Last Sunday the weather was beautiful, (well, beautiful for March in Pittsburgh, anyway!), and I finished prepping the garden for early spring planting. Did I spend hours behind a fume and noise-spewing rototiller? Nope!! I spent about 10 minutes pulling out a few tiny weed sprouts, then spreading some nice organic fertilizer, lime, and compost onto the bed for my early cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower. No digging necessary! (OK, I did use a hand trowel to dig in the lime and the fertilizer before I put the compost on top.) So why is it that I'm not battling weeds and working up a sweat with power tools (or at the very least getting my back into it with a spade)??? Did we luck out and inherit some magical plot that was totally weed-free or discover some great new herbicide?? Nope!! It's because we put in raised beds when we got this plot about 5 years ago. Just check out the "before and after" pictures of our garden. Although the "before" picture was taken in March before the weeds got a real upper hand (root?), believe me, it was full of the thistles, mug wort, and other nasties that run rampant throughout this community garden. (Not to mention the fact that there were still tons of good old Pennsylvania clay in this plot. Not the best medium for growing much of anything!) There are other benefits to doing raised beds than just getting the upper hand on weeds too. Since you basically divide your garden into separate, designated planting spaces and walking spaces you avoid compacting the soil in your growing space (as long as you don't go strolling around in your raised beds!) That means that once you have the soil prepped initially, you shouldn't have to till the soil again, EVER! (Yep, no heavy digging, with or without power tools!) And with raised beds you can really enrich you soil and plant things closer together than you might do in a "regular" garden. There's a great book called Square Foot Gardening that talks about this in depth, and gives great ideas on how big your raised beds should be, when to plant what, and how much space to give various vegetables--it's really a great book!
So, how do you get started? First, decide where your raised beds will be, and where you want your paths to be. We made our paths about 3-4 feet wide, which seems like a lot of "wasted" space, but believe me, it's really nice to have this space to maneuver around the beds. Next, prep the soil in each of the raised bed areas by double-digging. While you dig your bed remove any roots from perennial weeds, rocks, and lumps of clay. Once you have the beds dug you can install the frame of the raised beds. We made ours 6' X 4'. This is relatively convenient because the lumber is generally sold as 10' X 6" X 2" sizes. (You'd get 2 sides out of one of these pieces.) The 6" depth means that you can bury the sides of the raised beds about an inch or two down, and still have a decent amount above ground as the raised part. Burying the sides of the beds gives more of a weed barrier than just putting them on top of the ground, and also prevents the soil inside the bed from migrating out through any space in the bottom. And it gives more stability to your bed. At this point you'll probably need to add more soil to your beds. We scraped the path areas (shaving off and removing the tops of weeds there, and then sifting any nice soil into our raised beds.) If necessary you can purchase top soil to add to your beds, and of course add lots of nice aged compost.
To make your path areas weed-free, lay down either landscape fabric, or corrugated cardboard as a barrier, and then cover it all with a generous layer of wood mulch. This should keep your paths weed-free for at least a couple of years. When the mulch breaks down and the weeds start creeping in, just put down more cardboard and mulch.
This sounds like a lot of work, (and initially it is), but believe me, it's well worth the effort! The time you take putting in your raised beds in the beginning will be made up for by the easy spring plantings you'll have in your future!