Help with vegetable garden design

pbl_ge(5/6)October 8, 2011

Hi All,

We just bought a house that has massive amounts of weeds and a lot of soil that's not very good and is too alkaline for most vegetables. We are looking to convert a bed that used to contain a large maple tree, and now has a stump and a lot of weeds and weed seeds, into a veggie garden. It's south-facing, and gets the most sun of any part of the yard.

Here's a pic:

Here's the stump, about 6-7' feet at ground level:

(Oh yeah, we need someone to come dig the electrical wires out of the bed, too--we won't attempt)

And here's the right side of the bed:

In that photo, you can get an idea of how much we've been clearing out already.

Lastly, here's a schematic of the area:

Some issues:

1. That's not our garage. It's about 2' beyond our true property line, but the house next door is a permanent rental, currently occupied by college kids. It's unlikely anyone associated with that property would care what we did with the strip of land that technically belongs to that house.

2. Lots of bunnies around here. Thus we are planning on a raised bed with bunny fencing.

3. It's hard to tell here, but there's a slight slope. It slope about 12" over a 17' distance, but accelerates further to the right.

4. Eventually, we plan on a major redesign of the hardscaping of this house, but we won't have the cash for a few more years. This would involve replacing the brick pavers with flagstone or similar, replacing an ugly concrete retaining wall elsewhere, building a pergola, etc. Thus, what we make the raised bed with now could be temporary. We also may eventually decide to expand the bed to the right, so we want to retain that as an option.

5. This will be a veggie garden, so we don't want to use materials that will leech nasty chemicals into the soil. Would like to be as near organic as possible.

So, what would you recommend? We were thinking of something like what's in this photo:

...without the u-shape. Cedar walls to about 16", with metal mesh higher up. We were thinking we'd build around the maple stump for now, leave about 2' margin to the neighbor's garage, and perhaps go about 8' into the jungle, as the diagram shows. But we'd love to hear thoughts. Should we wait until we can build the walls with whatever materials we would like to use in our final re-hardscaping? Would you recommend that we pull up enough of the paver bricks to make more attractive lines? Do you have specific thoughts about cedar-enclosed beds?

We prefer this sort of look, but assume it's way out of current price range:

We'd love to hear ideas. Thanks!

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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

great potential.
I love the look of raised stone planter beds but know that they can be a budget breaker. You might consider wood as a less expensive alternative.

I think your site lends itself well to a quadrant layout - basically 4 beds , perhaps 3x5 each with a 3 foot wide path between each raised bed.

We're just about wrapping up on a small raised bed potager garden where budget was a concern. We built the raised beds out of redwood which naturally resists decay for a longer period of time over other soft woods.

We thought about using a composite type wood but decided on the redwood instead. You might want to check out the costs of composite wood. It will last a lot longer than regular wood and it is fairly easy to work with.

Attached is a photo showing a project that we're still working on, it shows the raised beds . We still have to attach the 2x6 cap, but you can get the idea.
Each bed is 3x5. There is a 3 foot wide path between the raised beds.

In regards to your existing brick , consider recycling it back into the landscape as paths or edging. From Figone

    Bookmark   October 8, 2011 at 10:55PM
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I think your first step should be a complete clean up of the area then a stump grinder guy to rid you of the huge stump. Perhaps install the bunny fencing and work on developing really good soil there - adding all the chopped leaves you can lay your hands on.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2011 at 8:54AM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

Some things to think about.

Bad soil does not grow weeds.

In my part of the world, plain kiln dried pine boards will have a lifespan of 5-10 years as part of a raised bed/planter.

If you live where rock grows wild, you can pick up a fair amount over time simply by keeping an ear to the ground. If you don't, it will be an expensive proposition.

The biggest problem with raised beds, is weed control of the area between the beds.

The second biggest problem with raised beds, is sourcing the soil to fill them. In most places, you do not want 'topsoil'

    Bookmark   October 9, 2011 at 10:17AM
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Deviant, your beds are beautiful, but I have to say I've never understood why people create raised beds with so much space between them. To save on filler soil? To allow easy access to the beds without bending? It seems to make it much more expensive and simultaneously wastes space that could be better used growing stuff! But I currently have no back trouble or other limitations on my ability to bend/squat/kneel, so maybe I'll feel differently when those problems arise. Is there another reason I'm missing? We mainly want to build up because of the stumps and roots in that area, in addition to the thousands of weed seeds we know are waiting to germinate (buckthorn, rose of sharon, privet, etc.). We were envisioning one big raised bed, instead of a bunch of smaller ones. I also personally find that weeds are less picky about soil quality than are cultivated plants and vegetables.

The town in which I live has fairly cheap compost available, so I was hoping we could just use that, mixed with some other stuff. Is that unrealistic? I'm sure it's not organic, but I'm hoping there wouldn't be too much nasty stuff on it.

