An increasing number of people each year are discovering the joys of food gardening. A 2015 survey on gardening found that 35% of all households in America are growing food at home or in a community garden. Young people, particularly millennials (ages 18-34), are the fastest growing population segment of food gardeners. In conjunction with new and younger gardeners comes the cavalcade of new garden books. A sampling of the current books includes The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden, The Speedy Vegetable Garden, and Growing Beautiful Food. Every year new books describe ingenious garden methods, seemingly guaranteeing that your garden will be effortless and fruitful no matter whether you garden on a forty-acre plot or in a four-inch pot.
These new and innovative approaches are generally based on the idea of cooperating with nature, and most incorporate the use of garden beds — a technique that is thousands of years old. So whether the method is old or new, two questions remain: “Does it work?” and “Will it work for me?”. Let’s find out as we explore the pros and cons of each.
The Romans utilized garden beds for decorative purposes, and the monks in medieval times perfected them for culinary and medical herbs, but it was the Victorians who turned garden beds into a torture technique with the double-dug bed. Victorian gardeners were adamant in how one must double dig a bed. First, a well-sharpened spade must be used to dig a 12-inch deep trench across the width of the bed. The soil from that first trench is placed at the end of the bed. The next 12 inches below the trench are loosened with a spading fork. Then, a bushel of well-rotted manure is placed evenly on the loosened soil in the trench. When the next trench is dug alongside of the first, each spade of soil is dropped onto the manure in the first trench, and the lower layer in the new trench is again loosened with a spading fork. This process is repeated along the full length of the bed, or until the gardener collapses in exhaustion. The final trench is filled with the soil that was removed from the first trench. The result is a bed that has been tilled to a depth of 24 inches. It is said that when an entire bed has been double-dug, the soil will have greater drainage and aeration, which allows the roots to grow much deeper and reach more nutrients. Due to its arduous nature, this method is especially suitable for those who view gardening as an alternative to a gym membership. Does it work? It entirely depends on the soil’s original structure. It works well with a clay or loam soil, but is not particularly useful in sandy soil.
It isn’t hard to understand why today’s gardeners shun the double-dug bed in favor of a raised bed. A raised bed is basically a box filled with planting medium, such as regular soil or purchased potting soil. No digging required. While a raised bed can be any length, the width needs to be one you can reach across, generally 2-3 feet. The sides of the bed can be made from many different materials. While wood such as railroad ties or landscape timbers first come to mind, any kind of wood can be used, from logs to plywood. Clearly, some wood is better suited to the task. Gardeners who are concerned with possible toxins may want to avoid treated landscape timbers, while others may reject quick-to-rot plywood. A current idea reuses the wood pallets that have invaded our environment. Another option could be concrete blocks. Some people have even developed a method for cutting used tires into strips for the sides. Raised-bed gardens are great for gardeners with limited space. In addition, high-sided beds (3 feet or more) make gardening accessible for everyone.
What raised-bed advocates differ most about is the type of planting medium. Homemade or store bought? Some use all soil and add compost. Others use a combination of soil plus inert ingredients such as perlite or vermiculite. Still others, Mel Bartholomew for instance, insist that placement of the plants is everything.
Bartholomew developed the Square-Foot gardening method in 1981. His beds are divided with a grid into 1-foot-square sections. Each square can be planted with a different vegetable. The number of plants in each square is determined by the type of plants. For instance, one might find 30 green onions in 1 square but only 1 pepper plant in another. This method is ideal for gardeners with limited space but demand precision.
Straw-bale gardening is a cross between raised bed and container gardening. The straw-bale becomes the container. The straw eventually decays to become compost. It makes a nice planting medium that allows for good root growth. However, it may need an occasional dose of liquid fertilizer. What seems strange is that the plants are actually placed directly into the straw — no soil needed! The bales need to be conditioned, so start early in the spring by placing the bale where you want your garden. Once the decomposition begins, it is difficult to move the bales. The conditioning is easy — just water the bales several times a week. This method is great for reluctant first-time gardeners or renters because by next spring most of the garden is gone.
Hügelkulture is a term Sepp Holzer gave his practice of making raised garden beds filled with decaying wood. While the technique of mound culture is hundreds of years old, Holzer made it popular in North America with his 2004 book, Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture. The advantage of Hügelkulture beds is that the decomposing wood acts as a sponge, retaining water, and also providing nutrients for plants.
While the original hügelkulture design may be good for large-scale farms, it presents some major obstacles for many home gardeners. Farmers often use bulldozers or backhoes to place and cover large logs; few home gardeners could attempt this. Moreover, Holzer has recommended very high beds — 4 to 6 feet. Would that be appropriate for your backyard?
A modified method that works on a smaller scale is a combination of hügelkulture and the double-dug bed. Instead of a bushel of well-rotted manure, place small logs, branches, and twigs in the trench over the fork-loosened soil.
Also, some gardeners use the following variation successfully, as it can also be done without large equipment. In the early fall, cut the grass short in the area where you want to have a garden bed. Cover it with thick, non-colored cardboard, then lay large rotting logs on the ground cover. Over time, pile grass clippings, straw, soil, compost, bio-char and manure over the logs. See the lasagna gardening technique below for more ideas on the layers. As the pile grows taller, gradually add smaller and smaller logs and twigs until the pile is as high as you are comfortable with. Though not exactly hügelkulture, this creates an incredibly fertile bed that doesn’t need much watering.
