There is something about a well-defined gardening space that just feels right. In addition, certain choices in materials can even benefit the plants. In today's long overdue article, I would like to review the options available to gardeners and discuss the relative pros and cons of garden bed design.
What are defined gardening spaces?
When I think of backyard vegetable gardens in the 1970s when I was a kid, I think of big rectangles with long rows, and walking paths between the rows. These gardens would often have a wooden border to keep out grass and weeds from the lawn, but in terms of design and materials, they were pretty basic, but perfectly fine and effective.
Fast forward to the 2000s, and we have square-foot gardening, vertical gardening, raised beds, no-till gardens, permaculture gardens, and on and on ad infinitum. Still, the goal has not changed: we want to make a good use of our available space, and grow delicious fresh vegetables. Today, there seemed to be a growing appreciation for defined garden spaces in backyard gardens — and what I mean by this term is the notion that a given area is dedicated to gardening, but then within that area, certain spaces are designated for growing, and everything else is designated for access (defined walking paths). This can be as simple as a series of raised beds, or like my garden, with many different spaces that evolve organically over time in an ad hoc fashion.
I think the main benefits of defined garden spaces are many: (a) they allow for more intensive use of available planting space; (b) they direct human traffic around the planting space, thereby greatly minimizing soil compaction; (c) they greatly facilitate a no-till approach to gardening; (d) they lend themselves to an organizational mentality and facilitate crop rotation; and, (e) they can look really cool if you have a flair for design.
So, with no further ado, lets run through some options for defining gardening spaces in your backyard. I'll start with the ones that cost money, and then move on to the more inexpensive and free options that I prefer.
What size should they be?
I generally recommend the dimensions of four feet wide (narrower if you have short arms) by no longer than 10 feet long. This way, you can reach to the middle easily from either side without stepping, kneeling or putting pressure on the soil, and they are not so long that they are a pain to step around. If you prefer circles, then a 30-inch radius should be a maximum, for the same reasons.
I've given my opinion on raised beds in previous articles. Suffice it to say, I don't think they're all they're cracked up to be, and constitute an utter waste of lumber and soil for very little gain. For reasons stated in previous articles, I recommend only going six inches high, unless you really love watering you garden a lot, or enjoy investing in irrigation systems. Use rough-milled lumber if you can find it (try Kijiji) because it lasts longer and is more sturdy — and do not use treated lumber because it will leach toxic compounds into your soil. Using lumber to define a garden space is effective, but costly, and of course destined to rot and need replacement, so if you like the way it looks, great, but don't think this is your only option.
With each passing year I grow increasingly fond of stone, and over the long run, I intend to transition all the borders in my garden to stone, because it has so many pros, and virtually no cons. Stones are often free if you can locate a source, and they last forever, so building a garden with them is economical, and an efficient use of your time. Unlike wooden borders, which create barriers to root growth, stones sit on top of the soil, allowing root development beneath the stones; moreover, stones prevent the soil beneath them from drying out, so the roots will also benefit from them in that way. Stones also collect heat and hold it for a while after sunset, thereby speeding up the spring thaw, and helping plants to germinate by creating warm microclimates in your garden. Stones also provide a great place for beneficial organisms to hide out, so you might see more toads and snakes in your garden — which will mean fewer slugs and other pests. Finally, they create a really interesting effect in your garden, lending an earthy and mystical ambiance to the space.
Another great material is logs, and I'm not talking about trees here, I mean fallen dead wood. If you live near the woods, or know someone that does, borrow a truck and get some logs. They share many of the benefits of the rocks, but they also breakdown slowly and feed your soil. Dead fallen logs, as opposed to living trees or even dead-standing trees, tend to be full of nutrients that they have absorbed from the soil where they have been sitting for years. Also, when they have broken down to the point that they no longer work as borders, they can be smashed up and used for mulch, so in the end, they get completely used up in your garden. Of course, they are also free, and lend a really medieval feel to your garden.
While it is difficult to source them for free, and they take up a lot of space in your garden, hay bales are a great border material. They generate heat, provide shelter to the interior of the bed (if you don't add too much soil), and retain moisture. Like the logs, when they begin to lose their integrity, they can be used as a mulch, or composted. Their square geometry makes them very nice to work with if you have an affinity for right angles and precision in your gardening space.
Old tires and railroad ties
Both of these options are free and will last for many years. Unfortunately they will also slowly leach toxic compounds into your soil, and this will negatively affect the health of the beneficial organisms in your soil.
Of course there are other options, but hopefully this brief discussion will get you thinking "outside the box" as you plan your garden space this year, or rethink everything you have done so far this year, and begin to consider changes for next season. The options are only really limited to your imagination, so get out there and have fun!