Sunken tugboat planting beds

“Sunken O’ Tugboat” by no_akira


I’m just a muddy old Sunken Tugboat 

cargo: a spades-depth mound of tilth and worms

a waterline over two fathoms

and a beam of six paces

unfurling slowly my Chlorophyll sails

tacking to port, headway into a photonic storm


a thermal bow wave of warmed stones

afront of my cycloidal  fender of rubber

Crown passengers parade across the forecastle

Paired births clumped across the keel line


In the mornings I see my  sister ship Dawn then later Dusk

My aunts are behind and my nieces ahead

a fleet of Nine

Sometimes the aunts raise sails across the stern


This is always my annual journey

Chasing the orange orb and its looping, UV arc

long shadow of the wisening garden sailor


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This Sunken tugboat planting bed system is an alternative solution to the age-old Horizontal vs Vertical bed orientation puzzle. The answer is through a simple but obvious bit of design. Why be either-or when you can be both!

It is a uniquely shaped ‘informal potager’ meets ‘kitchen garden’ meets rectangular ‘yam mounds’ hybrid idea. Basically its a vertically positioned rectangular planting bed with a Full-sun facing rounded top end. A sort of shallow curve (cycloid) similar to an Egyptian Stelae shape. Because this shape only has one line of symmetry its much easier to position this planting bed pointing at the sun at 13:00pm (BST). Basically along a “North-to-South” axis or as close to this axis as your plot will allow.

The rounded Full-sun end is dedicated to a trio of your sun loving heavy cropping veggies planted-out horizontally curving across the semi circle (courgette, aubergines, bush tomatoes and chillies). Behind this crown we can grow our usual more shade-tolerant typically British crops in a paired bed. The dimensions of this planting bed create x3 crown and x6 paired vertical growing positions (15 growing positions in total) for your typically larger vegetables. An average sized maturing Potato plant being our standard size guide (14-16 inch circle).

Two more Sunken tugboat planting beds are dug next to the first one creating 3 planting beds. This creates your first “3Block” of side-by-side planting beds.

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At the very heart of this system is the Main, Second early and First early category of potatoes for which we require 3 planting beds. Each potato type planted in pairs along the vertical axes of these beds, 6 paired plants = 12 plants per type. Potatoes are the basic mainstay crop of the allotmenteer because they’re among the first crops to go into the soil and the last to come out across the six months of the growing season. They are fantastic because they are virtually maintenance free, plant-and-go. Every year we will rotate this 3Block of potato types from one 3Block to the next.

The other clever part is that we have created a horizontal Cycloid curve looping across the head of our 3block of planting beds, 9 sunny positions for those VIP full-sun warm-soil loving plants. That is potentially 27 heavy cropping plants from our 9 bed Sunken tugboat planting bed system.

The aim of this design is that by using standardised dimensions you save new starters a lot of  time and effort digging beds in wrong positions or digging the whole plot over or wasting money on wood enclosed Raised beds. Also the more widely Sunken tugboat planting beds are adopted across allotments the easier it will be for new starters to revive their new-to-them neglected plots.

Positives (Pros)

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Negatives (Cons)


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Sun goddess wall sculpture

This growing system is the culmination of 5 years of experimenting with planting bed orientation and design at my allotment plot. After being dismayed at the sketchy information about this most crucial point for a new starter whose very first questions are Q:1# How do I set out my plot ? What; where, how, should I dig ?

The best book I found was the concise “How to Garden” (2009) by Alan Titchmarsh, he at least attempts to explain various growing systems (page 18) and also mentions the easier Semi-raised’ digging concept that is used in this system. It sort of feels that vegetable growing on allotments is stuck in a “DIG FOR VICTORY” mentality with its fully open-soil farming inspired techniques from 1940 and plant spacing giving every plant full sun.

Sunken tugboat planting beds are all about maximising growth for plants that have a high water and nutrient demand due to deep roots, bushy growth and heavy cropping. Such as aubergines, chillies, tomatoes, courgettes and potatoes.

My plot in Essex is heavy clay that settles within a few months into a heavy claggy root suffocating type consistency. This is the reason unfortunately that the soil has to be dug over to dry out.  A main aim with this planting system is to try to reduce the soil settling especially during the crucial root developing early months (March – April – May).

When Sunken tugboat planting beds are used in combination with my Clunnel cloche design (link) and a clump seed sowing approach successes become achievable.

Another important aim is to only use the soil from your plot and work towards improving it by dressing using bedding-heavy acidic horse manure to try to reduce the alkalinity of the clay soil and which will increase the yields as well as the range of vegetables that we can successfully grow. Also it avoids the physical hardship of wheelbarrowing or carrying imported soil bags across the site to your plot.

On the sew-saw of work over success we want medium effort but we want to maximise our planting successes and yield. Initially there is a lot of effort in the first year but going forward into the second and consequent years the effort is reduced considerably with this system and hopefully less disenchantment for new starters by taking the guess work out of veggie growing. Other considerations are ‘low cost’ (FREE) and upcycling skipped materials (pallets; tyres & block paving bricks) as well as being easy to construct by persons of all abilities with basic tools.

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