Managing Space Between Garden Borders and Crops

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Susan and Franklin Sides (and little Walker) with the Bearwallow Beds described in the article.
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The lap-joint corners of the Bearwallow Beds adapt themselves to hose guides and to bed coverings.

The path of least resistance. Clever ideas to use when managing space in-between garden borders and your crops.

Managing Space Between Garden Borders and Crops

Gardeners often treat their growing areas as almost sacred
soil, while ignoring the earth directly underfoot–the
pathways. We put so much energy into tending our crops and
flowers that the spaces between the beds are mostly
forgotten. But then one day we suddenly realize that we’re
forced to spend more time weeding the pathways than the
crops. Or we get fed up with walkways that become
as slick as boiled okra every time it rains. Or we pull
another clump of tough-rooted grass and wonder if there’s
any way to keep that aisle cover from invading the
asparagus.

Sound familiar? If your paths lead to similar toils and
troubles, it’s time you took a better look at just where
you stand in your own garden. Everyone wants
low-maintenance walkways that look good and make getting
around pleasant and efficient. The ideas offered here can
help you have them.

One note: Many of my techniques apply better to gardens
with beds (wide growing areas) than to those devoted to row
crops. Another note: Whatever pathway panacea you prefer,
make sure the paths themselves are wide enough to handle
the jobs you need to do. If you can’t bring in a garden
cart without crushing your lettuce or can’t weed the
tomatoes without sitting on the beans, you need wider paths
(18 inches is narrow, 36 is wide). You may even want to
work out an artful combination of different-sized pathways
to use space most effectively.

Garden Borders and Dirt Paths

Pathways with unusually poor soil or heavy foot traffic may
sprout so few weeds they can be left as is. (That’s rarely
been my luck.) If too many unwanted plants do shoot up, you
can chop them off with a hoe. Better yet, sharpen the edge
of a flat-faced spade, run it just under the soil surface
when the earth isn’t wet, and skim off the weeds.
Skimming’s not too difficult, and the results are clean
lines with that well-manicured look.

If too much rainwater runs into your beds from the
pathways, try working on the aisles once in a while during
the wet season. Push a heavy garden fork about two-thirds
of the way into the soil, and wiggle it to create air
spaces. Repeat the process every six to 12 inches. (Either
that or redesign your garden so pathway rivulets run
through and out of the plot.)

Drawbacks: Hoeing or skimming a large garden is
time-consuming and hard on folks with bad backs.

Garden Mulch

Many gardeners cover their pathways with mulch. Grass
clippings, straw, leaves or sawdust will shade out weeds,
conserve soil moisture and keep walkways high and dry. If
the mulch is thick enough, you can easily pull up any
unwanted growth that does appear. Last year’s decomposed
mulch can either be tilled into the garden beds and a new
layer added, or be left in place with a pile of fresh
materials on top.

If you mulch with hay, first spread it out in an unused
area and turn it occasionally, so its seeds won’t sprout in
your plot. Otherwise, pile it deep in the aisles, and flip
it over in place if some seeds sprout.

Other materials that people have used for pathway cover
include cardboard, newspaper, shredded computer printouts,
heavy paper feed sacks and carpet remnants. Commercial
growers use permeable landscape cloth to keep weeds from
growing in perennial areas. It works great on pathways,
too–but gets expensive if you’ve got a big garden.
All of these materials are usually covered with a layer of
organic matter.

A three-inch layer of bark chips or gravel can provide good
cover for permanent pathways, but you’ll need to contain
the material with an edge barrier (discussed below) and
replenish it as needed.

Drawbacks: Organic mulches may attract and harbor slugs.
Mulch can interfere with hand-or machine-digging of beds
unless it is raked aside or contained by edging. And heavy
winds can wreak havoc on newly applied light mulch
materials.

Garden Grass Pathways

Handsome grass pathways help prevent soil erosion, moderate
soil moisture levels and even keep your shoes clean.
Richard Fry (a fine local horticulturist/landscaper)
recommends using a mixture of fescue grass and white clover
in paths. Tall fescues are tough enough to bear heavy foot
traffic, but they need frequent mowing. To reduce mowing
chores, use one of the newer turf fescues that are slower
growing and have finer blades.

You can keep the grass from invading your growing beds by
cutting it back with a spade or a half-moon edging tool.
But you’ll have less work in the long run if you install a
physical barrier along your borders. It’s best, too, to
plant compact plants around the edges of your garden
beds–sprawling ones will spread onto the grass, making mowing difficult.

Drawbacks: Grass pathways require mowing and will creep
into growing areas if not contained.

Sheet Composting

Sheet composting consists of tossing kitchen wastes and
other compost fare into the pathways and covering it all
with a carbon-rich material like leaves or straw.
Earthworms are attracted to the area and help the in-garden
composting process. After a season or two, the pathways are
plowed up and planted. The former growing areas become the
new pathways and get sheet composted themselves. The method
is most often used in sandy or loose soils.

Drawbacks: You have to reestablish growing beds every year
or two. And you still have to cope with weeds in pathway
areas that haven’t yet been sheet composted.

Solid Pathways

Solid pathways range from simple 1 by 12 boards placed over
the aisles of a postage-stamp-pattern garden to fine bricks
laid in a fancy herringbone pattern. Whatever materials you
use, solid pathways are a good choice for walkways that see
a lot of shoe soles and the tires of many garden machines.
Dug-up stones, slats from shipping pallets, slices cut from
round logs, and salvaged bricks or chunks of flat concrete
are some inexpensive material choices. You might even want
to fashion your own concrete stepping stones. To increase
traction, scratch their tops with a pattern, or embed
gravel or pebbles.

