Personally, before I pick up my shovel and turn the dream into reality, I like to take a little time to let that idea sink in. A new garden isn’t just a physical place. It’s also the start of a new relationship with your natural environment, with all of the human history that led to the kind of gardening we practice today, and with your future health and well-being.
It will take physical labor from this point forward. It will also take time, energy, and likely some monetary resources as well. There will likely be some challenges – things you didn’t think of, physical fatigue, and more time spent than you planned.
This is how you become a homesteader. Step by step, skill by skill, challenge by challenge, shaping you into a more mentally and physically competent person. Are you ready?
Step 1: Map It on Land
The first thing I do once I finalize my plan is to lay out my design. You are basically making an outline on the earth of where everything will go.
If you’ve been following along with the series, you’ve probably already done this few times as you were formalizing your plan. This time, though, you want to be precise.
You will probably need a tape measure, string, garden stakes, a corner angle or a firm cardboard box you can use to make sure you keep things square where appropriate. If you are making circles or odd shapes, you might need paint to mark the area. Or, you can use natural materials such as sprinkled sawdust to map out unusual shapes on the ground.
I am a good digger, so I actually map out my lines by doing some shallow digging . Then, when I’ve got it right, and double-checked my measurements, I move on to step 2.
Step 2: Create Your Paths
When you’ve got your plan laid out, you are ready to execute. Every plan is different, so I can’t tell you exactly what to do. However, this was my process.
Note: There were a few areas of my paths that I could not dig the soil because I risked hitting tree roots from the existing peach tree. In that case, I added cardboard and paper over the grass and weeds to help with suppression before I put my organic matter on top.
Step 3: Make the Beds
After the paths were made, I started on the beds. Here’s what I did.
Remove any tap rooted weeds from the bed area. Things like dandelion, dock, and thistle need to come out before you add your compost to your planting area. They will just grow deeper roots and be harder to pull later if you don’t get them now. But most of your fibrous rooted plants like grass and clover will be smothered by your compost.
Rake the beds to level to integrate the soil from paths. Don’t compact it, just make a fairly smooth surface so you can easily spread your compost on top.
Add 4 inches of compost on top of the entire planting area. If you’ve been picking up your bags of compost with your grocery trips, you just have to dump them on top. If not, now’s the the time to get a bulk order delivery or enlist a friend to help you haul lots of compost!
Also, save those plastic bags that your compost comes in for later use. They are perfect for storing materials to use for making your own compost such as leaves and seed free weeds that you pull during the season. Or, they can be made into a quilt to use to smother weeds when necessary.
Step 4: Water Well and Let it Settle
When you first add your organic matter to your paths and your compost on your beds, your garden will be like a big fully pillow. Now you need to water it in and let it settle. Water plus gravity and a few days time will cohere your beds and paths into something that looks more like a garden.
Water the paths and the beds deeply or wait for a few good rains to do it for you. If weeds sprout in your compost or force their way through from below, pull them as they come up. Keep pulling any weeds that crop up until you are ready to plant. Save them in one of your empty compost bags to use for your compost pile later.
Step 5: Incorporate Design Features
If you have planned any design or decorative features, now is the time to add them. Put up your fences, install your water features, set out your benches, put in a table, set up your watering and washing station, and add decorative bed details. Put down your decorative mulch if you are using it.
If you have specific compost bins you want to use add them now too. Don’t worry if you don’t, I’ll be showing you simple ways to compost in future posts that don’t require complex bin building. All you need is to set aside that compost bed area that I described in the last post.
Try to do all your major “moving in” to your garden at the outset so you don’t have to risk disturbing your plants later.
In my case, I added double shred hardwood along the paths. I used some painted boxes and a narrow container to create a focal, roundabout at the center intersection of the beds. I also added a planter area and some containers at the entrance. I painted all my decorative wooden features in a dark blue that will add a lot of contrast as plants begin to grow.
All of these steps are simple if you take them one at a time. It took me about 6 hours to lay out the beds, dig the paths, and add the organic matter and compost. I spent a few hours painting my decorative items, leveling the areas I set them in, and generally making things look like the wanted to.
I’ve also spent several hours, watering to help the area settle, picking weeds as they emerged, and making sure the garden feels right. For example, the garden didn’t look quite as rustic and charming as I wanted at first. So, when some friends gave us some unsplit logs as firewood, I took several of those logs and used them to line the downhill side of the beds. This made the beds look a bit terraced and helped define the space more.
