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Growing More Food in Less Space

Back in the 1970ís the average backyard vegetable garden was about 100 square feet. Now it is typically 200 square feet. New houses tend toward smaller yards, so the farm model of growing food and the generous space if required has become obsolete. Contemporary vegetable gardening borrows the best design ideas from the past, while incorporating new technology and materials to make smaller vegetable gardens easier to manage, and more productive.

Two ways to coax more production from limited space is by borrowing from old cultures the concepts of raised beds and vertical growing. Shifting a garden layout from rows to raised beds almost doubles the available growing area, as most of the ground formerly devoted to paths is dedicated to production. Growing food vertically to exploit the airspace above the garden again almost doubles its effective production area. This configuration facilitates the use of soaker hose irrigation, woven fabric mulches and other space age materials to dramatically reduce the amount of work involved in producing crops.

Raised Beds

Raised beds are permanent, rectangular plots holding soil that remains loose and rich because it is never compacted by foot traffic. Paths between beds are also permanent. While they require a significant investment of physical labour to dig and box, they do not have to be dug again every year. Raised beds promise years of virtually instant bed preparation and easy planting each spring. Try one bed at first. Dig it in the fall when the weather is cool, then add more beds over time. Because their excellent soil permits intensive planting, it will not be necessary to have a big a garden overall as before.

Making Raised Beds

Lay out the bedís dimensions with stakes and string. A width of 3 or 4 feet is a comfortable reach from either side for most adults. Lengths of 8 or 12 feet (conveniently allowing for even spaced trellis supports every 4 feet) are most adaptable to the typical backyard.

Begin digging with the string at one end, cultivating the soil to a depth of at least a foot--deeper is better. If working in a turf area, put aside pieces of sod for the compost pile.

Working backward to avoid stepping on newly dug soil, turn over shovelful of soil and mound them in loose pile within the measured dimensions of the bed. This is a good time to incorporate organic material such as compost, peat moss, or chopped leaves into the soil. Overachievers may wish to double dig the bed, but it is not required.

Designate at least 3 feet for path area around the bed. Scrape off the valuable top few inches of topsoil from the paths and mound it on the newly dug bed to increase its height, then spread wood chips or gravel, or lay bricks in the path to eliminated future problems with mud. Rake and level the surface of the mounded soil in the bed and it is ready for planting.

A layer of straw or chopped leaves will protect the soil over the winter and discourage erosion of the mounded soil into the paths. While it is not necessary, boxing each bed with 2 by 10 inch wooden planks prevents erosion most effectively, making beds easier to manage and looks more attractive. Boxed sides also provide a place to fasten fixtures to permit quick attachment of sturdy vertical supports for various crops.

Reasons to Use Boxed Raised Beds:

Save space

Maintain soil texture

Do not need annual digging

Heat up earlier in the season

Use water and fertilizer more efficiently

Improve soil drainage

Permit intensive planting

Are neat and accessible

Support trellises securely

Permit use of shade cloth or plastic tents

Avoids soil compaction due to foot traffic

The Value of Vertical

Another way to maximize production in limited space is to exploit the air space above the garden bed. Combined with raised beds the potential for dramatically increased production with vertical growing is enormous. Plants grown vertically can be planted more closely together and produce more in the rich, friable soil of a properly managed raised bed.

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