Pathways For Your Homestead Potager

When you see past the pretty flowers and profuse plantings, you’ll discover that every garden has bones and secrets buried beneath. A garden’s design and its underlying infrastructure dictate how well it works and how much work it takes to maintain that garden.

The Beaten Path

For example, when I visit a garden that has large pathways that have been mowed practically to the ground, I see more work than I would ever want to do.

I see a lawnmower that has to be maintained with regular oil changes, blade sharpening, spark plug replacements, and cans of gas stinking up my car when I haul them. I see the necessity of a large storage area to hide and protect that unsightly and overly loud machine.

Those wide, shorn walkways also tell me weeds must be rampant because the soil is compacted from constant mowing. The operator of the machine must mow often to maintain the illusion of uniformity with weeds erupting at erratic rates.  Either that, or they are spraying weed killers that poison the soil.

Paths like that also imply precarious health for the plants that grow along the edges. Those poor path-bound plants can only expand their root system away from the paths and not into them. That means, the garden beds themselves are the only source of moisture and fertility to support plant growth. That inevitably leads to more work caring for the plants.

Yes, I also see an orderliness that does seem attractive at first glance. But the deeper you look, the more you realize those paths aren’t just well-maintained. They are tamed and tortured. They are beaten into submission for an aesthetic ideal that undermines the health of the rest of the garden.

Paths like that, and the kind of thinking that underlies them, are the crux of our current climate crisis and our poor preparation for ever-increasing extreme weather events. Those paths aim to subdue nature, not cooperate with it.

The Simple Path

If you want to grow a simple garden, that produces abundant, nourishing food and beauty, you need to leave those beaten paths out of your design. Instead, you want paths that nourish your soil, connect spaces, discourage soil compaction, and invite life into the garden.

Now, this is your garden and you can have whatever kinds of paths you want. So, if you have your heart set on low cut grass and broad aisles, that is entirely your prerogative. The point of this website, though, is to offer you solutions that help you create a simple homestead that will get better with each simple step you take.

If you want to take the simple approach and use your paths to improve the natural health of  your garden over time, I suggest these options.

Option 1: Nutrient Swales

Nutrient Swales for Garden Paths

A swale is basically an indention in the soil that causes water to flow into it. Most of the time, you make these “on contour”.  On contour simply means that you create them in such a way as to catch and keep water in place, rather than directing downward like a water slide. The opposite of on contour swales are gullies that cause water to rush downhill.

On contour swales are kind of like long thin ponds. However, unlike a pond the goal of this kind of swale is to help water percolate into the ground. You don’t want to actually have standing water in your swales for more than a short period of time.

In the garden, we can use this idea of an on contour swale to make our paths. In dry areas, those swales will collect water and send them into the soil to be saved for later use. In wet areas, those swales offer a place for water to drain off the beds and be moved below the level of the more tender plant roots.

In our gardens though, we don’t want to be walking through pools of water or mud to get to our beds. So we need to use a slightly modified version of the on contour swale. I call these nutrient swales.

Here’s how I make them.

Step 1: Make the Swale

Dig the Swales.JPG

You start by digging out the top soil from your paths and putting it on your garden bed.  Dig across slopes so swales become like bowls to catch the downward flowing rain.

This process increases the amount of soil you have in your beds. But it also creates that indentation to catch water. The beds get higher and that paths are a few inches (or more) below the level of the bed. That creates the water catchment zone.

Note: If your paths aren’t quite on contour, e.g. not quite level, you can fix that by how you dig your swale. In areas where water might start to run like a water slide, dig the uphill side deeper. Then leave soil in place where the water would normally start to run faster. That creates  a bit of a speed bump in the swale that holds the flow in the deeper area.

Step 2: Fill with Uncomposted Organic Matter

Fill with non composted organic matter

Next, backfill the paths with uncomposted organic matter. If you have a lot of topsoil and your paths are deep (e.g. at least 8-12 inches),  you can start by backfilling with all your kitchen scraps and whatever you have been saving in your compost bucket.  This essentially becomes a compost trench and is one of the easiest ways to make compost and improve soil quickly.

If you don’t have a lot of food scrap waste, and you need to fill deep swales, you can also use branches and decaying woody material. Then you can cover this with the other compost materials you have. It works as a kind of in ground hugelkultur, breaking down over time and feeding the soil for a few years.

Wood to Fill Swale

For the top six inches, backfill with whatever greens and browns you are able to source in large quantities. Old hay or straw, mulched yard leaves, grass clippings, newspaper, shredded office paper, cardboard, paper bags, and more all work well.

If you already have livestock, dirty litter works perfect filling in your paths. In my case, I use the litter from my goat barn because it has a mix of hay, straw, goat poop, and urine that cover my paths and nourish neighboring beds as they compost.