As you will learn in the coming months, a garden is never done. It is an ever-changing canvas for your creativity and skills. So, don’t feel as if it must be perfect now. Just make sure it feels like your garden, rather than something impersonal.
In the next post, we’ll get into details about what to plant in a potager. There will also be a few more steps to bed preparation to make sure you have the fertility you need to grow healthy plants this year. In the meantime, weed, water, and make yourself at home in your new garden space.
In previous posts, I covered some things I know to be beneficial about choosing your potager location and designing your paths and bed styles. I also explained why I think it’s really important to make a vegetable garden functional and beautiful and inviting.
Now I want to cover a few other practical considerations that may influence your potager design and make it simple for you to maintain and use your garden effectively.
Homestead potagers are fueled by compost. So, I recommend that you match your vegetable garden bed size with your compost creation capacity. However, the deeper you get into the homesteading arts, the greater your compost capacity will become.
Down the road you will most definitely be able to to increase your garden size as you grow your skills. So, it makes sense to plan some additional space now to expand into later.
If you have set aside 250 square feet now, you may want to double that two years from now. You can simply plan to expand out from your current potager. Or, you can consider the idea of pocket gardens.
Large vegetable gardens tend to be a bit like a red carpet invite for pests. They are basically a grand buffet for vegetable leaf eating insects, root eaters like voles, green eaters like rabbits, and larger pests like deer who consider our gardens to be irresistible.
Instead of expanding out into one giant vegetable garden, I have learned the benefit of having several smaller pocket potagers. These gardens can be integrated with your broader landscape.
For example, when you are ready to grow some fruit trees and bushes, then perhaps you want to tuck your pocket potagers in between your larger orchard aisles. This works well if you are planning to use dwarf or semi-standard trees pruned low. That way you’ll still have full sun for your vegetables.
Or perhaps, you want to intermix your pocket potagers with your livestock. For example, I have one of my vegetable gardens sandwiched between my chicken run on one side and my goat barn on the other. This gives me access to throw the chickens and goats garden scraps. Plus, I have easy proximity to transfer their manure and litter to my compost area.
When planning for future pocket potagers, keep in mind proximity to your house for harvesting. Also, keep in mind all the other location considerations such as sun, obstacles, water, drainage, etc. Finally, plan to unite your gardens using inviting paths that encourage you to walk from area to area so no garden gets neglected.
Expanding out to a larger sized potager can also work well if you break up some of your vegetables growing area with other beneficial plants. For example, inside my largest potgater garden, I have created islands of non-vegetable plants to break up my vegetable beds.
That makes my garden less of a smorgasbord for pests and more like trying to get to a particular store inside a mall. Pests have to navigate through places they don’t want to visit to get to the place they want. Since that’s more work, pests will often just go somewhere else where the food is easier for them to get. Or, they’ll get distracted by something along the way and forget about my more delicate edibles.
If the only flowering food source you offer pollinators is the cucumbers and squash blossoms in your potager, you’ll have a hard time attracting sufficient pollinators to your garden. You can hand pollinate, but that makes for more work.
If you have the space, consider creating provide pollinator-friendly plots . These should be adjacent to or inside your potager areas for good yields and insect pest-prevention.
Many pollinator-friendly plants grow like weeds. They don’t require much care, can get by with lower fertility, and add interest to your landscape. So, you don’t need to factor those planting areas into your compost calculations. Think about things like mints, clovers, dandelions, wild flowers, etc.
I will share a lot more information on pollinator plots in future posts. But for now, planning some pollinator areas in or around your potager is an important step in your design. Grouping at least 5-10 pollinator plants together works best.
Yet, even if you are working with really limited space, dotting a few high-impact pollinator attracting plants (bee balm, butterfly bush, anise hyssop), around your potager area will also help ensure you get good pollination when you need it. Between a few long-bloomers and a sequence of flowering vegetables, you can help attract the pollinators you need.
We’ll get deeper into this subject later. For now though, earmark as much space as you can, close to your garden for pollinators. And keep in mind pollinators need to be part of your potager plan to keep things simple long-term.
There are a few times a year when you might use a long-handled shovel, rake, and pitchfork in a potager. But the rest of the time, simple hand-held tools are all you need to grow a homestead potager. You may also need to store seed trays, watering cans, garden amendments, and a few other things year round.
Beyond these basics that any potager requires, your personal choices will determine how much additional storage you need. Here are some things to think about in your storage planning.
