How to Build a Garden Bed in the High Desert

Growing vegetables is a big part of our spring and summer around here.  We like to grow our own food as much as we can.  Once you start you get spoiled.  The produce in the grocery store, while it looks good, pales in comparison when it comes to flavor and freshness.   We just had green beans last night from the store.  They looked great.  The taste?….Meh…..

Don’t get me started on Whole Foods Paycheck either.  You don’t really save money gardening unless you happen to shop there.  I don’t know why they have all those buttons on their cash registers since it seems that they simply take the number of items you picked out and multiply it by $20.

Back to gardening…

Growing veggies is great but your results are going to be in direct relationship to the quality of your dirt.  Great dirt = healthy plants = awesome vegetables.

What is great dirt?

From a plant’s point of view great dirt is soil that is composed of neither too much clay (doesn’t drain) nor too much sand (drains too fast) and chock full of decomposed organic matter.  Plants need the soil to be light and fluffy so that they can grow their roots easily.  Fluffy soil also means it’s well aerated which the plants appreciate since they need air underground too to do their growing magic.

How does the soil in New Mexico look from a plant’s point of view?  Not so good.  If NM dirt was being tested for the above requirements we’d have to pick…D-none of the above.  Our soil tends to be either just clay or just sand and since our climate is arid enough to keep all but the scrappiest of plants from thriving we don’t have much of a natural cycle of organic material building up.

Excavating for a new bed

Excavating for a new bed

What to do?

Back in the late 1800’s a method of gardening developed called the French intensive method.  The French gardeners of that time refined a method of building raised beds that still applies today.  The beds were built by a process called double digging.

Double digging involves digging out all the top soil from the bed to the depth of a shovel head (about 12″ ) and then go back and do a second pass to the depth of a second shovel loosening the dirt another 12″ and amending it with fertilizer; traditionally horse manure cause they had a lot of it at the time.

After working the lower layer you add the topsoil back along with more manure.  In the end you have a raised bed full of soft fluffy dirt with lots of organic matter.

Sifted Manure

Sifted Manure

In NM it’s not that easy.  We have to go a few steps further.   First of all,  in my yard if I plant anything it’s like I just set up a neon sign advertising Joe’s Diner and everyone comes out to see what kind of handouts they can get, especially the gophers and moles.  Competition is fierce here and tender plants in good dirt are like the scrawny kid with glasses in the schoolyard.  They’re gonna get rolled for their lunch money or worse.

Expanded metal lath to keep gophers out

Expanded metal lath on the bottom of the bed to keep gophers out

In order to protect our plants I’ve learned the hard way that they need to be kept in a maximum security facility.  This means my garden beds need to be lined on the sides and bottom in order to keep intruders from tunneling in and taking out half the plants in one fell swoop.

Building the structure for a new garden bed

Building the structure for a new garden bed out of salvaged metal and papercrete blocks

Building a garden bed NM style

We live in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo Mountains and I’m lucky if I have two feet of soil before I hit bedrock.  Digging a garden bed for me consists of a pass with a pick axe to break up the clay and or rock and then shoveling it out. It’s more like carving than excavating.

This also means that there is a lot of processing to do before that dirt goes back into the bed.  I sift all the dirt I took out of the bed through a 1/4″ screen to remove rocks and break up the clay into smaller bits.  Usually about half the dirt that I’ve extracted doesn’t qualify as gardenworthy and ends up as backfill somewhere else.

Essential tools- a sifter and a wheelbarrow

Essential tools- a sifter and a wheelbarrow


Sifting rocks out of the dirt

Sifting rocks out of the dirt

Our dirt has no organic matter in it and by no organic matter I mean none, zero, zilch.  I need to do a lot of amending to the soil when I build a bed.  I use a combination of techniques to help the soil hold the maximum amount of water and supply nutrients both now and down the road. I build up the bed in a series of layers in order to build up a mix of ingredients that will support and nurture our plants.

Cardboard layer

Cardboard layer

The first layer is paper or cardboard.  This attracts worms.  We want worms and lots of them.  They’re like little bulldozers and compost makers all in one.  They work the soil endlessly areating it and mixing the various components together.  Worm castings (poop) are also one of the richest sources of nutrients for plants.

