Saturday, January 26, 2013

Garden Planning: Part 3

Welcome back to a slightly belated episode of Lost in the Farmer’s Market, as some of you may know the semester is underway and that often competes with time for this blog. That aside today’s topic is a continuation of last week’s conversation regarding the four steps to early planning. The third step is the actual act of turning your measurements and observations into actual drawings which will be essential when ascertaining what to plant and where.

I admit there are a several schools of thought as to how to lay out a garden. Some popular methods include square foot, cottage, row, terraced and, raised bed styles all of which are equally effective when the terrain and environment warrants. However today we are going to handle the topic in the simplest way possible so first off I will be using scans of drawings of one particular bed in the test gardens. Some of you out there may have heard of my work with the high production beds. Those of you who are new to this blog or to my work may not have seen the humble beginnings of the high production beds.

This was sketched in a note book along with other relevant harvest data in September of 2009.

This is clearly a rough sketch of the High Production (HP) Beds as they existed in late 2009. Provisions for significant mulch and the addition of a soaker hose to counter the late droughts of August and September were in consideration. The lack of measurements over all isn’t actually a problem since at this level precision has no effect on productivity. I might add in 2009 the HP beds were un-walled and thus were raised mounds to a height of about 6” with slight irrigation “trenches” around each bed. The need to mulch at the time was more to control the existing Bermuda grass issues then to stop other weeds.

In the case of the average gardener who just wants a garden this sort of drawing can be fully acceptable. Since base sketches require no measurements and still leave a record of where things are located they can serve as a useful tool. The real benefit of a base sketch of this sort is that you don’t even need drawing tools or any real skill at artistry to make an functional concept drawing that you can refine freely. An old favorite trick of mine was that instead of redrawing a bed repeatedly I would make a master copy. The master would have all the fixed information such as paths, walls and things that could not be changed, but had no common garden plants listed.  The blank master copy would then be run off a copier by the dozens and the duplicates used to make edits and proposed changes. This method admittedly is incredibly low-tech but very effective for those not experienced in landscape drafting.

A brief proposal for drainage improvement and irrigation efficiency, this concept was never built as the paver-wall plan replaced it.
I admit, this is another sketch from the same book but you can see the plan has changed to incorporate considerations for other plant crops. The gravel trench irrigation idea also was a way to compensate for the water needs of the new crop.  The informal idea here was that I realized due to the fact the area of the HP garden was on a gentle slope, if I cut trenches on either end of the bed and filled them with gravel this might be used as a water collection point for when it rains. By the time I had drawn this one, More then one heavy rainstorm had floated off the applied mulch and this was supposed to be a semi-remedy.

For all of you readers out there, this also demonstrates how you can add limited multi dimensional ideas to a base sketch. It doesn’t have to be an engineering plan it only has to get your ideas across to whoever might read it. Drawing things out always helps you determine what will work and what may not long before you invest in plant stock and materials. It is also easier to ball up and throw away a piece of notebook paper then it is to purchase materials and find out your plan is fatally flawed.

I might add this plan as drawn was flawed, the angle of drainage and soil type alone would have made this drainage ditch idea a fatal waste of materials and funds. If you notice the plan also does little to address the sandy soil, weed problems or the nutrient needs of the individual crops. Ironically I would end up instead lining the collard and nightshade beds with rectangular paving stones set into the ground 2” deep on their longest dimension effectively making low height raised beds. These modified beds were filled with spent potting soil, compost and whatever non-native soil amendments I could get. In function this concept improved nutrient retention, reduced weed problems but still suffered with drought and soil depletion during the peak heat.

This drawing was an informal master-blank from the end of 2010.
This is a measured master drawing that is intentionally left blank but the structural elements are noted clearly. Unlike the last two drawings distances and proportions in regards to other outside structural objects are noted clearly giving the HP beds true size and dimension. This sort of drawing increases your ability to exactly place plants by using their full sizes to figure where everything will be when the design is finished. 

