Use scrap lumber for this project. Even pine boards will last many years and it is available and cheap. We try to stay away from any treated lumber products due to the controversy surrounding it. If you can afford it redwood is great. Make your beds no wider than 4 feet and any length you desire. The width is important. Any wider and you would have to step into your planting beds to work and harvest (this would cause compaction of the soil). Larry likes to have most of his beds 4 feet wide by 8 feet long. This is perfect for his paths and his plastic tunnel construction.
With raised beds you can plant right up to the edge of your planting bed. No waste of space! This really benefits the gardeners with limited space. You can also improve just the soil area where you intend to plant. If Larry is planting beans or corn in one of his beds, he will cover just that area with black porous cloth two weeks prior to planting. This will deep warm the soil to get his seeds off to a good start.
Add Organic Matter
The above picture is Larry's compost bins and his finished compost. He makes about 3 cubic yards of compost annually. The picture below is manure tea (more on this later).
You need to add compost or well rotted cow, horse or alpaca manure to your soil. All right so you have a problem with cow manure. Get over it! This is great for the garden. Too often we gardeners go for the quick fix and add chemical fertilizers to our soil. Sure it will boost production over the short term but it will do nothing to build up your soil. Start off by adding about a two to three inch layer of well rotted manure over the area to be planted (this is about 1 1/2 cubic yards for a 20 ft X 20 ft garden plot) . Work it into the soil in the late fall or early spring. Larry likes to use alpaca manure (available from "Pikes Peak Alpacas" at 719-481-4946 for $20 a pick up truck load ...bring your own truck).
Around Colorado Springs we have lots of horses. So how about horse manure? Horse manure has mixed reviews from our gardeners. Some say if it is not well rotted and composted you get lots and lots of weeds. Larry uses horse manure in building his compost piles. If horse manure is available to you, use it, but add it in the fall or VERY early spring. It needs time to "cool down". Fresh manure will burn many seedlings. A rule of thumb is to use manures from animals with more than one stomach (cows, bison, alpaca, llamas etc.). The more stomachs the more the plant matter gets worked and digested. Never use manures from any animal that eats meat (this includes humans). And never use sewage sludge, biosolids or milorganite (human waste from sewage treatment plants). This stuff can contain a lot of unknown chemicals, heavy metals, maybe some remnants of pharmaceuticals.
Manure tea is made by filling a bucket or garbage pail 1/3 full of cow or horse manure and the rest with water. Let it sit and ferment for about two weeks or more and skim off the water, dilute with an equal amount of tap water and water your garden plants. Use this tea after your plants are up and growing. Pour about a cup of this manure tea around your plants every two weeks.
What else can a gardener add to soil to make it "just right"? We have started using organic cotton burr mulch to break up the heavy soils or add structure to sandy soils. In a 4 ft by 8 ft bed we use 6 cubic feet and mix it into the top 8 inches of soil. We also use blood and bone meal. Add about 1 cup of each for every 10 square feet of planting. Mix it into the soil.
At the end of the year take your shovel and scoop out a big chunk of soil. If you have 10 earthworms or more in that chunk you have done a great job!
Remember if you keep your garden soil evenly moist (not damp or soggy!) throughout the growing season your plants and earthworms will do their best.
This has been talked about in the raised bed section above. Planting in single rows then a row for walking then a single row then a row for walking etc. is a waste of precious garden space. We plant in either raised beds or wide rows (3 to 4 feet then a row for walking). This increases our harvest many times over the conventional method.
Rototill Once Then Never Again
Larry used to rototill twice a year. Never again! The only time that you should rototill is when you are first starting your garden. This is the time to really work all that organic matter into the soil as deeply as you can. Then "never again". From that point on work the organic matter into the top 3 inches of soil using a broadfork (lift and "tease" the soil) as shown below and let the earthworms and soil microbes do the rest.
Nature does not rototill the fields and the forests. You shouldn't either. Rototilling breaks up the earthworm tunnels and the micro-habitats for all other soil microbes. These organisms work the soil, break down the organic matter into a usable form and provide the porosity that is so much needed. Air and water can penetrate better when not tilled. It is always best to add your organic matter to your soil in the fall, cover with a blanket of leaf and straw mulch to keep moist and let nature do its thing.
If you have some methods that have worked for you, please share.
How to Prepare Your Soil for Planting
Raised Beds...Add Organic Matter
...Wide Rows...Rototill Once Then Never Again