Gardening: Break Out of the Box

Rows of a Carrot Field
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Our world has changed enormously in ten, twenty and fifty years. It’s night and day from a hundred years ago. How we reach each other and share information is mind blowing. We now know things about illness, waste, and chemicals that make us shudder a little at the past. We’ve seen fisheries and industries rise and collapse.


However, some things have stagnated.

In many ways, mainstream food production is one of those areas. We may use GPS and computers to help us source, plan and site things, but largely we’re doing it the same way we were at the cusp of the Green Revolution. Even small home gardens are regularly set up much the way a farm and large-scale crops are, and have been since the 1940’s and earlier.

We largely grow in straight rows of the same thing, in big squares of bare earth, walking or driving up and down those rows throughout the season.

I’m a fan of history and historic methods, and the lessons we can take from old ways. I’m a huge fan of things that stand the test of time – like the venerable revolver and 1911. Some things, however, don’t age all that well, and some things require a set infrastructure.

In a personal crisis or a nation-altering event, we may lose access to the cheap fuels and chemicals that allow us to grow that way. We can increase our capabilities and resilience by changing that, sometimes in very simple little ways. It starts with breaking out of those boxes we’ve grown up with.

Capitalizing on Contours

Whether it’s large grain or orchard terraces or a small backyard garden, a steep hill or a patch that appears mostly flat, working with natural contours can significantly aid us in reducing both labor and physical inputs in our gardens, no matter what gardening method we choose, tractor to hand tools.

One, we’re not fighting the shape the land wants to be (or has adapted to). Two, those contours make excellent use of rainwater.

In many case, even bare-earth tractor-farmed plots are oriented crossing the face of a hill. It keeps rain from sluicing off our hill, which limits our irrigation needs and keeps more soil in place. Add in raised beds, key-lines, small trenches, berm-swale sets, or beds and materials designed to help further slow that water as it runs down the slope, absorb more of it, and reduce its evaporation, and we can further limit the time, effort, and pumped water of irrigating.

Finding the contour of land can be accomplished with a few sticks, some string, and something relatively heavy – or, you can stick your standard construction level on the cross spar of an A frame.

The frame is fixed. It “faces” the slope, with the heavy thing (or bubble) tilting or hanging straight. When it tilts, you’re at a different elevation. You scoot one foot until it hangs straight. Mark that spot for both feet, pivot your A-frame on one foot, and adjust the other until your string hangs straight and even between them again. Then you mark that spot, too. Repeat across the area you’re mapping. That’s the dig-build-plow line.

Really, that’s it. That’s as complicated as it has to be.

Mark out how wide you want your rows working uphill or downhill, including the width of any bounded-bed or terrace-wall materials and tire or foot space, move down, and repeat the process of finding the contour line.

Sometimes hardscaping or construction will be required, timbers or longer-lasting CMU to hold the “terrace” line. Sometimes you can do straight earthworks, whether it’s a home orchard berms or terracing for larger-scale production. In other cases, such as the still-bare and the straw-mulched veggie beds above, you can go totally “unbounded” and just build up or dig in as-is.

Maximizing Space

Sometimes in the name of mechanical efficiency, we lose usable space. The quarter-acre pond above is one example of this. An undulating star increases the “edge” or “margin”, and doubles the amount of plantable space in comparison to a circle that covers the same area. Even if the “star” was reduced to fit within the margins of that circle, a designer can get 1.25-1.5 times the plantable space on the edges.

That’s just the defined edges of a pond. The star can then be replicated moving away from that pond with obligate and facultative plants filling in each level by height.

Even the shape we prune our perennials to can affect how much yielding surface they offer.

In comparing hedgerow styles, a traditional or conventional hedge with a “flat” face loses a quarter to half the sun-catching capability and harvestable area of shrubs or trees that are left with rounded individual faces. That difference increases further when the tops, too, are trimmed to round or spear upward.

Add in an undulating planting scheme (zig-zagging instead of straight line) that takes half again the surface area (say, 6’ deep instead of 4’ for a line of shrubs) and you not only reap the increased surface area per plant, you increase the number of plants you can fit, just like in the pond example.

Rethink Access

On the small scale of gardening, there are all kinds of ways to maximize planting space. In many cases, it’s by eliminating as much access area as possible. Circular “wagon wheel” and “pie” garden designs do this well, but there are other options.

We’ll reap the biggest benefits – ground level or raised – by making those footpaths permanent. When the beds stay in the same places, they aren’t compacted. That allows for better water infiltration and aeration, which limits how much of our irrigation runs off or evaporates from the surface. It also allows roots to expand faster and easier, making for healthier crops.

However, we reap the spacing benefits and limited seasonal compaction even if we do re-till seasonally or annually and shift where our “beds” are within our growing space.

Congestion Planting

We can also gain space and reduce compaction by altering how we plant inside our conventional square corners.

In a 12’x6’ area, if I plant something with a one-foot spread in single rows (so many people still do) and use a 1’ walkway, I can fit three rows – 36 plants. By changing to a “bed” system with 1’ walkways outside a 4’ central bed, I can squish those rows together and add a fourth – 48 plants.

