Monday, July 21, 2014

Garden Design

The garden beds, earlier this year.
I've tried a few different layouts for the garden over the 9 years that we've lived here. The garden was originally one bed, about 6 feet deep by 10 feet long. I don't know how the original owner worked with it, because there was no good way for me to reach the center. Weeding was nearly impossible without a hoe, and I couldn't envision a layout of plants that made any sense to me, either. After just a few times working it, I knew it wasn't going to stay that way for long.

I gave it one year anyway, just so I could watch the new property as it passed through the seasons. Knowing that I wanted a big food garden, I needed to make sure that it was well thought out ahead of time because it wasn't going to be easy to just pick up and move. I also had a couple of constraints to work around: there's a utility pole over there, and they ran a water line up up to it from the well, in order to serve that one garden bed. The other main issue is that we have some huge cedar trees on our property, and the existing garden is in one of the few completely cleared spots.

In the end, we left the location alone, and just expanded the garden to the 20 x 50 foot plot that it is now. It's on a loosely east-west axis, and the utility pole is pretty much smack dab in the middle. Aside from the humming of the transformer, I hardly notice it any more when I'm out there- and as long as the technicians remember to close the garden gate, neither of us seems to mind that they have to go in there once or twice a year to inspect things.

When we first pushed out the garden, we tilled aggressively to break up the existing sod, and then laid out the beds in short rows- about 7 feet long, by 2 feet wide. They were raised a bit, maybe 6 inches at the center, if that. We left the paths as dirt, thinking that all of our walking on them would compact the soil enough to keep them weed free. (Um... no. I spent probably as much time weeding those darn things as I did anywhere else.) In addition to the paths driving me bonkers, the rows were hard to keep watered enough; since they were just mounds, the majority of the water just rolled off of them.

I fought with this layout for a few more years, despite the fact that it clearly didn't work for me. That, and every winter it looked like we had a graveyard located just beyond our front window. So, it was a teeny bit creepy every now and again. All in all, the whole garden eventually went fallow for one or two seasons- the combination of frustration and some health issues making the extra work pretty much impossible for me.

When I was back on track, I knew we'd need to change the layout of the garden, in order for it to be useable again. After reading Mel Bartholomew's book "All New Square Foot Gardening", I knew that was the way I needed to go. We put in our raised beds that spring, and have never looked back. We have three different sizes of beds: 4'x4', 2'x4', and 2'x2'. The paths are still wide enough to bring the wheelbarrow in, and having the various sizes was more of an aesthetic choice than solely practical. However, I find that having the different sizes works out nicely for things like mixed lettuces and herbs, where broadcasting seeds is just fine.

Approximately the same angle, this morning. 
There are a number of benefits to the square foot method, and some aspects that I don't agree with 100%. As with everything, I think it's perfectly fine to take what works for you and discard the rest. The thing that appeals to me the most is the raised bed layout. First, having beds no larger than 4'x4' means no struggling to reach the center of the bed. As someone who likes sitting on the ground and weeding, this is ideal for me. Second, the raised beds make watering much easier and more efficient. Last, but not least, is that by planting on a grid instead of in straight lines, I maximize the amount of food my garden is producing.

There are other benefits as well- aesthetically-speaking, I like my layout of little squares and rectangles. Another is that since no one walks on the beds (aside from the random dog) there's no more tilling. I pile compost on the beds at the end of each fall, and fluff it up a little in the spring with my claw cultivator (like this one; mine is older but I absolutely love it) and I'm done. No tilling, no fussing... it's pretty awesome. Oh, and in case you were wondering- we put down some weed cloth  in between the beds, and covered that with wood chips, so the paths are pretty much no-maintenance, as well. Perfect!

If you would like some additional information on square foot gardening, I highly recommend checking out the book or their website. Otherwise, check in here on Wednesday- I'll talk some more about my setup and experiences with the method, and why you should totally give it a try.

What's your preferred garden layout and why? Stop by Facebook and let me know!

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