Creating and Maintaining Good Soil Structure

Double-digging is one way to create good soil structure for healthy plant growth.

| February 2013

  • How To Grow More Vegetables
    Whether you hope to harvest your first tomatoes next summer or are planning to grow enough to feed your whole family in years to come, "How to Grow More Vegetables" is your indispensable sustainable garden guide.
    Cover Courtesy Ten Speed Press
  • Compost Heap
    Instead of applying compost only after the double-dig, consider spreading a 1/2-inch layer over the raised bed before digging and/or a 1/2-inch layer into the trench during the dig.
    Photo By Fotolia/audaxl

  • How To Grow More Vegetables
  • Compost Heap

Decades before the terms “eco-friendly” and “sustainable growing” entered the vernacular, How to Grow More Vegetables (Ten Speed Press, 2012) demonstrated that small-scale, high-yield, all-organic gardening methods could yield bountiful crops over multiple growing cycles using minimal resources in a suburban environment. The concept that John Jeavons and the team at Ecology Action launched more than 40 years ago has been embraced by the mainstream and continues to gather momentum. Today, How to Grow More Vegetables, now in its fully revised and updated 8th edition, is the go-to reference for food growers at every level: from home gardeners dedicated to nurturing their backyard edibles in maximum harmony with nature’s cycles, to small-scale commercial producers interested in optimizing soil fertility and increasing plant productivity. In this excerpt from chapter 1, “Deep Soil Creation and Maintenance,” discover how to create good soil structure for your raised bed garden. 

Buy this book in the GRIT store: How to Grow More Vegetables.

Properly preparing your raised beds is a great way to get healthier soil. A well-prepared bed will rejuvenate your soil structure, and proper soil structure and sufficient nutrients allow uninterrupted and healthy plant growth. Loose soil enables roots to penetrate the soil easily, and a steady stream of nutrients are allowed to flow into the stem and leaves. Plants close together in narrow beds are easy to cultivate and harvest, and closely spaced plants benefit from a good microclimate and healthy soil.

The initial preparation and planting of a raised bed may take 6 1/2 to 11 hours per 100 square feet. If you are lucky enough to have loose soil, the time commitment will be less. No matter how long it takes, the time invested pays off with increased yields and healthier soil and plants.

As you become more skilled at double-digging, and your soil becomes healthier, the time invested is greatly reduced. Often a 100-square-foot bed can be prepared in two hours or less. We estimate that only 4 to 6 1/2 hours should be required on an ongoing basis for the entire bed preparation and planting process as the soil develops better structure over time with correct care and compost.

Tools of the trade

We recommend investing in quality tools from the beginning — poor tools can be tiring and discouraging — but do whatever gets you started. Experiment with short D-handled and long, straight-handled tools to figure out which you like best — some folks find that D-handled tools allow them to work more efficiently, while some like the extra leverage and upright posture that long handles allow. A 5/8-inch-thick plywood board, 2 to 3 feet long by 3 to 5 feet wide, serves as a “digging board” to stand on. A digging board will spread your weight out so that you compact the soil less when standing on the bed area. You can treat the board with linseed oil to protect it against soil moisture, if you like. A bow rake makes leveling and forming the bed easy. If you don’t have one, hula hoes are the perfect tool for cultivating the upper 2 to 4 inches of soil around closely spaced plants. 

Making a raised bed

Carefully choose a place for your raised beds that has access to water and sunlight — preferably 7 to 11 hours of direct sunlight each day. To begin, mark out a bed 3 or 4 feet wide and at least 3 feet long. A 3-foot-square space is big enough to form a microclimate beneficial to your plants and the soil. Longer beds are popular, but make sure you can easily reach the entire bed without standing on it. 

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