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7 June 2009

Growing vegetables - raised beds and crop rotation

It didn't take us long to realise that raised vegetable garden beds were better for the type of gardening we do than anything else. We tried flat beds and no dig beds, raised beds that we could dig into and fluff up the soil gave us the best results. So for a long time, at least the last 12 years but probably closer to 20 years, we've grown our vegetables in raised beds.

A container of worm castings waiting to be added to the garden.

A raised bed can be anything from what we have - blocks built up about 15cm (6 inches), to large container beds with earth foundations 2 or 3 feet up from the ground, which are accessible by people in wheel chairs, the frail and elderly. Raised beds also enable you to rotate your crops, so if you have six beds, you'd only plant the same vegetable in that bed once every six year. Crop rotation is a system where you plant up each bed in a block of the same or similar vegetables, such as leeks, onions, garlic, shallots and chives together, or squash, cucumbers, corn, pumpkin and zucchinis together, then the following year, move them all to the next bed. The rotation usually goes something like this:
  1. leeks, onions, garlic, shallots and chives - add lime and compost
  2. legumes (the bean and pea family) - will use up the remaining lime from the previous year and add compost and nitrogen to the soil
  3. leaf vegetables like lettuce, brassicas (the cabbage family), silver beet and spinach - add nitrogen such as blood and bone or aged manures and compost
  4. root vegetables - carrots, parsnips, turnips, radishes etc - add compost
  5. squash, cucumbers, corn, pumpkin and zucchinis - add a little aged manure, compost and potash
  6. tomatoes, eggplants, capsicums (peppers) and chilli - add compost and potash

Potatoes can be part of the rotation but can be difficult to place because they are in the same family as tomatoes, so can't be planted for a couple of years before or after in the same bed. Often potatoes are planted in a their own separate bed, but again, they (or tomatoes) can't be planted in the same bed for another couple of years.

We started off with crop rotation, and while we think it's a great system, it doesn't' work for us. We try to keep our garden going all year and often finish a crop and plant a little fill in crop to keep the soil productive until the season changes. So while we often start off with neat rows, we usually end up with patches of different vegetables. We have found that if we continue to add abundant compost, this system usually works.

Our raised beds are edged with cement blocks. You could also use bricks or untreated timber. Make sure the timber is untreated because chemicals will leech out into the surrounding soil and vegetables. A raised bed will contain the soil well, even in a torrential downpour of rain and the soil will warm up, even in winter here, to allow us to plant all manner of vegetables and fruit.

The true value for me in a raised bed is that you can dig into the soil, worms can infiltrate your garden and the drainage is excellent. However, you can also build your raised bed on a cement slab if you wanted to and fill the frame with compost and soil. Raised beds are also good on top of clay. You can built the level up a bit with soil and over the years, the continual addition of compost and organic matter will break the clay down. Our garden is built on clay but over the years we've developed excellent fertile soil simply by adding compost and digging it into the soil that's there.

If you're starting out new this year with your garden, start with one or two beds, work out your gardening style and practise, then in following years, add more beds, until you have the garden space you need.

Leeks grown from seed in a tray and planted out.

Hanno planted out some new seedlings yesterday - leeks, zucchini and lettuce. Our garden is slow to start this year but is now taking shape. I can see another productive year coming up and I look forward to strolls in the garden in the late afternoon, picking snow peas and eating them in the garden surrounded by creeping vines and ripe fruit and listening to the birds.

Happy gardening everyone.

How to start a vegetable garden

Raised garden beds in the city - video
How to build a raised bed with timber edging - video


  1. Good Morning Rhonda Jean,
    I've been gardening with the rotation system the last 3 years, on flat beds, but I'm starting to wonder if I should switch to raised beds - there's something about it that appeals to the neatness-side of me. In a rotation system, as a newbie gardener, I do get a bit bogged down with the rules of it, and what do you do with permanent plants like my beautiful artichokes that I don't want to shift? I'm still working it out. :o)
    Have a lovely day today.
    Rachel L from NZ

  2. Good morning Rachel. Yes, the perennials - another problem. Artichokes, rhubarb etc, where to they go? I think plant rotation works if you're planting half a year with a limited variety of plants but if you're working on sustainable food production, it's tough trying to place everything in it's proper rotation.

  3. We have just built a new garden in our back yard using the no dig raised bed and it is going great. We put down layers of newspaper, manure, compost, lime, gysum and mulch and have also started planting our seedling in newspaper pots to be planted out. I love learning new and sustainable ways to grow a great garden with my children.

  4. I spent the afternoon in the garden yesterday, planting out leeks and spinach that I'd grown in toilet roll holders first. I just popped them in the ground, toilet rolls and all. (The theory being that the rolls will rot away and the plants will happily grow. We'll see.)

    I have some perennial leeks (they've been going two years now. I just cut them off at ground level when I want to harvest them and they keep on growing back. I saw this on a tv show about nuns gardening in France. (I don't know why I added that...))