Design Dictates Tools Needed
Your garden design, and particularly your path maintenance, will dictate which tools you use and need to store. If you’ve made simple choices like using nutrient swales and mounded beds, then your storage needs will likely be similar to those listed above. If you’ve opted for more labor intensive choices, like wide grassy paths, then your storage needs will also likely be greater.
Take some some to figure out what your future storage needs might be based on your design plan in progress. Consider the storage options you currently have and whether they can be used for garden tools also.
For example, if your potager is close to your house and you a garage (or another place in your house) where you can store tools, that might be all you need. However, if you live in a single-wide mobile home like I do, and barely have room to walk down your hallways, then you may need to plan alternate storage for your garden tools.
Planning for a Potting Shed
If you intend to build something like a potting shed down the road, or some other structure for homestead use, make sure you factor that into your potager plan. Keeping that close your potager will save you steps in gathering and returning tools.
You also want to make sure that structure won’t cast shade, create wind tunnels, or otherwise become an obstacle for your potager. You may also want to consider using it as a roof surface to collect rain for watering your garden down the road.
You don’t need to know your exact plan for storage now. However, if you do think you might want to build something, then leaving space for it in or near your potager can be helpful.
Right now, you are probably focused on vermicompost and maybe bokashi to create compost for your garden. However, as you begin to increase your compost capacity, you’ll need room to store the larger stuff you collect such as cardboard, leaves, grass clippings, free mulch, all the vegetable tops you don’t eat, etc.
Also, when you start growing your own food instead of getting packaged stuff at the grocery store, you’ll find that your volume of compostable materials increases in relation to your garden success.
Plan a Compost “Bed”
Personally, I like to leave myself about an 4 foot wide by 8 foot long area, similar to a garden bed for composting. There are a lot of ways to compost that we’ll cover in more detail in future posts. But that amount of area gives you room to store, compost, turn, age, etc. enough compost for a potager garden.
If you plan to keep your potager small, such as around 100 square feet, then you just need a few feet for storage. A big pile won’t make a lot of sense in a garden that small. So, you can work with about half that space.
In the process of making compost, leachate –the liquid that runs out from your compost pile — can be either a benefit or a source or risk for your garden. Leachate can often be too strong of a fertilizer for vegetable beds. In some cases, it may also contain pathogens that you would not want to overflow onto something like your come and cut lettuce area.
Situating your compost pile so that the leachate runs to places like a lawn, the outer root zones of mature perennial plants, or to the root zone of plants that benefit from high fertility (e.g. a rhubarb patch) can harness those nutrients without harm.
Protect Ground Water
Also, if you maintain your own well, and rely on mostly untreated ground water, then make sure your compost pile is at least 50 feet away from your well head. This is extremely important if you are planning to compost manure of any sort.
Season Extension and Seed Starting
I have a 36 foot by 12 foot greenhouse. I use it to propagate plants for over 2 acres of cleared land. I also use it for growing some exotic plants that aren’t compatible with our climate such as a lemon tree, an olive tree, and year-round heads of lettuce.
Do You Need a Greenhouse?
I love my greenhouse. But, in retrospect, it’s not necessary for homesteading. It’s more of a luxury item that I enjoy. For those of you just getting started, you may feel the need for a greenhouse. However, there are much simpler solutions to get you started.
Row covers, cold frames, and even over-bed hoop houses are more self-sufficient and economical choices for simple potagers. I will cover these ideas in future posts.
Plan for Some Season Extension
For now though, if you want a greenhouse for personal reasons, please include it in your design. Make sure to keep in mind how it influences and coordinates with your design.
If you simply want to get an early start on the planting season, then set aside some space for a cold frame in your potager. Similar to making compost, setting aside the equivalent space and pathway access as you would for a 4 x 8 foot bed is plenty of room.
If you have limited space, then direct seeding fast-growing plant varieties in season using over-bed cold frames, or starting indoors under lights, are simple solutions that don’t require additional seed starting space.
Perennial Potager Plants
There are a few perennial fruits, vegetables, and herbs that you may want to include in your potager garden. Once established, many of these plants have minimum fertility requirements or just require heavy winter mulching to feed the soil life around them.
So, you may want to consider adding some extra bed space for these plants in your potager design now. Even if you can’t quite make enough compost to support them at the outset, it’s good to start these early on since perennials can take a few years go really get growing.
Personally, when I spend buying soil improvements to plant perennials now, I consider that like putting money in the bank. Later when I start to harvest, those early investments will continue to pay off for years to come.
