Raised beds, or wanna-be hugels

I just finished reading one of my most favorite gardening books to date:

Guys, I almost didn’t buy this book. I saw it and thought “oh, I have enough gardening books,” but then I saw Bonsall speak at this past bionutrient conference and he cracked me up! And then after hearing him speak and feeling bombarded with about ten thousand new ideas within the space of 40 minutes, I just had to have a copy of the book. I almost didn’t get one – they had sold out! But he was nice enough to give me a copy of his own and trust me to send him a check eventually.

This guy is hilarious. And get this – he’s a vegan who’s been growing all his family’s food in a sustainable way for years. So you can trust him to show you the most efficient way of doing things – and beyond that, the reasoning behind his methods and why they work. (Along with – and this was also extremely helpful! – experiments he’d tried in the past and how they did or did not work. Saving me some time.) His practice of scrounging for natural (free) materials anywhere he can (leaves as mulch, weeds as compost), and the innovations he’s come up with to make best use of those materials, really jives with my own modus operandi. I got so many good ideas from this book that I’d buy it again – if I had a friend as into gardening as I am, to buy it for. :)

But I’m not here to talk about this book tonight. I’m just mentioning it because one alllllll of the work I’ve been doing lately originated with a small idea I got from him: making the pathways as narrow as possible. Such a simple concept, but one I’ve never really thought about.

I’ve generally had 4′ wide beds and 2-3′ wide paths. Which is a lot of crop space wasted. Bonsall makes his pathways narrow and his beds wide. In the first years I’d never had to question it, since I hadn’t been able to use all the space I had. But now my garden is practically bursting at the seams and it’s time to rethink some basic layout.

I’m a short person so a 4′ bed is all I can reasonably deal with. And the paths – at least some of them – have to be wide enough to accept a standard wheelbarrow. But what if I shrunk all the pathways down to the minimum – and alternated sizes?  So a 20″ path (all that’s needed for a wheelbarrow) would flank one side of a 4′ bed. But between that bed and its neighbor there would only be a 12″ pathway – enough for me to walk, weed, plant, and not much else. The path on the outside of the second bed, though, would be 20″ again. So while every bed has wheelbarrow access from one side, and people access from both sides, I’ve saved a huge amount of space:

30″ 4′ 30″ 4′ 30″ 186″
20″ 4′ 12″ 4′ 20″ 148″

In just two beds, I’ve saved a little over 3′. Done through the rest of the garden, I can create 2-3 more full, 4′ wide beds, or 200-300 square feet. Enough to grow all the potatoes – half the carb calories! –  that a family of 3-4 would need in a year (Markham, Brett. Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 acre. Skyhorse Publishing, 2010.)

It’s not just a simple matter of drawing new lines, though. Even though it kills me, each of these newly created beds has to be raised out of the bog (remember last year all my seedlings drowned in the torrential June we had).


the strange boards on the right are scraps of vinyl shed siding I found a neighbor discarding on the side of the road. The right dimensions, strong, and they’ll never rot – perfect.

Since I don’t have access to a lot of extra soil, I can only raise the beds by removing the topsoil, filling with logs, woodchips, chicken bedding, the boxes of coffee grounds my local Starbucks saves for me, leaves etc., and then replacing the topsoil. It usually takes me about two weeks to do one by myself.


these better grow some damn fine veggies.

By some miracle, an dear old friend came over and volunteered her help for a couple days. I swear, when she got here I could still see the glint of her halo. Together we started and finished an entire new hugel bed in one day. (And then we both went home and were sore for a very long time.) It was just incredible and I am so very grateful for her help. I don’t have a picture of that one, yet, but I’m so glad we’re up to 4.

Four hugels done! And this one of the driest Springs I can remember since 2008. Trust the year I finally put in the raised beds, to be the beginning of a long drought in which I will have to begin irrigating! HA!

2 Responses to “Raised beds, or wanna-be hugels”

  1. Debbie Says:

    Hey, kiddo!

    Things seem to be shaping up nicely. I like what you are doing for the raised beds. I put seven small, raised flower beds in my yard using the lumber from a friend’s old deck. They tore the old wooden one down to build one out of that new composite material, so I quickly asked for the old boards. All it cost me was the time to borrow a truck, the labor to load it on/off the truck, the elbow grease to remove the old nails, the time to cut the pieces to fit the flowerbed design, and the price of the screws I used to hold it altogether. I’ve had 4 of the 7 beds for about 15 years and they are holding up beautifully. I just built the other 3 beds last fall – again with old deck lumber someone was throwing away.

    It’s another option for you with regard to building materials that will stand the test of time.

  2. Diana Guillermo Says:

    Debbie that is so cool! I would totally be into that if I could find someone doing it. I ask on Freecycle from time to time but I haven’t had much luck with lumber yet. :) Great to hear from you again! 😀

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