Putting it to Bed — elevated gardening

This week I am staring up a journal on home gardening as a keep track of my garden.
Some thing’s I’ll will be tracking are the health of an elevated bed, and irrigating it efficiently.
the following is from a homework assignment for a Class I took in Permaculture Design:

Beginners Permaculture and experimental Raised Bed

This spring and summer, I ventured out on several projects, two of which, interrelated, were small scale work on growing vegetables and fruit. One project was in my back yard, I wanted to,see if I could revitalize a small area of land that did not appear to have much growth. The other project was a Permaculture design workshop on building raised beds. Although my initial work in my backyard project started the previous Summer, I was enthusiastic to apply what I learned in the early summer permaculture Workshop.

Early Experience with Permaculture

I first came across the permaculture design concept 5 years ago… I was looking to find a niche for my future, one that was would be meaningful. I investigated avenues such as college for agricultural engineering programs. I was intrigued by the rather non industrial approach, to growing that I found in Bill Mollison’s “Permaculture: A Designers Manual” . I would follow that reading up with Dave Holmgren’s “ Permaculture: Principles & Pathways beyond Sustainability”. Both books will be cite more in this presentation.

Permaculture design, applied to growing vegetation, aims to achieve two primary goals:

  • revitalization of poor growing conditions
  • long term self sustainable growth and good growing conditions. They are what

Designer–– Ben Faulk alludes to as “resiliency and regeneration” in his designer manual  “The Resilient Farm and Home Stead”. In method, permaculture design contrasts the typical engineering and industrial age thinking. Industrial thinking tends toward reductive and universal process orientation, Permaculture focus on whole systems, each site treated as unique. Permaculture approaches each project from establishment to sustainability as wholly integrated and contextual. Ben Faulk has criticized modern approaches to agriculture for only being concerned with yields of biomass. In his design opinion, yield should include both biomass out of a system and biodiversity within a system.

Approaches like this have been used in other fields. For example, Humanistic psychologist Carl Roger’s created his “client-centered therapy”–– treatment with the intent of focusing on the unique conditions of each client. This contrasts the main stream psychoanalytical theory at the time, which rested on a broad set of universal theories pertaining to clinical psychology. My personal interest in Humanistic psychology’s holistic and contextual insight had also peaked my curiosity in Permaculture Design.

My Back Yard Project


Trench Work

Beginning in early fall, I started to work on revitalizing an area of land between two fences, 60 ft from the house, 5 feet wide, about 80 feet long parallel to the house. I had not taken PDC class yet, so there was some “winging” it and experimentation. The localized approach of permaculture is implicit in Dave Holmgren’s statement “the landscape is the textbook” ––a slogan he relates to “Observe and interact” . Whereas, reductive and industrial thinking is concern with universal processes, Permaculture is concerned with observation of details in a specified system, and of all details as they interact over time. While its understood that growth in soil follows the universal processes stated in Biology and Physics, time was spent by me observing the amount of sunlight, wind and water flow over a period of months; the squirrels who used the system to bury their acorns; the insects; the ground temperature ; the pet cats , rabbits and skunks wandering through the area. I considered what tools, water, fertilizers, and soil.
I would need to establish the area as a food garden, what maintenance I would have to do. Following a few rules of science cannot cover the complexities of a unique system, I needed to know what parts are in the system and what flows in and out of the system. The essential skill to be practised is observation. Another sub-slogan of Holmgren’s principle of “Observe and Interact “is “Top-down thinking, bottom up action”. Observation is a passive action. (more accurately interaction, since the designer is considered part of the system he is designing.) This means patient, prolong, non judgemental study of detail (the metaphorical bottom) while being mindful of the totality of the system (the Top.) Any “thing” or “happening” in the system, including the establishment of the system, and sustainability of the system ; is a component of the system. With this said. It became apparent to me that developing experience is very important in permaculture design.

My backyard project was experimental, non essential and  distant from the house. It is a zone 4 project of the entire property. My hope is that it will become a zone 3: supporting the household with some extra tomatoes, cucumbers, leeks, and anything else I can grow. The extra fence on the perimeter was removed except for vertical 4x4s. Refuse scraped from a barbecue grill, left over potting soil, food waste were scattered over th soil. Red Crimson Maple leaves and twigs that fell and dried during Autumn were used as a mulch. Nature worked the decomposition with snow and rain over the winter.


Elevated Garden

The Elevated Bed Workshop–– Early Summer of 2014, I participated in a gardening workshop on installing intensive raised garden beds… The monetary price was cheap, since we participants paid mostly in labor into building of the beds. In return we gained both experiential know-how and the hands on teaching of experienced certified permaculture designers. This is typical of the holistic and localized permaculture approach in a broad sense, from my observation.. The price of services: whether labor, learning or teaching are decided by what each individual participant thinks its worth. Prices and worth of services are subjective This kind is bartering- of services parallels free markets.