Asparagus, Rhubarb, StrawberrIES
Asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberries are some plants I always include in or near my potager garden. For asparagus I aim for at least 20-40 square feet to make it worth growing. You can also use those beds for growing a few tomatoes and basil until the asparagus plants fill up the space.
Rhubarb and strawberries work well in 4 x 4 or 4 x 8 foot beds. These do require lots of compost for good production and benefit from afternoon shade in summer. We’ll get further into how to grow them later. But, if you plan to grow them, leave room and plan to buy lots of compost to give them a good start.
Dwarf Fruit Trees and Bushes
Dwarf-size, self-fertile fruit trees, blackberries and raspberries are also good options for a potager. Plan at least an 8 x 8 foot area for dwarf trees and 4 square feet or more for berry bushes. Note, things like blueberries and grapes have different soil requirements than your average potager garden grown plants, so I usually save those for other locations outside the potager.
On the herb front, many of your classic cooking herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, lavender, French tarragon, culinary mint, and more can all be great additions to the potager garden. They have lower fertility requirements than most vegetables and can keep growing for years. So give them their own dedicated bed space.
For annuals or biennials like basil, parsley, cilantro, and dill you can grow them in your vegetable beds, or give them their own space. In general, I plan about 2 to 4 square feet of space for each herb I plant. For smaller plants like thyme, I’ll plant several in that space so I don’t risk over-harvesting from fewer plants.
Deep Bed Plants
Depending on the depth of your soil now, and how rocky it is, you may want to consider creating a deep bed or two to use for potatoes or long carrots.
With the addition of compost, your soil will get deeper over time. Also, as you garden, you’ll dig out rocks that you come across. At the outset though, with no till practices, you may want to use containers to grow these kind of plants that really need 10 – 16 inches of soil for high production.
Alternatively, you can grow oxheart carrots which are wide and short and use grow bags for potatoes.
Vegetables are delicious to us and just about everything else that eats plants. As such, I don’t know any gardeners who don’t have, or wish they had, a fence around their vegetable gardens.
You can often get away without a fence your first year since pests don’t know you have a garden. But, once they discover it, easier deterrents like soap and fishing line will only work for a while. Then a fence becomes necessary.
At least leave room in your design for the possibility of a fence. That way, you’ve got the space and accessibility in the event that you need to install one.
There are a few more convenient features you may want to consider in your design if you have the room and interest.
A washing station can be as simple as a place to fill a few buckets with water to give your vegetables a dunking rinse before bringing them in the house. That rinse water can be used to water your plants later.
You can certainly get more elaborate on your wash areas, though it’s not necessary. For any area you use for washing vegetables, plan for drainage. One of the easiest ways to do this is to add several layers of gravel and make a wash station landing.
Similar to compost leachate, think about where the water will ultimately drain so you can direct it for good use.
For a small garden, it’s a pleasure to water using a watering can. The sound of water pouring through those small holes in the rosette sprayer are therapeutic. As you water you get a chance to study the health of your plants, learn about their growing habits, and connect with your garden.
In fact, I even hand water in large garden because I enjoy it so much. What I don’t enjoy though is waiting for the hose to fill my watering can. Instead, I keep a barrel full of irrigation water at all times. So, when I need to water, I just dip my can in the barrel and fill it up much faster. Recycled food grade 55 gallon drums work well for this.
If you have even more space, down the road you can add an irrigation pond to collect rainwater, and dip your watering can direct into the pond.
I am not a fan of pulling hoses around in the garden. They have the bad habit of crushing plants that meander into the paths. They tend to be heavy and hard to maneuver once you turn the water on. But if you plan to use them, make sure to plan for how you will drag them around without crossing your beds.
Many people hammer in PVC or steel posts to use for directing hoses around the bed areas. Some elaborate systems even include overhead pulleys to keep the hoses above the beds so nothing gets crushed.
Drip tape or line and soaker hoses only hold up a few years in a garden. Then they need to be replaced. They also often have clogs or water pressure issues that require maintenance.
They don’t really fit with my idea of a simple homestead potager because they increase complexity and require replacement. But, if you must have them, make sure you plan your installation in your garden design.
It’s nice to have a surface to work on when potting up seedlings, sorting seeds, making notes, etc. This doesn’t have to be in the garden, but it’s nice to have. Generally, I like to include a seating area in my potager for my own enjoyment. So, then I can use that as my surface for doing gardening work too.
Your potager is yours and should be a reflection of your personal tastes. If there are decorative details you dream of in your garden, make sure to include them in your design. You may not be able to put them all in place your first year. But you can chip away at your list as time allows.
