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Posts Tagged ‘planting bed’

A Small Kitchen Garden in Your Lawn

Ideally, you can use a straight-edged spade to cut the sod away for a garden bed. I’ve used an edging tool, and even a round-point spade… though the extreme curvature of the blade makes it hard to create a straight edge with a round-point shovel.

I hope your small kitchen garden plan is starting to take shape in your mind. So far, you’ve figured out where to put your planting beds, and you’ve thought hard about how big to make them: will you need to walk in your planting beds to work them, or will you be able to work them from the sides? The next decision is a biggie: Will you plant directly in the ground, or will you raise your planting beds above ground level?

Start by setting pins at the corners of the new garden bed, and stretch twine between them to mark the perimeter. If you’re cutting a bed with curved edges, use a bunch of pins to define the curves… or eyeball it if you’re not concerned about precision.

Your yard may impose an answer to that question; if the soil is rocky, constantly wet, or unworkable, you may need to build raised beds on the yard rather than cutting planting beds into the yard. If you’re lucky enough to have soil you can work relatively easily-and that will support plant life-you need to choose between in-ground and raised beds.

Making the choice might be easiest when you’re familiar with the steps involved in building each type of planting bed. This post examines steps to take when preparing a new traditional-style planting bed in an established lawn.

A Planting Bed in the Lawn

The least expensive planting bed you can create is one that you pay for with sweat equity. For such a bed, you mark the perimeter of the new garden area, and then remove the sod from within that space. Sod includes all the grass and a few inches of soil (bound together by roots of the grass). So, when you cut in a new planting bed this way, the remaining lawn sits a few inches above your small kitchen garden.

There’s nothing wrong with a recessed planting bed as long as the soil drains efficiently, though there are a few other liabilities:

  • The lower your planting bed, the farther you need to bend down to work in it.
  • It’s tough to mow grass along a drop-off.
  • Set the shovel blade against the turf, aligned with the twine along one edge of the new planting bed. Aim the shovel blade straight into the turf. This may mean angling the handle well forward (away from you). Then push down firmly with the ball of your foot. You may need to stomp on the shovel several times to get it to cut into the soil. (Hold the top of the handle firmly in position while you’re pushing the shovel into the ground with your foot.) Cut along the entire length of one side of the new bed—or cut all the way around the perimeter since you’re going to do that eventually anyway.

    Step into the garden bed, turn around, and cut a line parallel to and about a foot away from the first line you cut. Each time you cut the blade into the turf, lower the shovel’s handle (pull it toward you and down) so that it pries the turf up off of the underlying soil. If the sod doesn’t come up easily, you may need to cut the shovel in deeper and pry again.

    Notice how the existing lawn acts as a fulcrum, turning the shovel’s blade into a lever. Exploit this by working your way backward across the planting bed you’re creating.

  • The edge of the lawn along the garden bed will break down as you step and kneel on it.
  • Being a low spot in the yard, an in-ground planting bed may collect water during heavy rain; a wet season could result in failed crops.
  • Weeds and other plants that propagate through stolons and rhizomes can easily cross the line between an in-ground planting bed and the adjacent lawn.

Peel the sod off of the soil. This may be easiest if you cut perpendicular lines between the parallel cuts you’ve already made… but if you start at the side border of the new planting bed where you’ve already made a cut, the sod should come up in large pieces that tear away from each other easily. There’s a lot of nutrition in the sod, so add it to your compost pile… preferably grass-side-down.

As you work the soil and amend it (add stuff to improve the soil’s characteristics) in a new planting bed, it’ll mound up a bit and be nearly even with the soil supporting the lawn. However, the planting bed will settle in time, and stepping in the bed will compact it; it will never be even with the lawn until you add back as much soil as you removed.

Raised Planting Beds

An in-ground planting bed is simple to describe and easy to create. The alternative raised bed is only a little trickier. A raised bed offers several advantages over a traditional in-ground planting bed… but it also introduces some minor challenges. We’ll explore raised bed gardens in the next post, and look at at least one technique you can use to build your own raised planting beds. In later posts we’ll talk about amending soil and otherwise preparing a new bed so it’ll be ready to go in the spring.

When you finish one pass across the planting bed, make a second pass, cutting a line parallel to the first swath, prying the sod away from the soil, and peeling the sod out. Eventually, you’ll have a hole in your lawn that provides stark contrast to the green grass (and dandelions).

Machine-Made Planting Beds

Don’t rule out using a machine to cut in a planting bed. A powerful walk-behind auto-tiller can cut through sod and turn it over enough to prepare a lawn area for repurposing. Generally, you’ll need to “lift-and-throw” chunks of grass and roots out of the way after cutting a bed this way.

