The Design Question: Me, My Garden and my Graph Paper

Sharon February 3rd, 2009

Aaron thinks it is funny that I’m teaching a class with the word “design” in it.  And it is – I’ve several times argued with him that the very fact that we design things so badly so often in our society suggests that we might do better to let vernacular architectures and landscapes evolve, rather than consciously sitting down to try and design them.  That is, I have sometimes wondered whether our fundamental problems don’t come down to overdesigning, rather than simply being attributed to bad design.  This is not a good position to take with permaculturists unless you like arguing, but it can make for entertaining evenings if robust debate is your sort of thing ;-).

On the other hand, not designing at all can get you an awful mess – and it is hard to go out into the garden and simply evolve – secretly, our brains are in the habit of organizing and designing, even when we think we aren’t.  So my occasional critique of project of design is probably pretty moot.  But I do think it is wise to question our assumptions pretty much all the time when presented with theories about “the one true way” to do anything.  For some reasoning, gardening and farming seem particularly subject to this disease – someone evolves a technique or theory, and rapidly it becomes (if not by its originator, later by its adherents) *the* way. 

In Laura Simon’s book of gardening essays _Dear Mr. Jefferson_ , whose conceit is that she’s discussing her garden in particular and the history of gardening in general with that famous gardener Thomas Jefferson (it is an excellent book except for one major and appalling omission – she has a whole section on the labor of gardening and whether it is ok to have help without ever mentioning that slaves did the garden work in Jefferson’s garden – she could have gotten away without discussing slavery had she not raised the topic of labor, but having raised it, the book has a falsity to it that is disturbing); she talks about the current fashion for raised beds, which have gone in and out of style from the medieval period to the 21st century, where they are now ubiquitous, and makes clear that they truly are a fashion – justified, of course, by myriad explanations of why they are better.

 Don’t get me wrong, I love raised beds – they dry out earlier in the spring than the unraised ones, which is important in my wet climate and with my drainage issues.  They also warm up earlier, and provide defined lines.  Of course, a lot of people, who deal more with a shortage of water than an excess, and those who have more heat than coolth have raised beds too.  Sometimes they make sense, raising up friable composed soil over heavy clay, or as one person once told me, keeping the armadillos out of their Florida garden beds.  But sometimes they are just for orthodoxy’s sake – raised beds are *the* way in a segment of society.  We manage to justify them – there are plenty of texts out there explaining that raised beds are better in all circumstances.  My concern is that we make our choices not so much on rational grounds but habituals ones. 

Simon notes that the straight rowed American style garden arose out of the time shortages 19th century industrial workers felt - straight rows were faster to deal with they were told.  In the 1840s, the invention of the wheelhoe prompted garden magazines to claim that flat gardens, rather than the old raised bed style could be maintained by a 10 year old boy in a matter of an hour for an acre garden. Now I want me one of those 10 year olds ;-) .

Now we hear the same claims made of raised beds – they reduce weeds, and save time.  Well and so they do save some time – you don’t have to keep the paths as clear.  On the other hand, you can’t use a wheel hoe or many other inventions, and digging out the bits of crabgrass that comes under the wood or stone barriers can take nearly as much time.  Again, my point is not “raised beds are bad” but that we don’t usually make our design choices on fully rational grounds.

Which brings me to my own kitchen gardens.  I have two these days.  The first, and larger, the ”lower garden” is at the bottom of a hill, by the creek, in our fenced in 1/4 acre front yard.  It is the one where I misdesigned the paths, trying to make them as narrow as possible so that we could get every inch of growing space, and essentially making working there incredibly unpleasant and awkward.  The garden is presently in the form of uncontained (no sides) raised beds, and two larger flat plots, but will be completely redone this summer.  On the side yard is a collection of raised beds and a plan for more of them.  These already hold herbs, berry bushes and some ornamentals, but my plan is to make this the house herb and salad garden, while moving most of the calorie crops down to the lower garden.

And I find myself bound up with questions of design.  Do I want raised beds in the lower garden?  Sided with what?  What can we afford?  Or could we simply dig drainage around the edges of the garden, and work with it flat?  What style do I want - do I want a medieval style garden beds, a cottage style garden, a french potager, a classic American row garden?  What aesthetic am I seeking? In earlier gardens, I didn’t think much about beauty at all – I figured a garden full of food was always beautiful.  And there’s some real truth there  – but now I want to play more with aesthetics, and include more perennials mixed with the annuals.  I want a garden that is a bit more welcoming to visitors, since the first thing everyone says is “I want to see your garden.”

I read garden design books, and look at people’s pictures on the web, and gradually things are starting to emerge in my “what do I want” meets “what realistically will I be able to afford/have energy for.”  I know I need to find ways to subdivide the garden into plots or beds – I’m not someone who can handle a large open space without some kind of formal limiting.  I’m much more attracted to country style mixed plantings than to rows, and I’m leaning towards a flat garden with drainage for the moment, unless I can afford recycled plastic lumber or cinder blocks - our wet climate means wood beds don’t last.  

