Bedtime story

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the gravel in my new back yard and my plan for getting rid of it. That prompted a diversity of reader responses; perhaps the most unusual was the suggestion that I suck it up with a shop vac — taking care to use a heavy-duty paper filter, since a foam filter “will be beat to death.”

Unfortunately, the gravel in my yard has seen a good bit of vehicular traffic and is thoroughly mashed down into the soil. Not a job for Mr. Shopvac.

Another reader urged me to forgo gravel removal and simply build 18-inch-deep raised beds over the existing surface. After a few afternoons laboring with a pick, hoe and shovel, the prospect of leaving the stones in situ has great appeal. But the chore also gave me time to contemplate my little yard, which slopes from side to side and front to back, feeding a minor gully whence rain runs into my driveway (also eroded due to channelization of the flow). What this spot really needs, for moisture retention and runoff control, is leveling. So I’ve reserved a rental mini-backhoe/grader.

After I reshape the terrain and straighten a retaining wall that now leans precariously toward the house, I plan to build raised beds. I’ll also install a French drain to reduce hydraulic pressure on the wall. (Are we supposed to call such systems “freedom drains” these days? I don’t want my garden to run afoul of the USA PATRIOT Act.)

I’ve long been a proponent of French intensive (freedom intensive?), or double-dug gardening. The idea is to create raised beds in which the soil is light and fluffy to a depth of 2 feet. With foot traffic limited to pathways between beds, and no use of machinery once the initial construction is done, the soil is never compacted. Each bed is prepared by digging a trench across its width on one end to the depth of a shovel blade and placing the topsoil in a wheelbarrow. Then the soil in the bottom of the trench is turned over another shovel deep. Now the next strip of topsoil is turned over into the first trench, and the process is repeated for the rest of the bed. Finally the wheelbarrow full of soil is used to fill up the final trench. (See why it’s called “intensive”?)

This process keeps the richer topsoil on top, where it’s most beneficial to plants, while breaking up the subsoil to facilitate root growth. Beds are typically 5 or 6 feet wide and 12 or more feet long, with paths between the beds wide enough for a wheelbarrow or garden cart. Each bed is a low mound, eliminating the need for wood or stone sidewalls (though you’re free to use them if you like the look enough to justify the extra work).

Over the years, I’ve found that such beds are easy to maintain in a friable state and that compost and other amendments can be focused on the growing area, instead of being wasted on the paths. Another good trick is to lay used wool carpet in the walkways — to suppress weed growth — and cover it with attractive mulch. The wool gradually breaks down and feeds the soil (hair is high in nitrogen).

Voila! After all that effort, I’ll be ready to plant freedom tarragon, freedom marigolds, freedom zucchini, freedom radishes — and a row of spuds for those all-important freedom fries.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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