How to Harvest More From Your Garden No Matter How Small

Intensive gardenIn intensive gardening, you dig deeper holes for the veggies, which allows the roots to grow down instead of out. Image: Dan Fazekas

If you have big dreams for a vegetable garden, but only a little space, plant intensively — a cheek-by-jowl, double-digging growing technique that yields two to six times the harvest of traditional vegetable gardens.

Instead of loosening 4 to 6 inches of garden soil, intensive gardeners dig 12 inches down and loosen 12 inches more with a garden fork. This double digging allows roots to grow down, rather than out. Add a healthy dose of compost and grow your soil while you grow enough carrots to fill a root cellar — if you have a root cellar. This is truly a way to get the most out of edible gardening.

“You’re working with the life forces,” says John Jeavons, author of How to Grow More Vegetables (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. “When you grow life into your soil, it puts life into your food. And the good nutrition in food puts life into you.”

Intensive gardens feature beds that are 4 to 5 feet wide and infinitely long. They replace traditional space-wasting rows with a planting pattern that looks like the five on a die. This method boosts harvests and surrenders less space to weeds.

Intensive gardening, impressive yield

Jeavons says the intensive gardener can raise a year’s worth of vegetables — 322 pounds per person — in just 200 square feet. The norm is half to one-sixth of that. Double digging is the secret — and the rub.

Compared with traditional bed preparation, double digging requires twice the time and provokes twice the back spasms. But that’s only if you don’t know Jeavons’ digging dance, which uses body weight, gravity, and rhythm to propel garden spades through more beds in less time.

“Did you hear me panting?” asks the 69-year-old gardener, who was double digging in his Willits, Calif., garden while chatting on the phone. In fact, I only heard a spade slicing through soil.

“After you dig one of these beds, you’ll have more energy than when you started,” he says.

More intensive gardening tips

  • Intensive planting depends on souped-up soil. Grow your soil with compost and an organic fertilizer, such as alfalfa meal. Dig in the organics when you plant.
  • If the digging is too tough, you can raise beds up with stackable wood frames and pour a foot of topsoil on top of the foot you’ve loosened. Whether you dig down or build up, you need about 2 feet of loose soil to plant intensively.
  • Perform a soil test before planting: It can save you five years of hit-and-miss planting. Your local cooperative extension can provide test kits and results for less than $20.
  • Plant parsley and let it go to seed. It provides pollen for beneficial insects, which eat harmful insects.
  • If you love beets, plant cylindra beets, a special variety that grows twice as long as regular beets.

How do you boost your vegetable harvest? Which veggie is your favorite? Which can’t you stomach?