The Potager 2.0

When the pandemic first came to our shores and we were faced with a surprise vacation and then a transition to work at home, the non-commuting lifestyle left me with what seemed like a mountain of extra time to spend in the garden.  ‘Let me get some building materials delivered’ I said, and ‘build a few raised beds’ I thought.  The boss gave her approval and things began to move.  Slowly.  A thousand things had to be moved first, plans needed to come together, but I think it’s finally at a point where I can show it off a bit, if only to get it over with rather than build some unwarranted, over-blown hype.

raised beds

The front entrance to the potager.  A slight downward slope ends at the pergola, the beds are leveled into the slope, and the blocks will hopefully help with keeping the lawn edge neat just in case we get enough rain for it to grow again.

The first dilemma was choosing lumber.  As usual I went with cheap and selected eight foot pressure treated 2x4s, but it wasn’t all that easy. Naturally rot resistant cedar or redwood would have been nice, larger boards would have been nicer, but the costs were way higher than I was comfortable with so it was a compromise between expensive all natural, or cheaper with a vague possibility of copper leaching… well I say that but actually the compromise was lower the cost or it’s not going to happen…

Overall I hope to get at least ten years out of the wood because although it’s pressure treated it’s not rated for ground contact.  Eventually it will rot, but the treatment should give at least a few years more than untreated, and funny story… the pandemic caused a pressure treated lumber shortage, so we will see exactly how much faster au naturel rots, since all I could find for the last two beds was untreated wood.

raised beds

The view from the trampoline.  We are into the annual zucchini tsunami and each morning a few more line up on the counter.  Someday I hope to level this bottom part of the garden.  The beds are built level but the grass paths still need some fill to bring them up. 

Besides being cheap with materials,  I also got a little greedy with the bed space vs path width.  Between beds is about two feet, and even if it were wider there was still no way (add laziness to the growing list of personal faults) that I was going to wrestle a lawnmower between each bed.  Enter the wonderfully gritty sand pile.  I knew I didn’t want lawn, wood chips need replacing (and why add organic matter to your paths when it should be going onto your beds?), bare landscape fabric is ugly (and violates my no new plastic policy), so I wanted it to be something inorganic and long lasting (and yet again, cheap).  So I grabbed my face mask and was off to the quarry to look at stone dust, crusher run, and sand.  Surprisingly the sand looked perfect.  It was sharp enough to pack down well for a solid footing, and coarse enough (up to about 1/8″ particles) to not wash away in a heavy rain.  So far I love it, and in the future I might even get sand to top off beds rather than buying ‘topsoil’ that turns to rock the minute it dries.

raised beds

I removed the grass from a few of the pathways and used the turf to fill the beds.  Sand paths will hopefully be low maintenance with great drainage, and if worse comes to worse I can just dig them over and replant grass.

Cinder blocks are also cheap, and at about $1.20 a piece I lugged a few carloads home to use as edging and to form a little paved area under the pergola.  So far I like it.  It’s an honest concrete look rather than concrete pavers trying to pass off as something fancier.  Of course stone would have been another nice permanent edging but again spending a bunch of money was not part of my pandemic response.

With the beds built and the lawn edged and sand down on the paths I was super surprised to see that I still had leftover sand.  I tried to calculate for extra sand for an additional pathway up alongside the fence, but to actually have a plan that worked out was a little bit of a surprise.  After years of collecting and lugging random stones I could finally use them to line a sand trail that gives access to the back of the pond.

garden pond

Finishing the pond is still on the to-do list but for now I think it looks good enough.  The shallow end is in constant use as a birdbath, so it’s really more of a watering hole than a pond…

The pond path is surprisingly popular with the kids and our little garden bunny.  I’ve caught both zipping back and forth, and in the morning there are all kinds of footprints in the sand.

sand path

Pond path’s entrance.  Yes those are mostly weeds.  Weeding went onto the back burner as I lugged load after load of lumber, blocks, and sand.  

To sum it all up I love the new beds and I feel like there’s so much more useable space with it set up this way.  I have a total of eleven 4×8 beds and for now it’s all vegetables and I’m trying not to give in to the temptation of planting flowers… except for the one bed which I gave over to chrysanthemums… but my resolve may dissolve since I still need room for phlox and tulips.  At least I’m trying to be firm with the usual sunflowers and verbena bonariensis seedlings.  -for the record I’m not sure why I needed a bed of chrysanthemum, but after years of neglecting them and abusing them in horribly weedy, infertile, and dry sites, I thought it was about time to do them right.  We will see.

rain garden

Yes, more weeds.  The weeds exploded with last week’s rain and this bed was the next one to need attention.

