If you are searching for a way to dramatically increase your harvest yields while decreasing the amount of water you use in your garden, French Intensive gardening is just the technique you are looking for. This gardening technique claims to produce up to four times the amount of produce per acre with half of the water consumption. And this isn’t some new-fangled idea. The origins are traced back 4,000 years to ancient China. Latin America, and Europe picked it up approximately 2,000 years ago, and just a little over 100 years ago it became popular in Paris, where Parisians found it possible to provide enough fresh vegetables a large population on a relatively small amount of land. Whether you want to feed an army of hungry urbanites, make more to sell at your local farmers market, or enough to eat all you want and put food up for later, you can easily employ intensive gardening methods to increase the yield and the variety of your harvest.
French Intensive gardening can be complicated and exacting, but you will see dramatic results by employing six intensive principles. These principles are: soil improvement, planting in raised beds, spacing plants close together, companion planting, succession planting, and crop rotation.
As we all know, it all starts with the soil. French Intensive gardeners prepare their soil well before planting. First, clear the area of all weeds and debris. Apply 3-4” of organic matter such as compost, rotted manure, grass clippings, chopped leaves, or a combination of these). Dig this organic matter into the soil at least one month before planting. This will allow the nutrients to disperse throughout the soil. If you want to speed things up a bit, pre-warm your soil by covering it with black or clear plastic sheeting.
Next, you want to turn your entire planting area into a series of raised beds with walkways between them. You can build beds or you can simply hoe up the soil to make a 3-5′ raised planting area (Hugelkultur beds would be great). The walkways should be as narrow as possible, and the raised beds should allow the gardener to easily reach into the center of the bed from all sides.
Creating raised beds and walkways is a fair amount of work on the front end but the benefits of planting in raised beds are numerous. First, planting in raised beds ensures excellent drainage. Because the crowns of the plants are always higher than the paths between the beds, there is never a danger of plants becoming waterlogged. Second, raised beds are obviously off-limits to walking. This means the soil will never be re-compacted. Why does this matter? Soil compaction decreases the amount of available oxygen and drainage. The last thing you want to do after working so hard on improving the soil is to walk on it. Finally, the sun will warm the sides of a raised bed earlier in the spring, encouraging the germination of your seeds and extending your growing season.
Proper plant spacing is a key principle of French Intensive gardening. Nearly every inch of bed space is used for growing plants. This seems counterintuitive, but spaced rows are not seen in nature and they do not benefit the garden. This technique recommends spacing plants so that their leaves will touch each other when the plant reaches full maturity. Not only does this method drastically increase the amount you can plant, but it also protects the soil from the effects of extreme weather as the leaf canopy acts as a barrier. The complete leaf canopy doesn’t allow a surface crust to form on the soil, preventing your plants from being choked at their crowns.
Companion planting is the next principle you will find at work in the French Intensive garden. There are three distinct types of companion planting. Intercropping is when you plant several types of crops together to make the best use of your garden space. When you use one crop to support another crop, such as planting a low-growing crop that thrives when planted in the shade between a taller crop, you can increase the variety and the overall yield. Trap-cropping is when you make beneficial use of flowering plants by planting them around or near your desired crop. Different types of flowering plants can either attract beneficial and pollinating insects, or deter pests that feed on your crops, or both. The third type of companion planting, though not scientifically verified, is when you plant specific crops next to each other in order to improve the flavor of one of the crops.
There are hundreds of books and blogs that can teach you all you need to know about companion planting, but this brief list will serve to get you started.
Beans, which are a good source of nitrogen, benefit cucumbers, potatoes, and pumpkins. Marigolds are also a desirable choice to plant alongside your beans as they secrete a natural pesticide which deters nematodes.
Tomatoes companion well with basil, onion, rosemary, sage, parsley, and marigolds. Do not plant tomatoes and potatoes together.
Plant spinach, lettuce or radishes under your pepper plants. If you want to improve the flavor of your peppers, try planting them with basil or chives.
Eggplant benefits from the pest-repelling properties of thyme and tarragon. It also is a good companion for spinach, and it appreciates the nitrogen when planted with bush beans.
Carrots should be planted in the same bed with radishes, lettuce, chives or marigolds. Do not plant carrots with dill or parsnips.
If you want to keep pests off your broccoli, plant with dill, onions, garlic, celery, basil or sage. Beets and nasturtiums are helpful because of the amount of calcium they provide to broccoli. To improve the flavor of your broccoli, try planting it with onions or celery.
Cauliflower benefits from being next to beans, dill, celery, onions, and zinnias, but it does not grow well next to strawberries.
Cucumbers thrive in a garden next to beans, peas, carrots, beets or radishes. To repel cucumber beetles, try planting nasturtiums, marigolds or sunflowers.
Squash loves to be planted with radishes, beans, carrots, nasturtiums, and marigolds.
Asparagus beetles will leave your tender asparagus patch alone if you also plant marigolds, chrysanthemums, basil, dill or parsley.
Finally, strawberries will not do well if planted with cruciferous vegetables. If you surround your strawberry bed with a border of thyme you will notice less of the worms that love to wreak havoc on your delicious strawberries.
In addition to companion planting, French Intensive gardens do a lot of succession planting. Succession planting is nothing more than quickly following one crop with another crop. Although this does take a bit of planning, succession planting will allow you to increase your harvest without increasing the size of your garden. To be successful at succession planting you only need to know how many days to maturity for each crop and how many days you have in your growing season. Days until crop maturity can be found on your seed packages. To find out how many days are in your growing season, count the number of days from the last frost date in spring to the first frost date in fall. Crops like lettuce, radishes, and kale can be planted every two weeks until you run out of growing days.
The sixth and final French Intensive technique that can be used by home gardeners is crop rotation. You must understand what each crop gives or takes from the soil and plant accordingly. The entire goal of crop rotation is to maintain or enhance soil fertility. Plant light feeders first. These are crops such as garlic, onions, peppers, radishes, and rutabagas. Once you have harvested your light feeders it is time to plant heavy feeders such as tomatoes, eggplant, corn, broccoli, lettuce and other leafy crops. Finally, it is time to plant your soil builders. Peas, beans, and clover will feed your soil, returning depleted nutrients to the soil. Once you have let your soil builders live their life-cycle, you can start the planting cycle again.
French Intensive gardening does require a slightly unusual way of thinking about your garden. The planning required for successive planting, companion planting, and crop rotation, in addition to the upfront manual labor of soil preparation and building raised beds and walkways, may seem like a waste of time if you have never created a garden this way. But if you follow the six intensive principles laid out in this article, you will notice a difference in the amount of food you can produce in a small area of land.
If you are unsure whether this technique is for you, think about creating a small French Intensive plot. Start out with two raised beds. Follow the intensive principles in those two beds for the growing season. Even if you just use these two beds as your kitchen garden, I can guarantee you that the work is minuscule compared to the reward.