For the past two years we have tilled and amended the soil quite liberally in our permanent garden area. Each year we put about 8-10 inches of compost down over the whole thing. We have some pretty good soil now; something actually living rather than hardpan clay. For the past couple of years we grew in rows and had fairly decent yields. My goal, however, all along has been a more bio-intensive approach rather than the old method of plow and till. Now that my soil is alive with activity I want to keep it that way. Tilling disturbs the soil too much by disturbing the micro-organisms and releasing nutrients when they are exposed to air. Not to mention doing all of this is labor intensive. So, this year I get to put in my permanent beds. Yes, I said beds or wide rows if you want to call it that. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with row gardening. It worked for both my grandfathers and it worked for me. My issue is that I want to grow more in the same space and I want to cut down on the manual labor. Since I am the main one in the garden, I am the main laborer and frankly my body ain't what it used to be. So let me explain a bit about bio-intensive gardening (also called french intensive). Basically you are creating permanent beds or wide rows. There are walkways around the beds and they are never wider than you can work from the sides because once in place you don't want to walk on them because you don't want to compact the soil. Typically bio intensive requires the bed to be double dug to a depth of 24 inches. Because I still have some hardpan clay I am adapting the method a bit to suit my needs. Instead of double digging I am digging and using the lasagna method a bit. From everything I have seen compost is used but almost only as a sprinkling amendment in most bio-intensive gardens. I am using a lot more compost. So here is what I am doing in steps.
Step one: Decide where you want your bed and how big. It should only be about 3-4 feet wide so that you can be in the walkway and still reach the middle of the bed without stepping on it.
Step 2: Dig out about 6-8 inches of soil and place to the side.
Step 3: Lay down a thick layer of newspaper, then barn cleanings, then some organic matter, then soil removed, then compost,then organic matter, the another good layer of compost. For organic matter you can use just about anything like leaves, barn cleanings from rabbits or goats, etc. Basically you are creating a compost pile in place. For the barn cleanings please don't use chicken manure as it gets way too hot. I use the cleanings from thunder's stall after the chickens have gone through in the morning and scratched everything up and then I only apply a very thin layer.Horse and cow manure get pretty hot also so be careful with those. Being on the bottom it will have aged pretty well by the time the plant roots get there, but in the meantime the bed will be warmer than the surrounding ground which is a plus.
Step 4: Plant or wait to plant, depending on what you want to plant. I am planting cool season crops so I am already planting. When I plant my seeds, I then sprinkle more compost over the top after I have scattered them over the entire bed. If I were planting plants then I would place them in the bed in a hexagonal pattern instead of rows (you can grow more in a smaller space)and mulch around them.
Step 5: Mulch the walkways.
Step 6: Maintain by weeding and watering.
There are several advantages to gardening or farming this way. First it is less damaging to the soil and healthy soil means fewer pest and disease problems. Second, because you ignore all spacing "rules" you grow more in less space and tend to have fewer weeds. Third, the beds tend to hold moisture better especially when the walkways are mulched. You can also plant in relays and in tandom. For instance cabbage is slow growing so you can plant cabbage and radishes together since radishes grow much faster, therefore you are doubling your harvest from one bed/row. This is a better way to utilize vertical space for growing things like cucumbers, melons and squash which will also free up space allowing room for more crops. After each harvest I will add another layer of organic matter and then another layer of compost, then plant again (relay planting). Each year on out I will only have to loosen the soil in the bed add some organic matter and compost and then plant. No more tilling and plowing, which is great news to my aging back. The great thing about this is that you can have one bed or many and you can grow a lot in one bed. I have one bed that is about 3ft x 6 ft and it is now growing mache, spinach, romaine, arugula, carrots and radishes. Not bad for a small space. While my first few years in this particular space has been all about growing good soil and getting rid of the hardpan clay, this year is all about growing a great vegetable garden. We will see how it goes. Happy gardening, Kat