When I lived in the suburbs, I added a three tiered water fountain to my first potager. I had an arbor for an entrance. I used decorative fencing to keep out my dogs, and I planted almost as many flowers as I did food plants.
I wouldn’t quite call it a homestead potager, but I loved being in my garden so much that I spent enormous time there. That garden helped dramatically improve my gardening skills. If a beautiful space will attract you out to the garden more often, then indulge in those one-time decorative features that beckon you.
The Simplestead Potager Garden
Now it’s time to bring all this how-to information together as an actual garden design. Your garden will be designed based on your conditions. But, to give you an idea of how to go from concepts to concrete plans, I’ve summarized my garden location details and my garden design for the new Simplestead garden.
The garden is situated just below the gravel parking area in front of our house. There’s about a 5-6 foot green space buffer between the gravel and the garden. The parking area is graded away from where the garden will be so there are no risks of pollution from our cars draining into the garden beds.
This location is close to the house for easy harvesting. There’s a porch on the house that can be used for storage as needed. There’s a hose on the house that can be used for watering. I can easily set up a washing station on the gravel parking area using a few buckets and the house hose.
I originally used this as a duck paddock for meat ducks. So, it has a 40 inch chicken wire fence, a small duck house, and small pond that collects the run off from the roof of the duck house. I can use that pond water for dipping my watering can to irrigate the garden. When the pond runs low, I can fill it with the hose rather than running the hose through the garden. (If it didn’t already have this feature, I would have just added a hose-filled 55 gallon drum to fill as my water can dipping source.)
The garden is full sun for at least 8-10 hours a day, facing to the south east. It’s actually oriented almost exactly the same way as our solar panels are for optimal sun catching. It’s also sloped toward the same direction so it warms up a bit faster in mornings than other areas of our property. The slope is a tiny bit too steep where I plan to have the bottom beds, so I’ll change the slope a bit when I make the beds and create the paths.
The house provides great wind protection. The driveway also creates a bit of a heat sink so this area experiences much less frost than other parts of landscape.
There are three peach trees breaking up the space between the driveway and the garden. They are pruned for air circulation, so even though they cast a little bit of a shade shadow over a few feet of the garden, it’s dappled, and occurs during the afternoon heat so will actually be beneficial for growing greens in summer. Those trees also pollinator-friendly for most of March.
There are no utilities in the area or access issues. Deer do graze nearby, but generally not that close to the house because of our Great Pyrenees dog on duty. Our four farm cats also patrol that area heavily so there’s no vole activity visible. Rabbits also don’t seem to be breaching the existing fence.
The soil is of mixed quality. In the upper bed area, it’s a bit deeper. So, I can grow potatoes there even this first year. There are a lot of weeds in the north-side pollinator strip, so those weeds will need to be addressed before I can plant other things there.
The rest of the future garden area is growing mostly annual grasses, clover, and a few edible weeds like bittercress. The duck poop has clearly made the soil nutrient rich, but the roots stop about 2-3 inches deep, so that means the subsoil is pretty compacted. Overall, it’s better than having no soil, but lots and lots of compost are an absolute must for this area!
In terms of beauty, the area is a bit of an eyesore right now. But by turning it into a potager, I’m enhancing the whole front entrance to our house and solving that problem.
Now, given the location and the space I have to work with, I came up with a simple garden design plan that will give me about 128 square feet of vegetable bed area for the first year, plus some pollinator areas, and makes use of some existing resources in or near the garden.
Here are the details of the plan shown above.
Four Main Vegetable Beds that are 4 feet wide by 8 feet long
Pollinator strips running along the inside perimeter of the existing fence on the northern and southern sides of the beds
Compost area in two parts – 1 for storing materials, the other for composting and aging, with leachate from the piles running into the outer root zone of an edible food forest aisle down slope
Paths are about 18 wide in perimeter paths and about 24 inches wide in the center path
I am going to create a small round-about using the corners of the beds and the intersection of the paths to make it a bit more interesting than just having rectangular beds
I’ll leave an existing clover filled area next to the garden and add a small table set in that area
I’ll keep the duck house as a rain catch and down the road, it can be used as infrastructure for either storage depending on whether I opt to expand the potager or keep some small livestock there
I’m adding some raised containers outside the garden to give it a more grand entrance
I’m also going to grow some low maintenance pest-resistant plants outside the perimeter of the garden, such as lilacs, and some tea plants (e.g. mints and other strong herbs) to create natural pest barriers
Now it’s your turn. Take all the ideas from this potager planning series and turn them into the framework for your own potager. You may want to read back through the earlier posts to remind you of some of the information we’ve covered. Also, look back through your homework assignments.