Finally, I saw a comment elsewhere that suggested that an area with a ground stump couldn't be planted for "a few seasons." I have no idea why this would be. Anyone know?

Here is a link that might be useful: Amherst NY compost

    Bookmark   October 9, 2011 at 12:05PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

Often times the function or needs of the space define the design.

In this case, mobility issues are a concern so the height of the beds relate to a comfortable sitting height.
The width of the beds accomodate a wheelbarrow.
And the more pedestrian pathways, the less room available for planting, which in this case was an emphasis. ... hard to beleive , but not everyone really enjoys to garden and only wants a few herbs and tomatoes for the kitchen.
I come across many people who only want a small gardening space and the rest of the area to be low to no maintenance , hardscape can fill that need.

Another reason that we decided to build raised boxes was the excessive adjoing tree roots. We did dig as much of them out as possible and then installed a perimeter root barrier - (very expensive) .
With the root barrier installed along with the various properly installed hardscaping, there is less potential for weed germination, making this a low maintenance landscape.
( This property is surrounded on all sides by very aggressively growing trees - many which are suppose to be removed by the HOA because they are causing excessive damage to the homeowners property ..... that's what you get when you plant a 'fast growing' tree - now they are paying the price )

In regards to your compost. - I'm obsessively picky about my soil mixtures. Luckily I have many landscape shops around that compete for the best compost so I don't have a problem finding OMRI compliant compost .
I would speak with the compost maker to verify their intake , mixing and heating process. It would be great if they were OMRI certified.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2011 at 1:12PM
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Whatever size you decide for your raised beds you'll want to be able to reach in from the sides. Ours are only 4' wide so I can reach from both & 11' long because that's the length of the 2"x8" wood we had gleaned. Any longer than that would be a bother walking around it. We used unfinished wood & realize it won't last forever.

We kept one path 3' and the others we did 24" because of the space available, but when the veg are in full production mid summer 3' isn't too wide at all and 24" is barely enough for me to walk sideways through.

If it's not all figured out by the time you want to plant you could always build one 4'x4' box & plant what you want right away. Sometimes the big plans are overwhelming & it's nice to have a small plan to start out. Check out Square Foot Gardening for a simple approach to growing your own vegetables & fruits along with protection from weather & rabbits. Your local library might have it, too.

Plus a 4' x 4' box could be moved easily once you decide to do something different.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2011 at 9:49PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

My raised beds are built of cinderblocks. 4' and 3'4" interior width. I'm short and have short arms, so sometimes I wish the 4' beds were narrower.

Any longer than that would be a bother walking around it. I refuse to answer the question of length on the grounds that it may incriminate me. [Sometimes when there's an empty area I just walk across the bed; so far, that's feasible, as I only have one 32' section that's two blocks high.]

The aisles are 26", but because of the width of the cinderblocks and where I plant, I haven't had a significant problem with plants overhanging the walls (the pumpkins and cantaloupes are another matter, but that's my fault for planting them in the raised beds; next year they'll be in another part of the pasture). I'm a great believer in trellises, and grow vertically as long as what I'm harvesting isn't too heavy.

And yes, the aisles are weedy. Ideally I cover them in cardboard, which lasts about a year. [And ideally I am spending more time in the veggie garden as opposed to filling the front, back, and side yard with new beds for daylilies, ferns, and shade plants.]

    Bookmark   October 10, 2011 at 4:43PM
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I built raised beds with cedar once & made them 4' wide. I realized that is pretty deep and it's possible to create a thicket of tomato plants that are impenetrable. I really strongly suggest 3' wide beds. Especially if you are a female of average height (men have longer arms & tend to be taller, I think some dude came up with that 4' width on raised beds).

As for soil, this is a GREAT time to get some leaves in lovely paper bags. Keep them moist all winter & in spring of 2013 you will have great material to work with. If you have a lawnmower with a bag on the back, mow up your leaves (and grass) and you might be lucky enough to have decent texture material for the bottom 6" of your beds in the spring of 2012. You'll still have weed seeds in there, but it will help fill the bed and with 10" of dirt on top the weed seeds are unlikely to make any progress.

Are there any farms/barns nearby? Do you have space to dedicate to aging a pile of manure over the winter?

When I made beds I didn't do it the "right" way but it still worked well enough. We had clay soil (I was living in the south then) and I bought bales of peat moss at the local big-box store. I had a pile of clay soil & would mix the clay with the peat moss & a little bagged composted cow manure. The ratio was about 1 part clay soil, 2 parts peat, 1/2 part cow manure. I went heavy on the peat b/c the clay was red, heavy, dense stuff that needed a lot of lightening up. Again, it wasn't the ideal set up but it did grow veggies really well that first year. After that we had to move (job relocation) so we dismantled the beds & spread the soil/peat mix to plant it out as lawn so we could sell the house. So I can't speak to the long term validity of that kind of soil mix.

Good luck whatever you do, though!

    Bookmark   October 10, 2011 at 7:42PM
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