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Drought Tolerant Raised Beds

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It was a hot and dry summer, and my plants suffered because I had to ration water.  Sound familiar?  Yup, I heard it from every one of my gardener friends this year.  Our soil is volcanic, rocky and very dry, and the water runs straight through the ground without wicking out to my needy plants.  Luckily one of my best friends is a permaculture specialist, and she helped me redesign my raised beds in the hugelkultur style (check this link for some cool pictures!).  “Hugelkultur” means “hill culture” in German, and is basically a style of gardening on top of a composting pile of logs, straw and manure.  The composting mass soaks up water like a giant sponge, and slowly releases it back into the soil as it dries.  As my friend put it, “Your plants will be watered with January’s rain in June”.  EXCELLENT!

Drought Tolerant Raised Beds

The basic idea of this “lasagna-style” gardening technique is to bury lots of organic matter that will soak up rain water and decompose over time, which will nourish your soil for many years.  You also won’t have to turn the soil over ever again because those layers will be working hard to create the damp, rich conditions for your plants to thrive.


Layering from the bottom up, start with a pile of wood, then straw, steer manure, cardboard, and then end with a layer of compost on top.  This is definitely not limited to raised beds, in fact, if you want to start a new garden bed (even on a lawn!), just start layering!

First, dig out the existing soil, save it on a tarp for adding back later.

dig out raised beds

We had lined our beds with hardware cloth to keep out the gophers, and it was still in good shape 5+ years later.  These beds were built from salvaging an old deck off a nearby farmhouse.

hugelkultur wood layer

The first layer is wood.  Hardwoods will last a long time, so we threw in all the knuckle pieces and bark from our woodpile.
Water each layer as you go, you really want to soak all the wood to create that sponge.

water straw layer

The next layer is a few inches of straw, cover the wood and water well.   We had a bale of old straw that had already started to rot, which we couldn’t use for the chicken coop, so this was a great way to make use of it.

steer manure layer

Spread a layer of composted steer manure over the straw, to give it a nice boost of nitrogen.  You need this because the decomposing wood will rob nitrogen from the soil during the first year, so this helps adjust for for that.

cardboard layer raised bed

Next up is cardboard, try not use any cardboard that is dyed or glossy, they will add undesirable funk to your soil.  Water as you go!

compost layer of raised bed

Finally, add rich compost as the top layer.  This is where you can add back the soil you dug out. Now is a good time to amend it with some fresh compost or organic soil booster.  Keep watering it until it is good and soggy, then water it some more.

drought tolerant beds

I planted 4 types of kale, broccoli, spinach, and garlic about 2 months ago, and they are thriving through the winter.  We had a month of solid rain right after we rebuilt these beds, which is pretty exciting, though I hope we get more.  I can’t wait to see how my peppers, squash and tomatoes do this summer, I’ll keep you posted on how these drought tolerant raised beds improve the health of my garden and my harvest.  Oh, and don’t forget to mulch, even in the winter!


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