mixes are usually free of weeds, they set the stage for a nearly weedless season. In the interest of long-term soil fertility, it’s a good idea to add some fresh green grass clippings or other finely chopped tidbits of fast-rotting organic matter if you can. In addition to providing nutrients plants can use, a sprinkling of juicy green stuff will attract the attention of the soil microorganisms that are the core producers of healthy, fertile soil.
There are plenty of other bed-building options. In Lasagna Gardening, author Patricia Lanza recommends covering a new site with newspapers and shredded leaves, followed by alternate layers of compost and peat moss. In Square Foot Gardening, advocate Mel Bartholomew’s favored mix is a three-way blend of peat moss, compost, and vermiculite. Either will work, but if you’d rather not use peat moss that’s been dug from ancient bogs, processed, and shipped hundreds of miles, simply stick with a mixture of compost and soil. And take note: Gardeners with access to mushroom compost swear by its amazing ability to support plants grown under lean, first-year conditions. For best results, mix mushroom compost with an equal amount of soil taken from another part of your yard.
In my book, The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, co-author Deborah Martin and I share what we learned over three seasons of using “comforter compost” beds to grow peas, beans, squash, and even tomatoes in unimproved sites. The idea is simple: Build a compost pile where you want a new bed, and include soil in the sandwich so that plant roots can anchor themselves comfortably in place. Because they’re so bioactive, comforter compost beds are gluttons for mulch, and without mulch, they dry out quickly.
Instant beds are typically aboveground projects that are installed quickly, without laborious digging of the site. However, if you want to develop the site into excellent growing space in the future, eventually you’ll need to loosen up the subsoil and work in generous helpings of compost. But why rush? Deep-digging a new site is much easier after it’s mellowed below an instant bed for a season, so throwing together quickie beds is a simple way to begin the soil improvement process.
Keep in mind that plants grown in instant beds will probably need more water and fertilizer than plants that can easily send roots deep into fertile soil. Locating instant beds within easy reach of a water supply — and equipping them with soaker hoses — can make the difference between easy success and frustrating failure. You’ll also find that some crops do better than others, with the best performances delivered by fast-growing summer veggies. In late summer, you can start a new round of instant beds for leafy greens. Adding a plastic cover to foil early freezes could mean homegrown salads for the winter holidays.
Any instant bed will cause beneficial changes to the soil beneath it, but some soils need far more help than passive top-down methods can provide. Unless you’re blessed with deep, fertile topsoil, sooner or later you’ll want to physically merge enriched topsoil with impoverished subsoil, which may require serious digging. In one place I started new beds, I needed a miner’s pick to crack into the compacted clay. Still, spots that have been primed with instant beds are always easier to dig.
Seven No-Dig New Bed Options
- Lay down cardboard. Top with mulch. Set out transplants.
- Plant directly into bags of topsoil.
- Make a frame with straw bales. Fill with soil, compost, and other organic material. Water intermittently for several days. Plant vegetables inside and on top of the bales.
- Use wood frames, and fill with compost or topsoil. Plant your vegetables.
- Build a “bird nest” bed using brush. Fill with compost, topsoil, and other organic material. Plant desired plants.
- Make a “lasagna” garden by covering a new site with layers of newspaper and shredded leaves, followed by peat moss and compost.
- Build a compost pile. Add soil, plant your plants, and then top with mulch.
Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers, and raises a few lucky chickens.