OK, you are ready. You read the gardening books, you picked out a spot for your compost barrel, you have designs on a nice sunny spot for your raised beds. First, outline your raised beds with string and stakes. It is a good idea to lay out all of the beds now, even if you plan to build them in stages. Laying it all out gives you an idea what your garden plan will look like and lets you make adjustments while it is easy.
Make the beds between 2' and 4' wide, depending on your height and whether you have access from both sides, and any convenient length. You will want to consider where your trellises are going. They are best on the north side of the raised bed or oriented north-south in the middle of a bed. For a truly artistic raised bed layout, visit the Friendship Garden in Ferndale. If you are gardening on your former lawn, be advised that the city requires a 24" setback between sidewalks and your raised beds. The setback is a great place to put your mixed flower border. The flowers provide decorative cheer, habitat for beneficial insects, and a sense of separation between your garden and the public space.
Now, you have to get rid of the sod. There's the slow way, the hard way, and the sod cutter. The slow way is to shock the grass by cutting it, put cardboard on top with some cinderblocks or potted plants to weigh it down, and come back in three months and turn it over. Use plain brown cardboard. Multicolored inks contain toxic heavy metals. A foot of straw works also.
But you want to get started sooner than May. The hard way is to dig out the sod in chunks, using a flat shovel to slide under the chunks. Stack the sod in a neat, tight rectangle with the grass sides together, like a grass sandwich, or cover the pile. The roots will break down.
The sod cutter is the answer for large areas. Hertz rents them for a modest sum. They don't turn well, so cutting is best done in long strips, heading downhill. Like rototillers, I found the engine to be temperamental. If small engines are not your thing, consider recruiting help. The long strips of sod are quite heavy and need to be broken up before stacking.
Build your raised beds out of lumber, cinderblocks, or anything convenient. Recycled lumber is usually the right price, just be aware of toxics. Pressure treated lumber more than a couple of years old contains arsenic. Railroad ties are not suitable for food gardens. If you use cinderblocks, put a layer of clean drain rock down first and anchor the blocks with short pieces of rebar driven into the ground. Cinderblocks are great in small gardens. Fill the openings with potting soil and plant them with herbs, or use them for starting seeds.
Whew, you have your beds constructed. Now to fill them. The Whatcom Farmers Coop and several nurseries sell bulk mix for raised beds. Scott Titus in Ferndale has an organic Coco-Coir mix that is quite wonderful. I usually make my own. The starting place is to find someone who keeps horses and doesn't give them a lot of drugs. In this region, wood shavings are most often used for animal bedding, rather than straw. Shovel a thick layer of used bedding into the raised bed, at least six inches deep. Old bedding that has had a chance to break down somewhat is best, but even if it is fresh from the stalls you can use it. The soil layer will cover the smell. Over the bedding, spread a thick layer of topsoil. If you can import some of Lynden's fine sandy loam topsoil, all the better. Most of my beds came from an old horse pasture in Ferndale that was excavated to build a house. It's heavy clay soil and it came with pasture weeds, now familiar reminders of the soil's former incarnation.
Fresh animal bedding will take a couple of months to break down under the soil. While the soil micro-organisms are doing their thing, nitrogen will be locked up. Meanwhile, the dandelions will do their job as pioneers and take over your bed. A cover crop of mixed oats and fava beans will help get the soil going, if you can wait that long. I could never resist planting into new beds. I just put up with slow growth at first. You can give your new beds a boost with compost tea (recipes all over the web or buy some at the Garden Spot) or mycorrhizal fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi are available as mushroom compost or in bags by themselves.
What, this gardening was supposed to save you money and now you just dropped a bunch of bucks getting started! This is the time to get creative and see what you can scrounge. Even if you have to buy some things, not to worry, you will get it all back.
Posted by Celt M. Schira at transitionwhatcom.ning.com on February 3, 2010. Check out transitionwhatcom.ning.com for recent articles.