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Terrible raised bed soil; where to go from here.

14 years ago

I have just had the worst vegetable garden season ever, in new raised beds. I'm hoping I can get some feedback on how to improve my soil in time for next year. I'm not an expert with vegetables, but have been gardening for a long time and I used to get 8-foot tall tomatoes in Georgia clay, so I must have been doing something right. Right now, I'm in Hampton, VA, with very different soil and somewhat different weather (zone 7b).

Having bought a house over the winter, I built twelve 4'x8' raised beds out of 2x4s. They are about a foot tall. The reasoning was that the only place I had that would be approprate for a vegetable garden puddled after a rain (it is very, very flat here), and since we live on a corner it would look a little tidier.

I filled them with half topsoil and half compost from our municipal waste center. Stuff looked pretty good; it had some bits of wood in it, but the rest of the compost was so soft and decomposed I figured it would be OK.

I learned later that the topsoil I got was actually a topsoil/compost blend, so the beds really have a lot of compost. ...mmmmmOK....

I then mulched the bed with finely ground mulch from the municipal center. I used to use straw, which worked well, but I didn't think it would be tidy in raised beds (especially at the edges), and I always had problems with squash bugs in it.

Skipping ahead a few weeks, the plants were all yellowing and stunted, I assume from a nitrogen deficiency. Perhaps the compost wasn't finished. Used a good bit of fertilizer, and even doused the bed with 5-gallon buckets of diluted ammonia. Plants would green up a bit, but still not grow as well as I am used to. The best plants seem to be the peanuts (not yet harvested), which bolsters the nitrogen problem idea. Harvest has been terrible. I think less than 10 ripe tomatoes out of about 24 plants. (Of course, the deer have a little to do with that too.)

Second issue is that the mulch is repelling water, and the beds are getting pretty dry. The soil drains really well, which I initially thought would be a good thing. I read here about disturbing it to break up the crust; don't know why I didn't think of that but I will try it this week with the hand rake. The mulch has grown a lot of slime mold and mushrooms over the season, but I'm OK with that.

Fall is now here, and I have an opportunity to improve things for next year. I'm just not sure what would be the best way to proceed. I really don't want another lousy summer! I figure these are some of my options:

1) pull back mulch, add free manure from local horses (likely unaged), mix into top few inches, replace mulch, hope ages by springtime enough to not burn the plants. But maybe with the nitrogen issue that won't be likely anyway.

2) remove mulch, plant crimson clover. Kill clover in the spring, mix into top few inches as well as I can without a tiller, and replace mulch

3) remove mulch, mix in poultry feed, replace mulch.

4) remove mulch, mix in a layer of grass clipings. Mulch with grass clipings next season (thinly, to avoid stink). But our grass is exceptionally weedy.

5) some combination of the above, or other ideas I haven't thought of.

Lastly, I've been wanting to plant garlic for years. What could I do to plant garlic this fall and not have another disaster (it's still fall planting season here).

Any advice would be greatly appreciated. My flowers that are not in raised beds have done lovely. The new herb garden has been fantastic. It's just these raised beds that are driving me mad!

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