Angles and Dangles

Urban Farming - Making Raised Beds

What determines whether we are gardening or farming on our properties?

In one of Joe Salatin's videos on Youtube he was meandering through his farm with a group and asked what the difference was between his farm and a city park or a big plot of land. No one got the answer and yet the answer is so obvious once you hear it. One has a farmer, the others do not.

Joe's point is that if you are a farmer there are a lot of places you can practice farming. For me, growing is a lot like medicine. It is something you have to to practice your entire career.

USDA defines a farm as "any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold" in any year. I would say that if you are growing that amount, eating it yourself and/or giving it away then you are a farmer who is practicing farming.

After losing out on our 28 acre abandoned overgrown farm we decided to stay put for the moment. We also decided that we were going to expand our garden into something a tad more serious. It is currently our two year plan to see if we can grow the vast majority of our vegetables and fruits on our property. This has led to having 40 bales of hay and staw, and 20 yards of dirt/compost dumped on our property that is being used to fashion various raised beds.

On my page Hugelkultur - Bamboo Base I began to talk about the process of building raised beds. For the past three weeks I have been been building beds using different types of materials for the base. Old tree stumps, bamboo, hay, straw, branches. Then I started layering in the 20 yards of local Cedar Grove vegetable mix.

In this time out working in the good old Puget Sound cold drizzly winter rain I have taken us from two grow beds up to eleven. Using square foot gardening techniques (that I will be covering on another page still to be created) we have increased our grow capacity from 93 square feet to 420 square feet.

Here is a montage of pictures of the process. I will provide a scant narration, but a picture really is worth a thousand words.

First, a view of the new grow beds that I put in. Note that the beds are complete. What you see is a top dressing of either hay or straw on top of the beds. There are three purposes for this top dressing mulch technique.

  1. Mulching keeps the soild from compacting resulting in a no-till soil base.
  2. Mulching helps with water retention to the soil (not needed during a Puget Sound winter, but appreciated during the hotter drier season.
  3. When the mulch breaks down it provides a layer of green manure and nutients to the soil.
New raised beds
More new raised beds

Here is a before shot of one of the areas before the new raised beds

Raised beds before

Raised beds after

In putting in the raised beds other than prepping the beds with a few layers of carbon and nitrogen based biomass I did nothing to the existing area. I actually intently put the bed into existing natural areas of the yard with the express purpose of creating bio-diversity for the existing crop areas. The goals is that this would represent one point for reducing pests to the crops.

You will also note that this area is under a rather large tree that we have in our yard. The growing area represented offers a divergent area of partial sun to full shade. There are numerous vegetables and herbs that thrive in such conditions.

A list of shade loving crops

Further, Information that may be of Interest to You

As I said, I practice gardening and farming. I also voraciously read on the subject. When it comes to mulching using straw can be a problem as straw contains seeds. Hay does not. The following image is from a bale of straw that was left exposed (intentionally, for the most part ) to the elements. You will notice it is sprouting. You can actually grow in straw bales. That is another subject for a different time.

straw bales growing new straw

Though I have read that straw contains seeds I wanted to experience the degree to which it does. Experimenting and trial and error are a big part of the practice of growing crops. I have about a 50/50 mix using both hay and grass as mulch. We have experienced some very heavy rainfalls. So far, both ammendments act as a great buffer in reducing soil compaction.

The soil underneath both types of much is still very loose. Also, while the seeds have sprouted within the bales I have not seen a single sprout yet from the raised beds that use straw as the mulch. There is no doubt in my mind that there is seed in the straw. In just not have seen any sprouting yet. Time will tell what the cycle of using straw as a mulch will be.

Now that I have all my crops for consumption beds in place I am going to make some raised beds for growing the mulch for these beds. For those beds I plan on using a lot of straw and seeds that go to seed will be highly desired. I also plan on growing wheat and buckwheat in those beds.

Even though straw has seeds it does have better water holding capabilities than hay. My straw bales came to me weighing about 60 pounds. I was able to lift and stack them and move them without much problem. After all the rain we have had these straw bales are at least 4 times their original weight. Moving them is no longer in the cards at the moment.

I wanted to find out the actual amount of water retention for straw. I googled and googled and came up short. I do not have time now but plan on conducting some experiements to get this information for both straw and hay.

It was not my intent to let all my bales of hay and straw be left out in the rain. This happened because I made two mistakes. First, I underestimated the size of 20 yards of dirt. I ended up having to use all my tarps to cover the dirt. I was too lazy to immediately go out and buy some new tarps. My second mistake was underestimating the coverage that my bales of hay were going to give me.

Hay coverage

The mulched grow beds in the front represent about 60 square yards of planting area. To much with 3-4 inches of hay mulch uses about 1/5 of the bale in the picture. The amount of compression of hay/grass in a bale is astounding.

Beside gaining experience there is another silver lining to making these mistakes. I had intended to only build the grow beds for crops during this grow season. The next season I was planning on adding additional grow beds to grow the mulch for these beds. I ended up buying enough dirt/compost and hay/straw to build both set of beds this season. I suppose the bas news is I added more work for these 58 year old bones.

One of the things I learned and took up as a challenge during the sustainable farming class Kate and I took last year was to try and minimize the inputs you would need for your farm. I want to grow as much of our own straw as I can to use for mulch. This will save the amount of hay and straw I will need to buy as inputs. It is also our goal to still find 5-10 acres of land. Growing our own inputs will help us to better estimate and understand growing requirement when that day that we get the 5-10 acres arrives.