What do I use to fill my garden beds?

Ray_Scheel(z8b/SS31 E. TX)January 1, 2013

Square foot and similar intensive gardening methods require an especially rich growing medium to support the plants, and raised beds impact water retention. One thing you don't want much of is plain garden or topsoil, especially the bagged stuff available in garden centers or dirt companies. There are different philosophies on how to fill the beds. Some people prefer (and some locations benefit from) "double-digging" the garden bed and working in amendments when a bed is initially built. This was the method Mel Bartholemew originally recommended, and it is still being published in his book.Similar but less effective is using a tiller to first till the soil, then till in amendments. Afterward, a thick layer of a soil-less fill mix is applied to the top, possibly putting a fine sprinkle of clean soil where starting fine seeds. However, many gardeners have experimented and found no difference in production between beds that were tilled or double-dug and the no-till methods where the soil-less mix is simply placed in the raised bed over a degradable liner of newspaper or cardboard to suppress the existing grass and weeds below. "Mel's Mix" is the most common fill substance and consists of a mixture of approximately equal parts of compost materials, durable "brown" organics for bulk & drainage, and a water retention substance. Mel's Mix, now being recommended by Mel Bartholomew via his website, is equal parts by volume of compost, peat moss, and coarse vermiculite. Mel recommends using compost from 5 different sources to ensure getting a wide variety of nutrients for the plants. Some people plant in almost pure compost, others use a mix of compost and leaves. Compost is talked about at length in the Soil,Compost, and Mulch forum. Essentially, it is a mixture of organically based materials that has been allowed to rot in a controlled manner. Finished compost does not stink, and a properly maintained compost pile also has almost no odor to speak of. Compost can be made of anything - chicken droppings and sawdust, various manures and straw, household scraps and leaves, or lawn clippings and chipped wood or small branches. A good variety is helpful, but use whatever is available and cheap. For the initial filling of the beds, price bulk compost from soil companies or see if there is a mushroom plant nearby. Because of its uncertain origins, municipal compost is not recommended for vegetable beds. For a cheap source of bulk compost, look for a nearby mushroom growing operation.The durable organics used for bulk are primarily shredded (or not) leaves or leaf mold, coir, or sprangham peat. The use of peat is currently debated as to whether it is renewable, but has advantages when making beds of acid lovers (though using leaves of certain trees can accomplish a similar result).Water retention substances are available in a variety of forms. Cheapest is vermiculite, a naturally occurring mineral deposit. Perlite (perlized mica) is a a mined product...

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