While there are many alternative methods we will discuss in future posts like straw bale gardening, today we are focusing on the main ones, Square Foot Gardening and the French Intensive Method. Each system is a tool that gives something to your garden like time management, companion planting options, and food production. They also leave something wanting whether it is water use or space.
In my first garden we used raised beds to grow tomatoes and sunflowers at the bottom of a revine behind our house. The hill was steep and I remember long hikes up and down the hill to bring water and haul produce. Even then we had our garden far away from our house. Raised beds are a staple in a high dry mountain town like ours. The dirt is hard and rocky for the most part and it takes years to rebuild topsoil eroded away. The only thing that does love the dirt are the gophers whose holes turn the ankles of unobservant adventurers.
Raised beds at their simplest are a sturdy wood box with gopher wire on the bottom filled with clean dirt. The soil is in good condition, it drains well, and is easy to work with. Season extending is made easier in both spring and winter by warmer soil and easily contained areas. Dormant weeds aren't a problem and the loose dirt makes new weeds easy to handle. The only draw back is the investment and periodic replacement.
Square Foot Gardening
I have used wood scraps to build a small raised bed in my front yard for my cold weather crops with Square Foot Gardening. The Square Foot Method is a way of using the raised bed space as efficiently as possible. We have a 4'x4' square box with twine dividing each square foot off. The best way to divide the box up is to use a simple wooden grid as seen in Amy's garden below.
Each square can be divided even further for plants with closer spacing like radishes and carrots. Bigger plants like squash or cabbage take a full square while smaller produce is planted close together to create a mulch like covering for the soil preventing weed growth. Mel Bartholomew, the author of The All-New Square Foot Gardening Book, also uses a soil mix of one third peat moss, compost, and vermiculite. He says you should switch it out every year in order to reduce weeds and ensure enough nutrient for the next crop.
The biggest issue with square foot gardening is that it does not give back to the land around and it drains the nutrients from the raised bed with no long term return. While cover crops are suggested, the emphasis is to continue bringing in the best, use it, and ditch it. This does make gardening prep easy, but it is not very responsible.
The French Intensive Method
The French Intensive Method is incredibly detail oriented. I like this one because it uses the land and feeds it with loads of compost and aeration. It is very water conscious and also very productive. It is not related to the raised bed methods and requires more patience as well. Like the Square Foot Method the plants are spaced so that the mature leaves barely touch leaving a vegetable mulch on top of the compost soil. Double digging came from this method where they turned over 24 inches of dirt for deep aeration.
A clever combination of raised beds and the French Intensive Method was developed by Alan Chadwick called the Biodynamic French Intensive System. He includes beds planted north to south for maximum sunlight, careful cultivation of a luxurious green house layer, management of water so the plants receive just enough. Like the Square Foot Method beds are planted to be comfortable to reach into and everything planted closely together. Slim walkways only inches wide allow the beds to keep the right temperature and foster a warm environment. Of all of the methods this one is the most labor intensive involving double dug beds slightly raised for good drainage and, most difficult of all, the ability to straddle and squat over your beds while planting.
Each system we have looked at has a unique purpose and goal. Square foot gardening is made to be easy on the gardener while French Intensive gives back to the land a lot more. I agree with Alan Chadwick that there is something worthwhile in both of these methods. At my house we double dig and then mix all of our dirt with peat moss, worm castings, and compost. The compost is from horse, goat and chicken manure and kitchen scraps. There are Square Foot Gardening years and French Intensive years. The most important thing is to keep growing.
In our next post in the series we'll be talking about companion planting!