 That said, I know it will never look exactly like my dreams – and that’s ok with me too.  I know that however well I design, some years I will end up cramming things I never planned to in a bed they aren’t supposed to go in, because I haven’t gotten the garlic ready, or because the soil’s too cold at the back garden.  I know that not all the plants I want to put in will be happy where I put them, and that my plans and my needs will change with time.  I can design some of that in, but some of it may mean that in a few years, I’m again redesigning, redoing or rethinking. 

I know also that some of the most euphonious combinatios will arise from my mistakes or things I never expected – the wild raspberries that grow underneath my spruce trees, and which, each year, provide us with a bountiful harvest with absolutely no effort.  They love the environment there – I would have said it was too shady, too sprucy, too something.  They told me otherwise.  And when I draw my design plan I’ll cheerfully claim them as though I was smart enough to have thought of it.

It isn’t that I seriously think that we can’t design well – it is more that sometimes I feel that we find reasons to justify our designs, rather than make our designs from reason.  Of course, that’s true of nearly everything we do.  I’m not sure if my taste for cottage garden style kitchen gardens stems from a desire to maximize polyculture or from an aesthetic sense driven by a host of factors I can’t sort through. 

Ah well, back to the pretty pictures, the pencil and the dream of the platonic kitchen garden – and the dream of what will evolve out of my attempts to design one and its encounter with reality.

Sharon

22 Responses to “The Design Question: Me, My Garden and my Graph Paper”

  1. DEEon 03 Feb 2009 at 3:39 pm

    I love my neat and tidy raised beds with flowers at the end of each one. But only half our garden is in raised beds…the other of the acre we grow is in three seperate planting areas that we rotate between potatoes,tomatoes,corn and long long rows of beans to can. Even these do have their flowers! Always room for them. I think the raised beds are good for things that need alot of tending like onions you don’t want to get all weedy or broccoli that you want to cover so you don’t have to pick off worms. The herbs go in raised beds so they don’t get accidently weeded before they are big enough to recognize….actually that bed is a hands-off area for my husband!

    Every year I draw up plans for all the beds when winter bound but they generally go out the window once the hurry hurry of spring arrives! I think every garden is beautiful, If the birds plant sunflowers here and there and the dill is everywhere I don’t care. I just say thank you and plant around them. DEE

  2. Emilyon 03 Feb 2009 at 3:51 pm

    I think making a garden you feel comfortable in is an important and overlooked step. If you LOVE to be in your garden, be it a cacophony of polyculture or neat row upon row of seedling soldiers, you will enjoy your time out there, and it’ll be easier to make the time the garden needs. It’ll feed you visually, in addition to physically. As much as we garden for the food, we garden for other reasons, too – beauty, peace, control…so go ahead and indulge that side as you’re plotting pounds per square foot.

  3. Brandeeon 03 Feb 2009 at 4:42 pm

    Ah, that’s some good writing . . . you make me even more intimidated to get started on my garden, but also more determined than ever to try!

  4. risa bon 03 Feb 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Oh! So that’s what we do!

    “Polyculture.”

    “Polllyyculllltuuuuure…”

    I like it …

    Learn something every day.

  5. [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » The Design Question: Me, My Garden and my Graph Paper Aaron thinks it is funny that I’m teaching a class with the word “design” in it. And it is – I’ve several times argued with him that the very fact that we design things so badly so often in our society suggests that we might do better to let vernacular architectures and landscapes evolve, rather than consciously sitting down to try and design them. That is, I have sometimes wondered whether our fundamental problems don’t come down to overdesigning, rather than simply being attributed to bad design. This is not a good position to take with permaculturists unless you like arguing, but it can make for entertaining evenings if robust debate is your sort of thing ;-) . [...]

  6. Picaon 03 Feb 2009 at 8:01 pm

    Wow. Redoing your garden. Sounds like a lot of work!

    I put in raised beds because we have voracious burrowing rodents. The beds are lined with hardware cloth. But I wish I hadn’t raised them so high — we get NO RAIN from April to November and it’s hard on the plants.

    I’m going to see if I can persuade the landlord to let us reroute the laundry outpipe to a water container for the garden… it’s not in the right place, but I don’t mind schlepping.

  7. Jillon 03 Feb 2009 at 8:11 pm

    Garden planning and design thoughts each spring of a 15-year organic master gardener: Don’t plant anything in the same place as last year. Use your time spent designing and drawing for contemplating what to grow, what/how to harvest/store. It works!

  8. Susanon 03 Feb 2009 at 8:48 pm

    *sigh*

    I am right there with you. I KNEW I could make the garden work when I got serious about it last year, certain plants have evolved as a result of human intervention and “work” to please us — almost every veggie would be one of these, I think.

    But.

    My garden doesn’t have a design, it just has phases. I added raised beds as I got enough soil and manure, and money for boards to make them. So this year I’m frozen, because I know it needs a major redo, but I’m not sure what to do in its place. The beds I can reuse, of course, and all I have to do is shovel lots of dirt OUT to move them and then shovel it back IN. The thought though is overwhelming, and the further thought that it still may not be right and I might have to do it again next year is keeping me in a standstill mode!