If you don’t have livestock, some farmers are happy to have you clean out their barns for them and let you take all that organic matter. Some cities or civic organizations also offer free leaf litter or municipal compost at certain times of the year.

Worst case scenario, you may have to buy some inexpensive filler such as straw bales and composted cow manure.  This is an absolutely worthwhile investment in a new garden.

Step 3: Cover the Organic Matter

After I have filled the swales back up to level with all that good organic matter, I wait a few days until the materials settle.  Then, I top the paths of with some kind of wood mulch.

The mulch you can get free when the electric company cuts trees in your area is awesome for paths. Shredded hardwood, bark, wood chips, and more all work well for this.

If you don’t have access to free or inexpensive wood mulch, you can use pine shavings, bark, or needles. Saw dust is another possible option. Even old carpets turned upside down and cut to the size of your path will work.

You just need to create a permeable surface that will slow down weed growth and be comfortable and safe for you to walk on. Ideally this material will last at least a year before it decays into compost.

Maintenance: Top off Your Paths

As needed you can top off your paths with new organic matter to bring them back up to level with the beds. I tend to fill mine annually in late-winter before I start preparing my beds for planting.  This has the added benefit of increasing the temperature of the soil if the paths start to heat up from composting activity.  

Benefits of Nutrient Swale Paths

These paths promote good drainage. They feed the soil in your garden beds because soil inhabitants move between the paths and the beds transporting nutrients into the beds. They store water and offer your plants additional room to expand during drought or if soil nutrients in the beds are lacking.

They do require a bit of work up front. However as long as you go heavy on the organic matter and covering, they offer wonderful weed control and reduce the need for watering your beds. They also give you an easy way to compost large quantities of materials without having to build or turn a pile.

Overall, this method saves tons of time on gardening throughout the year while improving your soil. I use it in all of my gardens.

Also note: For things you bokashi, your deeper garden path swales make a great place to bury those bokashied items too!

Option 2: Permeable Rock Paths

Permeable Rock Paths

For some of my wider paths that I can’t source enough organic matter to fill, I still dig out the topsoil and use it on beds. Then I cover those beds with rocks that I dig out or collect from other areas of the property.

Rocks, contrary to popular belief, do not reduce weed pressure. Those rocks are a perfect hiding place for soil life and weed seeds. Each time it rains, any dust or soil that has accumulated on the rocks, gets washed into the crevices where soil inhabitants turn those bits of dirt into gummy, growth-promoting goodness.

In fact, in areas with too little soil to dig, I love to cover those places with rocks to build soil.  Then a few years later, I move the rocks somewhere else and plant cover crops where the rocks were.

The thing rocks are really good for is making weeds stand out.  If you see them and pull them early, before the deep tap roots get established, you can reduce work.  Also, since the rocks help hold moisture in the soil, those weeds are easier to pull than in dry, compacted soil.

Those rocks warm and dry faster. They also shed water and promote drainage.  So, they melt snow and become walkable sooner than grass does.

I never put weed mat under my rocks any more. Weed mat simply gives aggressive weeds something easy to anchor to. It creates more work than it’s worth.

Also, if you don’t have rocks, things like oyster shells gleaned from seafood restaurants and corks from wineries also make for interesting permeable paths.  The oyster shells stink at first, but that dissipates quickly.

Option 3: Weed to Meadow Paths

Yep, you read that right. I also like to use weeds in my paths. If you steal the topsoil from your paths to put on your beds, weeds will eventually come. They will grow quickly to help heal that disturbed land.

I let them grow, but I mow them with a push mower weekly to keep them from flowering. I do pull out any of the branching grasses, like crabgrass, since those can quickly become more work than they are worth in terms of healing your soil.

If weeds start to get too aggressive in any particular area I cover them with a piece of old carpet, the leg of a pair of jeans weighted with rocks, or plastic bags (careful plastic can be slippery). That keeps the weeds from seeding into the garden beds and creating more work long term.

Once you get a bit of topsoil back in those rows (thanks to the weeds doing their healing work), you can plant lawn clover as your grass substitute. When you get a bit more soil back from the clover,  plant meadow grasses.  Try to find perennial grasses that are native to your area or that grow well in your climate.

Keep your paths narrow to reduce maintenance. If using a push mower, paths should be as wide as your mower so you only need to make one pass on each row.  If using a weed trimmer or hand scythe, then make paths only as wide as you need them to walk and squat comfortably for gardening.

Also, except as necessary to prevent weeds from flowering and seeding out, do not mow your paths lower than 4 inches tall. Taller top growth, and less frequent mowing, promotes deeper roots. Deeper roots allow water to percolate into the soil and promote better drainage.

This option is lowest on my list because it does take a bit more work on a regular basis than the other two. Yet, its still a lot more simple than trying to maintain lush lawns using chemicals, motorized mowers, and more as you see in more conventional gardens.