I have to say this was one of many proposed configurations for the HP beds which as of the time this was drawn had officially gotten the name ‘High Production Beds’. For note the right side of these beds faces roughly east, and thus their placement maximized solar exposure. This alone as I would discover meant that I could get away with a nearly 365 day growing year because the soil in these beds never cooled as much as the surrounding soil. You might notice that the asparagus row disappeared in this design. I don’t know in hindsight why that is, but it may have been proposed due to poor yields that the asparagus be moved to the triangle bed on the other side of the yard.

This revision was proposed in late 2010, and is the final design I went with.
This drawing was scaled not for the plants but for the area, which puts it on the opposite end of the prior drawing. The clear relationships between objects are heavily noted as is theoretical plant selections. The precise measurements have revealed that indeed the Asparagus bed at that time was longer then HP beds 1&2. This discrepancy in bed length went unnoticed until this drawing was done, and affected the final design as installed in early 2011. The advantage to drawings this exact is that they tell you a lot about your area and allow you to start planning plant layouts in advance. You can ascertain precisely where things need to go and how many of them you can put in. For the purposes of crop rotation this sort of drawing is very important as it can be used estimate soil depletion and enrichment cycles as well as irrigation needs.

On a personal note, this wound up being the final design for the HP beds up until late 2012. The design served an interesting purpose in determining the best way to build raised beds but also it was instrumental in determining the best soil to amendment ratio. I did draw one major conclusion from this design; the sand hill’s soil is nine shades of awful. The result of this determination was that instead of the industry standard of improving native soil with amendments, I began to instead remove and replace at a rate of 1 part native soil to three parts amendment. Some of you out there might balk at that however once this was attempted in 2012, productivity spiked upwards. As it turns out, at least in my area the soil was actually worse then the soil tests indicated.

Drawn in October of 2012, this is the current incarnation of the High production beds.

As you can see here this drawing is semi technical. The only way to make this more so would be to break out the drafting board and redo this on vellum paper using an engineer’s scale and drafting tools. For my purposes with the project this is about as professional as I go. Unlike the other drawings this one is measured in all three dimensions as the measurements in the upper right attest. The bed actually is perfectly square and is fourteen and a half inches tall. The notation of bed height is important as it pertains to the soil space of the crops listed on the right and as noted in the drawing.

I might note, the soil in the bed actually adds another six inches of height to the bed as the asparagus sit in a raised mound of soil while the rest of the crops sit flush with the brick walls. The only thing in this sketch that is permanent is the soil, walling materials and the asparagus planted slightly off-center. In case you are wondering the horizontally placed bed noted in the last two drawings sits outside the drawing area of this sketch.

What makes this level of design accuracy and detail important is that it is useful on many levels if you are gardening from a standpoint of production. My goal here is to produce a winter crop to reduce my winter grocery bills, but more so it also allows me to study plant productivity and the methods to achieve a local sustainable food supply. The plant list alone can be used to determine how many individual plants it would take to make a meal of some sort for a set number of people. The height of the bed can be used to determine what the ideal raised production bed height should be. Further more the bed’s height could be used to pick root crops to match. The plants noted in the sketch also serve as a test bed. Few realize that well fed asparagus fronds can grow up to seven feet tall which casts light shade for whatever is behind it in this case.  That alone coupled with the raised height of the bed in which the asparagus grows can make for a small micro climate for whatever plant is behind the asparagus which may mean food plants such as the sorrels might grow well behind the taller crop. More heat tolerant plants could be grown in front and on the sides, and the best part is, since birds love perching in tall asparagus, there’s no shortage of birds handling insect problems.

It’s a lot to think about, at this level it stops being a garden, you’re plans in this case are on the level of micro-terraforming. What your doing is you’re planning to make miniature climates and environments, effectively beautifying the world one square foot at a time. Your reward is a home grown crop that doesn’t have to sit in some box for hours or days before arriving at a market. All it takes is a piece of paper and a clear vision of what you would like to have, and what area you have to work with. If that’s not a reason to start drawing out those garden plans I don’t know what is.

Check back next time when we cover the fourth and final part of early planning, the gathering of supplies. Also I will have some cool winter plant photos of stuff in bloom during the winter, and a photo of a succulent plant I talked about during the holidays. Until then readers, remember to keep ‘em growing.

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