The French Intensive, Double-Dug
Raised Bed Vegetable Garden

The French intensive garden, also known as double-dug raised beds, is the most productive, sustainable method of gardening on the planet. While the French get credit, it has been around for a very long time, as the Chinese have been gardening in deeply cultivated raised beds for millenia - with no loss of fertility.

Double-Dug Raised Beds

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 or 12 inches deep). The second dig is when you loosen the soil beneath that level with a digging fork, going down another 10 or 12 inches, and again incorporating compost. (See video demonstration.)

By loosening the soil very deeply (20-24”) 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 rototiling or walking on the soil. It's counter-intuitive, but just below the depth of the tines on the rototiller, your weight and the weight of the machine are compacting the soil. It's easier for plant roots to turn sideways than penetrate the hardpan.

I use the French intensive gardening method because it is cheap, sustainable, preserves natural soil ecology, and produces the world's healthiest vegetables.

Advantages
  • Uses less water, compost and fertilizer than any other method of gardening.
  • Uses less space per given yield than any other method of gardening.
  • Very easy weeding. Because the soil is loose and friable, weeds are at a disadvantage, and can be easily pulled up by their roots.
  • Works to benefit natural soil ecology, which in turn benefits us though more vitamin and mineral-rich vegetables.
  • Inexpensive. You do not need to purchase anything such as commercial potting soil, lumber or other building materials, or a rototiller. It uses no gasoline.
  • The double-dug technique is the only one described here which is truly sustainable in the big picture. (The framed technique relies on lumber and commercial soil mix which must be imported from off the land and be replaced periodically.)
  • Because of the depth of the soil bed, plants can be grown closer together than any other method, creating a "living mulch" that retains nutrients and water.
  • By the second year, the double-dug raised bed technique takes much less labor, because soil ecology is optimized and earthworms and other soil organisms do much of the work for you.

Disadvantages

  • A lot of work the first year. I won't kid you, double-digging raised beds is hard work, especially in clay soils or if you have a lot of big rocks. (But if you water a day or two beforehand, it will make it easier, and things are much easier in subsequent years because the soil is then loose and friable, and can be single-dug or broadforked relatively quickly.)
  • You must have the right tools to double dig. Ordinary hardware-store variety tools do not hold up to double digging. I've seen more than one fork handle snap. You need a forged, square garden spade and fork, available at better quality garden stores. I’ve been using the same tools for almost 30 years and they’re still going strong. They are available from Clarington Forge (see the ad on the right. They have a cool video on their home page of how they're made, in a factory that's been cranking them out since 1789, in Lancashire, England - where my parents are from!)

To learn to make framed raised beds, check out these related articles:


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