Friday, April 20, 2012

Up the garden path

Spring has now arrived in earnest, as well as in New Jersey, and our garden beds have already received their annual top-dressing of compost and their first plantings of peas, arugula, lettuce, parsley, and leeks. I prepared the beds for planting by pulling out as many weeds as I could, but I was frustrated to see that for every weed I yank, two new ones seem to sneak in—largely as a result of runners creeping in below the soil from the garden paths.

When we first built the boxed raised beds in our garden, we didn't bother to surface the paths in any way. I figured that as long as the box was there to provide a clear line of demarcation between bed and path, I could simply remove weeds from the beds while taking a live-and-let-live attitude to those in the paths. However, I've since discovered that weeds in the paths have a way of sneaking into the beds—and also that if the weeds are simply granted a safe haven in the paths, they'll quickly grow to a height that makes the paths difficult to walk on, which is, after all, what they're for. So I've been thinking that it may be time to put down some form of a surface on the paths that will at least deter weeds, even if it can't fully eliminate them. The question is, what?

I consulted my library of gardening books and found that the most commonly recommended surfaces for paths in a vegetable garden are:

  • Grass. This is more or less what we have now, but since our "grass" is really mostly weeds, and since our paths aren't wide enough to admit a lawnmower, it's not working out very well for us.
  • Dirt. Mel Barthlomew, in Square Foot Gardening (the original 1981 edition, not the revised version), says that dirt paths will require weeding, which is what I'm trying to avoid. Jeff Ball, author of Jeff Ball's 60-Minute Vegetable Garden, disagrees, saying that bare soil "compacts down so much over the years that weeds will grow only with difficulty." However, since these are the same weeds that stand up to being walked on everywhere else in our yard and are little the worse for wear, I'm not convinced that this approach would work for us.
  • Wood planks. Mel Bartholomew says that "pieces of scrap lumber can be nailed together to make neat, attractive walkways between the garden blocks," but he must have a lot more scrap lumber lying around his place than we have. With about 80 linear feet of path to cover, we'd have to go down to a lumberyard and buy a whole load of wood planks—which would be not only costly, but really difficult to haul home. (Our Honda Fit can manage nearly any load of reasonable size, but it's not a pickup truck.)
  • Mulch. Mel Bartholomew claims that a heavy coating of hay mulch "looks nice, keeps your feet clean, and needs no weeding." This might be a cost-effective solution if I knew of a place that sold hay (or straw) in bulk, but you can't just go down to the Home Depot and pick up a bale. The big home stores do sell wood chips, which is what Jeff Ball uses for his paths; however, he gets his directly from tree-trimming crews and claims that he "can often get a truckload for free," and never pays more than $5 to $6 for a year's supply. Buying the stuff in bags, by contrast, means paying $4 for a volume sufficient to cover maybe 6 linear feet of path. (The darkened area in the photo at right shows how much path we were able to cover with a single bag of pine bark nuggets.) Now, that's only around $50 to $60 to cover the entire path area, which isn't too bad—but the problem is, mulch doesn't last forever. Jeff Ball says that he adds a fresh load of wood chips to his path every year (and every five or six years, he can remove a "nice layer of beautiful black humus" produced by the decomposing wood from underneath them). So this isn't a one-time expenditure of $50 or $60; it's an extra $50 to $60 per year added to our gardening expenses, not to mention the yearly hassle of hauling home fourteen bags of mulch and spreading them over the paths.
  • Gravel. This costs about twice as much as mulch, but it won't decompose, so in theory, at least, it's only a one-time expense. However, when I consulted online boards devoted to gardening, I saw some complaints that pea gravel doesn't stay put; each time it's walked on, a bit of it escapes and gradually scatters itself all through the yard (or worse, in the beds themselves). Moreover, several gardeners complain that weeds grow up right through the gravel—which defeats the whole purpose of putting down a surface in the first place.
So far, none of these options really looks ideal. Jeff Ball suggests choosing path materials on the basis of "availability and cost," using "whatever is available, especially if it is free." This is sort of what we're doing now—the beds were mulched with leaves throughout the winter, so we've raked all those leaves out and onto the paths, forming a sort of loose covering—but it hasn't been sufficient to keep the weeds down, and we don't seem to have any other choices that are both readily available and free (or at least cheap). Am I overlooking something, or should I resign myself to the fact that our choices are to invest a big chunk of change in some sort of permanent path material (like planks or pavers) or else just live with the weeds?
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