Starting a garden in early winter

EWe had thousands of weeds, no top soil, and erosion after every heavy rain. One look at the soil on this mountain side, and I knew that anything we planted would have a hard time surviving.

So, before we put a single seed in the ground, we came up with a plan for making a garden where there was none, starting in early Winter 2006.

Garden Plan

The plan was to use a big stack of landscape lumber arranged into big squares, which we would later subdivide into smaller boxes and paths. To suppress weeds and upgrade our soil, we ordered a truck load of straw. Much cheaper than soil, we knew.

We marked out a wide perimeter path with strips of old carpet.

Garden wall

We started in late Fall so that our lumber and straw would go through lots of rain and snow cycles in our West Virginia climate. This way, our straw would have a chance to really break down a lot and give us the beginnings of garden compost.

Rough beds

The lumber we used was about 8 feet long and 4x4 inches around, designed to be used in creating terraces and holding back soil. I still remember carrying these on my shoulder all day from the driveway to the backyard, while MM dug small trenches with a rock hammer so they would be level.

Any man-made material, including plastics, concrete, and cinder block can effect your soil. Here's the thing about landscapers: they are pre-treated so they will last last longer than ordinary lumber, BUT if you use them, be sure to read the label to make sure it doesn't include arsenic treatment. Ours did not have arsenic; even so, we lined our garden walls with clear plastic and lots of straw to make an even better environment for future plants.


We stacked our landscapers as tall as we thought worked for the position on the hill, and used stakes pounded in with a mallet to hold everything in place until we could secure everything with metal plates made for building decks.

We put down cardboard temporarily to walk on the first season. The first year a pumpkin vine completely covered the swingset frame on the left, though we had very little soil to work with at this stage.

Garden 2

Notes from construction day

We ordered enough landscapers to make nine 8x8 beds interlinked, and purchased more materials over the years as we subdivided. We are still using the original plan for our garden as we build. No changing horses in mid-stream for us. First, we made sure we had a fence to keep dogs and cats outside. Two gates make for easy access. All paths are wide enough for foot traffic, and a wheelbarrow can navigate the whole perimeter.

A raised bed can be like a baking pan in the summer if you don't think ahead to conserving water and keeping the ground cool. The plastic strips I stapled inside each bed made a world of difference in the water holding capacity, and straw mulch keeps plants cooler.

ARtichokes 1

In 2009, we brought soil in gradually by wheelbarrow from a pile delivered to our driveway. But as usual, we added a LOT of our beloved straw on top.

You can see yogurt cups marking some of the old construction stakes in the lower right. Some stakes are still there, though I have been breaking them off as they rot away. The metal deck plates are holding everything together just fine.

Garden 1

Here is MM making a special section for our 2009 potatoes, with a metal mesh on the bottom so voles and mice can not get the crop. Next year we are eyeing whiskey barrels for vines crops. Everything is arranged inside the original nine, 8x8 squares surrounded by a wide perimeter path.


Ever since starting this garden, it's been about sub-dividing, paving, supplementing, and pretty-fication. Here is Smokey Cat checking out the miniature pepper plot I made this summer under the swingset frame where they will soon be shaded by tomato vines. I was measuring out some lumber under the frame when she strolled by in a look-see.

Smokey in the garden

Straw does a great job in so many ways in the garden—

Straw starts out beautifully, brilliant gold. A fresh bale is a charming sight. It freshens the ground where ever you spread it … you can tuck it under sprawling plants and fruits. As it breaks down, it turns into soil! Soil for an abundance of good things!

Artichoke Bed


meadow part 3

Meadow pt 3Making a meadow, pt 3