Once you’ve picked the best spot for your crisis garden, it’s time to start working out the specifics of how it’s going to look.
You should already have an idea of what you’ll grow and in what amounts, so now let’s see how to lay out the available space.
Properly laying out the crisis garden ensures that it’s accessible and manageable and that your vegetables receive adequate amounts of essential inputs such as sun, water, and nutrients from the soil.
Even if you’ve chosen a location that ticks many of the boxes outlined in the last step, the inappropriate type of beds, wrong bed orientation, and poor design of space could render many of these advantages worthless.
The layout of your crisis garden, now that the location is fixed, will primarily be determined by the size and shape of the land you have available. With more land available for your garden, you’ll have greater design flexibility, with less, your design solutions will be somewhat predetermined.
In this post, I want to outline a three-step permaculture design method for creating the best layout for your crisis garden. I’ll use the examples of my suburban home, my rural farm, and my parents’ place to illustrate the design concepts I’ll explain in the coming paragraphs.
So grab some paper or use a whiteboard or your computer and let’s create the ideal layout for your crisis garden.
STEP 1. DECIDE WHAT TYPE OF GARDEN BEDS YOU’LL USE
Before you start sketching, first you’ll have to decide what type of garden beds you’ll use in your crisis garden.
Although there are many different ways to grow your vegetables, here we’ll focus on three main types of garden beds: in-ground garden beds, raised beds and hugelbeds.
You’ll have to decide which of these is most appropriate according to your climate and context. Here is some brief information about each of them:
Main crop garden at Zaytuna Farm, image source: https://www.zaytunafarm.com
This is the basic annual gardening method practiced for thousands of years, suitable for both home and, if necessary, larger-scale commercial food production that can bring you a side income in these challenging times.
In-ground beds are the cheapest and the least labor-intensive way to start your crisis garden. If your soil’s texture is good enough, and you’re not drowning in excess water, this will be the easiest way to kickstart your crisis garden.
The big advantage of in-ground beds is that you can use a tractor, a walk-behind tractor, and other machinery to do much of the labor to prepare your garden for planting. This allows you to quickly scale your operation if required.
Raised garden beds are elevated garden beds that sit higher than the surrounding soil and are usually supported by some sort of frame or enclosure. You can build them in a variety of ways; out of wood, concrete, stone, or bricks… all kinds of different things.
They are a better option than in-ground garden beds if you have poor-quality soil because you can introduce a different soil type to your raised bed.
They offer several other important advantages over in-ground beds, such as that they warm up quicker in spring, drain better, and are easier on your back, and you can manage them more efficiently.
However, raised beds are not the simple ‘plow and play’ solution that the in-ground beds are. They can be costly to make in terms of resources and labor required to build them, and since you can’t use machines you are forced to use hand equipment and simple manual tools to manage it.
Hugelbeds are nothing more than raised garden beds filled with rotten wood. You can either dig a trench and fill it with wood or just pile the wood on the ground and cover it with soil.
The wood loads your raised garden bed with organic matter and nutrients that are slowly released over the years as they decompose, ultimately helping you to grow typical garden crops with no irrigation or fertilization. The huglebeds, as they were envisioned in their original form, are also very high, so you don’t have to bend over while managing them.
Although the benefits of hugelbeds are obvious and very much desirable, they are labor-intensive as they involve moving a lot of soil around and hauling decomposing wood from somewhere. Building hugelbeds by hand will require a great deal of time and energy, so they don’t scale easily unless you have a machine that can do the digging and moving the soil around for you.
Action item: —> Choose the appropriate type of garden bed based on your climate and context.
What I’m doing:
I’m a big fan of raised beds, and I use them in my suburban home plot and on my rural farm.
The soil at my suburban home is terrible, so I needed a way to introduce better soil and build it on top of what’s essentially a crushed rock top layer.