No longer do we need to go out into the hot July sun armed with a hoe to tackle the ever-present weeds. Today, the vegetable plot has lost the need for the hoe by using mulch. All of the mulching techniques are usually clumped together under the heading of “No-Dig Gardening.” The phrase was invented by F. C. King in his book, No-Dig Gardening, published in 1944.
Nearly 50 years ago, Ruth Stout’s book, How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back took the gardening world by storm. Stout claimed that by just placing straw 8 inches thick over her entire garden plot, she had stopped cultivating. No hoe or spade. A garden rake was her only tool. Garden centers across the country were inundated with requests for straw.
Today, seasoned gardeners, well-versed in mulch, know that some crops work well in mulch while others don’t. While it is easy to push aside the mulch to plant single plants such as tomatoes, peppers, or broccoli, it’s harder to rake it into a straight linear mound in order to plant a row of carrots. Moreover, mulch covered soil takes much longer to warm up in the spring.
However, gardeners starting out with bare ground and lots of weed seeds will find this method useful. With 8 inches of straw, few, if any, weeds will rise to the surface. While many gardeners can’t afford the prices that garden centers are now charging for straw, there are plenty of other mulches which can often be found free for the taking: grass clippings, leaves, wood chips, etc. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
The main disadvantage is likely to be issues with decomposition. For instance, grass clippings become a soggy, moldy mess unless raked frequently to dry as hay; they may also contain residues of herbicides and be a reservoir for weed seeds.
Lasagna gardening is a term coined by Patricia Lanza in her book of the same name, published in 1998. It is a variation of Ruth Stout’s mulch system but incorporates 5 or more distinctive layers of various organic materials instead of just one layer of straw. Lanza recommends starting with a layer of newspaper. The newspaper will effectively stop weed seeds from germinating for at least the first season and will decompose rather quickly. The various layers usually consist of leaves, manure, grass clippings, sawdust, straw, wood ashes, kitchen wastes, etc. Lasagna gardening is closely related to sheet mulching and sheet composting; this method received a boost in popularity when Paul Gautschi’s film, Back to Eden, was released in 2011. Gautschi’s method mainly relies on recycled cardboard and wood chips.
While the methods we have covered are basically garden techniques, there are others that merge into philosophy.
Biodynamic gardening was developed in Germany in the early 1920s by philosopher Rudolf Steiner. The idea is based on holistic interrelationships of the soil, plants, and animals. The backbone of the method is the making of preparations used in minute amounts to enhance production. Usually biodynamic gardening results in much enhanced soil and vegetable nutrients, but lower yields. Unfortunately for many home gardeners, biodynamic gardening takes too much training to implement.
Permaculture is a garden philosophy focused on copying the natural environment. The word is a neolexia made by combining the word “permanent” with “agriculture”. The term was coined and the method developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and was detailed in their book, Permaculture: a Designer’s Manual, published in 1988. Aficionados of permaculture insist it is a system of design applicable to many areas of modern life. Permaculture makes use of a bit of agroforesty, rainwater harvesting through swales, sheet mulching, and intense companion planting. As in biodynamic gardening, it might be too complicated for beginning gardeners; however, some of its benefits include the elimination of most pesticides, intensive use of recycled materials, and the absence of most cultivation.
Forest gardening is similar to permaculture and was developed around the same time by Robert Hart and James Sholto Douglas; the philosophy was detailed in their book, Forest Farming, published in 1976. It is often described as a low-maintenance, organic, plant-based food production system. It makes use of companion planting to imitate a forest environment. The main feature of this method is planting in layers. Food bearing trees comprise the first layer, called the “canopy”. Subsequent layers are: dwarf trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants (annuals, biennials or perennials), rhizosphere (root crops), vertical layer (vines), and finally, fungi (mushrooms).
While forest gardening seems to be more appropriate for larger scale enterprises, Toby Hemenway managed to scale it down in his book, Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. Hemenway also introduced keyhole beds that expanded the permaculture principle of the edge effect. While first-time gardeners may find the plethora of new ideas daunting, most of them work very well on a backyard scale. To make this method useful, gardeners should begin in small areas and expand as they grow confident.
In the last century much of the traditional gardening knowledge our ancestors possessed, instead of continuing to to be handed down from generation to generation, has been in danger of being lost due to the modern shift towards conventional farming and gardening — monocropping, chemical pesticides and herbicides, soil depletion, etc. Many of the younger generation are awakening to the crisis and are looking for better ways — new and old — to garden. The conventional methods, now known to be destructive, are giving way to dozens of others, each with its own bell or whistle — reviving the age-old practice of working in harmony with nature.
Perhaps you have employed one or more of these techniques. While this is not an exhaustive list of new approaches (there are possibly dozens more in use), it is suspected that the most successful gardeners utilize all of the methods to some degree. Thankfully, there are numerous books on each to help get you started. Whether you are an old-timer or a beginning gardener, there’s something for everyone to learn.
Luddene Perry began her career in organics with a small plot in Colorado almost fifty years ago. For more than a decade she managed a CSA specializing in heirloom vegetables. She is currently a teacher of horticultural food production and garden design, based in Nebraska. She co-authored A Field Guide to Buying Organic published in 2005.
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