Put your design on paper. It doesn’t have to be perfectly to scale, but try to get close so you have a good guide to use to keep you on track.
I use a computer spreadsheet and make each cell about .50 x .50 to represent a square foot. It’s basically like making my own electronic graph paper. You can also do this on real graph paper using pencils. Or, just eyeball and draw it on blank paper if that’s more your style.
Sleep On It
Once you have your design on paper, sleep on it for a few nights. Then go back and make sure it still makes sense.
Don’t rush this process. I’m an impatient person. I get the desire to charge ahead. But, if you want to have a garden that is simple to maintain and works well for you long term, you need to take your time with planning.
Gut instincts and ideas are great, so don’t discount them. However, do make sure you flesh them out though and put them through your reasoning faculties before you commit to them.
Try it On
Once you feel great about your design and have gotten a little distance to make sure it really resonates, then try it on. Use whatever you’ve got to simulate what your garden will look like when finished. String, chairs, brooms, streamers, old paint, your recycleables…
It really doesn’t matter what you use as a stand in, just make sure you represent everything on your plan on land. Then, pretend like you are using it.
Squat down and plant imaginary seeds. Sit on your bench and imagine your view. Harvest pretend vegetables and take them to your house. Pretend to dunk your watering can, haul around your hoses, build your compost pile, move tools around, etc.
You may feel like a crazy person at first. Trust me, though, this step can save you from silly design mistakes that can seriously complicate your gardening activities later. If something feels wrong, make adjustments until it feels right.
Revise Your Plan
Revise your plan on land, then translate it back to your paper plan. That paper plan will keep you on track as you start digging. You may also want to make notes on any details you need to pay attention to based on your trial run.
Believe it or not, once you’ve done your homework from this post, the rest of this potager-making process is going to be really simple.
Yes, there will be work. But, you’re not afraid of a little work. If you were, you wouldn’t be reading a homesteading website or planning to grow your own food!
In fact, if you are like me, you are probably so excited you can’t want to dig in and start to make your potager dreams a reality. So, in our next posts, we’ll break ground and get ready to garden!
The first gardens were forest gardens. Actually they were more like cultivated forests than gardens. The plants that humans found beneficial, they encouraged. The plants that didn’t have utility were removed.
Eventually, early gardeners installed fences to protect their food supply from being eaten by other free-ranging forest animals. There’s no precise information on when forest gardening gave way to bare land gardening. Probably it was around 10,000 BC. which, on the scale of human history, is a fairly recent event.
Vegetable gardens, as opposed to field crops, may only have begun in ancient Egypt around 3000 or 4000 BC. It’s believed that these early gardens were likely grown in blocks or squares. They may have been surrounded by earthen walls to help retain water and soil in the desert.
The beds were kept close to the house since they required more tending and watering than field crops. Even early iterations, when grown mostly for food self-sufficiency, gardens were considered places of pleasure, relaxation, and contemplation.
When you are considering your potager design, take your cues from history. Fresh, colorful, nutrient rich food is beautiful. And your garden beds deserve to be too. Make beds that are appropriately functional for your climate and aesthetically appealing too.
Garden Beds Not Rows
Long, narrow rows are only part of our garden vernacular because we’ve been influenced by visions of mechanized fields — planted, maintained, and (in many cases) even harvested by machines. In a human, hand-tool scale garden, narrow rows tend to take up too much space and require too much maintenance. They are also difficult to navigate or use for planning purposes.
That’s why “beds” are more appropriate for homestead potagers. In gardening, the bed is the area you plant. Sometimes it’s a raised bed, but usually it’s just a defined area where you have improved the soil to use for planting. Pretty much any ready to plant area, broken up by paths for access, can be considered a garden with beds.
There are many different ways to create your beds by mounding, elevating, building hugelkulturs, and more. Comfort, space utility, your available land, slope, environmental considerations, aesthetic preferences, and more are factors that you’ll want to use to decide what kind of potager garden beds are right for you.
To help you choose beds that will make your job as a gardener easy, here are some ideas to consider.
Maximizing Your Potager Planting Area
Let’s assume you have a 10 x 10 foot space, or a 100 square feet of gardening area, including your pathways. That’s a good amount of space for a first garden. As long as your soil is well-nourished with compost, and your beds are well-designed, you can grow quite a bit of food in a garden of that size.
