Creating a Productive Food Garden

A permanent plan using raised beds and paths leads to a productive food garden. By developing permanent growing beds, your soil will be able to mature over the years into airy loose soil. Paths, spaced to allow you to move hoses and tools, encourage you to spend more time in your garden, enjoying the fruits of your labor.

| October/November 2008

Wide corridors, together with permanent beds and paths, are your best options for an efficient and productive food garden.

Creating a Productive Food Garden

Developing an organic garden is a long-term proposition. Each infusion of compost or mulch that melds with soil nudges organic matter content higher, until eventually you have soil you can work with your bare hands. Do you see this process happening in your garden, along with other signs of maturity, such as fewer weeds and easier overall upkeep? As the season winds down, look around and consider your garden’s progress as a sustainable system. Then do what you must to enhance its efficiency in the seasons ahead.

One of the first signs of a garden’s maturity is the emergence of permanent beds (see Build Permanent Beds and Paths). They need not be raised beds because it’s the constancy, not the height, that matters. Why is permanence so important? Corridors and pathways become compacted each time you step on them, and after a while they can become so compressed that even weeds won’t grow there. Cultivated space, on the other hand, becomes downright fluffy if you avoid walking on it and add organic matter regularly. Soon the only cultivation will be a simple matter of forking the soil by hand between plantings.

In some of my terraced hillside beds that haven’t felt human footprints in years, when I lose my balance and fall in, I sink down 4 inches. Each such tumble squeezes out air (and squashes thousands of busy soil-dwelling microcritters). If you have a well-designed system of permanent beds, broad corridors and narrower pathways, you can concentrate water and fertilizer onto the areas where crops are growing. To improve upon the design you already have, make rough drawings with pencil and paper, and consider how various bed configurations might help your garden work better. Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re gardening for keeps.

Managing Main Corridors

Depending on your garden’s size, you may need only one main, wide corridor that can accommodate big things such as wheelbarrows, tillers or mowers, with secondary pathways branching off from there. A large garden may need two or three wide lanes. In addition to providing all-weather access, the main corridors serve as the garden’s utility area, so it makes sense to have water, compost and a spot for stashing tools, pots, stakes and buckets somewhere in this space. One of the best improvements I made last year was to build a sturdy work table next to the main compost pile; both are along the edge of the garden’s main corridor. The table is a natural magnet for tools and supplies, and it’s the perfect spot to groom veggies before they come into the house.

Wide corridors get a lot of traffic, but like the row middles in fruit orchards, they are not too compacted to support grasses, clovers and other low-growing plants. Letting corridors go green helps them double as habitat for ground beetles, earthworms and other beneficial life forms (some we can see and some we can’t). Clippings gathered from mowing the corridors can be used to mulch nearby beds.

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