One of my best friends is moving to the eastern side of Washington State, where much of the land is under agricultural production. She is joining her fiance, who happens to be a professional seed farmer, on their 5 acre rural plot of land.
My friend, Kristen, is excited to have room to start a garden and raise some chickens. She grew up with a mom who gardened big, and loves green and growing things, but has been living an urban, apartment-dweller, professional-musician life in Seattle for the past decade and hasn’t had room to spread her homesteading wings.
Kristen had been reading up on gardening techniques, and called me for my opinion on double digging. Our conversation went something like this:
“Hey, Erica, I was reading this great book by a woman who gardens in New York, and she said she double digs her plot and can basically shove her arm into her soil up to her elbow.”
“Yeah, double digging is a great technique to establish new beds, it helps give the plant a lot more root room when you have limited space to work with.”
“So I was thinking I should try that at my new place.”
“Um, sweetie, don’t you have, like, five acres?”
“Yeah, plus about 40 acres of field space we can use if we want it.”
“And doesn’t your fiance have professional farm equipment he can use?”
“Oh yeah, he has a tractor and a huge rototiller…he has all that stuff.”
“Okay, here’s the thing: double digging is a technique that is really, really labor intensive. It is a great way to give vegetables more root room down when you need to space them really closely because you’re gardening with very limited space. But if you have 5 acres, why not just give your vegetables more root room by spacing them out? It’s not like you are going to run out of room.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. So, no double digging?”
Now, let me be clear: I am not knocking double digging. It is a fantastic way to establish deep, loose growing areas, and I do it myself when I’m establishing new beds. But it is as silly to manually double dig 5 acres in the country as it is to tractor-till my suburban backyard.
The right tool does the right job. It’s easy to get caught up in the possibilities of a certain method when you are reading glossy pages by a renowned expert and memorizing impossibly fresh photos of cabbage the size of a toddler. It’s easy to think you must double dig, or garden by the moon, or companion plant perfectly to be successful. But really, there is no one right way to garden.
There are hundreds of books espousing hundreds of different gardening methodologies – French intensive, biodynamic, square foot, Mittleider Grow Box, hydroponic, permaculture, open field, raised bed, strict organic, IPM, and on and on. All of them have been developed to suit the needs of the developer and all work wonderfully – for someone.
Perhaps you’ll try Square Foot and realize you like to grow in quantity and 144 square inches is way too confining. Or maybe it will be just the thing to make gardening for your small family manageable and enjoyable. Perhaps you’ll research Biodynamic and decide the cow horn thing is way too woo-woo for you. Or maybe you’ll feel inspired to create your own agricultural organic holon.
All the techniques I’ve read or tried have had something valuable to offer. One of them might be exactly the “off the shelf” solution you need for your own garden, but I doubt it. More likely you’ll find, as I have, that your unique situation requires a unique set of solutions.
The one technique I can advocate for every situation is observation. Every garden will benefit from a gardener who spends time observing the plants, the pests, the weeds, the growth process. Observe the techniques you try in action – assess them, grade them.
Ask questions – “did 16 beets per square foot work or did my plants outgrow that spacing before sizing up?” - and honor your experience with honest answers. Careful observation speeds up the slow education of experience doled out seasonally.
There are many paths to success in the garden, and no gardener walks exactly the same one. But if you watch where you’re going, it’s a joy to amble.
Do you use specific gardening techniques, or have you developed your own system and methods over time?
If you want to hear one of the best singer-songwriters …um… ever, I encourage you to check out what my friend Kristen is doing. Here’s a few songs to get you started. You can hear more of her amazing work on her website, KristenWard.com.