On the farm, bad soil is not an issue, but raised beds perform better than in-ground beds as they warm more quickly (the farm is at high altitude), they are easier to maintain, and they keep the ground level weeds away.
We use in-ground beds on my parents’ place as the growing area is bigger, and they till the soil with a walk-behind tractor to get the garden ready every year for planting.
STEP 2. CHOOSE THE ORIENTATION OF YOUR GARDEN BEDS
Image source: Elliot Coleman – The new organic grower
Once you know what type of beds you’ll be using, let’s now determine the best way to orient them.
Several factors will influence how you should orient your garden beds, and it all depends on your local context. The three main aspects to consider are solar access, rainfall, and slope. Here are some useful pointers to help you decide:
- If you live in an area that has dry periods and you need to catch and soak the water, then follow the contours with your beds.
- If the slope is steep and you want to avoid erosion, try keep the beds relatively perpendicular to the slope, or follow the contours.
- If you have a choice, orient the beds sideways to the sun (N-S). This is ideal as then every row receives the same sunlight exposure during the day.
- If maximizing sun is not your priority and you have too much heat, then orient your beds E-W so that you can create shade with taller crops on the side facing the sun.
Action item: —> Choose the appropriate orientation of your garden beds
What I’m doing:
Limitations of available space more or less predetermine the orientation of my raised garden beds at my suburban home, so I wasn’t consciously orienting them.
On the farm, the beds are more or less oriented N-S, which is the ideal.
My parents’ field block is on a gentle slope with an east aspect that receives plenty of sun throughout the day. The general orientation of the beds will be N-S, while only rows of potatoes to the right of the beds will be planted parallel to the slope so they more effectively drain excess water.
STEP 3. DESIGNING THE LAYOUT OF YOUR GARDEN BEDS
Now we can start designing and deciding how to best use the available space.
No matter what the size and shape of the growing area will be, you should first somehow subdivide it into workable sections; a series of several smaller-sized plots (field blocks) that are ideally of equal size, shape, and length.
For example, blocks of 100 x 200 feet (30 x 60 meters) or 50 x 100 feet (15 x 30 meters) or smaller all depending on the size of your growing area. All the while leaving enough space, some 5 – 10 feet (1.5 – 3 meters), on either end to allow for access.
Standardizing the block size in this way helps with access, calculating input and production information, general organization, and, most importantly, management.
Through using this method, it’s easy to keep an eye on everything, and you can group together vegetables belonging to either the same botanical family or that have similar fertilization requirements.
Action item: —> Subdivide your growing area into several smaller-sized field blocks of the same size, shape and length.
What I’m doing:
Since around my suburban home, I’m limited by space, I haven’t been able to subdivide the growing area in the described way precisely, but I’ve done this based on the different microclimates/crop categories. I have three distinctive areas: one where I group my staple crops such as potatoes, carrots, onions, and cabbages. One for year-round greens, these are mostly grown in and around the mini-greenhouse and a supplemental crop area that only has enough sunlight during the spring/summer.
On my parents’ field block, we’ll mostly be growing staple crops, so we divided this category into field blocks of potatoes, squashes, tomatoes, carrots, onions, and beetroots, with the remainder being a supplemental group of crops. There is some room – approximately 0.5 m (1.5 feet) on our ends – for access.
Okay, so with that, here are the dimension specifications for each individual garden bed type:
In-ground garden beds
Image source: JM Fourtier – The market gardener
The standard width for in-ground beds is 30 inches (75 centimeters).
This is narrow enough to step over (from path to path), to straddle if you need to work above it, and to reach across when planting or harvesting. Moreover, it’s a standard width that most of today’s market gardening tools are made for.
If you plan on only using hand tools and a walk-behind tractor, a 30-inch (75-centimeter) bed system is recommended. But, of course, you can make them wider as long as you can cultivate them easily.
For a larger-scale commercial production with tractor-based tillage, planting, cultivating, and harvesting equipment, your beds would need to be 60 inches (150 centimeters) wide.
