{}  Gardening: bed and board and path


In my own practice, I make use of three kinds of paths:

(1) Informal paths not constructed at all - simply routes where I've walked to get from one place to another particularly frequently, so that the vegetation is beaten down. Often, these paths may not follow a straight line.

(2) 'Overpaths.' 'Overpath' is a new term which reflects the established word 'overpass.' In the past, I've used gently curved overpaths but now I use straight line overpaths exclusively. Just as I make use of raised beds, I make use of raised paths. The raised paths are constructed from wood and raising them makes them last longer, and ensures that maintenance is at longer intervals. Images of overpaths:

An overpath in the upper allotment. The boards are laid on an extended aluminium ladder. The metal is visible on either side of the wood. The path here has lines of boards on either side, marking the boundaries of beds. These boards have since been removed.

An overpath in the lower allotment. The wooden boards are laid on oak blocks. Some of the blocks can be seen here.

Another overpath in the lower allotment. It leads from the entrance to the allotment. This overpath, like the others, doesn't rest on the soil so that the wood is protected from this source of moisture, if not from precipitation, of course. All these overpaths have lasted for a long time without deteriorating very much at all.

I always have an 'informal' path running alongside the overpath. These informal paths, like other informal paths in the allotment, are always narrow. Weeds are kept in check on these paths more effectively if foot traffic is heavy rather than light.

(3) Sheet metal paths, a layer of bark chippings on the sheet metal:

(The photographs show the path soon after construction, before adjustment of the wooden boards. One of the sheet metal sections isn't galvanized. I used paint to protect it from corrosion.)

I oppose the use of landscape fabric for constructing paths but see the need for a base for wood chippings (or other loose material) to prevent the growth of weeds. I now make use of galvanized, sheet metal, a stable, very long lasting material which is completely impervious to weeds. The sections of sheet metal overlap so there are no gaps between the sections which allow the growth of weeds. Sheet metal isn't expensive - but the sheet metal I use comes from projects where the sheet metal isn't needed any longer, so that it's effectively cost-free.

The disadvantages: sheet metal presents severe hazards. The sharp points at the corners and the sharp edges need great care in handling the sheets. I've developed methods of reducing or eliminating the dangers. See my page Design-construction-other.

The sheet metal is covered with a layer of bark chippings, for the sake of appearance, to give a softer surface for walking, and to eliminate the danger of slipping. The path is on a slope, steeper at the upper half than the lower half, but on this steeper section, I've put a layer of heavy-duty wire mesh on the sheet metal, which makes walking secure and which helps to retain the bark chippings. Bark chippings on a smooth surface like sheet metal can otherwise move downhill or be washed downhill during heavy rain.

The design is successful, I think. The path has a cushioned surface which it's a pleasure to walk on. An area which was infested with weeds - the informal path in this area was too wide to control the weeds by walking on them, but the path had to be wide so that a wheelbarrow could be used - is now weed-free and will stay weed-free for a long time. Eventually, light weeding will have to be carried out but after weathering for years, the bark chippings are compostable and will contribute material high in carbon to add to the green high-nitrogen materials to be composted.

General considerations:

Whether the paths run between beds or through beds, or parts of a garden or allotment where there are no beds, paths are a problem, a problem more difficult to address than the beds.

A comprehensive ((survey)) of the  advantages/disadvantages of a certain kind of path will include such features as cost, ease of construction, overall durability, ease of maintenance to ensure longer durability, without a substantial environmental penalty, aesthetics.

Stones slabs laid end to end to form a path will be durable and durable with minimum maintenance and is likely to look good but will require a great deal of work to construct. Similarly for paths constructed with cement or tarmac, although with less aesthetic value, very likely. A path constructed with only a thick layer of bark chippings will be cheap, particularly if the bark chippings can be obtained free of charge - transportation will cost something - and will be  much easier to construct but won't be durable and will require much more maintenance - the removal of weeds.

A path constructed by putting a thick layer of bark chippings over a length of weed-control landscape fabric will have similar advantages but will cost much more and will have environmental disadvantages. Given the problems of disposal, I oppose the use of landscape fabric in gardens and allotments in all circumstances. No matter what the difficulties of the alternatives, I would never use it myself now. I did in the past, and came to the conclusion that it's hideous material. No gardener should be sending the material to landfill, but there are no realistic uses for the fabric, unlike old tyres, and the uses of old tyres in gardens and allotments are difficult or impossible to justify.