  9. southernrataon 04 Feb 2009 at 1:01 am

    Just do what works and it will have its own beauty. There’s a wonderful photo here (image 2) in this write-up of a local homestead of a woman working in her garden of 30 old baths which keep her vegetables away from the rabbits.

    http://www.odt.co.nz/your-town/dunedin/41143/life-grid-one-pioneering-family039s-experience?page=0%2C0

  10. Basiaon 04 Feb 2009 at 2:57 am

    Dear Sharon and commentators,
    I just read last post at theautomaticearth. the are articles about food stamps in US, that people using them often eat unhealthy fatty food. wouldn’t it be worth to make a list of more healthy products for 176$ a month? I’m sure it’s possible, as it is possible here in Poland too…
    greetings
    Basia

  11. Saraon 04 Feb 2009 at 8:53 am

    Sharon, I was wondering what you thought about some of the permaculture concepts espoused in books like Gaia’s Garden? I have a new garden to design and I was thinking of laying it out in a keyhole design to maximize its rather small size. Would serve for food, medicine plants and hopefully a couple of dwarf fruit trees. Just curious if you had a take on it.

  12. Adam Ekon 04 Feb 2009 at 8:58 am

    Remember the old Chinese saying, “If you ever finish your garden, you must either move or die.”

  13. Texicalion 04 Feb 2009 at 10:29 am

    Sharon,
    if you like a rustic look and have any downed trees you can go for a sort of makeshift raised bed. My neighbors tree fell through my fence last year, it was a soft wood, not any good for burning. So I turned it into a raised bed. You can see a photo at:

    http://calicampesino.blogspot.com/

    I actually prefer it to the board lumber raised beds that I have because of the stumps on the corners. They make great seats for taking a break and watching the chickens. The wood was free, so longevity was not a large issue. In addition, there is all kinds of fascinating fungi in the logs.

    Sara,
    I love Gaia’s Garden. I haven’t made any keyhole beds, but I do a lot of mixing annuals with perennials. Seems like the keyholes would be great for greens and the like, but maybe not so good for tomatoes.

  14. Anonymouson 04 Feb 2009 at 11:54 am

    If it’s not too much to ask, I would love to see some links to some of the internet design images or photos you’ve found particularly inspiring.

  15. Jenneon 04 Feb 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Did you see the stuff last year (or was it the year before) about using straw/hay bales to make plantable enclosures for raised beds? It would have to be replaced of course, but it’s cheap, easy, and sustainable… and you can plant lettuce in it.

  16. Susannahon 04 Feb 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Sharon, a thought on raised beds. My beds are raised above the paths but have no wood or stone sides. Friends have dubbed them my burial mounds..hehe. I have the 6 in. rolled top plastic edging around the perimeter of the 30 x 40 foot (roughly) garden to help with quack grass control. These beds were easy to make and easy to top with compost every year. I have four long (about 15 ft) beds and 8 beds about 4-5 feet in length. One item I would like to add is some type of hose guides as I need to be pretty careful with the hose in the garden.

  17. texicalion 04 Feb 2009 at 5:00 pm

    An idea for the hose guides: I stuck wine bottles (empty) in the corners of my beds. They don’t work quite as good as the hose guides might (no upper lip), but they were available and keep me from dragging the hose across the bed without noticing what I am doing.

  18. Claireon 04 Feb 2009 at 6:11 pm

    I sort-of design my garden, the fenced-in veggie area more strictly than the rest. The rest of the property is sort-of following a plan I made following the design process laid out in Gaia’s Garden, except when I change things. The overall design process from that book worked very well for me in terms of understanding how energy and resources flow in my yard and making a rough design that works with those flows.

    I raise veggies in 4′ by 25′ beds with 1′ paths, because I seem to have more luck with figuring out how to plant the veggies when I use a standard shape and size for the beds. Now that I’ve been using this bed size for several years, I have worked out some combinations of crops that use that space effectively for an entire growing season and allow me to rotate crops to a certain extent. I made the paths as small as possible because I have to fence the whole thing against rabbits, and I don’t have much money for fencing, so I try to keep the fenced area to the smallest possible. The 1′ path size is pretty tight, but I squeeze in and work the best I can. If the beds are raised at all, it’s only a bit and only when I first dig them. I don’t side them with anything. They seem to work well enough, but I continue to read gardening books and try new ways of working. As it is, I’ve cobbled together ideas from at least three different garden books, and I will be adding a more traditional-looking culinary herb bed this year whose design comes from a fourth book. The herb spiral shown in the permaculture books didn’t work very well for me.

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  20. Sara:farming in northern rural Alabamaon 04 Feb 2009 at 10:03 pm

    My advice: Rotate your crops every year to decrease insect and disease burden! Elliot Coleman’s book The New Organic Grower has a simple clear description of crop rotation and why. In addition, some crops, beans & onions for instance, “feed” other crops. They do that when they are moved from bed to bed. Grow a lovely cover crop, or two, or three! on any soil that is not actively producing food. In fact, consider growing cover crops underneath or amongst your food crops. Your soil will love you for that!

    Long may your lum reek and may your neep pot ne’er be empty!

    Blessings, Sara

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