It can be overwhelming to start establishing a garden plot—it’s so tempting to throw some seeds in the ground and call it done. There is something to be said for a beautiful forest garden, however these require a lot of time, space, and strategy. I also personally like the option of permanent raised beds, but you better be committed to your garden’s layout before putting in that sort of infrastructure.
Here are some details on how we establish our own personal plot. Some sharp and experienced homesteaders might recognize that some of the inspiration came from Jean-Martin Fortier. Both myself and my parents have seen this small-scale Quebecois farmer give talks on what he’s doing that is working so well.
What we’re working with
We have a medium-sized garden space that we are developing. It has been cultivated previously, although there hasn’t been effort invested into maintaining the soil or building garden beds. At the end of last garden season we built our pallet compost system using the easiest composting method ever. As a result we now have some top soil to use. If you’re area is not flat, or does not have good drainage, you will want to start by establishing a good level area for the garden.
We began this year by rototilling. The ideal is to establish a no-till system, and the next steps will help ensure that we will accomplish this in future seasons. For now, tilling the soil helped loosen it up and will make the rest of the process simpler.
We have let the ducks free range in the garden space prior to planting. They’ve been eating weed roots and seeds as well as some pests that might still be hiding out. This is a winning strategy as they get some variety to their diet and also contribute fertilizer. No ducks (or chickens)? No worries—this step isn’t necessary. It’s just nice.
Building garden beds
Next we measured out beds and paths and marked them on either side of the plot with sticks. We followed Fortier’s measurement suggestions, which is 18-inch pathways and 30-inch beds. The 18-inch pathways have proven to be a comfortable and efficient space for working. The 30-inch beds fit most standard garden tools and allow for comfortable working without overextending.
We stretch a twine near the ground between the sticks and then go to work using a shovel and good old-fashioned sweat to move some of the dirt from the path area up onto the bed space. This doesn’t need to be excessive—just enough to provide a clear line between where to walk and where to work. It is also possible to build up mounds for potatoes or squash at this point.
The new beds can be planted right away. We add as much top soil as we can find to the beds in the spring. Some gardeners may want to add mulch and/or wood chips at this point. I know that spreading wood chips on gardens has been all the rage over the past few years, and some have had good results. The experience using this method on our farm has been a complete failure. Please exercise caution before deciding to put wood chips on your growing area. We do still use wood chips, but only on pathways (again, this makes more permanent beds, so make sure you’re committed to your garden layout).
On some gardens we mulch the beds with straw. This seriously reduces weeding. A bigger benefit, in my opinion, is that the beds retain moisture so much better and require less watering. We had drought conditions here in the past, and water management is important.
So there you have it. The steps we take to get a good-looking and functional garden space. Do you have input or experience with any of the recommendations from this process? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.