French intensive gardening, also known as "double-dug raised bed gardening", is a
productive, sustainable method that has been around for a
very, very long time. While the French got credit, the Chinese have been gardening in deeply
cultivated raised beds like this for millennia - with no loss of fertility. (See Farmers of Forty Centuries by FH King)
What is meant by "double-dug"? It basically means that you dig down into the soil at two different levels, loosening it and incorporating compost. The first dig is when you loosen and actually remove (or move over) the top spade-depth's worth of soil (about 10 inches deep). The second dig is when you loosen the soil beneath that level with a digging fork, going down another 10 inches, and again incorporating compost. (See video demonstration above.)
By loosening the soil very deeply (18" or so) and incorporating a lot of compost, the soil gets fluffed up and raised above its surroundings by a foot or more. This fluffy, loose, deep and friable soil now allows plant roots to grow straight down, rather than going down a few inches, hitting a hardpan, and turning sideways where they compete with each other for water and nutrients.
Hardpan is a compacted layer of soil (a bit like concrete) that is actually created by rototilling or walking on the soil. It's counter-intuitive, but just below the depth of the tines on the rototiller, your weight, plus the weight of the machine, is compacting the soil. It's easier for plant roots to turn sideways than penetrate the hardpan.
I used French intensive gardening for many years because compared to wooden raised beds it is cheap, sustainable, preserves natural soil ecology, and if properly mineralized and the soil microbes are fed and happy, is capable of producing very nutrient-dense vegetables. (I no longer garden this way, but that will be explained farther down.)
Disadvantages of French Intensive Gardening
After many years of broadforking in compost, worm castings, and actively-aerated compost teas, growing cover crops, and mulching with duck-manured straw, my soil is now so loose and friable that I don't have to fork it at all. I can stick my hand in the soil, and come up with earthworms. The work I did over the years has restored the land to its natural, undisturbed, healthy ecosystem, and it does the work for me now.
Don't give up! Nurture your soil macro- and micro-fauna, its microbes, and be gentle.
And here's a great read:
The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon.
To learn to make framed raised beds, check out these related articles:
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