How to Turn Woods into a Garden

How to Turn Woods into a Garden

If this doesn’t impress you- nothing will.

We turned woods.  Woods on a hill, mind you, into an incredible, raised-row, tiered garden.  A big one.

With our hands.

And chainsaws.

And pigs.

And an old barn.

And four children.

And lots of sweat.

And lots of back pain.

If you happen to own 23 acres of woods, like us, and you want a garden, this is proof miracles do happen.

Here is how we turned an giant section of woods (on a hill) into a garden.

When I look at all these photographs I am amazed.  I really am stunned at the transformation, and I was the one holding the chainsaw, so it shouldn’t surprise me so much.  But it does.

First, let’s answer the question everyone is asking…. Why?

“I’ve seen the posts.  I’ve seen your tomatoes.  Your garden is Boombastic.  Why are you clearing woods?”

I have a precious, raised-bed garden.  It has 21 beds.

I think it is the prettiest garden in the world.  It completes me and makes me bushels of food.  It is easy to manage and a joy to have.  There were a couple of problems with my charming, raised garden.  The first was the tomato situation.  I have rotated my tomato plants as much as one can possibly rotate in a garden with raised beds.  Every bed was no longer tomato friendly.  The soil needed a break from all the tomatoes.  For more on my tomato problem go here.

My second problem was my decision to grow everything we ate for 100 days.  I grow a ton of food, but I was a bit concerned that it wouldn’t be enough to sustain 6 people for 100 days.  In addition to growing everything we ate, I wanted to can, freeze and put up food for winter (like usual).  For more on the 100 day challenge go here.

This called for A LOT of veggies.

Lots of veggies means lots of plants.

Lots of plants means I needed more garden space.

So, we decided to expand our garden.  The problem was the woods.  Our property is almost all woods.

Anyone out there who is considering buying a farm to homestead on, listen up.  Our property is 23 acres….. about 18 of it is woods.  We are homesteading on 5 acres of land.  The other 18 is just woods.  Really.

Eight cows, forty chickens, three cats, one dog, three to seventeen pigs (depending on the year), an unknown number of rabbits, two gardens, a barn, a chicken coop, three pastures, two run-ins, a calf barn and a milking parlor are all residing on approximately five acres of our property.  You don’t need a hundred acres of land to do what we do.  You can do it on five to ten acres…. easily.

The woods are beautiful.  We love them.  They give us privacy.  They give us scenery.  They give us venison for dinner.  They do not give us tomatoes.

If you want to grow tomatoes (or cows) you need open land.  You need sunlight.  You need pastures.  You need empty ground.

This is where we were.

There was a spot near my current raised-bed garden that had a nice, gradual slope to it.  It was close to the house.  It had potential.

We elected it as our new garden but there was a problem.  Trees.  Trees were the problem.

Time to get Larry.

After a couple of long days holding chainsaws, DH and had the big trees on the ground.

Don’t worry, those trees were put to good use.  We have a wood burning fireplace in our living room and it keeps the main floor of our house toasty all winter.  Wood is not wasted at our place.  Once the wood has been burned (making us heat) I scoop all those valuable ashes out of my fireplace and dump them in the garden (usually on the asparagus).

Fun fact:  If you ever have real estate on your property that was the home of past bonfires, and you need a place to garden, you may want to consider putting your garden there.  We’ve had many fires over the years.  When you burn a giant pile of wood, all the nutrients, goodness and remains from all that wood has been turned into a couple of less usable products: heat and ash.  Just imagine the incredible content in those ashes – those used to be trees.  The trees have been concentrated into nothing but ash.  The ground, earth, soil, and ash beneath where that fire took place is going to be a very fertile location.

So, the trees are gone and chopped into pieces that will fit in my fireplace.

What was left was weeds, brush, briars, sticks, grass, thorns and baby trees.  This is far from what you want if you want to plant tomatoes.  You need bare ground.  Preferably level, tilled and fertilized.

There are lots of options at this point.  Call someone with a backhoe.  Get a massive tiller.

Or, you can do what I did.  Get pigs.

We used some super cheap, super temporary construction fencing to create a perimeter for the pigs.  We then ran a couple of electric wires on the inside of the orange fence.  Pigs are smart.  Pigs will respect an electric wire or two.  We successfully kept in eight pigs with this set up.  We get our pigs in spring & harvest them in fall.  Pigs are easy to raise and lots of fun.  For more on raising pigs:

After the pigs moved out we were left with a barren land.  Which is what we were going for.

Not much left but well-fertilized, well-tilled, cleared land.  This is where tomatoes grow!