A lawn tractor with a drag-behind plough attachment can cut sod, but also leaves chunks of grass and roots. Following up with a disking attachment will break up the sod chunks, and repeated raking will remove a lot of the them… a task you must complete to prevent them from coming back as a “weed” problem in your new planting bed.

Chemicals Anyone?

With organic gardening being seriously in vogue, it’s hard to recommend this solution, but it is still a popular tool for farmers—especially those practicing no-plough, low-impact methods. A week or two before you plough (or auto-till) a planting bed into your lawn, carefully (if you slop, you’ll have some seriously dead patches of grass where you don’t want them) apply an herbicide (Roundup is very popular for this) to the area you plan to till. Turn the sod after it is completely dead; the grass leaves and roots become humus in the soil and the planting bed stays level with the surrounding lawn.

If you’re not in a hurry, there’s a much more organic way to achieve the same end… but your new beds might not be ready for planting until well into the next growing season.

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Small Kitchen Garden Design: Layout

Perrenials fill two traditional farmyard planting beds: asparagus on the left and raspberries on the right.

I can’t tell you exactly how to build your small kitchen garden. That’s because I don’t know exactly what conditions you face as you make your plan. There are a few design considerations to have in mind as you make decisions about how to build your own planting beds.

How Big Your Bed?

Forget, for the moment, the soil conditions at the location you’ve chosen for your new planting bed. More importantly: how much space are you going to convert into a small kitchen garden?

A square that is 10 feet by 10 feet can hold 7 crowded rows of vegetables with 18 inches between rows. For plants that require little space—radishes, beets, carrots, lettuce, spinach, peppers, and beans, for example—you can get away with such crowding… but you’ll be wiggling between rows when the plants are full-grown.

You might crowd larger plants such as tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, and sweet potatoes, to two feet… but again, you’ll be hard-pressed to find places for your feet when you’re in the garden.

Do You Need to be In Your Garden?

Here’s the key question in choosing a layout for a small kitchen garden: Do you need to be in your planting beds? A traditional vegetable garden on a country farm is a ploughed area in the yard. If it runs 100 feet by 30 feet (modest for someone to live off of year-round), then someone needs to walk in it to till it, plant it, weed it, and harvest from it. But, if you’re going small, perhaps you should design a garden with planting beds in which you never walk.

Walk Versus No-Walk Planting Beds

Here are characteristics of planting beds whose management requires that you walk in them. I’ve color-coded the characteristics where green=advantage, yellow=neutral, and red=disadvantage:

  • They are generally more than three or four feet across at their shortest dimension
  • You can easily use a power-tiller to turn the soil and mix in amendments.
  • The soil gets compacted from regular traffic
  • You must reserve tilled areas between planting areas where you can stand and walk while working the garden. This significantly reduces yield per square foot of tilled earth.
  • You must manage the open spaces to keep down weeds
  • There is enormous flexibility for how you arrange crops in the garden and for how you rotate crops from year-to-year.
  • For the same total square footage of planting beds, it takes less fencing to protect a single large bed than to protect multiple smaller beds

Here are characteristics of planting beds you can manage without ever walking in them:

  • Beds are no more than three to four feet across—two feet across if you can access them from only one side.
  • A small kitchen garden of no-walk beds typically has several adjacent planting beds with room to walk between them and work them from all sides. If multiple beds aren’t an option, then a long, narrow bed provides the most versatility for rotating crops from season-to-season.
  • For equal areas of tilled soil, you need far more space for no-walk planting beds than for planting beds in which you walk… but remember: you can grow far more per square foot in a no-walk planting bed than in one where you must walk to work the garden.
  • Without someone pressing down on it, the soil doesn’t get compacted quickly. That makes it easier to work when you’re amending, planting, and weeding.
  • Areas between planting beds can be lawn, permanent mulch, paving, or other easily-maintained surfaces.
  • A no-walk bed can support far more plants per square foot than a large planting bed can. Consider: In a bed that’s only 18 inches wide, you can plant a row of vegetables near each boundary of the bed—you don’t need to get between the rows.

In a traditional in-ground planting bed, it can be difficult to distinguish where the yard ends and the garden begins.

Cutting-in a Planting Bed

I’m sure I’ve overlooked several notable characteristics of both walk- and no-walk planting beds. Please chime in if you want to share pet peeves about your planting beds, or identify advantages I’ve missed.

My next post will explain (with photos) how to lay out and cut-in a traditional farmer’s-style planting bed in your yard. In later posts, we’ll talk about differences between these traditional in-ground planting beds and the somewhat more European raised beds.

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