How to Start a Vegetable Garden From Scratch Without Raised Beds

How to Start a Vegetable Garden from Scratch Without Raised Beds

I had my life long dream of living on a farm from 2009 to 2020. Besides our chickens and our grass fed beef cattle, I had an acre of fenced garden area where I had 4000 square feet of vegetable garden plots surrounded by fruit trees and berry bushes.  I had fun.  I grew almost all the vegetables for my family.  I preserved most of it for use over the winter with canning, freezing and a root cellar.

But in 2020 we moved back to suburbia.  Our entire property is now less than half the size of my previous garden alone.  So how does a farmer start a garden a garden from scratch in suburbia?

Not with raised beds.

Creating a garden from scratch without raised beds

I don’t believe raised beds are the best solution for my yard, so once we picked the best location for the garden on our new tiny property, we set to work at just removing the sod in the areas which were to be my new garden beds.  

Garden beds marked with flags
We used flags to mark the corners of all the garden beds

Sod removal for garden beds

We rented a sod cutter for 24 hours from the local big box store.  We were able to pick it up with just a pickup truck.  Note that this is a powerful machine with a blade, not a toy.

Although it took a little bit of trial and error to get the right depth to cut set up, we did all the beds in a short afternoon.  The machine cuts the sod right from the ground, then you can roll it up and carry it away.

It is important to make sure you cut deep enough.  Where the sod was cut deeply there were very few weeds later in the summer.  The beds where the sod was cut a little shallower did have some grass come back over the summer, but by the end of the summer I had cleared it all permanently with just a bit of weeding.

Note that cutting deeper makes the sod rolls heavier.  You will want to have some burly help, or do short lengths in order to move the cut sod off the garden beds.  We lugged all the sod rolls to the new compost pile location.  This was a great start to the compost pile. However, if you or a neighbor would like some new sod for your lawn, use it!

Planting in native soil versus raised beds

Proponents of raised bed gardening often proclaim the soil quality in raised beds as superior to the native soils.  I did not find this true in my situation.  My soil did not have rocks.  The drainage and fertility were sufficient to have a healthy lawn, and subsequently a healthy vegetable garden.

Tilling may not be necessary

I fully intended to till my new garden beds to relieve some of the soil compaction that had occurred due to the area being a lawn.  Unfortunately, due to the heavy clay content of the soil my little Mantis tiller was unable to even make a dent.  I then tried turning over some of the beds with a shovel and then tilling the shovel clumps.  I was still left with large clumps.  I had a broadfork from the farm and tried that as well to little effect.  In the end I ended up planting among the clumps.  In some areas I resorted to just digging a hole for each transplant with a hand trowel, or scratching out a row to put in the seeds.  

Heavy clay soil in my garden clumps  by the shovelful
Heavy clay soil clumps by the shovelful in my garden. Even where I tried tilling the clumps to plant the onions I still had large chunks.

If you don’t have heavy clay, you won’t have the above problems.  You can either plant directly after the sod removal, or you can try to uncompact the soil.  As there was no difference in the results between all these areas at the end of the summer, I bet it doesn’t really matter unless you are planting under a heavily trafficked area of lawn.

Soil testing

I have not yet tested my soil. Since the soil was successfully growing grass, and I did not have time to send soil off before planting, I just didn’t bother.  Unsurprisingly, everything did well. If my livelihood was dependent on my harvest I would test my soil.  For most backyard gardeners no crisis occurs if our soil has deficiencies, so we can rely on organic amendments to work their magic over time.

I do not have concerns about soil contamination in my yard. If you do, you can find information about soil contamination and testing here.  Please note that purchasing soil in bags does not ensure uncontaminated soil.  You will have to do your research no matter what. 

First year results of garden without raised beds

Overall, it was a very good year.  I wasn’t anticipating writing this blog when I took the pictures, so there are just a few pictures, but you can see that it was a healthy garden with plenty of production.  When I pulled out the tomatoes at the end of the season they had good deep healthy root systems.

How the native soil bed overwintered

This is the garden the following spring.  I have planted my peas (cages) and a quarter row of lettuce using just a hand trowel – no tiller.  I am not a super weeder so any weeds that are there were likely there at the end of the summer. I have not yet done any pulling of weeds this spring.

Garden in April 2021

The most exciting discovery was that my chard plants actually survived the winter, even though they were nibbled by bunnies in early spring.  The move from Zone 5 to Zone 6 has been a wonderful change.  I don’t know whether the chard would have been able to survive the possibly lower soil temperatures in a raised bed.

Chard survived the winter in native soil beds in Zone 6
Chard survived in Zone 6

Have you considered growing a garden from scratch without raised beds?

I’d love to hear your results.  I would love to be able to gather results from all areas of the country so that I can share what works with as many people as possible.  Please send me an email 🙂

2024 Update

March 22, 2024 – You can probably tell that my site is mostly a quilting site, but my few gardening posts get quite a bit of traffic and I do want to encourage you to try growing without raised beds. The garden is still going strong in 2024. We mulch with grass clippings and hardly ever water. We produce mountains of tomatoes, peppers and especially eggplants. Not sure why all the eggplants? All the other produce also does extremely well. We do have a battle with the grass coming in from the sides, which I experienced at the farm as well but aesthestics didn’t matter as much there.

This summer we are going to be doing some redesign of the beds because without 4 teenagers at home we just don’t need all those veggies anymore and I’d like to have some cutting flowers. In the redesign we will be address the problem of grass encroachment. Right now we are thinking we might use wood or super beefy metal edging (there’s a household debate going on).

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