With everything under control in the potager, there was still enough sand to upgrade the dirt ditch of the rain garden with another nice, stone-lined, sand path.  If you recall, last summer this area received a small paved area and path with all the leftover flat stones liberated from the industrial park construction.  It was nice, but I didn’t like the dirt gully which channeled the runoff, and when I don’t like something I kind of neglect it, and when you neglect a garden the weeds send out an alert, and when they all show up to answer the call things go downhill fast.  The weeds are out now, the sand is down, and although I’m short on rocks along the one side, the other doesn’t look bad at all.  We will see how it holds up.  If you look closely at the paving joints you might notice the joints are neatly filled with sand rather than dirt, and both of those are a pain to keep weed free when all you have is this narrow joint that the roots can hold onto.  Truth is I threw some leftover polymeric sand in there, and when you wet the sand the polymer sets up and solidifies it.  I don’t know how it will hold up but hopefully I’ll get at least a few years of no-weeds-in-the joints enjoyment.  The weeds will be fine elsewhere though, so if you’re worried don’t be.

rain garden

Another step forward I hope.  Mulch would be nice now.

That’s where we’re at going into the weekend.  The weather forecast is promising another heat wave so I’m not worried about mowing, but watering will be on my mind.  I don’t like watering but it does beat lugging cinderblocks and digging turf so I’ll keep the complaining to a minimum.

Traditionally I usually meet the hottest days of summer with a pile of mulch in the driveway.  Hmmm.  I hope you have a more relaxing weekend 😉

30 comments on “The Potager 2.0

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Your pottager is very nice. I am itrigued by some of your building materials, like the corners on the pergola. Are they left over from a screen house? I really like the way they seem to be anchored on the walls of one of the beds. Or is that not what I am seeing? Which ever way I have had thoughts about our corner supports on our existing screen house when I eventually have something more permanent built. This part of your project is giving me more ideas.
    I will be interested in hearing how your sand paths work out. They look nice and neat. Do you seem to walk sand into your house?
    Looks like you did a lot of work in the heat this summer. Well done.

    • bittster says:

      You are absolutely correct! The corners are from a screen house or canopy that my neighbor threw out a few years ago. They’ve been sitting around for all that time just waiting for this moment lol. I was going to use them as the only supports, just connected to the beds as their base, but then felt it wasn’t stable enough so connected the pergola top to the beds with a few more 2x4s. I’m waiting for the wood to fade before I decide if it should all be painted… but I think it’s going to just do what it wants and i won’t bother. That’s all I need is to have an annual repainting project!
      So far the sand is no problem. The garden is far enough from the house that the sand never makes it that far.

  2. It looks FANTASTIC!! I applaud your efforts. Re: weeds in the paving joints–I think the best defense is a good offense. When my front walk was made, I mixed sand with a bunch of different annual and perennial seeds that grow low and I thought could take foot traffic. Don’t remember what they all were, but the one that took off was creeping thyme. It’s not in every crack yet, but it’s working on it. It does take a hit every winter when the walk is shoveled and some plants are scraped out. Also there are two companies selling plants for just this kind of situation. One is Stepables, another is Jeppers Creepers and there is also Rock Stars. (Not all of the Rock Star plants can take foot traffic.) Dianthus ‘Tiny Rubies’, Arenaria Verna Aurea, Geranium ‘Biokovo’, and Stachys minima are all doing well for me. Most of them I got via Bluestone Perennials.

    • bittster says:

      Thanks Kathy!
      I’ve debated planting something in the joints but haven’t been sold on the idea yet. Creeping thyme would be perfect and I could easily steal some starts from a neighbor, but this area gets soggy when it rains and I’m thinking it will rot. I do have moss doing well in the shadier areas!
      I think if I had a bigger, full-sun patio I’d let the thyme go wild.

  3. Paula says:

    Looks great, glad you get more garden time even because of a bad event. We need the garden’s peace more than ever. Stay cool!

    • bittster says:

      I’m into summer mode and the heat really doesn’t bother me as much as it does in June. I was out staking things in 90F sunshine yesterday and didn’t think it was bad at all…. until I realized just how soaked in sweat I was!
      I like to think I’m making the best of the situation, and glad that I can.