Homework and Your Next Simple Step

Take some time to think about the kind of paths you want in your homestead potager. Determine if they support the overall health of your garden. Consider the materials you have available or can free or cheaply source near you.

Hang on to that information and those ideas for the next post on garden beds. Beds and paths must work together to create a cohesive environment for plants to thrive. So, in our next post, we’ll cover some bed designs that work well for a simple homestead potager garden.

Then, in the post right after that, we’ll finalize our design so we can get to work building a potager garden!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plan Your Homestead Potager Garden Location

A potager garden is a place to grow food, skills, and beauty. You can make one just about anywhere, in a lot as small as a few hundred square feet. However, when you spend a little time carefully considering your location and planning your design, your job as a gardener becomes a whole lot easier.

I have no idea what your land looks like or how much space you have to work with. So, I can’t give you specific recommendations on the best location for your garden. However, these are the considerations I prioritize in my garden planning.

1. Obstacles

Most homes have underground power, cable, other lines, or plumbing features (well, septic tank, etc.) that need to be factored into garden planning. Additionally, many properties have zones of easement (e.g. sidewalks or meter reading access) that can impact your choice about where to situate your garden.

Some communities or home owners associations have regulations that might dictate the location of your garden. Check with the appropriate parties to identify any of these regulatory obstacles.

Potential pest problems are another kind of obstacle to consider. Planning your garden in an existing deer path, near heavy squirrel activity, or where household pets tend to potty will necessitate extra measures to secure your garden. Choosing less traveled areas to locate your garden gives you a better starting point to make pest prevention easier.

Don’t forget those potentially pest-like neighbors too. If you happen to live near to someone who might take umbrage or derail your gardening efforts, try to plan around them to keep the peace.

2. Sunlight

For me, sunlight is the one resource I can’t reasonably or sustainably create in a vegetable garden. The sun is 93,000,000 miles away from us. By the time its rays reach us, it has already pierced through the darkest, deepest space.

It bridges that distance in about 8 minutes and 20 seconds, soaring toward us constantly, at the speed of light. Even on cloudy days, though filtered, its presence can be felt. That’s some incredibly powerful stuff!

Sunlight is not only a heat and light source, but also a food source for plants. Plants are designed to absorb the sun’s energy and convert it into sugars to feed themselves and the fungi living in the soil.

You really need full sun to get good food production in your potager garden. There are some edible plants that grow in partial shade. But you aren’t likely to be able to grow large amounts of vegetables that way.  (You can grow other food sources like mushrooms, but we’ll get to that later in the series).

Don’t just guess whether your site has enough sun. Bathe in the sunlight of your potential garden locations. Do this as if you are a plant, eating up those rays, to make sugars to send to your roots.

Feel the sun at first light, high noon, late afternoon. Lay down on the ground, at the level of a plant to fully experience it.

Does the sun feel strong in the morning? Is it limited at certain times of the day by your house, a fence, a tree, a hedge, your parked car? Does it become scorching mid-day even when it’s chilly out? Try different locations and note differences.

Try to imagine which plot plants will be best for your plants.

Shade calculator

The angle of the sun is also very different from summer to winter and in between. If you aren’t sure what your sun and shade patterns are like during different seasons of the year, then you may also want to use some online tools to make sure you’ll have full sun year round.

– Online Sun/Shade Planning Tool

I most recently used Sunearthtools.com.  You enter your address and choose “Sun Position” from the menu.  Then, alternate between the shade path and sun rays mode. Update the dates to see what your sun and shade patterns will look like at various times of the year.

If you have large trees, sheds, fences, or other obstacles in your landscape, move the center yellow bubble on top of those obstacles.  That will allow you to see the shade profile for those objects relative to locations you are considering for your garden.

When you have a good idea of your sun and shade patterns, then ask yourself this.  Will my future plants thrive in the sunlight of this location?

3. Wind

Once you have narrowed down your some ideal garden locations based on your availability of sunlight, the next consideration is wind. Wind can severely stunt and slow plant growth. Strong winds can even pull young transplanted seedlings from the ground before they have a chance to anchor into the soil.

There are things you can do to mitigate wind, such as put up a wall or plant a shrub windbreak. However, if your wall or windbreak would then shade your garden, that’s not going to work.

Choosing a location that is already protected from wind is ideal.  Alternatively, choosing a location that allows for planting or erecting a wind break without obstructing sun can also work well.

4. Microclimates

Every property has microclimates.  Slopes, timing of sun, hardscapes, water surfaces, and more all change the climate near to the surface of the soil.

Sometimes microclimates are beneficial.  For example, I grow my rosemary bed on the south side of my house, close to our gravel driveway.  This helps keep the rosemary warmer in winter so I don’t get so much damage during our cold weather.