  5. This is a topic I'd like to learn more about! What a perfect time for this post. I've just harvested my garlic and onions--what should I plant there to re-nourish the soil?

  6. I have noticed in your garden pictures that you have upside down clay pots on sticks. Are those for bird deterrence?

  7. Great to see a rotation schedule. I am planning to put in a hoop house up this fall for cole crops all winter (hopefully!) We live in (very cold winter) Michigan, USA. I've been wondering about rotations. Rhonda, have you ever considered using herbs or flowers in the holes in your cement blocks? I keep looking at those in your pics, and thing it would be a wonderful space for some little something or other! ;-)

    Wish I had your gardening year round ability!
    Dava from SW Michigan, USA

  8. I haven't found crop rotation works that well for me either, so glad to hear someone else that isn't set on it. I find that I just have too much of some crops (like peas, can't get enough peas) to be able to rotate them. Also, I think with growing all year round (instead of having a fallow period like they do where it snows), we can get more crops per year in, which makes it a bit hard.

  9. This is such a timely post. We have a flat garden with lawn all around. As I was trying to repair some damage a storm did to our peas I was overwhelmed when I noticed the amount of weeding I needed to do. The grass and clover just creep into the garden from the edges overnight it seems. lol I was thinking in my head we should get some cinder blocks and just slowly add it up. Thanks for this post!

  10. Thanks for the wonderful post and pics! Encourages me to want to garden again, although the deer, bear, etc. think everything is a candy store for them. I love reading about it...


  11. Dear Rhonda, I don't know how I came across your blog, but it must have impressed me because I kept it on my blog favorite and today I have a bit of time on my hand to clous through by favorite and found it again. You are a woman of my heart. I love the simple way you live growing your own veges and stitching. I love the rush green garden you have got. Thanks for inspiring me to live a simple life - Natima

  12. Hi Rhonda
    We have a raised bed now in an allotment so I understand the benefits you describe, but what problems did you have with other methods? We have a large piece of land that we plan on cultivating next spring but want to start preparing what we can this year. We have not decided which way we are going to proceed.

  13. Leeks....eek..!!!!
    Planting them out for the first time this year was even more fiddly than the onions!!!!!
    They were like planting fine hairs, and now my weeds are coming up like hair in between them...
    I sure am looking forward to that soup after all this work!!!!

  14. Raised bed gardening is a very good thing. Did you know that Thomas Jefferson, one of America's founding fathers used raised beds at his home in Monticello Virginia?
    We try to rotate crops.We have some cold weather in the winter so our growing season typically runs from late May to late September. However I've had good luck with wintering over garlic, beets and spinach.
    I would like to try growing leeks. The price in the stores are ridiculous.
    I would appreciate any advice you could offer on growing leeks. Thanks. DM

  15. Hi Rhonda Jean

    We have two areas where we grow veggies. The one has 6 raised beds which I use for my rotational crops and the other for my perenials....I did potatoes and sweet potatoes there this last summer but I am putting my artichokes, asparagus, Rhubard and strawberries there now.

    I had hoped to grow some green manure there to replenish the soil but find that on such a small property we have to make all the areas be productive all the time.

    So its compost on top and some volcano dust...maybe in summer I will grow lots of beans in between!

    Thanks for your post today - love the photos!

  16. Rhonda,

    Total Ditto from me! I also use raised beds, but living in a 7B area means that I have a super long growing season (3 actually) without even a hoop house and the suburban lot means I have restricted space to grow a big portion of my food.

    So, rotation is out for me too. :) There just isn't the room in my intensively planted, interplanted and succession planted raised beds for it.

    And like you, I agree that raised beds, despite the additional costs in set up, are really life savers. The weeding time alone is so much less that it makes gardening do-able for many more folks.

    Love the garden pics!

  17. Rhonda Jean,

    I realize you might not get back to me on this...and I can probably guess the answer: how soon would you put out the chook compost? the stuff that is mixed with the straw? our chook stuff has been out of the coop for a week and it was probably old by a few weeks already, but I want to mix it into some of my beds. Nothing is in there yet, and I would be aware of the high N content with this mix.

    Christine in Michigan, where it is pretty close to safely plant the warm weather crops.

  18. Rhonda-
    I've been soaking up the knowledge here, but had an ah-ha moment standing in front of the plant section of a local store trying to decide what to do with the empty spot still in the garden. I'm thinking, along with tracking money, it might make sense to me to sort of track Veggies I buy and make a plan based on that visible list. In the garden dept or looking at the seed catalog, it is easy to be tempted by lovely veggies that you may or may not eat alot of. My favorite greenhouse had plenty of eggplant left, but why waste my limited space on something we really don't eat, just because they look pretty in the picture and we should eat it? Or really, how many onions do I eat in a year? I buy them one by one or by the bag, when I run out... how many is that?? Thanks for your encouragement..keep diggin'


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