If a gardener does decide to make use of landscape fabric, the fabric should be covered, with compost, soil, wood chippings or bark chippings, not left fully visible for year after year. Whether the garden is for growing flowers or for growing crops or for both, aesthetic considerations have importance. Bare landscape fabric looks hideous, I think.





  The advantages of moveable boards
 The practicalities of making moveable boards
  Rotation of beds and paths
 Polythene and netting protection
 Keeping beneficial animals away from crops
 A fleece-bed. Who needs a greenhouse or polytunnel?
 Plastic boards?

See also other gardening pages:

 Gardening/construction: introduction, with photos
 Structures: plant protection and support
 Structures: cloches, greenhouse, store/shelter, shed
  Composting, rainwater collecting 
 Some design principles in gardening 

Introduction: the disadvantages of surrounding beds with boards

The disadvantages if the boards are  fixed in position, that is - the system used in just about every case when gardeners surround their beds with boards. The boards clearly and neatly separate the cultivated areas from the paths, and by only walking on the paths, the soil in the cultivated area stays uncompacted. There are advantages in using boards but only a few of them have been explored. Unless reclaimed timber is used, boards cost money - this deters many gardeners from using them. Once it's realized that boards have many uses, that they can save money overall, then the arguments for using them are very strong. But this requires a fresh approach to using boards.

When gardeners use boards to surround beds, in almost every case they use a system of four boards connected at the corners, the boards fixed in position. Despite its enormous popularity, this is a poor system in many or most circumstances, one with multiple disadvantages. (I refer to it here as 'the usual system.')   The usual system is very inflexible. Boards can be used for many different purposes, and the usual system fails to make use of almost all of them. It has other disadvantages as well. I describe some of the disadvantages here, and the advantages of the system I've devised, one which uses self-supporting boards. The images on the right show boards used in this new system, not boards fixed in position in the usual way.

 After using my system for many years, I have experience of every aspect. I don't discuss every aspect of the system here, although the information I do provide is quite detailed. I omit some information about construction of self-supporting boards and I omit information about some further uses of the system, such as its advantages in sowing seeds and planting crops. I provide only a little information about some techniques, such as the use of 'fleece beds' and the use of weed-control fabric in  the system.

The page on Composting and other gardening techniques outlines the disadvantages of the traditional wooden composter, in which the boards are fixed, like the fixed boards in the usual system for enclosing beds. My improved wooden composter overcomes these disadvantages by the use of four separate panels supported by stakes. This system allows the composter to be moved to a new location very easily and has other advantages, including the fact that the composter can be placed on sloping ground.

The advantages of moveable boards

The practicalities of making moveable boards

A cheap and easy way to make beds surrounded by moveable boards, if you can't obtain reclaimed timber: you buy 3 gravel boards, each 2.4 metres long. You saw one of these in half to make the two end sections, each 1.2 m long. The other two boards make the two longer sections. You attach a metal stake half way along each board and push the stakes into the ground. After perhaps ten minutes work you have a boarded bed which is 2.88 metres square and at a total cost of a little under 13.00 - about 3.00 for each gravel board and about 1.00 for each metal stake. To be more exact, you have not just a boarded bed but a bed whose boards have many different useful functions (not all of them described here.)

The metal stakes used to support the boards  are simply fixed to the board with screws, using the holes already drilled in the stake. The screws will almost certainly work loose before long, however. The secure fixing method I use is a little more elaborate, but not very much, and it's quick to implement. It solves the problem.

There are small gaps between the borders at the corners, but small metal corner plates are easy to obtain, even if they're not designed specifically for this function. The boards aren't fixed to these plates. By using them, the bed will look just as neat as any bed which uses the usual inflexible system of boards fixed to corner posts -

I use single self-supporting boards ('dividers') to a greater extent than four boards surrounding a bed, but dividers are similarly easy to make, at a cost of around 4.00 each.

Rotation of beds and paths

Rotation of crops is a standard technique in growing. But it can be useful to rotate beds and paths! Here, I describe only a very simple system, in which beds and paths are equal in area. The same principles apply if, as is usual, beds take up a greater area than paths. I don't provide any detailed information about management of the system.

In an ideal gardening world, people who take over a weed-infested plot would put down light-excluding fabric to eliminate annual and perennial weeds and wait a year before sowing and planting. In practice, they are often understandably impatient and  begin sowing and planting sooner than that. (They have previously divided the plot into beds and paths and laid down light-excluding fabric on the paths, covered with wood-chips, perhaps.)

