How to Build a Garden

from Tom and Beth

Any good organic gardener will tell you that the key to a successful garden is good, healthy soil. A healthy soil is home to an abundance of nutrients, minerals and living organisms that make plants strong. Strong plants are less susceptible to pests and disease and are more likely to grow faster and produce more food. All of the bugs, worms, and microorganisms make up about half of soil’s weight. We depend on them to survive.

As spring approaches, now is the time to start thinking about your garden. Here are a few examples of things that we do at New Community Project’s Muddy Bike Urban Garden to build healthy soil, conserve water, have fewer weeds, and allow nature to do some of the work for us!

When designing our garden beds, we try to use nature as our example. One thing that nature teaches us is that plants do not grow in rows. Because of this, we design keyholes into our pathways, which create unique and beautiful gardens!

Keyhole design allows for a clear distinction between path and garden bed, keeping us off the beds so they stay nice and fluffy. It also allows us to access more of the garden with less path and works with the ergonomics of our bodies so that we aren’t straining to bend and lean as much. Keyhole gardens can be designed like many patterns found in nature—or design one of your own!

Another technique that we use a lot is sheet mulching or lasagna gardening. We love it because it protects and uses the natural function of worms and microorganisms to break down organic matter. Sheet mulching also utilizes materials and resources that are often thrown to the wayside. Finally, sheet mulching conserves water, reduces weeding significantly and is composting right in the garden, saving us lots of time!

Step-by-step guide to building sheet-mulched garden beds:

  • Once a design has been made, use a shovel or other tool to break up the top layer of soil and grass. This loosens the soil for plant roots to enter, helps with water percolation and fluffs it with oxygen.
  • After you have formed your beds, apply a 1-2 inch layer of compost, manure or any “green” materials (food scraps, green grass clippings). We recommend compost if building in the spring and manure in the fall so the manure has time to break down before planting. (Droppings from our rabbits are a ready source of nutrients for our gardens.) Water well, so that it feels like a wrung out sponge.
  • Next, lay down a layer of cardboard or newspaper over the entire bed space. Make sure not to leave any gaps and to overlap pieces by at least 6 inches. Water well.
  • Finally, lay down a thick layer of leaf mulch, straw, wood chips or any “brown” materials. This should be 6-8 inches thick. Water well.

When it is time to plant, part your brown materials, cut through the cardboard or newspaper (although if you do this in the Fall, the earth life has done this for you by Spring), and plant away!

Finding lots of materials is important. Our city has a fall leaf pickup where material is mulched and free for city residents. Check with your city to see if they do the same. Cardboard is everywhere! Save your own and build relationships with nearby restaurants and grocery stores to collect cardboard. They are usually more than happy to give it away. Build connections with local farmers too. They are often desperate for someone to collect manure. Collecting all of your materials before you begin is key to sheet mulching.

We have been extremely satisfied with the results from sheet mulched gardens. By mimicking the way nature works, we are allowing her to continue to heal and help us create beauty with functionality. In the end, it can be healing for ourselves too. Happy gardening!


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