Gardening, simplified

This is the longest backstory ever. If you want to see what we built this weekend, you can cut to the chase by scrolling to the garden building photos below! 


Two years ago, in over our heads with livestock and farm projects and weeds as far as the eye could see, we threw in the towel on gardening for the year.

I’ve never been quite so conflicted (yet ecstatic) to give up on a project that I loved before.

Our old garden was huge. Tilled out of a tired pasture with a major invasive bindweed and Canada thistle problem, it was a disaster that we could never get on top of. Established when we were still renting our land, we chose the only available site that wasn’t being rented out for pasture by another family, or planted in hay. We used the land that we could, but it wasn’t the right site and every season was a painful, uphill battle.

The invasives problem was real in the old garden, and I was weary of being pricked in the backside by thistle shoots every time I knelt down to pick a green bean, and so over the bindweed that sprung up overnight to strangle my lettuces to death.

I remember harvesting potatoes one year and literally crying, after digging up more old farm debris than produce.

“If we were the Ingalls we would DIE!” I sputtered through tears.

Oh, the drama.

So I called “game-off” on the garden plans, despite having already bought seeds and planned the crops for the coming year.

I suggested that instead we cover crop, rethink, and rebuild the garden.

And then? We exhaled.

Not gardening that first year was bliss. So much so that we took last year off as well. We found more time to forage, work on other projects, and be together as a family. My friend Mary created a CSA box just for us, and I’d pick up organic veggies on their Amish farm for a song once a week.

My old garden was taken over by nettle, which (in my book) is the best crop ever to beat back the thistles. I harvest in the old beds every morning throughout the spring, filling my larder with dried nettle for the coming year. Later in the year I harvest catnip, motherwort, mullein, and burdock from what was once our garden.

The perfect ending to a long-frustrating site.


But then, two years after quitting, a funny thing began to happen.

We all missed the garden.

The kids (who previously lacked enthusiasm when it came to all things gardening beyond snacking on sungold tomatoes and fresh cucumbers) in particular started pleading:

Can we plant a garden this year?

It felt like some sort of accidental parenting win: kids hate gardening? Quit. Then they’ll magically become passionate garden enthusiasts.

Of course, we said yes. We had only meant to take one year off, not two. If we pushed it to three it might be time to move back to town.

To escape the bindweed and thistle, we decided raised beds were in order, and far away from our old garden plot. And to prevent our annual garden overwhelm, we also wanted to start slow: one small raised bed each. Then if we love it, we can build four more next season, or throw caution to the wind and broadfork some beds right in the earth.

So last week we got to work:


Pete, Sage, and Lupine built four 4 x 8 cedar garden beds. Our whole farm is hills, so they were set level on the hill above our house, then filled halfway with tightly packed organic hay we harvested (from the very site that our new garden now stands) when we had sheep.

We used hay to save money on the compost we filled the boxes with, and provide drainage. We figured it’s sort of a raised bed/hugel bed/bale gardening hybrid. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Everyone was so excited we could hardly stand it. We had two cubic yards of organic compost delivered, and topped each bed to the brim with that, leaving just enough leftover for a few mounds outside the beds for pumpkins, melons, and zucchini. (Because, as it turned out, Sage and I couldn’t limit ourselves to a 4 x 8 after all.)


Conveniently, Seed Savers was running their annual organic heirloom plant sale just across the river in Iowa on Saturday so we paused our work and headed over for starts and seeds, then got busy planning  and planting our beds.

To add to the charm, Lupine crafted our garden markers from some mulberry and pine branches.


I’m not sure when gardening felt like less of a chore and more like unwrapping a present than this. The new raised beds are beautiful, self-contained, manageably sized, and – at least for now – weed free. We plan to use the Ruth Stout deep mulch method, as recommended by my gardening friend Genie, to keep the weeds at bay (afflink).

We’ll harden off our starts this week, then finish planting. And then? We’ll spend some time this summer with our hands in the soil once again, but this time without so may thistles.


How excited I am for the coming season!

Are you a gardener? What are you most eager to plant with your family this season?

5 thoughts on “Gardening, simplified

  1. Kim says:

    Those are beautiful beds and I love the garden markers! Love how you pause, reflect, revise and try something new.

  2. Misti Little says:

    We are heading toward summer with our garden but I totally understand about not being on top of a garden. The year after my son was born our edible garden went to the weeds and I felt really bad about it. I wish I could go back and tell myself to get over it and ease up a bit!

    Now I’m reaping some of the consequences from that because the weed seed bank is still going strong so summer can get nutty with the weed pulling. We have lovely tropical weeds here in Houston so that’s really fun! lol

  3. Laura says:

    I’m a Gardner without a yard! However, I have a 2nd floor balcony. I’ve got kale & lettuce seeds planted, the chives are ready to be trimmed as needed & im slowly figuring out what to plant. Yeah spring!

  4. Amy M says:

    We just put in a couple of raised beds this year for strawberries and asparagus, and once it’s just a bit warmer I’m excited to try a 3 sisters planting this year. I remember reading about your hugel bed but haven’t caught any updates on that. I was really curious to follow its progress. (My feed reader stopped getting posts a while back.) We really should terrace our main garden plot and I thought some hybrid terracing-hugel type solution could be beneficial.

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