*Compost Bed Gardens*
A few years ago we lived in a small community in North Texas where our house sat on an acre lot. The huge backyard just cried out for a garden so the first spring in the new place I started to work. I had already become sold on the square-foot gardening method (which had produced great results out back of the apartments we had been living in previously) so I set about with a grand plan of making 8, 4'x4' double-dug raised beds along one sunny side of the yard.
The "double-dug" method requires you to dig down about 1.5 feet into the existing topsoil to loosen it and infuse it with compost, manure and other organic supplements in order to give the plant roots an easier start in a healthy nutritious environment. By supplementing the topsoil you remove from the bed you have more soil than the hole you made will hold – thus the "raised" aspect of the beds. I used 4'x4' lengths of landscaping timbers (non-treated) to make the frames for the beds which rose 6" above the original ground level. I left 30 inches between the bed frames so I could easily mow between them and a weed-eater kept the area around the beds neat and trim.
The problem that first year was that as I began to dig I realized this land had never been worked before, unless you count growing grass as work. It was so compacted and full of heavy clay I actually broke my garden fork and wound up having to use a spade just to cut through the foot and a half of soil I needed to remove. I was younger then but it was still back-breaking work and by the time I was done with the first 2 beds I had decided to drastically lower my expectations for the size of my garden that year.
I planted the beds I had prepped, set up my compost bin nearby and proceeded to enjoy the fruits of my labor (including fighting the bugs, the heat, the weeds and the birds). Throughout the year the compost bin filled up with grass clippings, garden waste, kitchen scraps, etc. and by the time everything had been harvested the bin was full. At this point I should probably explain how I make my compost bins for the rest of this story to make sense.
To construct a compost bin I purchase a 12-foot length (by 3-foot height) piece of 14-gauge galvanized wire with 1 X 2 inch grid openings from a local farm supply store. This is the same wire that the sides of rabbit cages are made of. I then wrap this piece into a circle with about 4 inches of overlap and secure it with 6 cheap carabineers so that it is a cylinder about 4 feet across and 3 feet high. I set this on the ground and center a 4-foot length of PVC septic lateral line pipe (the kind with holes all along the length of it) in the middle of the bin. I then merely fill the bin with whatever comes along and water it if it gets dry. You are supposed to be careful about the composition of the materials so the pile doesn’t get too hot or compact. I find that with the open wire mesh around it and the PVC ventilation pipe in the center the pile gets good ventilation and really heats up after a load of fresh lawn clippings are added.
After about 6 months it became necessary to turn the pile over and mix it all up again to insure consistent "cooking" of the ingredients. The construction made this a simple matter of unhooking the carabineers, unwrapping the wire mesh from around the pile, reconnecting the carabineers and setting up the "new" pile a few feet away. Then I would merely use my new garden fork to scoop the half finished compost into the new bin location, watering the layers as I went and leave it to cook. I figured I would not need the compost until I got ready to dig the next years' beds so I took the long way to letting it breakdown.
What I noticed as I did this was that the ground underneath the old compost bin site was dark and soft. I figured the soil there must be really rich after being the recipient of so much "compost tea" for those six months. Then the light came on in my head and I decided that I would try locating my new double-dug raised bed right there! The digging was half the work of the first year's chore and the size was almost perfect. The soil did not need much in the way of amendments unlike the first couple of beds the previous year. I decided right then to set up a second compost bin where I had planned to establish one of the new beds next year and moved the other bin to another bed’s future site.
I continued this process (setting up a new raised bed where the previous year’s compost bin had sat) each year for about 4 years and the beds just got easier to make and more fertile as I refined my sloppy composting technique. I became more particular about the ingredients in my bins, their relative positions, and about "screening" the half finished compost as I turned it through a spare piece of the wire mesh. This helped break things up that might have clumped and helped mix the compost materials better for a better end product.
Due to career pressures we moved to the city a couple of years ago and lost my big backyard but I still maintain a few ornamental beds around the house. I look forward to the day when we relocate somewhere that I can use my "compost bin assisted double-dug, raised-bed farming" technique again. In the meantime if any other Rubie would like to try this method I be interested in hearing how it works for you. Until then, keep fighting the bugs and feeding the birds.
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