Intensive Gardening: Grow More Food in Less Space (With the Least Work!)

Blend the best principles of biointensive gardening and square-foot gardening to devise a customized, highly productive intensive gardening system.

  • Beauty and productivity harmonize in an intensively planted garden when you add flowers and natural, structural elements.
    Photo by judywhite/
  • Adding plenty of compost is fundamental to intensive gardening.
    Photo by Saxon Holt
  • The 1-by-1-foot grid pattern, a trademark of square-foot gardening, can help intensive growers portion out and make the most of limited bed space.
    Photo courtesy All New Square Foot Gardening
  • You can even try square-foot gardening in wooden boxes on a balcony. Include flowers, herbs and vegetables for variety.
    Photo by First Light/Clément Philippe/age fotos
  • Combine crops, flowers, steppingstones and a seat, and you’ll have a backyard retreat along with plenty to eat.
    Photo by Saxon Holt
  • “Double-digging,” or digging and refilling trenches, is central to biointensive growing but may not be worth the work.
    Photo by Amy Melious
  • Growing vining crops, such as pole beans and cucumbers, vertically will allow you to harvest more in a given space.
    Photo by First Light/Gary Smith/age fotos
  • Rows of lettuce in raised beds make a space-saving, productive addition to your patio.
    Photo by judywhite/
  • Grow in raised beds or define permanent beds and walkways to prevent soil compaction and manage garden amendments efficiently.
    Photo by First Light/Reino Hanninen/age fotos

Whether you grow food on a spacious homestead or are digging into your first urban garden, ditching the plant-by-rows approach and instead adopting intensive gardening techniques can help you grow a more productive garden that’s also more efficient to manage. These methods will open up a new world when it comes to small-space gardening, which can be so much more than just a few lone pots on a balcony. If you do it right, you can grow more food in less space and put an impressive dent in your household’s fresh-food needs.

Comparing 2 Popular Intensive Gardening Methods

Two gardening authors and their systems of intensive vegetable gardening have been highly influential in North America for more than 30 years. Mel Bartholomew’s book on “square-foot” gardening was first published in 1981, while John Jeavons’ first book on “biointensive” gardening came out in 1974. Since these books hit the shelves, millions of gardeners have experimented with and embraced the gardening techniques advocated within.

Bartholomew’s aim with square-foot gardening is a simple, foolproof system that anyone can master (no companion planting, no crop rotation and no soil preparation). He prescribes raised beds of only 6 inches deep for most crops, filled with an artificial mix of peat moss, vermiculite and compost. While this method is reliant on assembling purchased components, it can work well in urban spaces, especially where soil contamination is a concern, where digging into the ground isn’t an option, or where people are especially picky about how a garden looks (perhaps because of ordinances for front lawns). Check out “10 Tenets of Square-Foot Gardening” below for more on this method.

Jeavons’ biointensive gardening system is based on developing fertile soil in permanent garden beds that you initially dig to a depth of 2 feet. His primary goal is to grow food sustainably, using as few inputs from outside of the system as possible. He provides detailed instructions on crop planning, making compost, companion planting, crop rotation, growing crops that serve a dual purpose as food and compost-heap fodder, and more. See “10 Tenets of Biointensive Gardening” later in this article for the skinny on this system.

4 Principles of Intensive Gardening

Despite such differing approaches, both sets of techniques deliver high-yielding food gardens thanks to four common features, all of which I recommend.

1. Permanent garden beds. Establishing permanent beds enables you to concentrate your efforts only on where plants grow, without wasting compost or irrigation water on unplanted areas. It also makes soil compaction a nonissue, because you walk on permanent pathways and never on your growing areas. Setting up permanent beds and paths is such a popular layout here in the Pacific Northwest that I haven’t seen a garden arranged in rows for years. (Read more about the benefits of permanent garden beds in Care and Cultivation of Permanent Garden Beds.)

7/27/2020 9:06:02 PM

Well said. Charles Dowding has also been running a dig vs no-dig experiment for 11-12 years and found that overall, no-dig produces more.

7/28/2017 3:03:53 AM

How do I rid my garden of squash bugs from year to year?

8/11/2016 5:18:09 PM

One of my problems is compost: I just don't generate enough to create any. Suggestions?



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