  4. March Picker says:

    Awesome job! Your new beds look excellent and productive, too, Frank. Besides zucchini and your tomatoes, I’d love a list of all your veg! It’s challenging to resist putting in flowers. This year I dedicated one of the veg beds to flowers for beauty at the entrance (interspersed with extra kale for the hens) but my quantity of beds is super generous. P.S. I’ve done the research on pressure treated lumber and it seems plants will die before they absorb enough copper to harm us…

    • bittster says:

      I’m glad you approve, your garden was one of the inspirations for all this!
      Good to know that about the copper. I came across something similar but didn’t know for sure if it was true or not, so I appreciate the official word on its relative safety.
      In the past I’ve gone a little crazier with all different veggies, but with all the building it’s mostly leftover seed and whatever transplants I could pick up at the farmstand. Here’s a general list:
      potatoes (a whole bed of kitchen leftovers), lots of Italian parsley (for the house bunny), yellow and white sweet onions, bell and sweet banana peppers, red cabbage, cauliflower, a bed of sauce tomatoes, a cherry and a few Kellogg’s Breakfast tomatoes, zucchini, string beans. eggplant, broccoli, and a few gourds and pumpkins for the kids.
      We are so much hotter than you, the lettuce is long gone but I might try starting some more arugula in a shady spot.

  5. Everything looks wonderful. A great leap forward in terms of accomplishment and looks. What is the patterned part of the pergola? Metal? I love walking on sand or gravel. Such a nice change from grass or wood chips. And you can pull weeds out so easily. When I go grocery shopping I buy myself a donut as my reward. So using a veggie bed for flowers seems perfectly justified to me. Where did you get your beautiful Canada lilies from your earlier post? I am looking to add some to my garden and most likely they will replace those double flowered ones.

    • bittster says:

      This is actually one of the first projects here that involved any major material purchases. I guess you could call it hardscape, which other than the deck, pond, and a few potted plants just doesn’t exist in my garden. Everything else is just poorly edged beds full of random plants!
      The patterned part of the pergola are old uprights from a screenhouse/canopy which a neighbor was throwing out. I’m hoping the color works once the wood fades, but I suspect even if it doesn’t I won’t be motivated enough to paint 😉
      The Canada lilies are seed grown from the N. American Rock Garden Society seed exchange. I should have seed later in the year if you’re interested. They’re easy and grow fairly quickly.
      Have you ever tried Lilium formosanum? Totally different look but even easier from seed, some will even bloom the first year. Mine have had no problem down to just below zero and are reseeding around the garden.

  6. Deborah Banks says:

    It all is gorgeous!! Wow, what an enormous amount of work you’ve done. I love the rock work, the sand paths, the neat precision of the potager, the beautiful pergola, the pond. Wow! Like everyone else, I’d love more detail about the pergola. It is impressive.

    I also try every year to ‘temporarily’ put some of my seedlings in the vegetable garden. Here that rarely happens because the veg garden is my husband’s domain, and he always repeals the incursion. I need to figure out a place to build a nursery bed or two. You’ve got me thinking.

    • bittster says:

      Thanks Deborah 🙂
      I hope I can keep the neat precision going, it’s one of my favorite things about the new look, and not at all like the rest of the yard. My wife wants me to paint it all, but I don’t think it’s fancy enough to look good with paint, and there’s no way I want to deal with repainting every year or two to keep it looking pristine!
      The pergola is just 2x4s fancied up with some metal canopy uprights which I fished out of the neighbor’s trash. I want to plant a few roses from Leon around it so it’s smothered in bloom some day. That’s the dream at least lol
      The hardest thing about the beds was getting them spaced and level with one another, if it were just one bed it would be super easy to put together, and would make an excellent seedling nursery!

  7. Tim C says:

    Congrats! on completing a major project. As a lifelong procrastinator, daunted by the amount of labor involved in any big effort, I can well appreciate what probably went in to this. Well done!

    • bittster says:

      You’re funny, You who has borders and beds all over, a bog garden, espaliered fruit and general orchard planting, and a daily inventory of the floral and insect life of your garden… with all that I can’t even imagine what it is you’re procrastinating!
      One of my cardoons is doing really well, the others want a better spot with more water and halfway decent soil. that’s likely a good thing since one full grown cardoon will probably be more than enough for this garden.

