Putting Straw or a cover crop in walkway between raised beds

nostalgicfarm(5)December 19, 2008

I have clay soil in my garden area. This year, we will be bringing in some soil and compost to amend the clay and enclose in some raised beds. I am planning on putting straw around my plants in the "raised beds". I thought I would put paper then straw in the walkways between the beds otherwise grass and weeds will just grow in the walkways. Plus, I also think the straw will amend the clay in the walkways so it can be incorporated into my soil next year, so that eventually, all of my garden area will be good soil, even what is starting out as my walkways. My other thought is to plant cover crops in the walkways, such as buckwheat or hairy vetch to add organic matter to the soil.

My first priority is good soil that gets better every year to provide the necessary requirements to my vegetables.

My second priority would be lots and lots of worms, which would hopefully fulfill my first priority of good soil.

So what would you put in the walkways, a cover crop that could be mowed or tilled in a couple times during the season or straw?

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I tried using straw to mulch my corn when the plants were small (in my raised bed). It blew away. It may be ok with a thicker layer in your paths, or maybe it's not so windy where you are... but just something to think about. I am going to use straw "pads" as a smother layer where I'm converting lawn to garden this spring. I'm hoping they won't blow away.

I use the free wood mulch from the county in the paths between my raised beds.

    Bookmark   December 19, 2008 at 5:56PM
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try to keep it wet til it settles, that may keep the straw from blowing away.

could also buy a couple of cheap bags of compost to throw down on the straw for weight?

    Bookmark   December 19, 2008 at 10:15PM
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marshallz10(z9-10 CA)

Straw and clay can make adobe which, when dried, make good building blocks that can survive centuries if protected from rains. I'd recommend shredded tree and shrub materials and small woody prunings to mix with the straw if you use straw.

    Bookmark   December 19, 2008 at 11:33PM
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I have done this and it works OK if it is put down really, really thick and you don't mind the straw sprouting. And it will sprout. It broke down inside of 3 years.

Wood chips are a longer lasting option. However, if you are making raised beds with walls I would just make the beds far enough apart to mow between them. I don't think there is any sense in building up soil to be walked on and used as walk-ways. It is costly and just another area that needs to be weeded.

Make the beds narrow enough that you can reach the middle from both sides and then concentrate all your amendments and mulch on the beds, not on paths.


    Bookmark   December 20, 2008 at 7:01AM
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Few, if any, of the cover crops will withstand the traffic necessary to tend the raised beds, so planting a cover crop in a walkway probably is not a really good idea. However, if the straw can be obtained cheap enough it would be an excellent soil cover in a walkway, and your trodding on that straw would eventually aid in incorporating it into the soil. I have used straw many times and except for a stalk or two have never had it blow away even when we had whole gale winds.
The straw seeds that might sprout are not a problem since that wee green growth is simply the Oats, Wheat, Rye, or whatever the straw grew, not any "weed", and that new growth will simply add to your pile of straw.

    Bookmark   December 20, 2008 at 7:13AM
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I have used straw and also white clover on pathways. Straw works fine. The clover tended to fail because of traffic, except in one path where I kept off it for two years, and now it's thick enough. Regards, Peter.

    Bookmark   December 20, 2008 at 5:26PM
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adirondackgardener(Western Maine)

Can't imagine making the beds inaccessible long enough to let a cover crop get established in the pathways. A perennial planting would be bad enough but trying to grow an annual like buckwheat that you can not set foot on ever is unthinkable.

I generally rake all the top soil out of the pathways to build the beds up higher with good soil anyway. Little sense in leaving good topsoil as a walkway surface. By moving the topsoil onto the beds, the less fertile subsoil that's left exposed supports fewer weeds. I usually then cover the paths with wood chips or the endless supply of shavings I get now. (My last garden in the Adirondacks had the main, wider paths covered with chips and the very narrow sandy paths between beds left bare since I like working the garden barefoot in the summer. Silly, I know.)