I wouldn’t want to grow lettuce there though. Since it can be as much as 15 degrees warmer on a hot spring day, it might make my lettuce bolt.

In general, for a vegetable garden, you want to avoid things like frost pockets. Try to  take advantage or morning sun. Some shade in late afternoon usually isn’t an issue if you’ve already had 6-8 hours of full sun.

Save hot spots for your Mediterranean plants. Choose cooler, frost-free locations, if you have lots of ups and downs in your weather in spring and summer.

5. Access to Water

For ideal growth rates, plants need soil that is consistently moist. Growing in compost and using mulch will minimize the need for watering.  However, there will still be times such as when planting seeds or extended droughts when watering is necessary.

Choosing a garden location with access to water will make your job easier. This doesn’t necessarily need to be from a house hose.

If you have structures with roofs and gutters on your property, you can harvest rain water. If you have a spring, that also makes a potential source of water.

If you have or plan to build a pond, siting your garden down hill from your pond allows for gravity fed water systems. If you have enough room, and won’t shade your garden beds, you could even consider a roof over your compost area to harvest rain water.

Planning for water collection or access will make gardening much less work in the long-term.

6. Drainage

“Good drainage” is a term we use often in vegetable gardening.  It essentially means water doesn’t pool and stagnate.  It also means water doesn’t run through like a faucet and wash away soil.

– Too Flat

Completely flat locations are often zones for water pooling in extreme rain. However, you can use techniques like creating mounded or raised beds to help promote better flow on flat surfaces.

– Too Steep

Overly steeped slopes move water too quickly and often erode soils.  In that case, you need to create terraced beds to help catch water and prevent erosion.

– Too Low

Bottom land, such as the low point between other slopes, is often good to use in extremely dry climates.  However, the risk is that big storms will over-saturate that area and create boggy, conditions.  If I have a choice, I prefer to build a garden a bit upslope from the bottom land.

– Just Right

For me, the ideal garden location is on a slight slope. That way I can use my garden paths and gravity to move excess water through the garden and harvest it when and were I need it.

7. Proximity to the Kitchen

The closer you can get your potager to your kitchen, the easier it will be to harvest vegetables when you need them. If your potager starts right out the door nearest to your kitchen, then you can dash out when you need to and collect herbs, fresh cut lettuce, ripe tomatoes, and more.

8. Soil Quality

I put soil quality low on my list because I know I can rapidly improve soil using compost. However, if you have a location which meets all the criteria above and already has some good, loamy top soil, then you are in luck!

If you have toxic soil, that would be a factor to consider. There are things you can do like building raised keyhole beds, even over toxic soil. But that takes more work.

9. Beauty

To the extent possible a potager garden should also be integrated into your landscape to enhance the beauty of your home. If you can locate it near to some beautiful flowering trees, against a backdrop of mature evergreens, or where you have other existing landscape features, that can enhance your experience while gardening.

If you have to start it in the middle of what is currently a boring lawn, that works too. But you’ll probably want to do some things to soften the edges later, like maybe add some pollinator plots all around.

You can always create beauty as you go. But, integrating your garden into your existing landscape can get you there faster.

The Simplestead Potager

Future Site of Simplestead Potager

The location I chose for starting the Simplestead potager garden currently has a view of our parking area. It’s a bit more sloped than is ideal. But, the sun is perfect. Our house  blocks much of the wind.

We have a house hose for watering. We also have rain barrels on the house gutters that can be in this garden.

There’s a peach trees growing between the cars and the garden. That can form the start of a plant hedge to help integrate the garden into the landscape and hide our vehicles.

Deer graze nearby. However, it’s far enough out of their normal path that I should still be able to keep them out of the garden. I used to keep Pekin ducks in that area, so I already have a 40 inch fence around the space.

The fence is just made of chicken wire and has large gaps at the bottom. I can use it to start, but I’ll need to make some improvements for it to be useful for pest prevention.

Also, the gate is at the farthest end from our house door. So, I may want to move the gate to save some steps between the kitchen and access to the garden.

Homework Assignment No. 2

Consider the factors explained above. Spend some time studying your landscape.  Determine a suitable location to start your potager. Make sure to include a little extra room for some flowers and herbs, a place to sit, and your compost pile.

Then, mark off that area using posts, chairs, buckets, or whatever you have available. Visit the site of your future garden several times a day. Start to imagine how your garden will look there when it is mature.

When you are sure the location you’ve chosen is the right home for your new homestead potager, then you’ll be ready to move on to the next simple step in making a potager garden.

The Perfect Place for Your Potager

Very few of us will have the perfect place for our potager. Most of us will have to make the best choice possible given the conditions we have to work with. Once you have made a careful, conscientious choice though, then know in your mind and your heart that you can make that place absolutely perfect for your needs.