At the Root: Spencer Smith

Story Spencer Smith | Photograph Luisa Porter

Spencer Smith. Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Spencer Smith. Photographed by Luisa Porter.

If you’ve ever started a vegetable garden, you know there is no end to the advice you can receive as to how to go about it. This advice can be rather dogmatic, as gardeners become partial to their methods. The “right” approach, though, is always relative to the gardener, the site, and the plants being grown. 

Let’s look at some considerations as to how to approach the literal groundwork — the soil preparation — of organizing a vegetable garden. 

The two most common approaches are rows-and-furrows that resemble a field of row crops and raised-bed boxes, generally filled with a store bought “garden mix.” In my backyard garden, I employ a third approach also referred to as raised bed (or wide-row) gardening but without constructed boxes or the purchased garden-mix. The difference between wide-row and the row-and-furrow approach is the preparation and maintenance of permanent beds and paths. 

In wide-row gardening, the beds are separated by permanent, heavily mulched paths (I use newspaper and straw). Once the initial tilling or digging of the soil is completed, all the work is done from the path. The beds are “raised” due to the cultivation of the soil and the compaction of the paths, not by being built up with additional soil (although compost and mulch contribute some). The beds are 3 to 4 feet wide (whatever width allows you to comfortably reach the center of the bed for planting, harvesting and weeding) and the paths are generally 1-1/2 feet wide. The beds can be as long as you like.

In order to determine which approach best suits you, your crop and your garden plot, it’s worth asking why you do any of the prep work you do when starting a garden.

You make beds for the same reason most gardeners already make mounded rows. The rows and the beds are both loose, mounded soil where you don’t walk. The mounding helps with drainage and the lack of compaction helps the plants’ roots thrive. The surface of the soil is very important to the roots of a plant (a large proportion of a plant’s roots occupy the top of the soil) and avoiding compaction is vital.

Preparing permanent beds, rather than temporary rows, requires more initial labor. This does away with the need for seasonal tilling.

Generally we till to cultivate and aerate the soil, but if you can avoid compaction in the beds, by working from paths, then this is already accomplished. Often we till to turn under weeds. Permanent beds require manual weeding, whether by hand or hoe. Your appetite for weeding will be a consideration. Another reason for tilling is to work organic matter into the soil.  I’m fortunate — as is most of this area — to have thick loamy soil. So, tilling compost deeply into that soil is unnecessary work. The soil is already rich with organic matter, and the act of gardening itself adds even more. The roots of your plants add a good bit below the surface, and mulch adds more from the top down.

My dad and I have just started another garden at a different site where the soil is a heavy clay. There we have tilled in a generous amount of organic matter. This will decompose to humus, which will in turn affect the structure of the clay soil. Making the soil less dense means that oxygen can make its way to the roots and water can drain more easily. The clay soil at this site will benefit from repeated deep tilling and the addition of organic matter.

So, it’s not that tilling is wrong; it just may not always be necessary.

At this second garden I’ll plant fall squash and melons. These like to sprawl, making them poorly suited to the beds. The melons and squash will be planted in hills that serve the same purpose as the rows and beds — raised for drainage and not compacted.

Finally, the permanent beds allow me to plant anytime I want. Once the beds are prepared, they are there waiting to be planted. This is especially nice if it is spring planting time, not only in your garden, but also at your job.

As stated above, I take into account the particulars of the site, crop and myself. This may seem in conflict with a more free-spirited approach, but an understanding of why you’re following a certain practice actually does achieve a type of freedom. It frees you to respond to a variety of circumstances with a variety of practices — to act purposefully, not methodically or by rote.