In the market gardening world, permanent raised beds generally refer to beds that are raised 4-6” above the pathways, creating a mound. The mound is then leveled off to create a nice “tabletop” surface for planting crops, typically 30” wide. Pathways are often 18” wide. The 18” width is not only for the convenience of allowing a comfortable space for harvest totes and wheelbarrows, but it also accommodates the width of a BCS walk-behind tractor, specifically when used with the rotary plow implement.
The length of your beds can vary based on your space constraints, but most often market gardeners will use either 50’ or 100’ beds. Standardizing to these lengths makes a lot of sense when it comes to working with the length of your irrigation lines, insect netting, frost cover, tarps, etc. Standardizing all of your beds to the same length will increase your efficiency and speed up your workflow.
Why Raised Beds?
Creating permanent raised beds on your farm plot makes a lot of sense in the right context. However, it may not always be necessary for every situation. Jean-Martin Fortier, one of the leading voices in the market garden space, has been a long-time advocate of the approach for over a decade. Some of the potential advantages of creating permanent raised beds are (1) better drainage and (2) less compaction.
When growing in areas with high precipitation, a raised bed will divert excess water to the recessed pathways on either side. This can both curb the effects of erosion in your beds, and also help them to dry out faster after a significant rain event. Better drainage increases plant health and helps protect against anaerobic conditions when your soil becomes water-logged.
With designated pathways and permanent beds, there is less need for the farmer to walk in the cultivated bed space. Reduced foot traffic and eliminating the need for large tractors can help significantly to reduce compaction. By periodically flipping soil from the pathways up onto the bed (either manually with a shovel, or by means of a rotary plow on a BCS), a loose aerated soil structure is fostered, making for a habitable environment for soil microbes to thrive!
The Rotary Plow
For those who may be unfamiliar, a rotary plow is an implement for a walk-behind tractor comprised of a large drill that digs into the soil and flips it to one side of the machine. It can be used for creating trenches, recessed pathways, or even loosening an entire plot similar to a deep till. When mounted to the back of a BCS tractor, you can adjust the depth of the drill up to 12” deep. A 6” depth is adequate when creating raised beds.
On most stock models of the BCS tractor, the distance between the outer edge of each tire (for the total width of the machine) is 18”. The drill of the rotary plow will be in the exact center of the machine, creating the center of the path, with 9” to each side.
Traditional Method for Creating Raised Beds
Traditionally the operator would have four corner stakes placed at each corner of the bed, with one string pulled to mark the left side of the bed, and another to mark the right side of the bed. When creating raised beds, the farmer would run the machine along the left side of the bed, using the outer edge of the wheel as a site guide with the string line, while the machine would throw the soil excavated from the pathway to the right, and into the bed.
Once the end of the bed is reached on one side, the rotary plow would be disengaged (for safety) and the operator would turn the BCS 180 degrees to the right to aline the machine on the other side of the bed to return back to where they started, repeating the process to complete the raised bed.
Steadfast Farm Method for Creating Raised Beds
While the aforementioned method worked well enough, Erich Shultz of Steadfast Farm came up with an alternative approach that cut the number of stakes and string needed in HALF, while also saving a significant amount of time and labor!
Rather than using four stakes to mark each corner of the raised bed to be shaped, Erich realized he could instead use only two stakes (one at each end) to mark the CENTER of each bed. He then created a sight guide from a piece of wire or metal clamped to the front frame of the BCS with a couple of standard hose clamps. When shaping 30” beds, the end of the wire is positioned to measure 15” to the right of the edge of the tire. Another way to find the exact measurement (if you have axle extensions) would be to find the center point of the tractor, measure out 9” (half the width of your pathway), and then an additional 15” to mark the center of your 30” bed.
The sight guide pictured above was fashioned from a remnant piece of wiggle wire channel left over from a greenhouse build.
When using the Steadfast Farm method, you can simply place center point stakes every 48” for the length of your filed block. (18” for the pathway, plus 30” for the width of the bed = 48”). It’s also much easier to follow the string line in the center of the bed, as opposed to right on the edge of the bed with the bouncing tire as your site guide.
- Bend the end of your site guide into an “L” shape (angling downward) to give you greater accuracy in following your string line.
- Another way to speed up your process is to cut a 48” piece of scrap wood as a measuring stick, and then pound in your center point stakes in at every 48”.
- As you move from left to right along your field block, simply remove the placeholder stakes as you go, and shift over your stake with the string line. This allows you to do an entire field block of beds with only one string line!
When installing permanent raised beds at my last farm, I used the traditional method to begin with, and then added another field block the following season using the Steadfast Farm method. I can personally attest to how much it speeds up the process and simplifies the procedure. If you are gearing up to start your market garden, and have established that raised beds will benefit in your context, I HIGHLY recommend the rotary plow with a sight gauge and center string line!
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Great article Seth! Really appreciate the detail with which you write these posts. Thank you!