Tips For Starting First-Year Garden Beds (Part Three)

Now that the beds are tilled and irrigation installed, it's time to establish our zipper beds and choose the right crops for our first-year garden.

by Zach Loeks
PHOTO: Zach Loeks

For the past few installments of this column, we’ve looked at how to build a first-year garden. We talked about linking “tricks” to maximize efficiency and growing success. We discussed how to lay out Permabeds, as well as proper tillage techniques. And we looked at how to prepare and irrigate our Permabeds.

Now we’re ready to get to work in our beds as we ready them for their first year of productivity.

Using Zipper Beds in Your First-Year Garden

Next, we’ll tackle two birds with one stone.  We’ll prepare good garden soil by thoroughly removing aggressive weeds through pre-weeding techniques. And we’ll ensure we have a good weed management strategy for our first year of growing. 

We did this using a zipper bed model and selecting proper crops for a first-year garden. 

Zipper Beds? This model represents a strategy for managing garden weeds using two pieces of weed barrier. These are lined up from the middle of one bed top to the middle of the next bed top.  You then can plant between the two weed barriers that line up on any given bed top. This allows you a productive, weed-free growing space. 

You can cover the entire garden surface and still efficiently plant by choosing to grow single-row crops like melons, zucchini, squash, tomatoes and corn, which need the space. 

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Not only do zipper bed exclude weeds that occur annually, but they also fry out lasting perennial weeds—such as grasses, thistles and burdock—that persist in the first year of gardening. Nearly every grower makes the mistake of planting two or three row crops in their first-year garden in year one. New can’t easily grow carrots, lettuce or peas because they simply have too many weed seeds and perennial weeds.

It takes time to prepare garden soil and remove all the weeds. But with zipper beds and proper crop selection, you are actually able to grow a garden in year one while also frying out those first-year weeds.

Read more: Establish permanence to avoid re-thinking your garden every year.

Apply a Top Mulch

The space along the zippered edge in the bed top needs some extra mulching. So we used old hay. 

This holds the zipper down against wind. (Row bags work, too.) But it also further blocks out any light from reaching weeds that want to take advantage of this narrow row of opportunity. 

We simply applied a 12-inch line of hay mulch to each bed top.

Plant Your Guild

This garden will be planted next year in the four sisters planting method: corn, climbing beans, squash and sunflowers. 

We’ll transplant plants into each zipper bed every 12 inches in the following arrangement

  • squash
  • corn and beans
  • corn and beans
  • squash (we keep the squash 3 feet apart from each other) 

Every other bed will be planted with this guild. The beds in between will be planted with early mixed transplants: head lettuce, spinach and beets. These we will plant every 6 inches, since we are only using one row per bed. They will get lots of room before we harvest them to make room for squash to sprawl over adjacent beds. 

Mixing early maturing vegetables in one bed and late maturing vegetable in another is called alternate maturity patterning. It represents a very efficient use of space.

Read more: Link your garden “tricks” for growing efficiency in the garden.

Building Growing Success with a First-Year Garden

By the end of the season, growers have a bountiful and beautiful garden that requires no weeding. They can efficiently water crops and enjoy easy access to water for cleaning in the field. And, most importantly, the soil is ready to grow fine-seeded crops the next year, like carrots, seeded lettuces, radishes and more.

We started this series by discussing how to string together a series of pro grower tricks to make a successful first-year garden. As you have seen, my friends and I did just this while establishing their new garden. We used:

  • Layout strategies
  • Permabed-building methods
  • Irrigation systems
  • Pre-weeding
  • Zipper bed techniques
  • Four-sisters guild design
  • Alternate maturity patterning 

Consider these different pro grower tricks and see how they can be applied in your first-year gardens. Also think how they can be used in other situations. Are you re-building an older garden plot that has gone into a very bad weedy state? Can you do so without losing it production potential for a whole year?

Maybe zipper beds could help. Or perhaps you’ve learned other strategies along the way that you could incorporate to maximize growing success.

Grow On,


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