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Polyculture Garden Bed Size - a Design Exercise

Published on Thursday, January 24, 2013

Polyculture Garden Bed Size - a Design Exercise

at Hagarville Food Forest

Update 8/4/2013:   I have moved forward with my design plan and thought I would add a picture of what the bed sizes look like fully populated :).

Here is the end of three 6' wide beds (2.5' bed +1' Stepping zone +2.5' bed)  and 4' Main Paths.  As discussed we standardized on 6' x 40' beds with 4' main paths. From this angle you see 3 zones with a 6' path between them.

We put our straw mulch on the path and walking on it loosens it and begins to break it down making it easier to place around the plants in the bed. The Center 1' stepping area in the paths has helped to reduce fears of compaction.  While we don't step there often we will straddle one bed while planting or weeding.  We could put down boards to distribute our weight more evenly it would slow us down during daily garden tasks.

We are just getting this ground going so we have tilled a couple of times to add amendments and till in organic matter.  Now we will just use garden forks to loosen the soil.

Wind can be a big deal here in the fall, winter and spring but not so much in the summer.  We have a 160' x 75' area with mixed (early) food forest and annual garden area so the think about raised beds at this point is too expensive (with Frames) and would remove our flexibility.  We do have some trees that will begin to provide a wind break as the food forest matures.  We have sandy loam soil that drains too well to need the height to keep early spring plantings roots out of the water.


Original Post:

I am trying to develop a strategic project plan for my garden beds this year and would like some feedback and advice before I commit.  While I know that making errors is all part of learning I also know that we can learn by other’s experience (and errors).  In General we want feedback on how wide to design and construct our polyculture based annual garden beds with wide paths planted with living mulch plants for chop and drop.

Background:  This is the annual garden part of a 2.4 acre parcel just north of Spokane on the Peone Prairie dominated by mono-culture farms of alfalfa, wheat, barley…  and wind.   Last year we had killing frosts until June 15 and lost a good portion of our harvest to a 17degree freeze in mid September.    We have committed to creating low and high tunnels as part of our season extension strategy.  While we can create 3’, 4’ or 6’ low tunnels the major costs are the same for much less square foot of space. Therefore we are planning our beds around having to use 6’ x 10’ framed low tunnels as season extenders that can be moved easily and opened like clamshells.  There is more about year one on our “Hagarville Food Forest Project” in general at http://spokanepermaculture.org/LocalProjects/TabId/102/ArtMID/583/ArticleID/13/Hagarville-Permaculture-Food-Forest-Project.aspx

Our exercise is to plan on bed and row sizes that can be undisturbed after we create them,  be covered now and then with season extenders and since we are over 60 and getting less flexible, we want the beds less than the generally recommended 4’ wide.

We want to evolve this portion of the garden to a no till polyculture that minimizes outside nutrients and mulch so we are planning on using some large path/lanes for growing mulch plants.  Even though we will walk on the paths we are hoping that we can use the paths for multi purposes without having to carry mulch from other locations.  We have plenty of property so maximizing our yield from each square foot is not the goal.  Long term, low effort sustainability and resilience are our primary goals.

Proposed Approach:
• Build beds that are 2’ wide so we can work them by straddling over them or easily reach them from the side.
• By using a 2’ bed, 2’ path, 2’ bed we can cover two beds with each 6’x10’ low tunnel segment.
• The center 2’ path would only be stepped on occasionally when we needed to work straddling the bed.  Besides beds seem to grown an paths shrink all by themselves.
• The 4’ paths would be the primary walking and Garden Cart path.
• We would plant the 4’ path with a mixed pasture mixture.  Probably a seasonally evolving mixture starting with the Synergy West Perennial Pasture Grass mixture mentioned on this Permies article:   http://www.permies.com/t/13605/resources-seeds-plants-honey-consulting/Holzer-style-Perennial-Pasture-Seed   We already have 5 lbs of seed.
• If we wanted we could widen the 2’ to 3’ into the 4’ path.  That would give us consistent 3’ beds with 2’ paths.  We could cover each bed with a 4’ low tunnel but at a greater cost per sf.
• While the general trend (supported by Paul Wheaton and others) is to create texture with Hugelkultur beds and swales my property is flat as a pancake and we have no tree resources.  So far I have not been able to find wood for the core or sufficient chemical free hay or other mulch material. 
• From what I read, in dry, flat, areas you should not build high beds because they will dry out faster.
• Luckily we have good soil.

• What do you think of the idea of mixing wide rows of mulch making material and smaller (2’) annual garden crops?
• Should we make raised beds anyway?  Over time by adding mulch they will rise and fall anyway.
• Will only having 2’ no till, no walk beds be sufficient soil base?  …even if we only occasionally step in the center pathway?
• What mulch plants should I consider?
• What else am I missing?

Thanks in advance for any help you can be.


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