Straw next

Straw next

Next I put down a 3″ layer of straw or hay.   A few years ago we scored about 90 bales of alfalfa for free from freecycle so that’s what I use.  The bales break apart easily into ~ 3″ sections (leaves) and I layer the bottom with it.  The straw holds a ton of moisture.  It’s like having a giant sponge at the bottom of the bed.  Eventually it breaks down into compost providing a rich source of food for the plants down the road.

If I feel like spending the money I sprinkle a 50/50 combination of bone meal and blood meal on the straw.  The nitrogen in the blood meal helps to kick off the decomposition of the straw.  Lately I’ve switched to adding a layer of chicken poop which is high in nitrogen as well as free and plentiful around here.

First section filled with dirt

First section filled with dirt

After the base of paper and straw I fill the bed up with a mix of sifted soil and organic amendments.  I aim for a 50/50 mix of sifted dirt that came out of the bed and organic matter.   The last couple years I’ve been able to get trailers full of composted horse manure for free so that’s the majority of what I use.  I sift the manure too because there are a lot of wood chunks in it.  Wood is OK once it has broken down but it ties up a lot of nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes so you want to keep it to a minimum.

About half the volume of the horse manure doesn’t fit through the screen and ends up as back fill.  I layer up a wheelbarrow full of soil then a wheelbarrow full of manure untill I ‘ve filled the bed.  A light sprinkling of straw or leaves in between every few layers of dirt and manure helps to add some structure to the soil and organic matter to break down in the future.  Again, you don’t want to add a lot because it will tie up the nitrogen in the soil.

Once the bed is filled with the soil/manure mix I stir it up with a garden fork.  I do a couple passes over the whole bed to evenly distribute everything.  Once mixed, I water the soil thoroughly a couple times until it is moist all the way down to the straw.

After the soil is prepared I set up drip irrigation to go on top.  Everything here needs to be watered regularly.  If I did it all by hand there wouldn’t be time for much else.

Glass Shower doors make for an instant cold frame

Glass shower doors make for an instant cold frame.

I leave a few inches of space from the top of the soil to the top of the walls.  When the plants are small I lay windows on top of the bed and it acts as a cold frame holding moisture and warmth in while keeping the wind out.  I’ve found that if I don’t protect the plants during this crucial part of their development they will only grow to about half their normal size or not make it at all.

It takes a ton of work to prepare a bed this way.  A 2’x 8′ bed takes me 12-16 hours from start to finish but once it’s completed I know I’ve done everything I could to give the plants what they need to thrive.  After the first year all I need to do to prepare to plant is to add a 2″ layer of compost on top and lightly mix it in.

Sounds like a lot of work.  Is it worth it?

Heck yeah!  Once the pain in my wrists and back has faded I don’t even think about the up front work I had to do.  These beds should last for years and years.  The soil is fantastic and the plants are producing lots of greens and vegetables for us.  We eat tasty organic hyper-local produce out of the garden three seasons of the year.

girls and veggies

The girls love their veggies


Garlic and shallots

Garlic and shallots harvest


What?  You can’t get enough of us?  Well do we have options for you!

 You can subscribe to Mike and Molly’s House through our RSS feed or email.

You can also follow our Facebook Fanpage , join us on Twitter, see what we are up to on Google + and see what cool stuff we follow on Pinterest.  

 Like what you see here?  Spread the word to your friends and family!




  1. Posted April 6, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    That’s some good dirt under those fingernails, Mike.   I can appreciate the hard work that goes into building pest-proof beds with good soil. 

    I don’t have half the challenges you do in eastern OK.  Alfalfa hay is great stuff, good for organic matter building and for mulch, as long as it’s weed-seed-free.  I thought I scored great on a few bales of wheat straw this winter, and as turned out, all but one are chock full of seeds.  Blast the luck!

    What’s that under the cardboard?

    • Posted April 9, 2012 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      It’s funny, we have every other problem but weeds.   I pull the few that come up at first but basically stuff only grows where the drip irrigation is and after the plants get big enough they shade out the competition.  

      In the bed in the picture I put down a layer of paper, then cardboard, then sprinkled bone/blood meal I also put down a layer of cottonseed meal for longer term feeding.  Then I filled them with the sifted dirt/manure along with more of the bone/blood/cottonseed meal.  Maybe sulfur too.   I can’t recall.   I think I went a bit overboard last year.  (What you get from a winter of reading gardening books) This year it’s just paper, chicken poop, dirt and horse manure.  We’ll see how things turn out.

  2. Doglover1918
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Great post! We have a lot of the same problems here near the Royal Gorge in Colorado. Sounds like a lot of work, but worth it in the long run.