By planting that bed in a staggered or diagonal grid instead, I only get 42 primary plants, but I also gain 12 generally 6”x12” spaces from the undulations.

That could be an additional 12 plants by controlling spread for edible chickweed and mallow, or it’s a dozen marigolds and thyme to encourage pollinators and discourage pests. In corner spots it might be sinking a little trough for chives. Or, each space could hold 8-18 turnips or beets or garlic heads, a strawberry plant, a few large onions, or 10-24 radishes or spring onions. All kinds of options.

Those options and increased yields scale, up or down. Those of us who prefer 30-36” wide beds gain similar benefits even with that smaller bed width per area.

Shipping pallet gardens and 4’ or 5’ square “patchwork” or “chessboard” beds defined by footpaths of stone, boards, or mulch are other options. Both can also make use of very small and odd-shaped yards, just like half-circle and circular beds, or contour-hugging beds.

If your reach is long enough, shipping pallets can be slid together to make longer beds as well, with the boards providing nice kneeling spaces between plants without compacting soil, and have the added benefit of limiting some of the weed space.

Mandalas & Keyholes

Another example of maximizing space is a “keyhole” bed. Traditional keyholes are round, but the concept applies to square-based beds as well.

The general concept is to eliminate walkways as much as possible. The slot and bulge of the keyhole allows access to most or all of the bed with an absolute minimum of space used.

Like some of the other round-bed methods, it also has the advantage of creating a garden space that can be lovely as well as practical – nothing wrong with multipurposing.

Images: Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden – Mandala gardens & suntrap incorporating keyhole access concepts to increase planting space and efficiency.

Efficiency for the beds can be further increased by combining them into a system of keyholes, or mandala gardens. The general premise of a keyhole can also be extended in length to fit needs. They can be further nested within hugelkulture mounds or shrub and tree lines to create a suntrap or develop a windbreak.

They can be ground-level, bounded or unbounded, raised using timbers or bricks, or, for a little reuseit fun, made from things like salvaged filing cabinets and their drawers, or using storage totes to create sub-irrigated containers in a system.

There’s also an “African” or “composter” style of keyhole bed. In that case, the round access nob is filled with an in-situ composting tube.

Space-wise I find them less efficient. Since they lose that central access point, they have to be smaller because you have to be able to work around the outer edges. That also takes away the opportunity to overlap them into a larger system.

That said, they are fantastic for arid environments.

Breaking the Garden Box

There are lots of options for maximizing our production, with pro’s and con’s to each, individually and in comparison to a square plot with straight-line rows or beds. These are really just a few, and really just a snapshot of each.

For many of us, a combination of contouring, congestion planting in beds or conventional field plots, and a variety of beds and smaller containers are part of our continuing and expanding systems. Incorporating multiple methods and styles allows us to work most efficiently and reap the most benefits by crop type and section of land. The variety is like having a well-stocked pantry or gear rig.

They’re all just tools on our belts, though. We have to use them to know them. Getting started, now, whether it’s new-new or just a new style or method, breaking ground or expanding, is always going to be the only one-size-fits-all when it comes to growing.


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2 years ago

Excellent article. I read this with my 14 yr old son and we started thinking of other ways to “break out of the box.” We liked many of the designs and think that it’s a great way to garden to optimize crop yields and make it look less vulnerable to outsiders who are looking for rows of crops. Making them in shapes makes it look like flower beds, not vegetable gardens.

R. Ann
2 years ago
Reply to  CrazeeMomma4

Thank you! I’m so happy it spurred you guys to apply it in other ways! Another article I wrote a while back might also help if you didn’t see it the first time around: http://www. theprepperjournal. com/2016/09/20/ lessons-from-history-castle-gardens/ There’s a gap you’ll need to close behind each . and between the / and “lessons”. (If I put in a link, it goes to moderation.) It was looking at the ways we can apply castle-era siting in modern-day large and small properties, especially focused on the ways they grew foods. It also includes some defensive aspects to consider as we go… Read more »

R. Ann
2 years ago
Reply to  CrazeeMomma4

Take II – I didn’t break the link up enough, so a duplicate reply… 🙂 Thank you! I’m so happy it spurred you guys to apply it in other ways! Another article I wrote a while back might also help if you didn’t see it the first time around: http: // www. theprepperjournal. com/2016/09/20/ lessons-from-history-castle-gardens/ There’s a gap you’ll need to close behind the : and //, behind each . and between the / and “lessons”. (If I put in a link, it goes to moderation.) Or, you can hit my name (I think it’s on the second page) or… Read more »

2 years ago

I’ve always love keyhole gardens! I just thought they looked so beautiful and organized. One day I’d like to have a few… but for now? I’ll have to stick with lasagna gardening after the chickens clear the plot! 🙂

R. Ann
2 years ago
Reply to  Krystal

Nothing wrong with moving forward however you can – plus, lasagna beds are an excellent way to make use of materials and create really excellent soil and conditions. If you want, you can go ahead and “play” with shaping the beds, either following contours in curves (which can make for some really lovely wave effects, especially as they start to melt down) or going ahead and doing them into an only slightly raised square or round keyhole design or a round pie/pizza/wheel garden. I also like doing 3′-4′ patchwork squares as temp sites are developing. It’s big enough for a… Read more »