Make Instant Garden Beds

Follow these tips for creating no-dig garden plots without any fuss.


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.

2/21/2020 11:51:09 AM

Be careful to buy organically grown straw. Unfortunately, most commercially grown straw and hay have been sprayed with persistent herbicides that will kill off common vegetables.



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