You can adapt the length of your in-ground garden beds to your particular production scale. It can be as long as the size of the whole field block or less; for example, 100 feet (30 meters) long as the size of the whole block, or 30 feet (10 meters), or any other length.
The thing to keep in mind is that all beds should be of a uniform length as this also renders all other equipment (tarps, irrigation pipes, row covers, etc.) uniform.
The pathways should be wide enough to allow the passage of a wheelbarrow or to work in a crouching position without damaging the adjacent bed. This can be a strip of 18 inches (45 centimeters) minimum, or wider if necessary.
Raised garden beds
The best width for a raised bed is 3 – 4 feet (90 – 120 centimeters), dependent on your reach; 4 feet (120 centimeters) being the standard width. Your aim is to make the middle of the bed reachable from both sides without stepping on the soil.
Beds against a wall or fence should be about 2 – 3 feet (60 – 90 centimeters) wide, as you’ll only have access from one side. I make them 3 feet (90 cm) as I want to maximize the growing surface area, which requires more bending but also more veggies.
As with the in-ground beds, standardizing the width of the beds will allow you to customize row covers and cloches so that they can be moved from bed to bed as needed.
The length of raised beds is a matter of personal preference. But since you can’t step over the raised bed, consider how far you are willing to walk to get around to the other side. Eight feet (2.4 meters) is the standard length, with 10 feet (3 meters) usually being the maximum length.
Leave enough space between the beds to walk, mow, or push a wheelbarrow through them.
Around 30 centimeters (1 foot) is the minimum width for walking and 45 centimeters (18 inches) is the minimum width for wheelbarrows, and 50 centimeters (20 inches) or more for mowing and easier access.
Hügelkultur beds vary in width and size. However, in general, the bigger the better, because more material means they will grow more plants and last longer. The recommended width is 4 – 5 feet wide (1.2 – 1.5 meters)
You can construct hugelbeds that are shorter (1.2 meters or 4 foot), longer (2.4 meters or 8 foot), or even continuous!
As with raised beds, leave enough space for: walking – min. 45 centimeters (18 inches), wheelbarrows – min. 50 centimeters (20 inches), mowing – min. 50 centimeters (20 inches) or more.
Action item: —> Design the appropriate width, length and spacing of your crisis garden beds
What I’m doing:
All of my raised beds (except the mini-greenhouse ones) are standard size; 4 x 8 feet (1.2 m x 2.4 meters), with 20 inches (0.5 meters) of space between them for mowing, walking, and access for wheelbarrows. I just find it extremely useful to have everything this size so I can always use the same calculations per bed for all aspects of growing and just multiply by the number of beds to scale the calculations accurately.
On my parents’ field block, we use 100 centimeters (3 feet) width for the beds of everything except tomatoes, squashes, and potatoes. The beds are relatively short – some 240 cm (7 feet) – and the spacing between them is just a narrow strip you can walk on as there is no need to get anything wild between the beds. We can efficiently work the beds by straddling over them.
All right, so with that, you should have the layout of your crisis garden penciled in.
In summary, there are three main steps to creating a layout for your crisis garden:
STEP 1. DECIDE WHAT TYPE OF GARDEN BEDS YOU’LL USE —> where you choose the appropriate type of garden beds based on your climate and context.
STEP 2. CHOOSE THE ORIENTATION OF YOUR GARDEN BEDS —> where you choose the appropriate orientation of your garden beds.
STEP 3. DESIGNING THE LAYOUT OF YOUR GARDEN BEDS —> where you first (a) subdivide your growing area into several smaller-sized field blocks of the same size, shape, and length, and then (b) design the appropriate width, length, and spacing of your crisis garden beds.
In my next post, I’ll talk about how to prep your garden beds for planting. I’ll show you a method I use when I’m prepping new beds for planting for the first time, and every time for putting existing beds back to production after a harvest.
See you there!