Purchased flagstone, bricks and concrete steps carry a
higher price tag and take some skill to lay well. But they
provide solid, lovely walkways. (You may want to use such
costly materials only in your main center path.)

Before installing a solid pathway, dig out any weeds and
grass. Once it’s set, plant something low and
ground-hugging in the cracks, like creeping thyme or Roman
chamomile, so new weeds can’t claim those gaps for
strongholds. Another solution is to lay down an inch of
gravel (quarry fine grade), put in your bricks or whatever,
then fill around them with two more inches of the loose
stone.

Drawbacks: If you don’t use gravel or a ground cover to
keep down unwanted growth, you may get stuck with some
tedious pathway weeding. Some of the nicest materials for
solid pathways are expensive.

Garden Edgings

At some point, the pathway ends and the growing area
begins. This border is where a good edging can help keep
the gravel out of the greens or the crabgrass away from the
carrots. Edgings are also used around garden perimeters to
separate plot from yard. Just as with pathway materials,
there’s a world of choices for bed barriers.

• Commercial aluminum or plastic edgings: Richard Fry
says any store-bought edging should be at least four inches
tall and be buried securely so it won’t get pushed out by
frost heaves. In fact, Fry suggests installing such thin
edgings in spring or fall. Otherwise, those put in during
summer may develop gaps at their joints when winter comes,
while ones installed in winter may buckle and bend the
following summer. (Richard also praises the metal edging
made by Ryerson Steel Company. He says it’s the only edging
he’s ever used that stays put, keeps grass out and should
last a lifetime.)

• Landscape timbers: Widely available and attractive,
landscape timbers are treated with chromated copper
arsenate (CCA), a relatively safe preservative that’s not
readily absorbed by plant roots. Railroad ties, on the
other hand, have been treated with creosote and possibly
pentachlorophenal. These serious toxins are taken up by
plants. So while landscape timbers make acceptable edgings,
don’t use railroad ties near any food plants.

• Board borders: These can be made from scrap or
purchased wood and are installed either vertically like
commercial edging (Gardener’s Supply, Burlington, VT, sells handy brackets for this job) or
horizontally. Boards laid flat should be fastened at the
ends and be at least as big as 2 by 4s: The deeper and wider
your boards, the better your control of invasive growth.
And if you lay them so that from ½ inch to a fall
inch of wood extends above ground level, a lawn mower can
do a better job of trimming the pathway grass right next to
the boards.

• Concrete blocks: Set them on their sides, and grow
flowers or other attractive plants in the holes. The lime
that leaches from blocks makes them particularly good homes
for many herbs.

• Log rounds: One- to two-foot-long log rounds can be
set perpendicularly into the ground for a nice,
rustic-looking barrier. You may want to position a few
horizontally to alter the effect and conserve wood. Log
rounds are available commercially, or you can cut your own.

• Rocks: Good size quarry rocks can be used to build
free-standing bed borders, but they need to extend well
into the ground. Rocks are beautiful but hellacious to weed
around. They’re also not a solid deterrent to wandering
grass.

• Bricks: Bricks are expensive, but beautiful when
laid flat and side by side. They’re easy to edge-mow and
can even be laid out in curves.

• Creative choices: People have made garden barriers
out of all sorts of things, from used tire treads (cut out
with a saber saw) to old car bumpers. Use your imagination
and think about what’s readily available, fits your budget
and would look good in your garden.

My Own Choice

Maybe someday I’ll be blessed with a large supply of free
flagstones or bricks along with a large crew of eager
friends to help me lay them in my garden. In the meantime,
though, I’ll admit my fondness for “Bearwallow Beds,” the
border system my husband, Franklin, and I devised when we
gardened atop nearby Bearwallow Mountain. (See the photo
that leads off this article.) Our main paths were sown in
fescue and white clover and bordered by 2 by 6 cedar boards.
Each 10-foot by 16-foot wooden rectangle housed two
four-foot-wide raised beds, with a one-foot-wide dirt path
between them. (See the illustration in the image gallery.)

The corners are a simple lap joint, mortised halfway
through so the boards lay flush. We drilled a ¾-inch
hole through each corner and hammered a 12-inch length of
½-inch i.d. (inside diameter) metal conduit through
and into the ground until it was almost flush. The end of
the conduit that was still sticking up was flared outward
to hold the wood down. Then we hammered a 20-inch-long
piece of rebar down through the conduit and into the soil,
leaving six inches of the metal bar sticking above ground.
We covered that dangerous-looking protrusion with bamboo,
PVC or a section of discarded hose and–presto
change–created a mild-mannered hose roller to allow
us to maneuver our watering hose around, but not over the
beds.

On some beds, we added additional 12-inch lengths of rebar
along the sides (spaced two to three feet apart). We could
set half hoops of PVC on these anytime we wanted to cover a
pair of beds with polyethyiene, Reemay or shade cloth.
Bearwallow Beds cost some money up front, but they last for
years, saving countless hours of hand edging. The boards
can be disassembled in the fall and stored indoors to
further lengthen their life or, if necessary, moved to a
new location altogether.

Yes, these simple, effective Bearwallow Beds seem to me to
be just about the best possible choice for a vegetable
garden border–that is, if I can’t have my bricks and
my bricklayers, too.