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Planning garden beds on hilly land

Garden beds on a slope

Most permaculture texts admonish you to plan beds so that they run perpendicular to the slope, so why did I plant my bramble patch in the opposite orientation?  The real answer is --- because it's one of the first things I put in when we moved here and I didn't know any better.  However, in retrospect, there are reasons to fly in the face of permaculture teachings and site your garden beds parallel to the slope.

Garden beds perpendicular to the slope

But first, why do the books tell you to make your rows run like contour lines on a map, as is shown in our blueberry patch above?  This type of orientation prevents erosion --- gullies can form when heavy rains hit tilled soil with rows running from the top to the bottom of a hill.  Even with a permanently mulched, no-till garden, it can be handy to keep your rows perpendicular to the slope since the raised beds and aisles together act like swales, slowing water and letting more of the precious liquid soak into the root zone of your plants.

Green blueberriesBut what if you live in a really wet climate and don't want all that water swamping your plants' roots?  I'm actually glad that I planted the bramble patch in a counterintuitive fashion since that area has very high groundwater that tends to pool just downhill.  If I'd created swales with my rows of berries, the waterlogged soil might have been too much for my berries to handle.

On the other hand, my blueberry patch is more well-drained (if less well-weeded --- Mark's currently working on that).  We don't irrigate our woody plants, so the blueberries can only drink the rain that falls from above and gets stored in their mulched beds.  With dry, well-drained soil, conventional wisdom  makes sense.

I'd be curious to hear from others who have intentionally planned garden beds perpendicular to a slope.  What did you think of the experiment?

Our chicken waterer is the clean alternative to traditional filthy waterers.


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I just put in a row of grapes and a row of raspberries. I ran them downhill on purpose. The reason I did this is the hill runs downhill from East to West. If I planted them along contour lines, the Southern plants would have shaded the more Northern plants.

If I were to follow permaculture guidelines, I wouldn't have a raspberry bed. The raspberries and grapes would be fit in among the other plants. For ease of picking, I prefer to keep them all together.

Comment by Fritz Tue May 29 11:44:22 2012
Fritz --- Maximizing sun is definitely a good reason to break a lot of rules! I don't give winter crucifers the recommended three year break between being in the same bed because I prefer to grow them in the sunniest part of the garden and there's just not enough room there to allow for such a long rotation.
Comment by anna Tue May 29 15:53:19 2012

I highly recommend Sepp Holzer's Permaculture - I am reading it now, and I am finding lots of practical advice. Sepp uses what he calls 'hugelkultur', piles of rotting deadwood, as a great way to make raised beds that 1) don't get waterlogged because they allow water to seep underneath, and 2) don't dry out because they have rotting wood at their core.

Sepp and many other contemporary permies don't advocate absolutely parallel/perpendicular swales or hugels, this sort of detail is very site-specific as you recognized. Even if I wanted to conserve water, I would do more of a herring-bone pattern, to slow the flow of water without causing it to pool.

I would also say that permaculture is a way of creating functional systems on your land, so whenever I read about some tree guild that works in the Austrian Alps (where Sepp's farm is), or Arizona, or western Washington, I understand they have different context and goals from me. I am not too far from you, though I am central VA without lots of hills and mountains. Though we can get a lot of rain at times, we can also go long stretches without, so I use hugelkultur and woody mulch materials for water conservation. I am trying to figure out how to create cooler microclimates, which is not easy info to find in many permaculture texts!

Love your berry patch!

Comment by Chris Wed May 30 09:53:05 2012

Chris --- I enjoyed Sepp Holzer's Permaculture too. (You can read my lunchtime series about it here.) We've been using hugelkultur (or my variant of it) in a spot with waterlogged soil for years --- it works great!

I think that really good permaculture practitioners do a great job of tweaking design ideas to suit their site, but I've noticed lots of beginners blindly try to carry out those ideas, then falling on their faces. (Especially when they're reading books by Australian permaculturalists but experimenting in a cooler, wetter climate.) I'd love it if all of these books came with discussions of situations when certain techniques make sense (and when they don't) to save us all a lot of trial and error.

Comment by anna Wed May 30 12:15:45 2012
You say, "there are reasons to fly in the face of permaculture teachings and site your garden beds parallel to the slope" and then "why do the books tell you to make your rows run like contour lines on a map..." I think I'm confused on my terminology because these two sentences seem to contradict each other. Perpendicular to the slope mean that the beds run downhill, right? I thought most advice is to run them parallel to (aka, on contour with) the slope, at least for areas where swampiness is not an issue. You're saying that your bramble patch runs down hill, and that's better for you because of your waterlogged soil, yes? Essentially, the rule of thumb is on contour/parallel for drier conditions and downhill/perpendicular for soggier conditions, if I understand correctly. Sorry, I read this several times and am getting hung up on the perpendicular vs. parallel definition... maybe I just need more coffee or something. ;)
Comment by mitsy Wed May 30 12:48:48 2012
Mitsy --- Thanks for catching that typo. I've cleaned up that last paragraph, so it should make sense now.
Comment by anna Wed May 30 15:43:47 2012

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