Choosing the Right Gardening Method for You

Learn about the different organic gardening methods you can choose from to suit your lifestyle, goals, and landscape.

| Summer 2016

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.

Method 1: The Double-Dug Bed

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.

Method 2: The Raised Bed

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.

Method 3: Square-Foot Gardening

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.

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