Buuuuuuuuut, we have the hillside problem to deal with.  This land slopes down toward the woods.   Way down.

We need to create level ground.

Why can’t you just plant your tomatoes on a slope?

  1. The rain will run down the hill instead of soaking into the soil.
  2. The rain will take all your soil with it when it runs off.
  3. The rain will take all your tomato plants with it when it runs off.
  4. When you plant your seeds in the ground the rain will wash them into the creek.
  5. You won’t have a garden.

Flat ground – we must have.

But right now it’s a giant slope.

If you have unlimited resources and money you could just get dirt.  Dumping lots of dirt onto a sloped area is a sure way to level and flatten all things out.  Then you leave the sloped part in the woods & let it do it’s thing.

We don’t have unlimited resources or money.  We had to work with what was there.

The goal is to create level tiers.  Each tier will drop a couple of feet.  This way we have flat ground to plant in, sow seeds in and absorb water.

The first thing we did was create a little boundary between what is “yard” and what is “garden.”  DH likes things clean and tight and orderly, this is the way he rolls.  An edge we must have.  
I was the lucky one who got to go work at the Pawnshop this morning while DH and they guys worked on the garden border.  They are using felled cedar trees from the woods.  

It may not look like much from this angle, but it was quite the project.  DH tried to die building it.

We were left with a nice edge dividing the yard from the new garden spot, but the entire thing was a giant hill.  Not good.  We needed to create some stair steps.  We needed to make tiers.  We needed levels.  We needed equipment.

There are a few things we don’t do by hand.  This was one of them.  Trying to move this much earth with shovels would have taken a year and possibly killed someone.  This fabulous machine had the tiers built in an hour.  Some conveniences are worth the money.

The new garden spot was level.  It had tiers.  The next project was to make the retaining walls to hold my lovely, level stair step garden in place.

We try to recycle whenever we can.  We try to use our brawn instead of our money whenever we can.  We like to repurpose and find new functions for old things.

So, we made a trip to my friend’s house to get some wood.  She has an old barn that is collapsing daily.  She is always generous and happy to give me wood for all my weird farm projects.  I have used her wood all over my place.

Because, dirt doesn’t like to stay in place without something holding it there, my perfect tiers began to deteriorate immediately.  DH and our sons did most of the retain wall building.  Once the walls were up, the dirt became stable.

Although the pigs did a nice job fertilizing the hillside, we moved quite a bit of earth around during the grading process.  Because of this, we needed to do some top dressing.  Top dressing can turn Kentucky Clay (think concrete) into the most fertile soil on the planet.

Top dressing is simply adding a layer of good compost on top of the ground that is already there.

At our place, this is a job for the kids and I.  Thanks to the cows, we have some of the prettiest compost you’ve ever seen.  We just have to go get it out of the cow field & dump it in the new garden.

The first picture may just look like a bunch of hay on the ground, but it is not.  This is the location that housed the bale of hay the cows have been munching on all winter.  In winter, in Kentucky, there is not much pasture to speak of.  We feed dry hay to our cows.  Since there’s not much else to graze on, the cows stand around the feeder all day and munch.  And poop.   And pee.  And stomp.  And munch some more.

This amounts to a giant round area that is a swamp of hay, poo and pee – Garden Fabulousness!  We are scooping up all that manure, hay and compost goodness and relocating it to the future tomato site.

See those rows of beautiful compost!  This is where the plants will go.  I am not going to fertilize the center of this tier.  The center will be my walking path.  The mounds on either side are the raised rows.  This is a “raised bed garden” without the sides.  So, we have two raised rows of compost for planting and a walking path down the center that I will cover with straw (so weeds won’t grow).  

The finished result is several tiers of food.  Each tier has a walking path down the center.  Each tier has 2 raised rows for planting.  Each tier is held in place by our recycled barn wood.

You can see the top tier filled with tomatoes and melons.  The second tier housed all the pumpkins & gourds.  The third tier (looks like dirt and grass) received some wild blackberry transplants.  There is room for a couple more tiers in this area we cleared.  Next year, I suppose.

How did the garden produce?  Amazingly.  My tomato plants were probably seven feet tall (pictured above).  My pumpkins and melons literally covered the entire space – and then left to find more ground to explore.  They were impressive.  I had enough tomatoes to put up hundreds of cans.  I had enough pumpkins to share.

In addition to the tomatoes & pumpkins I grew tomatoes, eggplants, watermelon, cantaloupe, blackberries and several varieties of gourds for eating.

It was wildly successful.  Now that the tiered garden is in place, I can replant it for years to come.  The ground is clear.  The ground is level.  The ground is fertile.  All that’s left is to sow the seeds.

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