Soil and Compost
Use scrap lumber for this project. Even pine boards will last many years, and are 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).
If you are not able to build a raised bed, you can still have a bountiful garden. Reusing and recycling buckets work great for growing. Make sure there is proper drainage by drilling small holes at the bottom of the bucket.
Add Organic Matter
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. We like to use alpaca manure (available from “Wild Hair Alpacas LLC” at (719) 495-6693 for free manure. 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. 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.