When it comes to growing food, there is nothing more important than managing your soil. Garden beds that are permanent and have soil conservation cores are called Permabeds. There are many ways to make Permabeds with four-wheel tractors, hand tools and two-wheel tractors.
For two-wheel tractor growers, the equipment used can change depending on how the grower equips their farm operation. The rotary plow or tiller/furrower can easily form a 12-inch path and raise the bed 3 to 5 inches.
This is a common start-up system for growers. The tiller loosens the soil, and the hiller/furrower attachment pushes the loose soil into the adjacent spaces to form beds and leave the path.
Making Beds with Power Ridger on a Two-wheel Tractor
For a wider bed system with higher beds and wider paths, the power ridger is perfect. Because it is so straightforward and efficient, let’s look in more detail at this method of building Permabeds. This method relies on the power ridger, which has many other future applications.
Note: It is important to remember that this bed-forming time is well worth it. You only have to do it once, since Permabeds are never destroyed!
The land needs to be plowed and tilled first. For a 5-foot (60-inch) bed (center-of-path to center-of-path), mark out all the lines of the path centers. Then, one pass with the power ridger leaves a 35-inch path space between the newly formed beds, which are now roughly 26 inches on the bed top and raised 5 to 8 inches.
After a pass with a PDR tiller or power harrow on the bed top, the path will narrow to 30 feet. The bed top is widened to 30 inches and the height reduced by 2 inches.
For a 66-inch bed, with wider paths and wider/more gradual shoulders, the power ridger is run down marked lines 66 inches apart. This leaves a 34-inch trench and forms a bed top that is approximately 32 inches wide. This can either be softened to 30 inches with gentle shoulders (for a taller bed with a 30-inch bed top), or multiple passes can leave a wider and lower bed.
To widen the path, you need to do multiple runs with a power ridger with the baffle set to the highest setting (allowing more soil to jettison out). The garden rake or other bed top tool can help to set desired width more precisely (especially for initial forming after primary land preparation of plowing and tilling a new field).
Read more: Permabeds can bring organizational improvement to community gardens.
Step-by-Step Permabed Forming Method
1. Land must be previously worked
Plowing and tilling are recommended. But, at a minimum, you need to plow.
2. Layout review
Use the lines made in your plot layout to mark and flag paths for bed formation. Make sure to leave your 6-foot perimeter and mark paths 48 inches apart for normal Permabed architecture, and 60 or 66 inches apart for the Compost-a-Path Method.
3. Mark your perimeter line
Tie a taut string between corner stakes along a perimeter line, parallel to your garden beds.
Note: The stake-and-string method is a one- or two-person job.
4. Mark your first path
This can be done by measuring and placing flags or marking them into the previously tilled soil with your boot or even spray paint.
The flag method is great if you want to lay out a whole plot in one phase, then build all the beds later. Otherwise, the other methods work well if you just want to mark the soil directly for each new path before making it.
Note: Flagging is a two- or three-person job.
5. Flag method
Person No. 1 walks along the perimeter string line, and person No. 2 walks in the field holding the tape measure at the 6-foot mark. Person No. 3 flags the first path at exactly the 6-foot measurement.
Walk and flag a point 6 feet from the perimeter line every 5 to 10 feet.
6. Continue marking paths
The three-person team continues measuring and flagging across the plot using each row of flags as the new line for measuring the 48-inch bed to mark the middle of the next path.
Note: Place flags straight and measure from the flag bottom. (There is nothing exact about the top of a flag.)
Remember: You can have any chosen bed width. But a bed’s width equals center-of-path to center-of-path. A 48-inch Permabed has these measurements: a (30-inch bed top) + (2 × 3-inch shoulders = 6 inches of total shoulder) + (12-inch paths [2 × 1/2-path width is 12 inches]), so (30 inches + 6 inches + 12 inches = 48 inches).
Note: A 66-inch Permabed has a 30-inch Compost-a-Path, so width would be: (30 inches + 6 inches + 30 inches = 66 inches).
7. Making the paths and beds
Person No. 1 operates a two-wheel tractor with a power ridger. Line the tractor up centered on the flagged line or soil markings. Lock the differential and operate in 1st gear with 2/3 throttle for the most control. (Only do this when the soil is dry.)
Then, the two-wheel tractor operator trenches out the path—moving forward and keeping an eye on the line of flags ahead. This is actually easier than it sounds, so long as you have the tractor centered on a marked row.
The soil of the future path will be jettisoned onto the adjacent bed tops. The power ridger leaves a 34-inch trench that is reduced to 30 inches when shoulders are formed by passing the power harrow or PDR tiller on the bed top.
For the flag method, person No. 2 will simply walk ahead of the tractor operator and pull the flags as the two-wheel tractor approaches. As soon as a flag is pulled, the tractor operator can proceed to use the next flag as a point of reference.
8. Now, your Permabeds are built
Or they are at least roughed in. There is work yet to make them perfectly formed for the long-term and to create finished bed tops for easy seeding, weeding and harvest.
For more on growing with a two-wheel tractors, check out Zach’s new book, The Two-Wheel Tractor Handbook, available for pre-order here.