Which Gardening Technique is Best?: MOTHER's Minigardens Experiment

MOTHER EARTH NEWS attempt to answer the question, which gardening technique is best?


| March/April 1985


Last spring we reported that, in addition to maintaining our large Eco-Village garden and learning to work a draft horse, MOTHER's staff gardeners were starting an experimental four plot garden to observe and compare four different growing methods. The following enlightening assessment is condensed from head gardener Walker Abel's fullreport on the results. 


The four separate gardening techniques we set out to study and compare were:

  1. the hand-worked, biodynamic/French intensive gardening technique, in which the soil is loosened to a depth of 2 feet with a spade and fork and then shaped into a four-foot-wide raised bed
  2. the rototilled, raised-bed gardening method, in which the entire area is rototilled and the loosened pathway soil spaded and raked up onto a 4-foot-wide raised bed (our version was then treated like a standard biodynamic/ French intensive garden)
  3. a conventional row design, in which the entire plot is rototilled, then planted in single rows with pathways in between
  4. the deepmulch technique, as popularized by Ruth Stout, in which the entire growing area is continuously covered with a generous layer of organic mulch. (To plant in such a garden, the mulch on top is temporarily brushed aside and the seeds or seedlings put into the lower, and more completely decomposed, layer.)

I don't want to put too much emphasis on the differences in harvest we obtained from the four plots. There were a number of variables involved, and — due to our many other gardening duties — our experimental work was not as exacting as it could have been. Each method can obviously be used to produce beautiful and bountiful vegetables. But, for what it's worth, the biodynamic/French intensive (BFI) and rototilled, raised-bed (RRB) areas were comparable: They yielded both the most and the healthiest vegetables. The conventional rototilled (CR) garden produced substantially less food than did our "winners," and the deep-mulch (DM) plot fared the worst, with stunted growth and persistent insect problems. In fairness, though, let me say right away that a deep-mulch garden requires a few years to develop the mature compost layer that is essential to its maximum effectiveness. So that plot should — I think — perform better a couple of years from now.

However, the real significance of this experiment could be seen in the other striking differences between the four minigardens. The plots were a remarkable learning tool — for us, for our garden apprentices and for the approximately 30,000 visitors who came through the Eco-Village in 1984. The gardens led us into the discussion of certain principles and questions that all gardeners should ponder, regardless of their chosen methods.

Garden Space

The most obvious differences between the minigardens were their respective sizes. We put in the same number of plants of the 10 most popular home-gardener's vegetables in each plot, yet the BFI and RRB gardens each occupied a 4-by-42-foot bed, while the CR and DM gardens each took up a 10-by-42-foot area requiring 2 ½  times as much room. Row gardens use as much as two-thirds of their area for pathways, while bed plots need just one-third of their area for that purpose. In an urban or suburban situation, where growing space is at a premium, this could be a critical difference.

Soil Health and Quality

The four methods treat the soil differently and vary in their ability to promote good, overall soil health. In the BFI bed, the earth was dug to a depth of 2 feet. After rototilling the RRB area to a depth of 6 inches and then raking the pathway dirt onto the bed, we had loosened the soil to about 10 inches in that bed. The CR garden soil was turned to a Rototiller's "reach": merely 6 inches down.





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