With French Intensive gardening,
grow more food in less space!
On their small continent, gardeners in Europe developed French Intensive gardening
to fit their vegetables into the plots they had.
This classic method still works!
Many European gardens are tiny, often in cities, right out the back door. They are there because those who originally planted them really needed the food! The French Intensive gardening method made it practical to get enough produce from those spaces by putting the plants very close together, and planting with extreme accuracy according to a grid. One of the advantages is that the plants also shade the ground, and minimize weed growth.
Everything has its price, of course. You can only do this successfully in extremely rich, loose soil, where all the plants can go straight down to get their food, right where they are, without having to spread out widely.
To achieve the tilth needed, the “double-digging” process was born. It’s healthy work, done in moderation. Here’s how:
<> Lay out the size of your bed. Ours are 4’ x 8’.
<> Mark it crosswise into strips the width of your spade or shovel. I prefer a shovel because it has a long handle, and doesn’t make me work in a stooped position. Even if you’re young, you don’t want to blow all your energy in one place, especially since any energy saved would be better spent walking than in repetitive-stress work, which is widely known to cause problems, in time.
<> Dig out the soil from Trench 1 (see drawing) at least one spade deep, and pile it in space D (or in a wheelbarrow).
<> Next, throw manure in the bottom of trench 1. How much? Maybe one to four inches deep, depending what you can afford, and how desperate your soil is. (Most soils are desperate nowadays.)
<> Now dig the spade down through the manure, into the subsoil, and waggle it to loosen it, while letting some of the manure fall deeper. When using a shovel, I just turn the manure and ground over together. (You can’t waggle a shovel.) Waggling the spade is supposed to save work, but I’m not sure it really does, or is as effective as turning it over.
<> Go to Trench 2, and remove its soil as you did before. Throw it into Trench 1. Then manure the exposed level in your second trench, waggle or turn, and go to Trench 3. Continue this process until the end of the bed.
<> Remember the soil you took out of the first trench, and put in space D (or wheelbarrow? Finish by throwing (or wheeling) that soil to the last trench. The wheelbarrow is especially useful if you have a long bed.
That’s all! And your soil will be loosened at least a foot and a half deep.
Now, if you know anything about digging, you’ll know that the soil that comes out of a hole won’t go back in! This is because, in the ground, the soil is compacted, with the particles packed closely together. When you put your soil back in the trenches, you’ll find it mounded up. Add to this the compost, manure, and possibly green cover-crop material, and it will be quite mounded.
This is what led to the traditional raised beds associated with French Intensive gardening. To make planting easier and deter erosion, the top is raked out flat, leaving sloping edges. Mulching the sides can help conserve moisture and prevent erosion. In the United States, we have more droughts than Europe traditionally did, and a raised bed dries out faster. So this is important. Keep it in mind, and mulch those edges, unless you’re using timbers or boards, or your ground is poorly drained.
The French Intensive gardening method is an excellent way, if you can afford the careful management and heavy work. With my mind, I love it, and used to do it, but, anymore, it’s out of my league.
Want a different approach?
Try mulch gardening!
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