In an ideal gardening world, people who did clear the plot completely wouldn't begrudge in the least the time and effort needed to keep the plot clear of weeds. In practice, they understandably fail to  do that. The never-ending work becomes a burden and the plot begins to look bedraggled. They wish they had pristine, weed-free soil again, the soil they had for such a short time just after they'd eliminated all the weeds.

They do, of course! It's very near at hand, underneath the paths. The  weed-control fabric on the paths has killed the weeds and prevented any weeds from growing. If the fabric is moved to the beds then the paths can now be used for cultivation.

Polythene cloche and netting protection

If polythene or netting (not free of charge, but very cheap) is stretched between the boards, we can make the whole of a bed into a low cloche, or a protected area: a cloche-bed or a netting-bed. (The fleece-bed is covered in a later section.) This idea - which isn't a new one - isn't implemented very often, perhaps because the disadvantages are obvious. Although it's easy to staple polythene or netting to the fixed framework of the four boards, what do we do if we want to weed or harvest? Remove the staples? The difficulties disappear if we use boards which are supported by stakes - one or two stakes for each board - so that the boards can be moved very quickly. By moving a board towards the centre of the bed, we have access to half the bed. Move the opposite board, and we have access to the other half. It's as simple as that - far easier than removing commercially available cloches or netting systems.

In pictures - netting is stapled to boards. Polythene could equally well have been used, to form a low cloche.

Bed:  netting protection

Since the boards are supported by stakes, each board can be moved very easily, towards the centre, allowing weeding or harvesting to be carried out on half the area of the bed. By moving the opposite board, we have almost immediate access to the other half of the bed.

Bed: moving a board

If the boards are 15cm high - a typical height - then that's high enough for any plants in the earlier stages of their growth, the stages when we very often use cloches. These include early potatoes, which can be planted much earlier by using this system - the end of February, unless the temperature is very low. You could achieve the same result by using commercial cloches, but this wouldn't be a cost-effective solution at all. Low-growing plants such as lettuce can be covered by polythene or netting throughout their growth.

By using another board in the middle of the bed, supported by one or two higher stakes, we can easily increase the height of the system, to accommodate taller crops. When polythene is used to make a cloche, there's the further advantage that the cloche sheds rainwater more easily. If this middle board isn't used, and the polythene sheet is flat, then small holes can be made in the polythene so that rainwater doesn't collect and weigh down the polythene.

Keeping beneficial animals away from crops

It's easy to see that the netting-bed I've already described is very useful in protecting a crop, keeping birds away from strawberries, for example. How can it possibly be an advantage to keep beneficial animals from crops? I'm referring in particular to hedgehogs, frogs and some birds.

If lettuces or other crops are grown inside the protected area, then it's perfectly safe to use pellets to kill slugs and snails, and it's impossible for hedgehogs, frogs and birds to be harmed by them. This isn't a novel idea, but in order to protect beneficial living things from slug pellets, it's important that the protection system should be convenient to use. So far as possible, the common and routine work of the garden or allotment should be part of a fluid 'work flow.'

I favour, I practise organic growing, but I see every reason for diverging from strict organic practice in a few limited areas, above all in the case of slug and snail control.

I know that there are many organic gardeners who feel as I do - who make an exception in the case of slugs and snails. (I refer to this as the practice of limitation, the abandonment of complete consistency, of organic 'purity,' in this case, when reality seems to call for it.) To give one example, from Margaret Elphinstone's and Julia Langley's 'The Organic Gardener's Handbook:' we read '...even on beautifully drained raised beds there can be enough slugs in early spring to devastate the struggling cloche-grown lettuce and carrots, or the newly-germinating runner beans. In recent years I have been desperate about the devastation, and have resorted to dangerous metaldehyde bait.' But when it's impossible for beneficial animals and birds to be harmed by the bait, then the only valid objections, I think, are ones based on maintaining complete organic consistency.

Alternative, non-chemical methods all have disadvantages. I do what I can to help beneficial animals in my allotments, but not simply because they are useful. Their welfare is important. Without wishing, of course, to criticize these beneficial animals in the least, their efforts do fall short of controlling slugs and snails effectively enough in all circumstances! Traps containing beer or another attractant kill beneficial creatures as well as slugs and snails. Removing them by hand (preferably a gloved hand) and disposing of them by whatever method is favoured, is time-consuming, has the disadvantage of being a nocturnal activitiy and is unpleasant to most people. Biological control by nematodes is expensive. Time after time, you're likely to see all your hard work ruined, to find your seedlings decimated, like chickens after a fox has done its worst.