Depending on your design though, that 100 square feet grow a lot of food with a little work. Or, it can be a lot of work and a little food. For example, with 1 foot wide rows, you would waste most of your growing space on pathways.
If you use wider rows, such as 3 feet or 4 feet wide rows, you get more planting space. However, long rows mean more work walking back and forth. So, for efficiency, long rows usually become rectangular beds with narrow pathways between. Also, even if you are tall with long arms, reaching across a 4 foot wide bed is challenging. So, access from both sides is more comfortable.
Also, keyhole gardens are incredibly useful when you have limited space gardens. By making beds with a keyhole shape, you can create a design that gives you easy access to all your growing space with very little square footage taken up by paths.
Notice the keyhole bed example above. Except at the corners where you’ll have to reach across about 32 inches of bed width, you will only have to reach 2 feet across to do your weeding and seeding. That’s a lot easier on your back in the long run than 4 foot wide rows with access from one side only. That design also gets you the most square feet of growing space.
Best of Bed Ideas
I love keyhole gardens for maximizing small spaces. However, I find it easier to plan a garden in rectangular blocks than in irregular shapes. So, when you’ve got a bit more space, it’s easier to plan your plantings if you use square or rectangular shaped beds.
Based on experience, my preferred bed size is 4 feet wide and 8-12 feet long. A four foot wide bed, with access from both sides preserves moisture and makes planning and planting easy. Even though you could just run your four foot beds as long wide rows, breaking them up makes it easier to navigate your garden area.
If you want to consider other shapes, the limiting factor for bed design should be how far you have to reach to dig in the soil.
For example, if you want to make a circle garden, with a plus sign path, plan your circle diameter to accommodate your arm’s reach. This is your garden after all, so custom-fitting it to your needs is ideal.
The Landing Pad Garden
If you want to plant in bigger blocks, but don’t want to maintain lengthy paths, you can also create landing pads. Essentially, you only run paths where you need them, then you step across your beds to cleared areas where you can squat to do your garden chores.
This works well if you plan your plantings in your step across zone to be short and non-vining. For example, you might use come and cut lettuce as your step across plant choice. This design is ideal in small spaces, but can be a bit irritating when gardening in larger gardens.
Identifying your landing zones with stones or pavers cuts down on accidental crushing of new seedlings. They can also add aesthetic interest when your plants are young and don’t hide your landing pad.
All of my garden beds now are mounded beds. This happens naturally when you turn your paths into nutrient swales. Plus, before you start planting, you’ll be adding a significant amount of compost to the surface of your beds to prepare them for planting. So, that too elevates the bed surface a bit.
Mounded beds promote good drainage, but still have close contact with surrounding soil so they don’t dry out as quickly as raised beds. Plants can also reach into the surrounding pathways of mounded beds to get water and nutrients when needed.
The benefit of mounded beds over planting at the level of your paths is that they still look distinctly like garden beds. That makes it easy for you to identify where to plant. It also makes it obvious to any guests you bring to your garden not to walk on them. Plus, they will drain to the paths in heavy rain.
I am about to write some blasphemous things about raised beds, so if you’d rather not know the downsides skip this section!
Raised beds can be beautiful…if they are well-maintained and made using durable materials. Most people use lumber and decking screws from the hardware store to build them. If you are adding lots of compost and organic matter to your beds, all that biological life that decomposes organic matter sees your lumber as more food!
Also, those boards soak up water when it rains, Then, they dry when it doesn’t. That swelling and drying cycle loosens the connections with the screws and allows water to seep deeply around the screws so corners break down quickly.
Frankly, in an organic garden, lumber-made beds just don’t last long. So, you have to buy more lumber and rebuild them every couple years to maintain the raised bed aesthetic. Or, to extend their life, you need to pull them out of the garden when not in use and store them somewhere. (In a potager, your garden will always be in use though!) Or, you have to use cedar which, even when FSC, is environmentally questionable.
Sorry, but lumber-built raised beds don’t quite fit the definition of simple homesteading. (It’s like the lawn mower hiding behind beaten down garden pathways.)
Now, there are some good reasons to use raised beds in general though.
Your soil is toxic, so you need to build over the existing soil.
You have severe vole problems and need to create barriers under your beds.
You can’t bend to garden, so you need to elevate your beds to a height you can reach.
You are trying to garden on flat land that becomes a mosquito pool every time it rains.
You just love how they look and must have them.
In any of those cases, raised beds might be perfect for you. I urge you to consider investing in more permanent beds such as stacked stone, plastered earthen walls, or masonry-installed (not just stacked) cinder blocks so that you can limit maintenance on your bed frames.
