I am a huge fan of “alley cropping.” Sometimes referred to as “grassy pathways”, alley cropping is a great strategy to improve soil fertility, prevent erosion and make maintenance and harvesting of gardens much easier.
For a simple example, consider adding space between your vegetable rows. At the widest, the alley would be no wider than the width of your row. So imagine a 3′ wide bed, followed by a 3′ wide alley, followed by a 3′ wide bed, continuing on alternating between an alley and a bed. In your beds you have your vegetables. Your squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, etc. In your alleys, at the beginning of the season, you sow some leguminous ground cover. I prefer New Zealand or Dutch white clover. It does not grow very high at all and attracts pollinators throughout the season. As it is a perennial, it continues to seed itself and needs almost no maintenance. The large leaves tend to shade out all but the most aggressive grasses, and over time it will smother them out. Since it is a legume, the soil beneath and adjacent to these alleys are receiving the benefits of nitrogen fixation. There’s also something just so pleasing about those green broad leaves. If you’re the kind to garden barefoot, your feet will appreciate it much more than rocky soil and grasses.
And finally, the biggest benefit, is that when the beds are tilled, the alleys serve as a bank of undisturbed soil microbes that will rapidly recolonize the tilled soil. Soil tillage hinders soil microbial activity and is best regarded as a “necessary evil.” As my first organic farming mentor taught me, “life is in the lines”. His goal was to create more “lines”, because at those lines is where a wide diversity of soil microbes are most active.
The only drawback is that some production space is “lost” to the pathway. However, if viewed from an overall system perspective, that space is not really lost. It is being actively used to improve the healthy production of the overall system.
It may seem like a waste of space at first, but once you have gardened using a system with roomy alleys between crops, you’ll wonder why anyone would go back to that heel-to-toe balancing act that is so common in gardens. It makes harvesting with a garden cart so easy!