When you’re putting in a vegetable garden, or a polytunnel, it’s tempting to stop once the beds are in place. I mean, beds are a LOT of work. Once they’re in, they’re much less bother – unless you ‘forget’ to remove all those tiny, developing clumps of couch grass for a few months, by which time your vegetables are hidden beneath a swaying jungle of deep-rooted horror. By then, couch grass is closely related to an iceberg: there’s waaaay more of it below the surface than you can believe. And, in trying to remove it you’ll probably clear the entire bed not only of grass but all your vegetables, too.
Even though the beds themselves represent hours of hard labour, if you didn’t put in the paths at the same time you’re heading for annual grief.
Let’s say, for example, that you’ve put in some raised beds using old scaffolding planks as edging. These are ideal: they’re quite sturdy, pretty cheap, and tall enough to make a decent raised bed when stood on edge. They can be held in place using pointed 25 x 50mm stakes, cut to a length of 40cm (or so), and hammered into the ground. A few minutes with a hatchet will point up loads of them, as they don’t need to be neat and tidy. If you used a hatchet to make a point, you can use the other side of it as a hammer. Push them against the plank with another stake as you do this, or they will tend to end up going in at strange angles. Stake wood like this is usually available as cheap scrap from building supply depots. Try to avoid nails and screws because it’s probably going to be you who is impaled on them in gardening seasons to come.
If you put the beds in first, which is always tempting as then they can be put to use, there’s probably a strip of grass between them at least 50cms wide, maybe more. And therein lies the problem. While you might repeatedly squash the central area just by walking on it, the edges are likely to be a very different matter. As it grows it will create a perfect habitat for slugs, snails, earwigs and woodlice. Every evening they will simply crawl up the scaffolding planks, over the top, and into your vegetables.
Grass like this is just about impossible to eradicate, and over time it will get very deep-rooted indeed, requiring localised but major excavation to get them out.
To avoid all this, lay the paths at the same time you lay the beds.
To prevent stuff growing on the path, use a barrier membrane. This should cover the entire width and – and here’s the critical bit – a bit more, so it extends a few cms beyond the scaffolding planks and into the raised beds.
Then, when the planks are in place, you can cover the membrane with gravel (or sand and paving slabs) and know that even if something does get a foothold along the edge, its roots won’t easily penetrate the membrane, making them weak enough to grab and pull out.
Using your old grass turves
If you decide to remove the top layer of a grassy area, never waste the turves! Using a sharp spade, cut the surface into squares and lift the top few inches of topsoil off using a sharp spade. Stack the turves upside down in a cube in a shady spot and water them well, before covering them with a tarpaulin. In a year or two they will have rotted down into rich loamy soil that’s perfect for raised beds, or for making your own potting compost.
Your choice of gravel depends on a balance between noise and appearance. While rhe ‘decorative’ gravel (which you can buy by the ton at most building supply stores) is nice to look at, it will make continuous ‘crunching’ sounds whenever it’s walked on, because it stays loose. There are some advantages to this; it’s even more difficult for weeds to get a foothold in something that doesn’t pack down and stay put, and the same goes for slugs and other unwanted guests. But, it’s quite noisy.
A silent alternative is scalpings, known as riprap in the US. This is also sold by the ton, and it’s usually crushed slate (or a similar rock) of many, many sizes – everything from chunks the size of your fist to dust. The difference is, it packs down. After a season of walking traffic it will have a reasonably even surface that won’t move and is therefore silent.
Another difference between different types of gravel is cost: a ton of ‘decorative’ gravel might set you back £40, or even more. Scalpings, on the other hand, cost about £9 a ton, delivered to your door – if you can find a supplier. While nice-looking gravel is even avilable in the middle of big cities, scalpings, as a by-product of quarrying, may be harder to find – but well worth it!