Simplify your life and increase your harvest using a system that combines no-till gardening with the ease of raised beds.

Late last summer my husband and I realized there was something wrong with our garden. After seven years of growing in one location, we’d noticed a shift in our garden’s production. Not only were we harvesting fewer crops, we were adding more amendments, spending more time weeding, and fighting more pests than we ever had before.

Across the continent, Jim and Mary Competti were seeing the opposite results. After nine years growing on their Ohio farmstead, the couple were pulling more produce from their garden than they knew what to do with. Yet they were adding very little to their soil and spending even less time tending it: about ten minutes a day.

The difference between our Pacific Northwest patch and the Competti’s Ohio garden is the way they managed their soil and planted their crops. Their pioneering method makes gardening sustainable over the long term with less work and better results. They call it raised row gardening.

A new way to garden

Raised by families who practiced the till-and-plant method that many gardeners use today, Jim and Mary opted to try something different when they first developed their Ohio farmstead. Without the time or inclination to dig up the grass blanketing their patch, they layered organic materials and soil onto it instead. Into this mixture they planted starter plants, and then mulched the whole thing to prevent weeds.

Related: Mulch Your Garden to Beat the Heat

“When that first year came around, we used grass clippings on our walking rows,” Jim says. “Then we planted right in between and we strawed them heavily because we weren’t going to be here a lot…to conserve moisture and also keep down weeds.”

In the fall, after a successful harvest, they raked back the mulch and planted a cover crop of annual rye. This would help stabilize the soil and recycle nutrients when they turned the crop come springtime.

But when spring arrived, they’d had another brainwave. “We noticed that the annual rye died off and we thought, why don’t we just plant through that, instead of ever having to till again,” Jim says. “That’s where we really broke through into the gardening system that we have today.”

fall rye cover cropIn early spring, the Competti’s raised rows sport a lush cover crop. After several mowings with the lawn mower, the beds are ready to plant..

Their method turned out to be garden gold. Not only did they save themselves a heap of time, they also increased yield and decreased costs. Nine years later, the Compettis are still using this gardening method, and they’ve shared it with a wider audience through their book, Raised Row Gardening.

The goals of raised row garden beds

From the beginning raised row gardening was about simplifying. The Compettis had day jobs. Adding backbreaking work to their family’s routine was never their goal. They wanted healthy food, but they knew there had to be a better way. That’s why they combined the best of no-till gardening with mulching and raised garden beds to create a system that got easier over time.

And here’s where raised row gardening really differs from traditional gardening. Tilling and planting depletes the soil. But layering without tilling—while adding nutrients back through composts and cover cropping—ensures an ever-improving cycle.

“It’s hard to explain to some people that it’s less maintenance until they do it,” Jim says of their raised row system. “Yes, you’re going to have some weeds the first and second year, but as you continue to pile up those organic layers, you have to do less and less, and you reap more and more.”

Related: 5 Secrets to a No-Work Garden

The easiest raised beds

Piling up those organic layers eventually leads to a garden bed that’s raised above ground level. While the Compettis don’t use the wooden frames common in many raised garden beds, this method could work well in garden boxes.

“The basic method has stayed the same,” Mary says of how the system has evolved. “We use organic materials like straw or grass clippings or leaves [in the beds], and then we have topsoil on top, and we have the compost on top of that. What’s evolved is that we use different sources of materials for our walking rows.”

Clockwise from top left, Jim and Mary Competti; raised rows planted with starter plants in May; the raised row garden in July.

The rules of the raised row garden are music to the ears of most gardeners:

No tilling or turning after the first year.

In addition to degrading soil quality over time, tilling churns seeds to the surface, launching a new crop of weeds that have to be managed as soon as they germinate. Cover cropping garden beds helps maintain a healthy soil structure and prevents erosion. But it also does more than that: annual crops like fall or winter rye actually control weeds, eliminating the need to till entirely.

Cover all bare soil.

If the soil isn’t exposed, there’s much less chance of weeds taking root and growing. Coverage is through mulch during the growing season and cover crops the rest of the year. (Jim is careful to emphasize that they cover crop with annual rye, the cereal grain, not perennial ryegrass.)

Planting into the stubble helps avoid the spring weeding that plagues many gardeners. It also means you can plant earlier, since you don’t have to wait until the soil dries out to till it. “The rye crop that we use in the fall, it has just eliminated so many issues,” Mary says.

Use compost to boost transplants and rows.

The Competti’s garden doesn’t get synthetic fertilizers, but it does benefit from amendments added at key times. Their top amendment is a rich homemade compost augmented with worm castings and other materials. If there’s extra compost to go around, the Compettis will spread it throughout their growing rows.

Related: How to Choose the Right Composter

Are raised rows expensive to set up?

Jim notes that if you buy everything from scratch when setting up your first raised rows, it can be expensive. But the beauty of the method is that in most places, you can get the materials for free.

“Even in major cities, there are so many tree trimming companies. We just had a delivery five days ago of maple chips for free. That exists everywhere,” he says.

Using what’s available keeps their method affordable and sustainable. “You can produce a lot from a little,” Mary says.

Putting it all into practice

Back at home, my husband and I have transitioned half our garden to the Competti’s raised row system. Five months in, we are impressed. Where weed-choked soil once took hours a day to manage, we now have neat rows smothered in mulch without a weed in sight.

But the real surprise has been the yields: our tomatoes have never been so abundant. Our cabbages are currently the size of soccer balls. Knowing that we spent less time in those beds for better results is gratifying. Even better is the knowledge that our soil is improving year by year.

Now that’s how gardening should be.

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For more information, read Raised Row Gardening: How to Grow Incredibly Organic Produce with No Weeding, by Jim and Mary Competti, Page Street Publishing.

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