We have been gardening organically since we moved into our house near Nashville in 1993. Gardening isn’t something that I love to do, but what I do love is eating quality nutritious food that has so much more flavor than what you can get from a grocery store. Throughout the years we considered our garden a luxury and our attitude towards it’s yield was casual. That changed in 2007 when we decided to get serious about how much food we could produce ourselves in order to reduce our dependence on the industrial food industry and the mass delivery system that it depends on. The difference in taste is immense and we consider it a quality of life issue where we place more value on enjoying what we must do over and over each day. Three times a day we get to savor great tasting food that, by the way, is much more healthy and doesn’t contain chemicals that we can’t pronounce.
For almost 15 years we used a method called square foot gardening. It was developed by an engineer who performed numerous test on his method making small adjustments until he had maximized his efforts. Over the years we have integrated a method called french intensive with square foot that gives us the highest yields, within the smallest space, with the least amount of work. I have heard others who have developed similar techniques call it American intensive. The biggest difference between french and American intensive is the spacing of the plants. American is on an equal grid on each side. French, while cutting down on the space between rows greatly compared to the traditional method of farming, has more space between rows than square foot. For example using american you can plant 16 radishes in one square foot area with a spacing of 3″ on each side of each plant. Using french intensive you can only plant 8 radishes with a spacing of 3″ between each plant, but 6″ between each row.
We started with one 4’x4′ grow bed using the square foot gardening method. We have modified our configuration over the years and in the spring of 2011 we expanded our beds to four 4’x20′ beds that will give us a growing area of 320 square feet. Before this increase in growing beds we were grow about 75% of the vegetation, but our goal is to grow 90% of what we consume. We eat large amounts of potatoes and corn and the extra space is basically so we can add them to our summer crops. Having more flexibility with crop rotation and starting to use green manures were other factors in increasing our garden size. A simple irrigation system with mini sprinkler heads is what we rely on to easily water our beds with the turn of a faucet.
What We Grow
Since the greenhouse was finished we use this garden area for growing bulk vegetables. In the fall, winter and spring we grow spinach, mustard greens, collards, turnips, carrots, snow peas, garlic and kale. During the summer months black eyed peas, okra, soybeans, onions, watermelons, and green beans are grown.
For many years we focused on the plants themselves. If the plant had pest or looked like it had a problem we reacted by doing something to, or for the plant. starting a few yeas ago, though, we shifted our priority to building healthy, rich soil. Well maintained soil is the foundation that any garden is built upon and is the most essential part of successful intensive gardening. Proper soil preparation can cut down on two major time consuming and laborious tasks that no gardener enjoys. First, rich soil provides each plant access to the nutrients that they need to grow in the most healthy manor possible. This means that all of the chemical processes within the plant function to their peak performance. This lets them better handle and react to stresses that can be caused by factors that are out of your control, such as weather. The less stress that a plant experiences, the less pest are attracted to the plant. We use no pesticides at all and actually consider pest to be a sign that the plant isn’t getting something it needs from the soil. They are like our parakeets in the mine. Secondly healthy soil can cut down on weeding. The heat of properly prepared compost will kill weed seeds that can make your gardening experience a great deal of extra work. Also by cultivating only the top six inches of the soil every year instead of tilling a foot down will cut down on weeds. The biggest weed deterrent is that a healthy plant will form a large canopy which will deprive weeds of light. Once the plant has grown to that point we rarely have to do any weeding at all. The first time I tilled our soil it was mostly orange clay. In the spring of 2010 I rearranged a few beds and dug out my cultivated soil and was reminded of what I started with. Figure 3 shows the contrast. Over the years we have mixed in compost, sphagnum moss, cow and chicken manure, and sometimes wood ashes when planting carrots and potatoes. If we can build the soil shown on the left into the soil on the right then anyone almost anywhere can improve their soil to the point that you can grow healthy nutritious food as well.