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Polyculture Bed Size - a design exercise

 
Mike Hagar
Posts: 26
Location: Spokane, WA
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Hello All from Spokane, Washington.

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 on the www.SpokanePermaculture.org website.
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.

Bed Design Image:
http://spokanepermaculture.org/Portals/0/EasyDNNNews/38/600600p583EDNmainGardenBedModel.jpg
If this doesn't show the image is on the Spokane Permaculture webstite at:
http://spokanepermaculture.org/LocalProjects/TabId/102/ArtMID/583/ArticleID/38/Polyculture-Garden-Bed-Size---a-Design-Exercise.aspx

Questions:
• 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?

This is my first post at Permies. Thanks in advance for any help you can be.

Mike
GardenBedModel.jpg
[Thumbnail for GardenBedModel.jpg]
Garden Bed Model
 
S Bengi
Posts: 1356
Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even distribution
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The 6ft bed usually have a 1ft walkway on both side for a total of 8ft. So your hand only have to reach 3ft from either ends.
I do like your idea it makes just as much sense and you could also have a vine over the walkway, they would however need post+wire support.
I can think of Nitrogen fixing beans, tomatoes, melons, cucumber, squash, pumpkins, or grapes, arctic/hardy/fuzzy kiwi, passionfruit, etc.

The root of the vegetables will grow under the walkway, so they will have enough space.
Bush beans/clover/n-fixers could be planted in the walkway.
Have you though of any compost cover crops to plant in the grow beds over the winter, winter rye and fava beans dont mind the cold.

If you make a hugelkultur raised bed, then you could water less often, keep in mind that the smaller the "log" the more nitrogen it will use up from the soil and at some point, it will just be a regular compost bed



 
Morgan Morrigan
Posts: 1400
Location: Verde Valley, AZ.
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raised beds use more water, whatever the type.
If you cant find wood for the bottom, you can put in drainfield pipe, rocks or gravel mixed with charcoal too. Wood supports fungi, and will help to move water "around" to drier areas.

As pointed out in gaia's garden, If you go ahead and make deeper beds, you just plant later maturing crops in the center, you wont step/compact the stuff in front as much as you think.

leaving a column of grasses could be a conduit for flea beetles and other obnoxious pests. If they can overwinter in there, you may be creating a problem that you wouldn't have with just filling in the bed.

if you plant clovers and thymes in the pathways, they will attract pollinators, but not sap suckers.
 
Mike Hagar
Posts: 26
Location: Spokane, WA
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Thanks for your feedback Morgan. I intend to create a polyculture of acumulators and attractants to plant in all beds. I will look into the Thymes as you suggest.

Mike
 
Matu Collins
Posts: 1976
Location: Southern New England, seaside, avg yearly rainfall 41.91 in, zone 6b
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It seems like building 6 foot tall hugelbeets won't be happening for you, but I have found that "texture" helps with mitigating wind. Do you have windbreaks planned/planted?

I like beds to be narrower too. I also really like beds that are not long straight rows, but that will complicate your row covering.

 
Ken Peavey
steward
Posts: 2524
Location: FL
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I build my beds to be 4' wide, 50 feet long. This suits MY needs and is not a rule.
It does align with your 2' reach, except that I reach into the beds from the outside path as there is no winter cover.
The 50' length facilitates the use of standard length 50' drip irrigation hose.
I make my paths about 2' wide, but this is a little tight sometimes, forcing me to work from behind a cart/wheelbarrel rather than beside it.

I don't raise the beds.
This soil does not retain moisture at all and high areas will dry out unless amended with a great deal of organic material. I've had corn and sunflowers well over 8 feet tall, staked beans and tomatoes over 6 feet tall, so raising the beds further would not help for some of the crops. However, I've given though to raising some beds by as much as two feet. Those turnips and carrots are no good to my aching back. Perhaps a few beds could be raised to give me a break.




 
Michael Cox
Posts: 1592
Location: Kent, UK - Zone 8
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My experience with raised beds with grassy paths getween has been quite negative. We ended up spending a considerable effort keeping the paths from invading the beds, to the detriment of the crop plants themselves.

My personal preference now would be to cultivate the whole area equally - this gives you total flexibility for planting your crops from year to year. Different crops need different spacings and sometimes it makes sense to use 2' beds, others 3' etc... If you want to protect soil from compaction you can lay boards down on the soil for temporary paths. Boards on the soil also make excellent slug traps - they rest up for the day, so you just lift the board and harvest.

You could also lay your poly over any part of the whole area i would think, though i have no experience of using them.
 
Mike Hagar
Posts: 26
Location: Spokane, WA
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Hello Matu, Ken and Michael,

Thanks for the new feedback. I have continued to build on my plan and thought I would place a new picture close to the same perspective as my computer model.



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. We also throw all of the newly pulled weeds on the path. 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.
 
Gordon Harris
Posts: 6
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Hi!
I just joined here and after reading this, my first discussion, I have a comment. In my little garden, I mulched the 2' pathway with straw, which held up for at least 2 years. I'm wondering whether or not in your case, if you did this, then in subsequent years you could just add weeded out plants to the straw, etc. Then you could move the planting beds over so one of the adjacent growing beds would become the new pathway for a couple of years, and so on. This would allow for crop "rotation" to a degree, which should be good for the plants. You could still use your 6' covers - but you'd have one bed exposed to the weather for a while until it was again used as a growing bed (that's perhaps a downside, but maybe the frost would kill some undesirables(?).

Comments?

Gordon Harris
 
Mike Hagar
Posts: 26
Location: Spokane, WA
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Hi Gordon. It is a good idea and we have thought about it and we are still considering it as a possibility. However we are heading for no till polyculture beds. It is our hope/sense that by using mixed crop beds we will be able to avoid rotation requirements. Also we can use the paths for some hardy cover crops, chop and drop and then move the biomass into the beds as needed.

While we could shift the beds sideways as you say we also have quite a bit of water main lines and drip zones set up that would have to be adjusted. Thanks for the input. So far the spacing is working out great and our harvests are more than we hoped for. Since we have a great deal of room (2.4 acres) we are not having to deal with a small back yard. Therefore our large beds and large paths are working well for us. Even so the squash, melons and other use every bit of the paths for their sprawl. We could have worse problems.
 
Gordon Harris
Posts: 6
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Thanks for the reply! I'm glad things are going well for you there! I'm 68 and I'm hoping to be able to sell and start a new permaculture garden on a big city lot (so I can walk for shopping) with a small house on it. I've picked out the lot (I hope it doesn't sell before I can get it), so I have all sorts of castles in the air going here! :

Good luck!

-Gord
 
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