  8. Eliza Waters says:

    Looks fantastic, Frank! The pergola is most impressive. Boy, lotsa work there – you clearly are NOT as lazy as you make out to be. 😉
    Stay cool through the next wave. I think I might try to sit this one out. But you know how that goes.

    • bittster says:

      Keep in mind this project was spread over several months, so even if I’m not completely lazy I surely don’t qualify as a hard worker!
      Hope you’re spending plenty of time down by the creek, this weather is much too hot for anything else… although I think I’ve hit my summer stride and don’t mind the heat now as much as I do in June.

  9. Your hard work looks like it paid off and everything looks lovely. A garden to be envious of.
    You have a lovely way of writing and enjoyable to read. So glad I found your blog.
    I use pea gravel in my pathways. I have found it to be a wonderful solution and I love the crunch of it underfoot. I always thought the English were on to a good thing, and it’s relatively inexpensive. As a matter of fact, I’m ripping up my large lower deck and replacing it with pea gravel. Partly because of expense, but mostly because I love pea gravel and it’s very natural and low maintenance.

    • bittster says:

      Thanks Cindy, and nice to meet you!
      Your blog is beautiful, I love the photography and staging. Going through it this winter will be a treat… unless it gets really hot here, then it’s likely to be a summer treat!
      I also love pea gravel! Gravel was my first choice but then I read the complaints of so many people online and it scared me off. The local quarry gets their pea gravel from the riverbank and I love the mix of brown and tan colors but I was concerned it would ‘give’ too much and wheels and feet would sink in and make it annoying. Also right now my soil is rock and pebble free and I’m nervous about changing that. But…. I do like the sound, and like I said it’s a very nice gravel considering how cheap it is.
      I had some of the larger size gravel delivered years ago to use as a base for some concrete I was pouring and was amazed by how nice that gravel was as well. I actually felt bad covering it all up with boring concrete, but I suspect a gravel basement floor would not have been appreciated. Come to think of it I probably spent way too much time admiring the colors and river-smoothed shape of the gravel when I should have been wheelbarrowing it 🙂

  10. Kevin says:

    Bittster — it looks amazing! May your harvest be plentiful!

    • bittster says:

      Thanks! The harvest is beginning but we are already getting tired of zucchini 🙂
      All the best and stay safe.

      • Deborah Banks says:

        I shred extra zucchini in the food processor and freeze it raw in gallon Ziploc bags. It’s great added to soups in winter, or of course used in zucchini bread (with the water pressed out).

  11. Cathy says:

    I really love the entrance and the pergola in your potager. 😃 In fact it all looks great! The little path go the pond is pretty too. It all sounds like exhausting work but I know how therapeutic it can be throwing yourself into a garden project like this. We had all sorts of shortages here too during lockdown, with even the builders yards closed and many online nurseries just giving up and stopping taking on new orders. Growing more veg makes sense when the world is turned upside down, but a bed full of Chrysanthemums does sound tempting… 😉

    • bittster says:

      Thanks Cathy!
      I hate to admit it but I do find the work therapeutic, although I did take a break when it got way too hot!
      My favorite nursery is closed, and all the other ones don’t stock much during the summer. Right now that’s my biggest struggle so I consider myself doubly lucky 🙂

  12. Your potager is stunning, Frank. The view from the front entrance is especially lovely. I am impressed and envious. I love the way you constructed the pergola with the metal panels. I’m wondering if you are going to grow anything over it? I’m going to have to pay your garden a visit one of these years. P. x

    • bittster says:

      Thank you Pam, that’s so nice of you to say but I hardly believe you’re envious! Your beds will always blow mine away with their productivity and health 🙂
      I have a few things trying to grow up the sides of the pergola but they all seem a little stunted. I have to keep reminding myself it’s only July. This fall I hope to plant a few rambling roses. If that works out should be amazing!
      You are more than welcome to visit, I’d be thrilled to have you… but I’d much rather head up there and see your gardens 😉

  13. I am going to have to make a trip down there to get a socially distant, masked tour sometime soon! It all looks great! That path in the back looks particularly inviting. I did wonder if you had a hard time getting the wood you needed. The guys who renovated our deck had to use Plan B or even C a couple times. And yes, weeds find a way!

  14. Jason Kay says:

    The pergola, the finishing pond – I think it all looks great. I also tend to be stingy with the space between beds and borders.

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