Row Crops and Raised Beds: Systems for Larger Spaces (Part I)

(What?!  Raised beds for large spaces?  Yes, really, but I’ll come back to that.)

Row cropping is a growing method primary for large agricultural operations for crops which need minimal manual care during the growing season.  Wheat, corn, soy, cotton, peanuts, tobacco and many other major crops are grown this way.  Crops are grown in rows for the convenience of mechanical seeders and equipment.

In the home garden, “row cropping” works a little different.  A home gardener can plant some things in rows where it’s appropriate, like pole beans on a string trellis, and some things in mounds, like squashes, and some things in blocks, like baby greens.  This pattern is a mixture of attempting to replicate large scale farming with historical kitchen gardens.

Ye olde kitchen garden, with herbs and fresh vegetables, was generally enclosed and rather small, and located as near to the house as possible.  It often included ornamental flowers.  The members of the household working it were generally the children and women, and in towns the gardens space might be shared.  Raised beds — or at least beds with a border — were typical.  The bulk of their diet, the staple crops, were grown out in the fields and was the task of the men.  (Suggested: The History of Kitchen Gardens.)

Our split personality in our methods in modern home gardens is, I think, largely is due to two things.  First, many of the original “home gardens” in this country were in the yard next to the slave and sharecropper homes.  Many slaves were permitted to grow gardens and keep poultry to supplement their diet and sometimes to sell for profit.  They typically had small place in which to work, and therefore focused on high-yield easy to grow crops.  (Suggested: Slave Garden Plots and Poultry Yards)  Pooling their knowledge, they could draw from experience growing crops in their home countries (in the early years), and slaves who worked both kitchen gardens and large fields for their owners.  After emancipation, this pattern was unchanged for many sharecroppers in the South, only now they either had to purchase their staple rations or grow them themselves.  Historic photos of African-American gardens look like almost any rural garden you will see in the southeastern United States today.  (Suggested: “African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South” by Richard Westmacott.

Second, there was a great wave of home gardens during the Victory Garden eras of World War I and World War II.  The pamphlets and instructions provided to households referred them to their state agricultural colleges for information.  Used to providing instructions to farmers, these were the primary resource for information to patriotic (and hungry) citizens and are written in terms of 100 foot rows and other farm nomenclature.  The information provided by the Agricultural Extention offices in much of the country still is.

Strangely enough, this split personality system works very well, because it allows the gardener to give a particular plant the growing conditions it needs.  Potatoes, for example, work best in rows so you can hill them up.  Tomatoes need rows for easiest harvesting.  Large rambling plants like squashes need large mounds.  Small root crops like carrots can be planted in rows, but it’s a waste of space and are better planted in blocks or wide rows.  Widely spaced plants can develop larger healthier root systems to scavenge for nutrients and water without competing with each other too much.  Mulching, if used, can help reduce water evaporation and rainwater runoff.

As practiced by many, a row crop garden is generally turned or disced by a tractor in the late winter to break the soil and kill weed seeds and bug larvae.  It this area, it’s not unusual for the neighbor with the tractor to come by and do everone’s gardens on a Sunday afternoon.  Some gardeners then use a tiller to work the soil; others use a rake or another hand tool.  The garden is laid out into blocks and rows with small pathways between them.  During the growing season, either a hoe is used to weed or the gardener runs a tiller very shallowly between the rows to cultivate and kill weeds.  (Or both.)  At the end of the season, the garden is either cover cropped or gets it’s cover crop naturally via weed seeds and grasses.

Despite its advantages, this style of row cropping has disadvantages, too.  It requires space, for one, and annual access to mechanical equipment that a new gardener probably doesn’t own.  (Hauling in bags of soil for a square foot garden requires equipment, too, but most household already have a car.)  In arid climates, natural rainfall may be insufficient for the crops even when they are given more space, and water may evaporate too quickly.  And aggressive running weeds like bermuda grass will not be killed by tilling, only trimmed back — tilling alone will never eliminate these weeds.  Finally, over the course of growing season, the walkways tend to get wider and wider, compacting soil around the roots.

In part II, I’ll discuss some of the ways to mitigate the disadvantages of row cropping while preserving the advantages.

(By Nicole Castle)

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One thought on “Row Crops and Raised Beds: Systems for Larger Spaces (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Row Crops and Raised Beds: Systems for Larger Spaces (Part 2) | Recession Gardening

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