Raci570March 24, 2012

I have a question that will seem basic to a lot of people, but it's hardly ever discussed in articles I've read on gardening. and that is: how do you go about putting pathways in your vegetable garden so you can move around to weed, harvest, etc.? I've tilled up a 20X40 foot area and the soil is all light and fluffy now. If I step in to start planting, I'm going to sink in, right? Do I have to lay down planks or something to walk around? That seems like heavy work, awkward and impractical. What do people usually do?

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Well, back when I used to rototill my garden every year, I just put on boots that came about 2/3rds of the ways to my knees, and then it didn't matter that much. As long as you don't step directly into the planting bed and compress it, it doesn't make a big difference.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 11:34AM
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gjcore(zone 5 Aurora Co)

Having something to step on would be a start. I use a variety of different things for my pathways. Some areas are wood chips and other areas I set 6x12 inch pavers. My favorite way to make my pathways is to use groups of a few cobblestones close together with the groups about 2 feet apart. Then I plant clover and or alfalfa in the planned pathways. The clover holds up fair to foot traffic.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 12:23PM
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Lay out your beds and paths with string, being careful to step on the beds as little as possible. Don't make your beds so wide that you have to walk all the way around them; it's more efficient if you can comfortably step over them. While the soil is loose and soft, shovel it from the paths to the beds, taking at least two inches from the paths. This will make the paths lower and the workable soil in the beds deeper. Walking on the paths will compact the soil further there, making them a more difficult place for weeds to germinate. For the first few months, you will have to shallowly hoe the paths to keep weeds under control, but eventually they will be exhausted, and you will be able to concentrate only on the beds. At that point, it will be worth considering putting down a mulch on the paths to reduce weed germination even further.

It is possible, and common, to create your paths simply by walking on them. It is never a good practice to walk in your beds, but if you must, using a long board to distribute your weight is a good idea.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 2:30PM
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spacetogrow(4 MN)

I plan to do a variation on how I did it last year at the community garden. The soil is pretty good but doesn't drain super well, so I wanted to make raised beds. But they plow every year so I can't make permanent raised beds.

I dug out paths that were 2 feet in from the fence I put around my plot, with 4 foot wide beds through the rest of my space, so no part of the plot (except outside corners) would be farther than 2 feet from the nearest path. I used the soil from the paths plus some other stuff (roughly "lasagna gardening") to make modestly raised beds, and back filled the paths with sand and wood chips that I could get free from the city or off craigslist. I only filled the paths about 2/3rd of their depth; enough so heavy rains would drain down soon enough so that the walking surface would be dry enough in a day or less.

Once the plants were well established, when things needed watering, I could run the water hose on low in part of the path and flood the whole pathway system. This avoided the overhead watering that encourages disease, and allowed the water to soak in gently toward the roots. But the paths would be drained enough to walk on the next day.

My paths were intended to be 1 foot wide, with 4 foot wide beds, but because the raised beds had nothing to hold them in place until the edible weeds got big enough to do the job, the paths ended up a little wider and the beds a little narrower...but that worked better for reaching into the wide beds, and there was room to park a 5 gallon pail in the paths. If I had my size plot on my own property, I would make a larger path down the middle to allow a wheelbarrow, and install permanent boards to hold the raised beds in place. With my reach, I would make the raised beds a little less than 4 feet wide.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 2:59PM
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Belgianpup(Wa/Zone 7b)

Bi11me probably has the best idea, leave them as bare soil and keep the hoe handy.

I've tried gravel paths on top of landscape fabric - walk on the gravel, it punctures the fabric, weeds grow through the fabric (esp running grasses).

I've tried bark chips, which worked better, but weed seeds still collect on the path side of a framed bed and sprout; then they grow into the path and into the bed, where you have to dig them out. And the bark gradually breaks down, so you'll have to add to it every 2-3 years to keep it deep enough to foil most weeds.

I've tried asphalt roofing shingles, both covering the path, and tucked under the frame of the bed. This was better, but rolled roofing would have been better than the shingles, as I tended to accidentally kick the shingles out of position. The shingles kind of stink of tar in the heat, and if you don't actually set the edges of the beds ON the shingles/roofing, weeds grow in the crack at the edges. Also, the stuff isn't cheap, and it doesn't last forever.