    Bookmark   December 20, 2008 at 9:39PM
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nckvilledudes(7a NC)

I have overseeded what is left of my yard with clover and it takes foot traffic with no issues. Don't see why you couldn't use that for your cover crop. Plant it in the fall when the amount of foot traffic would be kept to a minimum and it should be fine the following spring.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2008 at 7:24AM
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The straw will be neater to walk upon, but I question how much your soil will improve. This is because you will be concentrating your walking on a narrow strip of ground. Walking on clay causes compaction. I think the net affect with be a negative on improvement

    Bookmark   December 21, 2008 at 7:56AM
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kiddo_1(NE OH 5)

I used to have 9 4x16 raised beds made from recycled oak fence railing from a farm. I left 2' between each bed and put down landscape fabric to keep down growth and then mulched heavily every year with pine needles. The needles smelled nice when you walked on them, lasted more than one season, didn't sprout, didn't blow away, didn't wash away under heavy rain and was easy on the knees. And birds didn't use it to make nests in spring (straw always went that way). In fall I'd drive along and see people raking up the needles from under their trees and I'd offer to take the bags off their hands. What a deal!

Here I have odd-shaped beds with no 'borders' but I still go for the landscape fabric/mulch. The fabric takes little extra effort initially, but will last. I don't make the paths any wider than 2' (most only 18") - that way the planting areas get the good dirt.


    Bookmark   December 21, 2008 at 12:47PM
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Thank you all for such wonderful responses. I guess I am not expecting huge improvement in the walkway areas. I just thought the straw would look nice. If it is going to turn the clay below it into adobe bricks , it will not be a good thing at all. I am thinking that over time, I may want to change the layout of the garden, and it would be nice if the walkway areas had some improvement over the next few years. At what point in the amendment process does soil with clay not turn to brick when straw is added? Also, I have some straw in the chicken coop composting with chicken poop...will that be good for the clay, or is the straw bad even if it has been composted some? (I was planning on using the straw/chicken poop mixture plus purchased compost, plus purchased soil mixed with part of the clay to use in my raised beds.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2008 at 3:54PM
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When I first moved to SW Virginia I lived down the road from a farmer's spare field. I would see the elderly farmer working the land when I walked my dogs in the mornings. I learned so much just from watching him!
One thing that I noticed about him is that he kept bags of fall leaves by his shed. Once his plants were established he'd drag a bag of leaves out, dump the leaves in the in the walking spaces between each row and stomp them in to the ground. They weren't buried or anything, but they seemed to stay in place.
I asked him about it one day and he said that he did it for weed control and that the leaves also fed the plants.
I've since moved away but have copied him and had great success with weed control. We have a very high concentration of clay in our area and the leaves seem to improve the soil. Maybe leaves (or shredded leaves) would be something to consider.
Meg :)

    Bookmark   December 21, 2008 at 5:36PM
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For paths I have done well with newspaper or cardboard covered by wood chips. Most plant matter (straw, leaves, shredded newsprint, coffee grounds, salad scraps, wood chips, etc.) will be good for worms. Never tried clover for paths. I thought I read somewhere that worms and clover get along pretty well - not sure now. Around here, worms are particularly fond of deciduous leaves. Some sort of "clay busting" plant might be good in the long run for breaking up and amending the clay but would require taking that area out of production for a while.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2008 at 6:48PM
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polly_il(z5/6 IL)

I've got a little over 1200 sq ft in raised beds right now. I use cardboard covered by wood chips in my pathways. The wood chips hold moisture where the plants can access it - even in hot, dry weather the area under the chips is cool and damp; and I don't have to water near as much. The chips also provide a 4 season path to walk on/work from.

I add more chips each year; and if weeds are a problem - ie: if I let lambsquarter go to seed - I lay down a sheet of cardboard over the weedy area before putting down the new layer of chips. The chips break down over a period of about 3 years, at which time I rake back the top, intact chips, then dig out the composted material. I'm a little OCD, so I sift the big chunks out (and use them to mulch around fruit trees), then use the sifted material to mulch the plants in the garden. I don't incorporate it - I let the worms take care of that. Since I rarely turn the soil in my raised beds, preferring to use a bulb auger to dig the holes for my plants; it doesn't get incorporated in a large way, so no nitrogen stealing.




