Gardening systems for tight spaces

First came French Intensive gardening in the late 19th century.  In 1929, the theory of permaculture was introduced by Joseph Russell Smith in “Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture” and was followed up by work by Toyohiko Kagawa in the 1930’s and others through the decades.  Then, in 1974, John Jeavons published “How to Grow More Vegetables” and introduced America to double digging and intensively spaced plants while using larger spaces for the organic inputs and compost to retain soil fertility.  In 1981, Mel Bartholomew published “Square Foot Gardening,” which is intensively growing plants in a soilless media.  Following Bartholomew’s book there have been numerous books written on the theme using smaller and smaller space increments, and I have no doubt right now someone is pitching “Square Millimeter Gardening” to a publisher.

The concept of layering plants and spacing them closer together to achieve a higher yield per area (although a lower yield per plant) is not a new one.  If you look at a space allowed to grow by nature, you’ll see shrubs under trees and herbs under shrubs and vines climbing over all of the above, often blooming and fruiting and different times to share the space not only physically, but through time.  Not every species needs the same root zone or amount of light.

Intensive gardening has its uses, but it also has it’s drawbacks.  Double-digging, for example, is extremely labor intensive and if your soil is already of moderately good tilth the double-digging process will destroy it.  If your soil is really compacted and poor, the work of double digging gets harder and can even be impossible.  Square foot gardening instead relies on going up instead of down — essentially creating large shallow pots on the ground — leaving inadequate room for normal healthy root development.  All forms of intensive gardening require a much higher amount of water and fertilizer inputs than wider spacing; in return they provide a smaller area to take care of and theoretically reduce weed competition.  In the case of going up via the Square Foot Gardening method, you not only need to acquire materials for your bed, you need to purchase the soilless media (or the components thereof) and haul them in.  This needs to be continuously added to as you switch out crops.  In Jeavon’s method, you use other large tracts of large to grow legumes and other green maure to provide these inputs.

You might tell I am not a particular fan of the more extreme intensive methods.  I’m not.  They either require too much labor or too many external inputs to be cost-effective.  There are times and places, though, when it’s the best option.  For a hobby or casual gardener who wants a few vegetables in the summer, its helps keep them from overwhelming themselves with a large garden.  As an introduction to growing food for a novice gardener, the strict rules and plans can help them succeed and gain confidence.  And most of all, for people who just don’t have much space, it’s a way to grow at least some of your own produce.  I’ve been there: I used to have a condo with a small patio.  It was intensive gardening or no gardening — but I am sure I spent more on dirt and bed materials and drip irrigation parts than I possibly harvested.

Proponents of these kinds of systems will insist that they are superior to so-called “old fashioned” or traditional methods like row cropping in all cases.  They will insist that row cropping is labor intensive and difficult and requires kneeling and bending.  Well, yes, you may have to bend or kneel down, but you will also need to do that to reach your box 6″ off the ground.  Row cropping is not necessarily more labor intensive but the labor is spaced differently.  They criticize row cropping saying you will have more weeds.  That may be true in some areas, but in this area, weed seeds fly through the air and root where they want, and aggressive running weeds are undeterred by a raised bed; they just go over or under it.   Weeding is a fact of gardening; even greenhouses get weeds.  If you plant intensively, pulling out weeds are more likely damage the roots of your food crops, and you are less likely to be able to use a stirrup hoe or other implement of weed destruction to quickly remove weeds.

Conclusion:  Intensive methods can the right tool in some cases, but if you have ample space they are not cost effective systems.

Next, we’ll discuss row cropping methods and raised beds: what they are and what they are not.

(By Nicole Castle)

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