The bottom line, IMO: anywhere you have a hard edge, weed seeds are going to catch and grow, and you're going to have to pull/dig them by hand. How hard you want to work, and how much you like getting up and down off your knees is up to you. Some people like it... I guess. I'm getting too old for it, myself.

p.s. The reason you don't read much about it is that most people haven't found the ideal solution, if one exists. A sharp hoe comes closest.


    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 3:02PM
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bobb_2002(Z6 S.W. CT)

I have permanent raised beds made from 2x10 lumber. At first I just put landscape fabric in the paths to walk on and keep the weeds down. This is very heavy duty woven fabric, not the cheap black plastic with holes punched in it. This stuff lasted 10 years without any degradation. In the Fall or Spring I would pull up the fabric and till the ground to keep it from getting too compact, then rake smooth and put the fabric back. One year I put a layer of wood chips on the fabric and it looked better but seemed like more work.

Last year my patio was renovated and I wound up with a pile of old concrete 8x16" patio blocks which are now a permanent path. This would be expensive if you had to buy them new but is was free for me. I really like the patio blocks because I can walk in the garden right after a rain and not get muddy, although the landscape fabric was almost as good in that regard.

Bob B.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2012 at 6:06PM
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I did the same as Bob B. I used broken concrete and stepping stones salvaged from old pathways. I have also been known to nab a few smaller flat stones from creeks and excavation sites. I use a stepping stone like placement. It's just enough to keep mud under control and not compress the roots of neighboring plants. I have also seen some people use straw and then till it into the soil in the fall, which is great. However, the birds love to steal it!

    Bookmark   March 26, 2012 at 6:49PM
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I had a pile of 8"x16" patio bricks when I moved here, and they sat there doing nothing for a few years. Now, I turn over my garden, rake it smooth, and then lay out the bricks in a sort of pathway. It works great, because the bricks don't leach anything, don't rot, don't discolor, and can be easily removed next spring to work the soil again. They act basically as stepping stones for me, allowing me to keep my feet clean, and also not tamp the soil down.


    Bookmark   March 26, 2012 at 10:10PM
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The problem with using a loose groundcover like wood chips is the inevitable weeds that will come through are more difficult to remove. I prefer to simply walk on my rows, use the wheelbarrow or drive on them with the tractor. Then I just use the wheel hoe to keep the weeds somewhat reasonable. I always find the weeds to be more sparse on the bare, compacted pathways compared to the light, fluffy beds.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2012 at 9:57AM
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I've seen folks shipping pallet boards to make a path.

It wouldn't take too much effort to modify this so a wheel barrow would roll smoothly.

Another gardener raises worms under their pallet pathway and every other year, rotates the path with the garden row.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 9:11AM
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Great that you created a new garden, you're going to love it!

I'd never been happy with my path situation, but this year I might have found the answer. I have 30" beds with 18" paths between them. (Originally they were 12" wide, but the crops overhung them too much and it was hard to get through. I don't know how people with narrower paths get around that.) Anyway, I use a long handled collineal hoe and a stirrup hoe:

Here's what the hoes look like

I first weed the beds with the collineal hoe, slicing just under the surface of the soil, between the plants. This cuts the roots off the weeds and makes weeding fast if you catch them while they're small. And you do it standing up. Next I walk back up the path and use the stirrup hoe on the path. This hoe is hinged, so it cuts back and forth, which works well on the compacted path soil. I only did it once, but it was much faster than any other method I've tried. I think after a few times the path weeds will exhaust themselves, especially once the soil gets walked on a lot.

I first learned about these hoes from Eliot Coleman's book Four Season Harvest -- he might actually have designed them, I'm not sure. Johnny's Selected Seeds sells them, maybe other places do too, not sure.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2012 at 1:13AM
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I put down a heavy duty black plastic that a friend had left over from a roofing project, and then covered it with shredded cypress bark. It has held up for 3 years so far with nary a weed. My yard has a slight slope so water doesnt collect.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2012 at 6:55AM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

I too like to have 15" wide paths of dirt for raised beds.

With a solid garden like the OP has I would just plant my rows and after walking in the same track while planting, give this track a fresh tilling. If drainage is less than ideal, I would ridge the rows a bit.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2012 at 11:36AM
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Thanks everyone; great suggestions; at first I used some light cedar planks I had left over from a deck project; then, once the pathway soil was compacted equally and evenly, I stopped using them. Everything seems to be working out fine. Happy gardening!

    Bookmark   May 9, 2012 at 2:33PM
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