The cardboard seems to draw worms to the garden, so that is a mark in it's favor.

The paths in the front section of my garden are 3' wide, and that's too narrow to suit me. The paths are about 4 1/2 feet wide in the back section of garden, with 6' wide paths between the sections; and a full 6' wide in the newest section, which allows me to bring a lawn tractor and trailer in to haul manure/compost/mulch/bedding plants/water/etc... The 6' width also allowed room for my Pop's golf cart to pass through.

I plan to add another 4, 4x8 raised beds to the garden this year; and if finances allow, I will redo the front section of garden, and widen the paths in that area. I have plenty of ground, so the wide paths work better for me. YMMV.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2008 at 8:56PM
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polly_il(z5/6 IL)

Hmmm, why didn't that work the way it was supposed to??? I guess if you're bored enough, you can c&p to your addy bar and open. They are photos of an area where I dug chips out, sifted chips, sifted chips being used as mulch. Sorry.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2008 at 9:18PM
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Overall, straw and newspapers should be fine IMHO. Like other posters said, can you get some woodchips and add a little of them also?

    Bookmark   December 22, 2008 at 7:08AM
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Unless you have the type of clay in certain areas of the southwest USA and Mexico you will not need to be concerned about mixing straw and clay and making adobe.

    Bookmark   December 22, 2008 at 7:35AM
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OH my, don't look at the follow-ups to your question for two days, and you have a book worth of responses :)
Thank you all for all the great answers, I can't tell you how lucky I am to have posted in this community.
I am in Nebraska, so it sounds like I don't have to worry too much about the straw working against me. I will add newspaper and cardboard like so many of you recommended and then maybe straw.
Where does everyone get all their wood chips? Are they very pricey? When they compost, are they good or bad to incorporate in your veggie garden?
I just like the idea of something simple and pleasant(not to mention cheap) in the walkways!
Polly, I like how you have various shapes of raised beds. Did you find some valuable websites or books to come up with ideas, or did you decide on this all on your own? I have thought about doing a pattern of sorts with my raised beds, but guess I haven't seen much out there showing this sort of interest.

    Bookmark   December 23, 2008 at 10:33PM
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polly_il(z5/6 IL)

Came up with it on my own. I'd really like a maze garden some day; with hidden benches, and other surprizes; but I've no talent in drawing one out. I did go buy some children's maze books that gave me a few ideas - wonder what I did with those??? Probably gave them to some kids :)

The different shaped beds are pretty; but not that much fun to work with, especially if I'm trying to get an electric cord (for my auger) or hose through.

As far as the woodchips go, I get three large dump truck loads for $100 through a tree service. They'd be cheaper if I picked them up myself, but Hubs is strange about letting me get stuff in his pickup (it's a TRUCK for Pete's sake; you're supposed to haul stuff in it!) I could probably find them for free if I tried hard enough, but I don't mind supporting a small, local business.

I don't incorporate the composted wood chips; I use them for mulch. Of course, the worms eventually incorporate them for me...

    Bookmark   December 24, 2008 at 1:57AM
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For wood chips: (a) if you have tree work done on your property keep the chips; (b) if you see a tree crew working, ask for the chips, they might give them to you for free or even preemptively call some tree service companies; (c) let neighbors with trees know of your interest - you might be able to save them a fee for disposal of the chips; (d) or pay for them.

    Bookmark   December 24, 2008 at 3:32PM
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adirondackgardener(Western Maine)

I agree that there is virtually no possibility of danger in using straw mulch on clay as has been stated. That is, unless you thoroughly mix the straw and clay and bake it immediately to completely dry it out, in which case you are not mulching.

Anyone who has used any kind of mulch on clay soil would know this.


    Bookmark   December 24, 2008 at 5:20PM
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Check with your city or county, they may have a free mulch program. You might also ask at the tree recycling place after Christmas if you have one.

    Bookmark   December 24, 2008 at 6:31PM
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