Your one time investment in permanent bed walls will give you a much more attractive end product and make your bed maintenance simpler. These materials all have embodied environmental costs like lumber too. But, their durability makes them a one time investment rather than a life-time dependency.
Even with permanent bed walls, there are a few extra concerns to keep in mind about gardening in raised beds.
– Plan to Add Soil Often
If you use raised beds, expect to have to refill your soil to bring it up to the level of your bed edges often. Garden soil should be full of water. In fact 25% of it must be if you want to successfully grow vegetables in it.
By nature, water always tries to flow to the lowest point in it’s vicinity. That means the water in your soil will work very hard to become even with the water all around your beds (e.g. the water in the soil of your paths).
As it does, it will take bits of soil, minerals, and nutrients with it. You can slow this down with barriers like lining your beds with water but not soil permeable material or installing actual bottoms with relatively small drainage holes. Still though, your soil will seep out over time.
– Plan to Add More Fertilizer
Since water will find a way to move to lower levels and will take nutrients with it, you will have a harder time keeping nutrients in the top 4-6 inches of soil that most vegetables gather nutrients from. So, you will need to top dress with nutrients more often.
– Plan to Water More Often
You probably already figured this last point out. But you’ll also have to water more often. The more organic matter in your raised bed soil and the use of mulches can help reduce this requirement while adding nutrients. But I have never met a raised bed yet that doesn’t take require more watering than a simple mounded, in-ground bed.
Alternatives to Raised Beds
If you just want to give your beds the appearance of raised beds without the drawbacks of actually elevating them, consider framing your beds using branches and tree trunks. Quite frankly, downed tree parts are available in excessive abundance these days due to storms and other environmental factors. Around your beds, they will feed the soil while providing some rustic appeal.
Salvage lumbers and stakes, and cinder blocks you can remove down the road can also create a defined space to help you get started gardening.
If you want to go all in on natural raised beds, then hugelkulturs are also an incredible way to feed soil and garden in comfort. They take a lot of work to make. However, they not only elevate your gardening area, they increase your organic matter content tremendously in the long-run. Plus, they act like a sponge to hold water.
Coordinating Paths and Beds
In a limited space garden, 1 foot paths between beds are usually sufficient because you can use a bucket to carry in your amendments. However, if you plan to expand your garden as you increase your skill (and your compost capacity), then you may want to think about wider paths between your rows or around your garden perimeter.
Generally, if you are not short on space, 18-24 inches between beds is a good width. It allows room to kneel between the beds for chores like weeding and harvesting. Plus, it limits path maintenance and makes it more reasonable to use your paths as nutrient swales.
My ideal garden design includes wheelbarrow access either down the center of the garden beds or around the outer perimeter. Then, you can push the wheelbarrow close to the beds and use a bucket to transfer amendments on to the beds.
It may seem like more work to use the bucket, but when you get into the habit of amending your soil right after you harvest (to replace what you removed), your need for a wheelbarrow declines immensely.
You may need a wheelbarrow at the outset of garden creation if you are hauling in bulk compost or mulch for your paths. If so, rather than dedicating wheelbarrow paths you probably won’t need long- term, consider putting up your garden fence after you get your beds ready that way you can have access on all sides.
Getting Down To Gardening
Good garden design starts by choosing the right location and understanding the benefits and challenges of the location you have chosen. Then you need to plan good bones to support your activities by choosing pathways and bed styles that fit your space and meet your needs. These steps are the foundation work necessary to make your gardening chores simple going forward.
Once you’ve done this critical ground work though, then the fun begins. You can build on these bones using your creativity to make your potager garden personal and inviting.
Take some time to contemplate potential bed shapes and dimensions. Coordinate those choices with your paths. Do some preliminary planning on paper.
You still have more choices to make, such as where to situate your compost pile or how to squeeze in a pollinator plot to increase your yields. So, don’t finalize your plans yet. But do start to get a concrete sense of what style of garden paths and beds will work best for you given the area you have to work with.
Then, think back to all those inspiration ideas you gathered before you got focused on paths and bed styles. Are there features you really want to see in your garden? A birdbath? A seating area? A few decorative containers or a water feature? Imagine how you’d like to integrate those items with your beds and paths.
In our next post, we’ll address a few more things that you’ll want to consider to make growing a potager simple. And, we’ll finalize our design. I’ll also show you the final choices I made for the Simplestead garden I am starting as I write these posts.