  3. Nino
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Lots of work, but great results!  Like your details–we can follow easily.

  4. Jes2jba
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    – y’all are ambitious and the beds are beautiful. I gave up digging this NM soil/rock and just built on top and filled the planters with new dirt. Works fine. Used worm casting as fertilizer till the bears ate the worm bin. Ah, life in the mountains.

  5. Jprewitt6
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    i guess i need to start all over.  may need to go to those little boxes.  mommy sha

  6. Terry
    Posted April 7, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    I read this and got all the items you mentioned and am ready to go with the new bed! 
    Also came  home with a doz. chicks!  Very excited!  My grandkids are in for a surprise tomorrow when they see them.  One of my Granddaughters is bringing her two rabbits to live out here also.  Being a Grandmother and affording the opportunity for my family to see this other side of living is a wonderful journey; but my kids are used to me, as I drug them all the way to Alaska and moved to Montana on a train, so the adventure continues………as always, thanks for the inspiration!  Terry

  7. Posted April 14, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    This is exactly what I’ve been needing, and just in time as I’m about to dig up the remaining yard for garden beds. I’m game to do all the work, though the sifting might get the better of me. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on manure–should it be composted before it goes in, how does one go about doing that, and how the heck do you ever get it small enough to go through a screen? 

    • Posted April 15, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      I’ve been fortunate enough to get manure that is already composted.  When I sift it the good stuff falls right through and leaves woodchips and rocks behind.  Composting the manure is just a matter of keeping it moist and turning it occasionally.  A lot of work if you are doing any sort of quantity.  

      Another method is to put it in contractor trash bags to keep the moisture in.  It seems to help in our dry climate.  I usually water it and keep it covered with plastic if the pile is drying out.  I’m lazy and don’t turn the pile.  I just wait till it’s done.  Everything rots eventually if it is moist enough to keep the bacteria alive.The main issue is with manure that is too fresh. If it still smells like ammonia it can burn the plants’ roots. If you have the luxury of time you can bury a bunch of manure in your bed, keep it moist and it will be ready for you next season.You can also just be conservative in adding manure this year and give the beds a good top dressing when the manure has composted. 

  8. Shaunapc
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this!!  A couple of questions.. we don’t have chickens.. but we do have guinea pigs and rabbits.. do you think their poop work work just as well?  They get fed only raw veggies and their dry food.. I would think it might be OK??  Also.. in our garden we seem to be getting some bugs eating our crops before we do!!  Any ideas to get rid of those??  THANKS!!!

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      Yup, any herbivores poop is just fine.  I’d compost it with some straw (used bedding is perfect) to help balance the ammonia/nitrates.  Once it’s looking composted throw it on!  The best bet for beating out the bugs is moving your crops around.  Last year’s squash bugs laid eggs right where the squash was. If you plant there again they’ll be stoked and you’ll be sad.  Companion planting and not planting in blocks or rows can help too.  Some plants repel other’s pests and vice versa.  The classic book for is Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte.  Check for it in the library.

      • Shaunapc
        Posted April 19, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

        Thank you SO MUCH!!!!  I have heard of companion planting.  We have started our garden about 3 months ago, we do the square foot gardening.  Some things have taken off.. others.. not so much.  So.. after this crop has harvested.. I think we will look into the companion planting!  Again, thanks for you advice and tips!!

  9. Posted April 8, 2018 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    This is EXACTLY what I needed. We moved from lush western WA to southwest Utah at about 5,400 feet. We already have the blocks for building our raised beds, but I was wondering how to improve the soil so water doesn’t just drain away. I already knew I needed to used hardware cloth to keep the pocket gophers out and I figured I could use manure, which is free here in horse country, but you added a couple of things that will really help. Thanks! With only 15″ of rain a year, I know we will have to do low-flow watering system and with good soil, we won’t just lose all our water to the sand. Thanks. I will be checking out the rest of your site. We will be getting fruit trees and chickens this year, too.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] See what Mike (of Mike and Molly’s House fame) is doing with his own raised beds: “How to Build a Garden Bed in the High Desert“.  Also a nice write-up on the French Intensive […]

  2. […] and Tell > Show and Tell at Mike and Molly’s House | We’ve Got Garden Fever! « How to Build a Garden Bed in the High Desert Show and Tell at Mike and Molly’s House | We’ve Got Garden Fever! By MikeApr92012 […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>