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Permaculture Solution For A Really Rooty Situation. Sweet Corn Growing Without A Garden Bed

Updated on August 12, 2015
The corn in my improvised bed looks surprisingly close in quality to the sweet corn in the regular garden bed.
The corn in my improvised bed looks surprisingly close in quality to the sweet corn in the regular garden bed.

As above, so below

The crown of the tree at top left extends over twenty feet -- and so do its roots.
The crown of the tree at top left extends over twenty feet -- and so do its roots.

After all the good garden spots have been used

Once the south-facing full-sun well-drained areas have stuff growing in them, it's time to fix up the potential garden spots with issues. In this case, lots of tree roots.

I didn't want to damage the tree's system of getting food and water for itself, but my small backyard is shady and shaped like a cereal bowl. Plantable space is precious. I wanted to start a row of corn next to a couple of raised beds I put it last year. I have corn growing in a raised bed I built over the back part of our driveway, so I needed a place to plant this second variety of corn away from where the pollen from the first corn might blow. I have enough garden problems without frankenveggies.

It was time for a "no-dig" garden! Easy on my back, used fifty cents' worth of materials, and took fifteen minutes.

Bottom layer with an "aisle" of dirt down the middle

I pulled up the worst of the weeds (the rest will smother) & added armfuls of partially-composted leaves. Straw, hay, grass clippings, etc. would work too. Then a 5-gal. bucket of potting mix went in a stripe down the middle.
I pulled up the worst of the weeds (the rest will smother) & added armfuls of partially-composted leaves. Straw, hay, grass clippings, etc. would work too. Then a 5-gal. bucket of potting mix went in a stripe down the middle.

Part of permaculture is using only the space you need

Corn was going in this bed and it grows straight down and straight up. A planted corn kernel needs soil, water & nutrition directed in a circle about a foot across. Anything outside that circle is wasted.

If I'd piled potting soil in a giant running mound in this same sapce, I would have had to work harder to keep the dirt particles in place. Rain plus gravity would have pushed much of the soil down the sides of the mound. I would need solid walls built up to hold the soil in. And I would have needed at least five times the soil I used -- cha-ching! Too expensive.

Leaves are a little acidic, but I already add garden lime because my soil mix (based on peat moss) requires it. I just add a bit more lime to balance out the leaves' pH.

Next, some paper

A row of paper (shredded, with brown paper toweling on top) went on each side of the planting area. Clumps of compos/soil mix hold the paper down.
A row of paper (shredded, with brown paper toweling on top) went on each side of the planting area. Clumps of compos/soil mix hold the paper down.

Using what I have

Brown leaves alone aren't enough to build a no-dig garden. They leave big gaps and by themselves, they compost themselves very slowly. So my next layers, to each side of the planting area, were shredded newsprint (I would have preferred paper without ink but this is what I had) and then some brown paper toweling from the janitorial supplies department of an online office store.

This next layer was to stabilize the new bed, help fill gaps, and help the whole thing compost more quickly into a finer soil-like texture. For the soil piles holding down the brown toweling, I used a mixture of potting soil and some leaves and soil dug out of the yard in another spot. This last is to introduce needed microbes into the potting soil, which might not have the helpful bacteria needed.

From now on, I'll have to compensate for too-close planting

Ideally, corn kernels go a foot apart but space is at a premium so these are 8 or 9 inches apart. To keep the plants from fighting over resources, I will keep them sell-watered and add plenty of worm-casting water, rich in nitrogen.
Ideally, corn kernels go a foot apart but space is at a premium so these are 8 or 9 inches apart. To keep the plants from fighting over resources, I will keep them sell-watered and add plenty of worm-casting water, rich in nitrogen.

Mounding soil only over corn seeds

Rather than add another entire 5-gal. bucket of potting mix, I put a large handful of soil over each corn kernel. One leaf marks the soil mounds.
Rather than add another entire 5-gal. bucket of potting mix, I put a large handful of soil over each corn kernel. One leaf marks the soil mounds.

Now, more leaves but just a few on top

Now, more leaves at the sides, with just a few lightly over the planted area. Corn is a nice strong healthy shoot which rises straight up, but I still need to keep the covering light over the planted kernel so the new plant doesn't have to fight its way out.

Added leaves at the sides build up the bed and help keep the soil in place. They also discourage weeds along the growing area.

Directed watering, permaculture style!

Scooping water from a 5-gallon bucket and then letting it spray from the bottom of a doubled plastic pot "waterer" keeps H20 where I want it. Gentle spray doesn't dislodge seeds.
Scooping water from a 5-gallon bucket and then letting it spray from the bottom of a doubled plastic pot "waterer" keeps H20 where I want it. Gentle spray doesn't dislodge seeds.

13 and a half minutes later

Once I scrounge a bit more repurposed 2X4, I'll have a tider edge at left. Simply watering the bed compressed it all some. Stray leaves blown away will be raked back in place till it all composts together.
Once I scrounge a bit more repurposed 2X4, I'll have a tider edge at left. Simply watering the bed compressed it all some. Stray leaves blown away will be raked back in place till it all composts together.

Using what I got

I've seen permaculture people use everything in the world but plain old dirt to grow their plants in -- sand, straw, sawdust, compost. . . What I have for free here is A. Shredded paper (we get the community papers and there are a lot of them here in this town where ad revenue from pubs and restaurants support journalism. I have a shredder I got at Goodwill for $3 so I can turn those papers into a lot of shredded paper. I would prefer paper without ink, but. . . B. Leaves, mostly maple. I do need to use Compost Quick to help them break down into something closer to compost. I also add garden lime or crushed Tums to balance out the leaf pH which is a little acidic. C. Flattened cardboard boxes. I layer these with the leaves and some compost and some soil to make a base layer, then add looser materials on top, and then plant the individual seeds or beans in little mounds of potting mix.


I also have easy access to peat moss, so that's my not-free-but-cheap basis for a soil mix I make. To the peat, I add potting soil (the kind that costs about $5 for 40 lbs.) and then sand if I have that, and regular old dirt if I have that, plus some compost right out of the bin plus some castings from the worm bin.

I used to make a fancier mix with more expensive ingredients, but I retired early and now I am stretching my budget by working with whatever materials I have handy.

Update! The corn is growing nicely

I guess the plants like the rough-and-rustic uncomfposted leaf mulch. These plants have sturdier stalks than the Double Standard plants. Not sure if it's just being a different variety or whether the corn really likes his toss-and-plant bed better.
I guess the plants like the rough-and-rustic uncomfposted leaf mulch. These plants have sturdier stalks than the Double Standard plants. Not sure if it's just being a different variety or whether the corn really likes his toss-and-plant bed better.
I pushed away a few loose leaves where the cold-hardy variety was shooting up and I was happy with the color and well-formed leaves.
I pushed away a few loose leaves where the cold-hardy variety was shooting up and I was happy with the color and well-formed leaves.

Newest updte! Corn plants look good

Nice color on the leaves.
Nice color on the leaves.
Source

Thank you for reading this!

Whether you have been growing windowsill herbs for many years, tending an acre truck garden on a back lot for the last two years, or you just bought your first packet of seeds, I find it helps to see the real-life experiences of others. In these green living / permaculture / gardening posts, I'm sharing my successes, near-successes, utter failures, and experiments with do-overs in the hope that we can do online what a community garden plot does for people who are neighbors in real life.

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