Photo by judywhite/GardenPhotos.com
By Linda A. Gilkeson – Mother Earth News
Whether you grow food on a spacious homestead or are digging into your first urban garden, ditching the plant-by-rows approach and instead adopting intensive gardening techniques can help you grow a more productive garden that’s also more efficient to manage. These methods will open up a new world when it comes to small-space gardening, which can be so much more than just a few lone pots on a balcony. If you do it right, you can grow more food in less space and put an impressive dent in your household’s fresh-food needs.
Comparing 2 Popular Intensive Gardening Methods
Two gardening authors and their systems of intensive vegetable gardening have been highly influential in North America for more than 30 years. Mel Bartholomew’s book on “square-foot” gardening was first published in 1981, while John Jeavons’ first book on “biointensive” gardening came out in 1974. Since these books hit the shelves, millions of gardeners have experimented with and embraced the gardening techniques advocated within.
Bartholomew’s aim with square-foot gardening is a simple, foolproof system that anyone can master (no companion planting, no crop rotation and no soil preparation). He prescribes raised beds of only 6 inches deep for most crops, filled with an artificial mix of peat moss, vermiculite and compost. While this method is reliant on assembling purchased components, it can work well in urban spaces, especially where soil contamination is a concern, where digging into the ground isn’t an option, or where people are especially picky about how a garden looks (perhaps because of ordinances for front lawns). Check out “10 Tenets of Square-Foot Gardening” below for more on this method.
Jeavons’ biointensive gardening system is based on developing fertile soil in permanent garden beds that you initially dig to a depth of 2 feet. His primary goal is to grow food sustainably, using as few inputs from outside of the system as possible. He provides detailed instructions on crop planning, making compost, companion planting, crop rotation, growing crops that serve a dual purpose as food and compost-heap fodder, and more. See “10 Tenets of Biointensive Gardening” later in this article for the skinny on this system.
4 Principles of Intensive Gardening
Despite such differing approaches, both sets of techniques deliver high-yielding food gardens thanks to four common features, all of which I recommend.
1. Permanent garden beds. Establishing permanent beds enables you to concentrate your efforts only on where plants grow, without wasting compost or irrigation water on unplanted areas. It also makes soil compaction a nonissue, because you walk on permanent pathways and never on your growing areas. Setting up permanent beds and paths is such a popular layout here in the Pacific Northwest that I haven’t seen a garden arranged in rows for years. (Read more about the benefits of permanent garden beds in Care and Cultivation of Permanent Garden Beds.)
2. Reliance on compost. Both systems rely on the tried-and-true groundwork of all organic gardening: heavy doses of compost to supply balanced, slow-release nutrients needed to grow healthy crops. The organic matter in compost also increases soil’s water-holding capacity and improves its texture.
3. High-density mixed planting. A key to the high productivity of both systems is that they take advantage of the entire surface of each bed to grow plants rather than leaving spaces between rows. This results in even more yield without adding more garden space. For novice gardeners, Bartholomew’s method of marking off beds in 1-foot squares may be particularly helpful as a way to visualize how densely one can plant. Interspersing crops with different root depths, plant heights and growth rates also means you can grow more in a given space.
4. Prompt succession planting. Staggered planting and, thus, staggered harvests are more efficient for the gardener and maximize the growing season. Quickly replanting any gaps left after harvesting a particular crop lets you use every area of the garden throughout the year.
Customize Your Intensive Gardening System
With fertile soil and dense planting, any garden can be highly productive — but as these two intensive-gardening approaches show, you can achieve this productivity via different means. I’m on Bartholomew’s side in favoring simple, low-maintenance methods (after all, the energy of the gardener is a valuable resource, too), but gardeners can learn much from Jeavons about sustainable practices.
Continue reading at Mother Earth News: Intensive Gardening: Grow More Food in Less Space (With the Least Work
Order John Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables, which details the complete biointensive growing system.
Linda A. Gilkeson holds a doctorate in entomology and has been educating gardeners through workshops and writing for more than 20 years. She gardens in British Columbia and is the author of several gardening books, most recently Backyard Bounty: The Complete Guide to Year-Round Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest.