Garden Designs for Beauty and Function

Reader Contribution by Anneli Carter-Sundqvist
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Our organic gardens are the hub of our homestead. They serve many functions to us, like increasing our self-reliance and food security, adding to the beauty of our farm, to our health, teaching opportunities, the uniqueness of our lodging business and our very limited need of money.

When Dennis first came here 15 years ago, the driveway went straight through what’s now one of our gardens. Until a few years ago, the other garden area still was a forest floor with standing trees. Today our two gardens together measure about 8000 square feet and provide us with food year round, as well as plenty for trading and giving away.

Use Natural Materials

The overarching philosophy for our gardens, as well as for our homestead, is that maintenance and enhancement should be done as much as possible by local, free and natural materials and that aesthetics and practical functionality are inseparable. Everything around our farm should be pleasing to the eye which usually for us means being made from wood, glass or stone, have a designated location and a form and color that blends into a natural landscape. But to be fully satisfactory, all that should also work well – add to the ease with which we carry out our chores, be time saving, low maintenance, durable and beneficial for the health of our land and ourselves.

Our garden design is a simple, straight-row lay out that we find both pleasing to the eye and efficient to work with. We maximize the yield by building the soil with natural material, incorporating succession planting and intensive space utilization and we minimize the work by weed prevention, moisture management (to avoid watering) and by timing our actions with the weather and seasons, to let sun, rain, heat and cool work in our favor. We don’t have a greenhouse or use row covers or plastic mulches in our garden, since they don’t meet our aesthetic ideals. The function – a longer growing season – is met by using cold frames made from wood and recycled glass that gives us overwintered greens and serves as a warm place to start our brassica seedlings.

How to Build a Garden Fence

Our garden fence is one example where form and function blends together. Deer are the greatest pest threat to our gardens and our 6 foot chicken wire fence is what it takes to keep them out. It’s sturdy, yet the wire is thin enough to make the fence basically transparent. The wooden posts and railings blends in to the homestead picture and a couple of days each year of replacing parts broken by wear or the weight of snow is all it takes for maintenance.

We prefer to use locust wood as fence posts since it’s likely to last for decades without spoiling. It grows on the island and nearby on the mainland and we’re often contacted to salvage all or parts of trees that people need to cut down. To use red oak is a compromise in quality but it grows on our land, making it a sustainable option when we need it. If the part that will be buried in the ground is thoroughly charred and it can last up to 10 years.

We dig the post holes 36 inches deep to get below the frost line and prevent the posts from heaving in spring and we use rocks as a back filler to secure the posts. Does it sound like a lot of work? Well, trust me, it is. But a fence post of the right material that is properly put in the ground will be there for decades and over the course of time it will still amount to less work (and headache) than having to redo it in 5-6 years. We run horizontal railings at 3 and 6 feet to attach the chicken wire to, they are made from dense, slow growing red spruce that we harvest from our own land. The best way to increase the longevity of the railings is to peel off about half of the bark in strips so that the wood can dry slowly and the cracks be minimal, preventing water from seeping in and rotting the wood. The gates are placed so that the gardens are accessible from several directions, which makes it both more inviting to enter and easier to work in.

The gardens are roughly divided in four different kind of areas, all with their uses. We have raised beds, open areas, beds along the fence and the paths.

Raised Beds

The raised beds are framed with logs, usually spruce or fir. They are 16 feet long and lay about 3-4 inches higher than ground level. The beds are roughly 32 inches wide, not including the logs. This kind of raised beds make the garden look tidy and symmetrical and the natural material serves a great aesthetic purpose at the same time as it’s a great divider between fertile soil and the paths. We have many guests wandering around in our gardens and they can walk freely knowing that they won’t step in a bed when they walk in the area with raised beds. We find that underneath the logs habitats for all sorts of worms, salamanders and insects are created and as the logs deteriorate fungi and micro organisms benefit the soil and the plants. Using logs this way is for us a good utilization of trees that need to be cleared out from dense areas of the woods and the logs are most always either too narrow or too low quality to use for lumber or firewood.

This type of garden beds do need some maintenance. Spruce and fir laid on the ground won’t really last more than 6 years even though we tend to leave them until it’s not much left. That means that every spring we need to replace about 5-6 logs which involves finding the trees and hauling them to our yard. A good garden bed log is reasonably straight through the desired length, 5-8 inches wide and the bark needs to be peeled off. We use wider logs too, but put them on the sawmill to narrow them down and we use the draw knife to round the sharp corners. Peeling the bark is essential to the longevity of the log, since bark that’s left will make it rot faster.

The open areas of our gardens mainly serve the purpose that the layout can be rearranged in accordance to what we want to grow there. Potatoes, for example, are most practical to grow in an open area, as are pumpkins and squash that needs a lot of space for the vines. Some of the beds in this open area remain at the same spot year after year. When I change the layout where the good top soil is thin, I take great care to hoe that soil from where I want the new path to be into the area of the bed. The change in layout does mean that what’s a path one year with foot traffic compacting the soil might be a bed the next year, but the soil is generally well drained and light and some simple work will fluff it back up.

Using the area along the fence is a great way to both enhance the beauty of the garden by framing it with lush growth and to use the already existing fence for the dual purpose of supporting plants. It’s also a way to save space – cucumbers and small fruit squash such as Delicatas and can be trained upright and pumpkins for example can be planted inside the fence in a rich bed but trained outwards to not use the garden area for the spreading vines. My tomato plants always grow too big for the standard cages and by growing them along the fence and tying the vines to it, it serves the multiple benefit of pest control, space saving and plant support.

Weed Management

We keep our garden beds well weeded and mulched. Weeds will spread – by seeds or running roots and it is little use fighting weeds that grow in the bed if the paths are not tended to. Where the paths are permanent, like in the area with raised beds, we use wood chips salvaged from sites nearby where trees been cut and chipped. In the open areas I put oak leaves in the path that I gather the previous fall that creates a solid mat and when I’m ready to change the layout of the beds next spring, the leaves will have broken down and faded into the garden residue.

A well thought through garden design will make the work enjoyable and manageable and will encourage the gardener’s presence and attention. And that, regardless of other features, can, and most surely will, increase the yield and multiply the rewards.