Garden Systems, Part I


Almost everyone has some sort of garden system. They may design it on purpose to fit their situation or stumble into it accidentally just because something works for them. One of the nice things about gardening is the tremendous flexibility it offers. Everybody has to deal with their sun/soil/water/weather conditions, the time allotted to the projects, insects, animals, the availability of compost or mulch and the constraints of space. My system in my zone 7 northern California gardens isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the same as that of a gardener in far northern Maine, Iowa or even my stepmother’s zone 9 California garden 35 miles away. Temperatures and humidity make for considerable variances. Growing food in the hot, humid South is very different from growing food in the humid but cool Pacific Northwest or the hot but dry Arizona desert. In most cases, you’ll do best by picking and choosing among the various systems. Many use the same basic techniques. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of several garden systems.

Garden Systems: Biointensive Gardening

This is the John Jeavons method. One of the original members of the Ecology Action Project, Jeavons has been doing this work since 1972. He started off as a political science graduate from Yale University, then took a turn into the fields. Jeavons calls what he and the other members of Ecology Action do ‘sustainable mini-farming.’ The basics of the garden system:

  1. Double digging soil. Jeavons and team believe that soil is most productive if double-dug initially and then at least every two or three years after that. They see double digging as a way to improve drainage, hold soil moisture and encourage root growth.
  2. Raised beds for improved drainage, earlier spring warming and increased soil fertility. This also allows the gardener to build high-quality soil. Ecology Action originally started its research by building raised beds on an old parking lot. Jeavons et al also use slanted-side raised beds rather than some sort of retaining system, so they can plant the sides of the bed as well as the top.
  3. Crowding plants into the smallest space possible. With highly fertile soil, you can do this. Intensive planting allows for less water use, makes the overall size of the garden smaller, helps shade the soil and keeps down weeds.
  4. Succession planting. The idea is to keep the soil constantly occupied growing food or compost. This allows maximum production from a small space and helps shield the soil from erosion. Jeavons grows transplants for darned near everything – including crops like carrots and beets, which are usually direct-seeded – and moves them into bigger pots at least once as he says it promotes root development.
  5. Growing your own compost. Jeavons doesn’t think animals have a place in gardens as they are too wasteful of space and resources. Part of his thinking (the political science background coming to the fore) is that as the world’s population continues to grow, we will need to concentrate food growing on less and less land, leaving no room for animals. Without animals, and in the interests of sustainability, Ecology Action tries to grow all of its own compost crops. Some are dual-purpose crops such as grains; the grain is harvested and eaten, while the straw becomes compost. Others are strictly compost crops.
  6. Companion planting. Mixing edible and non-edible plants promotes diversity, decreases insect problems, may improve plant health and production and is just plain pretty.
  7. Constant research and record-keeping to improve the system.

One major positive of this system is that you can do it quite cheaply, especially if you use open-pollinated seeds. It is very productive, and by growing your own compost, it’s much closer to completely sustainable than most gardening or farming systems. It doesn’t require a lot of water or space. Timing is critical with this system, because of the tight succession planting. It’s also a little harder to plant on Jeavons’ recommended triangular spacing (which is the most efficient use of space). The initial round of double digging is really hard work, and even after your soil is in good condition, double digging is not a walk in the park. This is also a garden that requires a lot of time and attention (daily watering, for example).

Garden Systems: Square Foot Gardening

Like Jeavons, Mel Bartholomew was trained in an entirely different discipline than agriculture. He was a civil engineer who took up gardening after he retired. Engineers tend to look at systems and start asking questions like, “Why do you…?” In Bartholmew’s’s case, it was “Why do you grow things in traditional rows and waste so much garden space?” When he got blank looks and multiple variations on “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” answers, he started tinkering. The basics of the garden system:

  1. You build a bottomless wooden box above ground to put your garden in. You can put it pretty much anywhere – a lawn, a deck, a patio. Minimum size four feet by four feet; space the boxes three feet apart. Bartholomew says six inches is deep enough. He also recommends weed mat under the box if you put it on the ground.
  2. Fill the box with a special soil mix. Bartholomew sold it, but you can also create your own. His mix is 1/3 blended compost, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 vermiculite.
  3. Lay down a 12X12-inch grid with wood strips over the box.
  4. Plant a different crop in each square. As you harvest, add a trowel-full of compost and replant with a different crop. Depending on the size of the plant use 1,4,9 or 16 plants per square foot.

Like biointensive gardening, this system doesn’t take much space. It’s water-efficient and productive. It can be expensive, because you’re buying the lumber for the beds and buying the soil or the components to make it. I disagree that six inches is deep enough; if I were going to use this system I would go a minimum of one foot deep. I think it also limits your choices of varieties – pole beans are tough in this system, for example. If I had really limited space and only wanted to grow salad crops, this would probably be a good system.

Garden Systems: Permanent Mulch

Ruth Stout was the original ‘lazy’ gardener (my heroine!). A Jill of many trades, she worked as a baby nurse, bookkeeper, secretary, business manager and factory worker. At one point she owned a small tea shop in Greenwich Village. After she officially retired in 1930, she started gardening at her 55-acre farm in Redding, Connecticut. As she refined her system, she started writing about it (writing ran in the family – her brother was Rex Stout, of fictional detective Nero Wolfe fame). Her garden system is pretty simple: cover the garden with a thick mulch of vegetable matter. Stout recommended an 8-inch mulch, preferably a combination of straw or hay and leaves. She also used cottonseed or soybean meal as a fertilizer. She did not dig or till except for plowing when the garden was first started. To plant, you pull back the mulch and tuck seeds or transplants in the ground. As time goes by, the mulch packs down and rots, building the soil beneath it. Any time you see a bare spot, toss on more mulch. If the mulch begins to sprout weeds (grass hay and straw are particularly prone to this), just turn it upside down. Stout continued to plant in rows, but she noted that over time you could put the rows much closer together. Stout’s garden was known for its productivity. She reports in her books that she had very few insect or disease problems, even though she wasn’t a fanatic about rotating crops. Managing weeds was also much easier.

Permanent Mulch: Lasagna Gardening

A variation on this system is called lasagna gardening, and was developed by Patricia Lanza. Lanza laid out a garden with paths between the beds, put cardboard on the paths and covered it with wood chips. Then each garden bed (no digging, just bare or grassy soil) was covered with layers of overlapped wet newspaper, followed by one to two inches of peat moss. The next layer was three to four inches of dried grass clippings. She continued to alternate peat moss and grass until the layers were about 24 inches high. Then she finished with a sprinkle of wood ashes and left the garden over the winter (she lived in a climate with reliable snow in winter). By spring, she had about six to eight inches of compost, with another six inches of soft, friable soil underneath. Essentially, Lanza was building a compost heap on top of the garden and she then kept a permanent mulch on the beds she had built.

Mulch serves the triple purpose of weed suppression, moisture conservation and building soil. You need a good source, which may or may not be a problem in your area. Spoiled hay, for example, is often readily available in some locales. Even in towns and cities, the local waste management department often maintains compost piles of leaves, grass and debris from suburban gardens and lawns. You’ll have to haul it or get it delivered and it may be a source of pesticides or herbicides. You can deal with the herbicides by mixing in activated charcoal. A permanent mulch system doesn’t necessarily save space. If you’re the sort of gardener who bows to the goddess of neat and clean, it may give you an ulcer.

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