I am also reminded of of a basic ethical question of working together: “What does this person, or land, have to give if I cooperate with them “ postulated by Bill Mollison in his book “Permaculture Designer Manual”. A great ethical consideration for individualists like myself.

The class participants numbered around 20 people who gathered on this property in Pennsylvania –– An ideal location of the beds that we were to work on, had already been decided. This was part of a bigger project that included the dwelling and entire property. we informed that the overall project included the concerns of neighbors, such as their rainwater run-off intake… implicitly the whole system included the bordering neighbors. Grass was already killed off the bedding area by cardboard coverage. I have used this method of grass kill myself in other small projects. After tape is removed from the cardboard, the sheets are layered over the ground in overlapping fashion and is usually covered with mulch. The cardboard itself, eventually breaks down and becomes part of the soil. This method was already completed for us.

The process of building the elevated beds were as followed

  • Marking off three to four foot rows across the soil.
  • Using a 19 inch broad forks, the top soil was loosened. In some projects the broad forks are used to go deeper and break up the clay under the top soil.
  • The 19 inch broadfork, was specially designed by a permaculture designer to replace “double digging”, a method that uses far more manpower.
  • Double digging and the broadfork methods are used instead of tilling. This is because tiling can turn over the clay beneath the top soil. This can disrupt the natural microbes in the soil and make the bed less sustainable over a long period of time.
  • The top soil of every other row, previously marked off, was shoveled carefully on top of the next row. The result are trenches, soon to be made into a walk way, beside and a tall top soil mounds, soon to be molded into elevated bed.
  • The trenches would be filled in with wood chip. We used wheel barrels and raked the whole thing was a teamwork effort. Once the trenches were filled with three inches high of chip, they were stable enough to be the pathways for walking and working around each bed.
  • The mounds of top soil would be shaped into elevated beds by hand by the workshop instructor
  • I would find this part difficult later when I mimicked it in my backyard project.
  • Straw was raked carefully over the beds as mulch.
  • The end result was an ergonomically useful bed to plant a salad garden, mint garden, spinach, mustard cale, peppers, onions, etc., .

Raised beds also useful because it is easier to control water flow through the soil since the pathways are also trenches, waste biomass can be used as fertilizer under the woodchip. The instructor recommended planting plants so that the leaves barely touch to form a canopy. The canopy and the bed design it’ self together are called “intensive gardening”, a method to make the most out of a given space.  The work of about 20 participants over 2500 square feet (that is an estimate) was completed in three and a half hours. That time does not include full transplanting of crops, which was done at a later time. The tools included three broad forks, a dozen or so shovels, a dozen or so mulch rakes, two wheel barrels.

My own raised beds.

Back in my experimental system I installed three raised beds. I simply mimicked what I learned at the workshop. I planted leeks, cherry tomatoes two varieties of larger tomatoes, cucumbers, red bell peppers and green peppers, a hybrid oregano transplant and apple mint. The bed is not terribly self sufficient with the fruit and vegetables I planted and I have to carry water a long distance. The only sustainable transplant was an apple mint that is growing very tall. Since mint self seeds very efficiently I may regret planting it there next year.
Maybe I use the area to grow only mints leeks and onions.

My tomatoes and cucumbers have had a modest yield, this I believe is do to insufficient sunlight. They will be rotated to another location next year. I have no complaints on the quality of the tomatoes or other produce that I grew in these beds.
Ultimately, my first permaculture experiment has had mixed results so far. Do to lack of experience and knowledge, it is not in anyway self sustaining yet. However I was able to yield a lot of produce this year from what was only patchy grass and dry soil two years ago. If there is one thing I have enjoyed learning about gardening, its to expect the unexpected.




About chris
I write because I'm not good at it. I share because, writing without sharing seems empty. Thus, I write and share what I think is meaningful.

2 Responses to Putting it to Bed — elevated gardening

  1. Pingback: Putting it to Bed — elevated gardening | Pennsylvania Echoes – WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

  2. universeofplants says:

    The best wisdom in gardeniing is gained by experience and the passage of time Trial and error in your particular environment will be your greatest teacher. Think about creating as many varied landscapes as possible on your area. Woodland, even a few small trees, for leafmold and niche habitats mine is full of the black ground or rove beetles, dense shrubs like hawthorn sloes and Blackberry, wild meadows, weed patches for niche habitats, log piles help maintain many varied habitats wet and Dry. Do you have a pond or wet area?
    I’m also lucky we have alot of bamboo which attracts roosting birds. And provides materials for using around the plot. Good luck don’t hesitate to contact us for general tips.

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