Joe’s Journal: Winter Edition – Bed Prep, part 1

Prepping the Garden Bed for Planting

Would it not be great if I were to describe a planting bed preparation to control weeds (without herbicides), and adding organic matter, but not turning the soil?  Sort of sounds like the lazy man’s/woman’s approach to gardening?  What follows is the basic steps to bed prep made easy:

  1. Lay cardboard directly on the soil, whether bare, covered in turf or weeds
  2. Apply a thick (8-12”) layer of straw
  3. Water in well
  4. Apply a fertilizer with a nitrogen value at least 30 days before planting

The starting point may be a lawn or a neglected weedy area of the property that is ready for amendment and planting.  Let’s call the starting point the “tabula rasa”.

Tabula Rasa
Tabula Rasa

Lay down a layer of cardboard, overlap as you go to cover the entire area intended for planting. You may also do the same with layers of black and white newsprint: 4 or 5 layers should do it. Avoid newsprint of magazines with colored inks.

Cardboard weed barrier
Cardboard weed barrier

Next cut open the straw bales.  Using a mulch fork makes spreading easier and faster. Apply a layer of straw at least 8” deep. Do not use hay, as hay is full of seed heads.

Spreading straw with a mulch fork

Fresh straw is high in carbon.  To get it to compost in place, you will need to wet it thoroughly, then apply a fertilizer with a nitrogen value.  I elected to use ArborPlex (14-4-5 fertilizer, Ecologel Solutions, LLC), which has half of its nitrogen in a slow-release form (urea triazone). The calculations on how much to apply will follow. Of course, there are other fertilizers you can use:

  • Bio MP (Ecologel Solutions, LLC), a 5-3-2 fertilizer that also provides a soluble source of sugars as food for soil microbes
  • NutriRoot (2-2-3 plus micros, Arborjet, Inc.) which also supplies a bio-stimulant in the form of kelp extract and humic acids
  • Organic sources include blood meal, soybean meal or cottonseed meal

Fertilize 30 days prior to planting.  This will jump start the composting process.

Crew applying nitrogen to mulched bed

An alternative method is to use black plastic.  Using straw will keep the soil cooler, so plants will tend to get a bit of a later start than on bare soil. However, if you cover the wetted straw with black plastic, the bed will warm earlier.  This is a great method to use both early and late in the growing season.  In summer, mulch over the black plastic if your plantings are not providing sufficient shade.

Follow the same procedures bed prep in a covered structure.  Pictured here is a hoop house with two raised straw planting beds. Why straw? When dry, straw is light weight and relatively inexpensive to use.

Hoop House raised beds
Hoop House raised beds

Fill the beds allowing for settling due to the process of composting. Once the fertilizer is applied, add a layer of finished compost to seed directly into.  The warmth of the composting, will add some bottom heat and help with temperature regulation early in the growing season.

Hoop House: straw replenished
Hoop House: straw replenished

Prepping beds using these no-till methods may be done anytime from fall to early spring, a minimum of 30 days before planting.  Cool season crops can be directly sown out of doors 2-3 weeks before the last frost date in spring.  Using a covered structure, you can sow cool season crops even earlier!

Of course, you can till the outdoor bed, if you wish, but till no deeper than you need to, to establish your seed bed.  I use a two-wheeled tractor (a BCS) that has a “power depth roller” attachment on the rototiller to control tine depth.  It tills and the roller rakes the bed smooth.  Mulch your newly seeded bed with straw to prevent the seed from drying out.

BCS tractor with power depth roller attachment
BCS tractor with power depth roller attachment

Why no till?  No till or shallow till methods are used for a number of reasons, which include avoiding:

  • soil loss due to erosion by wind or rain
  • exposing the soil biome to UV light, which will degrade the soil
  • the loss of carbon to volatilization that was sequestered in the soil
  • bring up buried weed seeds
  • the need for building a compost pile [composts in place (aka, sheet composting)]

Save the digging (muscle and sweat) for planting trees, shrubs, vines and perennials.  More on that later.

Covered Structures

In the face of uncertain climate conditions, covered structures provide a measure of control for growing plants.  They can be low profile, such as a hooped wire and Remay or larger, greenhouse-like structures that you can walk into, depending on what you are growing and how much effort you want to put into the structural build.

Glass cold frames
Glass cold frames

Remay is great for growing leafy crops that don’t get very big.  They help to protect brassicas from cabbage moths by exclusion, for example.  However, if what you grow gets big, such as indeterminate tomatoes, you’ll need a larger structure.  These do not have to be large expenditure builds.  One can make a useful structure with a wood perimeter base, cattle fencing, and poly sheeting. Of course, more permanent structures using double walled polycarbonate eliminates waste from degraded poly.  Whether Remay, glass, poly or polycarbonate you have starting points on making your garden resilient.

Hoop House interior, beds top dressed with mushroom compost

(See our last post for how to make mushroom compost)

A max-min thermometer is very helpful to track the highs and lows in a 24-hour period. Record the average overnight low temperatures to get an idea of when to get a jump on cool weather starts. If temperatures get too high during the day, ventilate the space to cool.

Max-Min Thermometer
Max-Min Thermometer

Just a bit on the hoop house build.  It was put together with 2×3’s, plywood, cattle fencing and 6-mil poly.  No bells or whistles.  Two entry doors double for ventilation.  It was inexpensive to build, the other expenses were bales of straw, liquid fertilizer and mushroom compost.  The critical technologies are the maximum-minimum and soil thermometers.  We built it so that we can stand and walk through the structure.  The house is oriented with its broad side facing south-southwest. White tarps cover the top to help regulate heat by blocking the midday sun.



It’s March here in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina, and I have been tracking the high-low temps in the hoop house. It’s getting down into the 40’s at night, so it’s been warm enough in these unheated structures to sow hardy greens.  The last (average) spring frost date in the area is around April 20th.  Hardy spring greens can be sown outdoors 6 weeks prior to the last frost date (that’s March 6th here); the hardiest (onions) sown as early as the soil can be worked.  Those went into a raised bed along with snap peas.  I prepped the bed by broadcasting dolomitic limestone and biochar blended with bloodmeal and dried kelp.

We’ll continue this exploration of bed prep next week.

~ Signing off for now, Joe