Permanent Beds: Designing An Efficient Garden

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Permanent Beds: Designing An Efficient Garden

Permanent beds are going to change your gardening game. This type of garden bed helps improve soil health, ensures crop growth, and is extremely easy to design!

The following is an excerpt from The Living Soil Handbook by Jesse Frost. It has been adapted for the web.

Designing Permanent Beds

The term permanent beds is often associated with raised garden beds that are surrounded by substantial borders made of wood, stone, or other materials.

That’s not necessarily what I’m referring to when I use the term permanent bed. There is nothing wrong with adding physical borders to garden beds, but for our purposes the term broadly refers to garden beds maintained in relatively the same place over a long span of time.

This approach helps relegate compaction to the pathways and not the growing space.

Permanent beds allow for long-term soil improvement.

Because the soil structure never gets turned over using no-till practices, it never has to be reconstructed.

We created the permanent raised beds on our farm by using the rotary plow on our BCS walk-behind tractor, set to the depth of about four inches.

Our beds are 100 feet (30 m) long and 30 inches (75 cm) wide and are separated by 14-inch-wide (35 cm) pathways. However, we are transitioning to beds that are 48 inches (120 cm) wide and 50 feet (15 m) long with 18-inchwide (45 cm) pathways.

The original 100-foot (30 m) beds with 30-inch (75 cm) width worked adequately on our farm though, in retrospect, we would have designed our gardens differently to begin with if we’d known then about all the options I describe in this chapter.

Bed Width

To my knowledge, the most common bed width in market gardens is 30 inches (75 cm). This is largely because most small-scale hand tools and walk-behind tractor implements are designed with this width in mind.

However, simply because it is the most common width does not make it the best for everyone. The reason we originally set up our beds as 30 inches (75 cm) wide was to fit our cultivation equipment.

I regret that decision now because bed width is one of the hardest things to change once a garden is established.

And there are many reasons to dislike 30-inch-wide beds in a no-till system.

Wider beds can provide efficiency gains. On 30-inch beds, we usually plant two rows of kale. By adding just 18 inches, we can fit in four rows, doubling yield. With lettuce, we increase space between plants, and that boosts yield too.

One reason is that we do not cultivate nearly as often as we used to, and so those precision cultivation tools (sized to 30 inches) are increasingly obsolete on our farm. The cultivation tools we still use are two sizes of stirrup hoes.

Another reason is the considerable loss in growing space when you grow in 30-inch-wide beds rather than wider beds, as shown in figure 2.8.

A bed that is 30 inches (75 cm) by 100 feet (30 m) provides 250 square feet (23 sq m) of growing space. A bed that is 48 inches (120 cm) by 100 feet (30 m) provides 400 square feet (37 sq m).

More growing space allows you to grow more crops, and with more crops comes more photosynthesis and more income potential.

One extra row of lettuce on a 100-foot (30 m) bed can produce an extra 30 or 40 pounds (14 or 18 kg) of lettuce. And at seven dollars per pound—our current wholesale price—that is an extra $280 per planting.

Thus, when you don’t have to rely on precision cultivation tools—most of which are sized to 30 inches (75 cm)—increasing bed width can make a lot of sense.

Narrow Permanent Beds = More Pathways

Furthering the case for a width other than 30 inches (75 cm) is that narrower beds mean more pathways to manage and keep weed-free.

For example, consider a 50-foot-wide (15 m) garden plot. If you established 30-inch (75 cm) beds with 18-inch (45 cm) pathways, the result is 12 beds and 13 pathways to manage. Whereas, if you set up 48-inch (120 cm) beds and 18-inch (45 cm) pathways, you would have nine growing beds and 10paths to manage.

In that latter design you gain 20 percent more growing area—600 square feet (56 sq m) if the beds are 100 feet (30 m) long—with three fewer paths to manage in the same area.

Of course, 30-inch (75 cm) beds do have the advantage of being easier to harvest from or to walk over without stepping on and possibly compacting the garden bed itself.

Compaction from occasional footsteps may not be an issue, however, depending on the no-till system you design.

