Build Free Raised Beds Using Cord Wood

Vermont gets a good bit of rain in the summer, and often all in big bursts.  In the past 48 hours we’ve had just over 4 inches of rain, beating the monthly average for June in just two days.  Rain bursts like that wreak havoc on our shallow soils.  Our land has 10-18 inches of topsoil on top of impermeable clay, which means low spots in the soil become ponds and anywhere with a slope washes out in large rain events.  What does this mean for our garden?  Anything that’s not raised in some way sits in standing water for at least a few days each month.  The solution?  Raised beds!

In the past few years in June, just as our garden is trying to get going, we’ve had rain nearly every single day.  Last year that left our garden with 1-2 inches of standing water for the entire month.  The only thing that can live with that kind of treatment is Tomatillos, because really, you just cant kill those things.  Seriously, we harvested tomatillos with a rake one year from a waist high hay field where they had grown in from seed and made 12 quarts of green sauce.  Indestructible!

Given our shallow soils and heavy rain events, we decided the best option would be to convert our annual garden to a no till raised bed system.  The problem is, cedar boards for raised beds are very expensive.  Cinder blocks are also expensive, and perhaps a bit too permanent.  Pressure treated wood lasts, but is toxic.

Given that, it seemed best to use something that is free, but would rot.  Soft wood logs, specifically hemlock, are abundant on our land.  We need to cut them anyway just to get enough sunlight to be able to plant a garden.  They should last at least 5-7 years, and after they’ve rotted away they’ll improve our soil with organic matter and can easily be replaced with more hemlock.  The beds we built for perennials 3 years ago are still going strong, so I have no doubts they’ll make it to 7 years if not longer.

Hemlock has very low BTU’s when burned, roughly half that of hard wood, and due to creosote buildup issues, it can only be burned in external boilers (not in wood stoves).  Pine and other softwoods have the same issues.  Thus if you need to cut softwood for other reasons, one of the best uses for it is as a raised bed (unless you have your own portable sawmill).

Start by digging a shallow trench roughly the width of your log and half the depth so that the log sits comfortably and doesn’t roll.  This digging will give you enough soil to fill roughly half the bed.  It’s hard to believe, but the fluffed up soil tossed into the center amounts to more than you’d think.

Next, place your logs in the trench.  Leave them as big as you can reasonably carry.  If you can find dead wood already downed even better.  The mycological community in the wood will help to improve your soil even more.

Your finished bed will be about half full, and over time the soil level can be raised through the addition of compost and manure.  Even better, in your first year, plant potatoes before you begin building your bed.  As your bed is made, the soil will be used to hill your potatoes, accomplishing two tasks at once.

This raised bed should give you many years of vegetables with minimal effort and no cost.  What more could you ask for?

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