I oppose the notion that because a method is supposedly, or actually, more 'virtuous,' for example in not involving the use of manufactured chemicals, that all the advantages lie with this method and all the disadvantages with less virtuous methods. I refer to this as the practice of alignment, all the advantages on one side, all the disadvantages on the other. Alignment ignores complexities and inconvenient facts.

Another concept I use is that of the ((survey)), which involves this attempt to list all the considerations which are relevant, based on information which is as complete as possible, but not simply information: on values too, including ethical values, aesthetic values. Many criticisms of organic practice are based on a ((survey)) subject to severe {restriction}.  If it could be shown that pesticide residues in fruit, vegetables and grains are not at all a substantial hazard, and the claim is then made that organic methods are unnecessary, then the ((survey)) used is  inadequate, ignoring the benefits to wildlife, as well as other benefits. Many criticisms of non-organic practice are based on an inadequate ((survey)) too.

A fleece bed. Who needs a greenhouse or polytunnel?

This is deliberate exaggeration. I don't in the least deny the usefulness - the necessity - of a greenhouse or polytunnel for all sorts of purposes. But for some purposes, people who have a greenhouse or polytunnel would do better to use fleece instead. (The possession of a tool or piece of equipment doesn't guarantee that using it will always be the best course of action.) For these same purposes, people without a greenhouse or polytunnel need feel under no disadvantage.

In particular, 'starting the plant off' is better achieved in situ, in the place where the plant will grow to maturity, than in a greenhouse or polytunnel, if at all possible. To state the obvious (and at some length, in this paragraph and in the next few paragraphs) if a plant is started off in a greenhouse or polytunnel, then we have to move the plant from there to the place where it will grow to maturity. However, not just move 'the' plant but often many, many plants. If the plants are started off in the greenhouse or polytunnel, then they have to be watered. Outside, unless there are drought conditions, they will be watered for us.

Sowing seeds directly in the soil can be carried out very rapidly. Very often, we can use a dibber, which is quicker to use than a trowel and which involves a better 'work flow.' For all but tiny seeds, push the dibber into the soil, drop in two seeds, push a little soil over them and move on. The use of a greenhouse or polytunnel demands that we sow seeds in (peat-free) compost in individual pots or root trainers, and that we later transport perhaps a few dozen, a few hundred or a few thousand young plants to the bed where they will grow to maturity and there dig a few dozen or a few hundred or a few thousand little holes with a trowel to receive the plants. Sometimes, the work involved in all this deters a gardener from growing enough plants. Providing there is enough space available, there's the need to 'think big.' In the case of broad beans and peas, for example, a great many plants will be needed to produce adequate crops, taking into account the amount of broad beans or peas left after shelling.

If these broad bean seeds rot in cold, wet soil, early in the season, if young runner bean plants or French bean plants are killed by late frosts, then of course there won't be any saving in time or effort, but the use of fleece minimizes this possibility. Fleece should be put in place some weeks before the time for sowing the seeds, so that the soil is warmer by then. All of this is established knowledge of course. Very many gardeners and allotment gardeners do use fleece and are fully aware of its advantages. I use my system to make  'fleece beds.'

Plastic boards?

With a plastic water butt, a plastic composter and beds surrounded by plastic edging boards, all we need are plastic flowers to complete the look. I do support the use of plastic for water butts,  as the most practical material in most cases, but plastic has obvious disadvantages for some gardening uses.

Plastic becomes brittle under the action of UV light, and then it has to be disposed of. Plastic can't be recycled any number of times. At the end of its (quite short) useful life, the eco-friendly plastic boards will probably end up in a land-fill site. There's an energy cost in manufacturing a product made from recycled plastic - another contribution to global warming. It makes no sense at all to use plastic for edging boards, when the alternative, wood, a renewable resource, is clearly superior. The wood may be pressure-treated or untreated - it's best to use untreated wood, even if the risk to plants and the environment in general from the chemicals used to treat wood is very small. Whether treated or untreated, the wood will last longer than plastic in my system, since the wood is raised above soil level by the metal stake. It's wood resting on soil which rots the fastest, by far. The inside of the wooden boards will decay faster than the outside, but this side is hidden from view. The outside of the board will look good for a very long time.










Self-supporting boards used to surround a bed on four sides (foreground), three sides (background, centre) and as a single 'divider' (background, left). Picture shows part of my upper allotment.

Self-supporting boards used singly, as 'dividers,' on either side of the path. No boards are needed to mark the boundaries of the beds on the sides adjoining the paths: the raised edging of the path marks the boundaries. Also shown: my cage system  with flexible supports, here protecting kale and purple-sprouting broccoli. Picture shows part of my lower allotment.