U.K. grower and author Charles Dowding, who popularized the deep compost mulch system (which he calls no-dig), regularly steps on his beds as he works in his gardens. We have begun stepping on our beds more frequently, too, because we find it packs the compost together.

Even a shallow layer of compost mulch can sometimes create a growing area that is too loose, and so it does not hold the requisite moisture needed to germinate or grow crops effectively. In this case, occasionally stepping on beds can be beneficial.

Path Width

Chapter six takes a dive deep into pathway management. But let’s consider path width here, because it is an important consideration during the initial setup of garden beds. The more path space you have, the more nongrowing space you have to manage.

Eighteen-inch pathways are more comfortable to work in than narrow pathways. But wider pathways require more labor to keep free of weeds. Pathways that are too narrow can cause issues when planting and harvesting, though.

At Rough Draft Farmstead, our field pathways are roughly 14 inches (35 cm) wide, but those in the three high tunnels are closer to 12 inches (30 cm) wide.

This is a little tight, but our harvest bins fit on these pathways and it creates less “blank space” to manage overall.

If you plan to establish living pathways, by sowing a mixture of ryegrass and clover in the paths, for example, set your path width to match the width of your mower. (Living pathways are also discussed in detail in chapter six.)

Permanent Beds: Length

The characteristics of your site may determine bed length—trees, buildings, or slopes will all have their say. No matter what length you decide on, standardize all your beds at that one length.

Hannah and I decided to set up 100-foot-long (30 m) beds in the field, and 50-foot-long (15 m) beds in the tunnels because that fits our landscape well. However, there is nothing wrong with beds that are 60 or 80 or 130 feet long (18 or 25 or 40 m).

Base the decision on your context.

I do highly recommend establishing a single length for all of your beds if possible so that all of your row cover, trellis material, or landscape fabric fits equally well over every bed (never too short or too long).

Throughout history and throughout the world, people have tended crops on hill- sides using terracing to keep soil in place.

If every bed is standardized, it’s also easier to make a garden crop plan for the season.

This is a significant point because crop planning is already a complicated process, and having to adjust for the varying yields from a bed of one length versus another of a different length would create a massive logistical puzzle that would have to be reorganized every season.

In standardized beds, the crop plan can largely stay static from year to year.

A shorter standard bed length has some advantages, including faster clean up and turnover to another crop.

Shorter beds can also be prudent for succession planting and intercropping, or for running small crop trials.

Managing crop trials, especially when they fail, can get messy and expensive in longer beds. And superficial though it may sound, don’t underestimate the value of the morale boost that shorter beds can provide—on a per bed basis, they take less time to set up, clean up, and replant.

Bed Orientation

The orientation of a bed in relation to compass direction—east to west versus north to south—is less important than how its orientation affects water shedding or retention.

For example, if you live in an arid climate where rainfall is low, it may be more important to orient your beds across the slope than up and down the slope.

That will help them to capture what rainfall you do receive.

If rainfall is often excessive in your climate—as it is here in Kentucky, with regular two- or three-inch rain events—make sure to orient any beds on slopes to encourage them to shed water, even if you garden on only a gentle slope.

That may mean angling the beds slightly downhill or even aligning them directly up and down the slope to ensure that water can flow out of the pathways.

The compaction inherent to walkways can hinder water penetration.

If water cannot drain, it will fill the pathways and eventually rush over the top of the beds, thus eroding your mulches or soil.

One exception to considering the impact of cardinal directions is when you intend to use temporary tunnels such as caterpillar tunnels over the winter.

Generally speaking, if the sidewall of the tunnel is facing the south, the tunnel will capture the most sunlight (this is especially true north of 40 degrees latitude). However, any structure will cast a shadow to the north that is double the height of the structure in the winter.

This is something to keep in mind for planning winter production in the field or when building a high tunnel.

Will you be able to make good use of the shaded area on the north side of the tunnel? Areas with high winds may generally require orienting beds into the prevailing winds, rather than broadside to the force of the wind, especially when temporary tunnels are involved.

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Dr Heidi Parkes

By Dr Heidi Parkes

Senior Information Extension Officer QLD Dept of Agriculture & Fisheries.