When you measure your gardening experience in decades rather than years, you’ve adopted new techniques and eliminated some old ones. Over the seasons, one of the traditions I’ve changed is the long single rows of vegetables with wide spaces between rows. Due to easier maintenance and increased yield, I’ve changed to more intensive gardening. Intensive gardening reduces wasted space to a minimum; however, it isn’t just for people who lack land resources. An intensive vegetable garden concentrates work efforts to create an ideal plant environment, giving higher yields with less labor. This idea isn’t new as “Square Foot Gardening” has advocated these ideals for decades. Don’t get the idea there isn’t still work involved, as weeding by hand or with hand tools is still required, although due to closer plant spacing fewer weeds should be present. Mulching with an organic material between plants is an integral part of the intensive system.
A good intensive garden requires early, thorough planning to make the best use of time and space. The interrelationships of plants must be considered before planting, including nutrient needs, shade tolerance, above-and below-ground growth patterns, and preferred growing seasons. Using the techniques described below, anyone can develop a high yielding intensive garden.
The raised bed or growing bed is the basic unit of an intensive garden. A system of beds allows the gardener to concentrate soil preparation in small areas, resulting in efficient use of soil amendments and an ideal environment for vegetable growth. Beds are generally 4’ wide and as long as desired. The gardener works from either side of the bed, reducing the incidence of compaction caused by walking on the soil.
Soil preparation is the key to successful intensive gardening. Plants compete for available water and nutrients, and an adequate supply must be provided for more closely spaced plantings. Applying extra synthetic fertilizers and irrigation will help, but there is no substitute for deep, fertile soil high in organic matter. Humus-rich soil will hold extra nutrients, and existing elements that are locked up in the soil are released by the actions of earthworms, microorganisms and acids present in a life-filled soil, making them more available for plant use.
If your prepared soil is not deep, double-dig the beds for best results. Remove the top twelve inches of soil from the bed. Insert a spade or spading fork into the next 10”-12” of soil and wiggle the handle back and forth to break up compacted layers. Do this every 6”-8” in the bed. Mix the top soil with a generous amount of compost or manure, and return the mixture to the bed. It should be somewhat fluffy and may be raised a bit. To create a true raised bed, take topsoil from the neighboring pathways and mix it in as well.
This type of soil preparation is a lot of work. Try it in one or two beds for some of your more valuable plants; if you like the results, you can proceed to other beds as you have time. One nice thing about raised-bed gardening is that it breaks the work into units. Instead of gazing desperately at a garden full of weeds, thinking you’ll never have time to clean it up, you can look at each bed and say, “I can do that in half an hour today!” Other chores are accomplished with the same ease.
Submitted by David Koester, Agent for Horticulture Boone Co. Cooperative Extension