I’ve been looking at how the current generation of small farmers and market gardeners are doing things. Many of the methods have been developed in North America where there are more small-scale growers supplying local markets than we have in Britain.
Conventional farming has been a helpful influence on home and allotment growers. For example, optimum vegetable planting spacings were researched to help farmers maximise yields. Fertiliser requirements and application timings – such as what point to apply them – were developed to balance costs with benefits.
Things have moved on and large scale conventional agriculture has further diverged from small scale growing. Spacings are now are geared towards the huge machines that seed, weed and harvest the fields. Specialist advisors analyse and create fertilising and pest control programs – way beyond anything possible on a small scale.
Small-scale Commercial Growers
The small-scale commercial growers have a very different approach. They’re generally organic in attitude and selling locally direct to the consumer, working on far smaller areas, hundreds of square metres rather than hectares.
One Canadian small scale market gardener, Curtis Stone, uses his own garden and rents gardens to provide growing space. He employs staff and makes a good living from a quarter acre of land – that’s about 1,000 M2 or a tenth of a hectare, or four full-size allotment plots. For comparison, the average size of a farm in England is 85 hectares.
30 inch or 75 centimetre Beds
Crops outside of the greenhouse and polytunnel are grown in beds just 30 inches (75 cm) wide beds which are 50 feet (15 M) or even 100 feet (30 M) in length with a narrow path between.
This 30 in. bed width has become the standard for these market gardeners and a range of tools are available designed for them like broadforks for opening up the sub-surface soil, tilthing tools and harvesting cutters for salad greens. They’re managed on a no-dig or low-tillage system with additional compost being added annually.
Raised Beds – Over Done?
I must admit that I think that raised beds are often overdone. If you’ve got a good, deep soil then why go to cost and effort of building raised beds?
I’ve built them on two plots where I had occasional flooding problems and it was easier to raise the growing height rather than put in drains.
Here I’ve put in some raised beds to quickly create quality growing space with a deep soil above the stones. I’ve never been unlucky enough to have such a stony soil as we have here. My first thought was to double dig but often it takes three goes just to get a fork into the ground. It hits a stone and stops with a shock. A spade is almost impossible at times.
Size for Raised Beds
The generally accepted size for raised beds is that they should be 4 feet wide by 10 feet long (1.2 x 3 metres). This makes a lot of sense as it enables access to the centre of the bed from either side and isn’t so long that you are tempted to walk over the bed to get to the other side. The main paths are set with a width of around 2 feet (60 cm) to work from and the side paths at 18 ins. (45 cm) wide enough to nip through to the other side.
See these articles all about raised beds and how to plan and construct raised beds.
Is the 30 inch bed for home growers?
Now, looking at what the new market gardeners were doing made me wonder if the 30 inch bed method would be useful to home growers. Remember they are growing a limited range of crops compared to a home grower. They’re looking at profitability which means salads more than staples, but we’re growing staples like potatoes and brassicas that are relatively cheap although they occupy the ground for quite some time.
Market growers find set bed sizes enable them to manage their growing more easily and use a range of standardised equipment. The benefit of beds like these to us gardeners is primarily psychological. Breaking up a plot into manageable areas for weeding and cultivating. It can be pretty daunting looking at an entire plot being overtaken by weeds.
Cultivating the Stony Ground
Over the last couple of years I have discovered a way to cultivate this stony soil. My Merry Tiller will churn it up the soil regardless of the stones. By going over the soil with the tiller and then picking out the stones, a depth of workable soil can be made. I need to get a stone-free depth of at least 8 ins. (20 cm) to grow carrots for example.
Once rotavated and stone picked I can open up the compacted soil below with the fork, although this is still a far from easy task. Then put a layer of compost onto the surface and sow or plant away.
I’ve an area that’s been covered with the bark peelings in the veg field above the existing raised beds that I use for paths and in the chicken run, so I cleared some of that to put the new beds in. Then I realised that the ground is so dry at the moment that it’s unworkable. This is an experiment that will have to wait till after the drought breaks.
I’ll post the results of my trying some other market gardening methods next.
I’ve gone over to no dig this year & I can thoroughly recommend it, I told my sister in law about it & she has done the same & is entirely smitten with it. We were comparing notes yesterday, 1 of the main advantages we both commented on was the lack of weeds & how well everything has done in this very hot weather.
Also I’ve just read your next diary entry, Charles Dowding who (I’m sure you know) promotes no dig in England is a market gardener & grows intensively on his relatively small plot. He sows spring onions & bulb onions in modules to maximise space. The spring onions have worked for me this year, in fact a little too well. There should more than I can use.
There’s a lot to be said for no-dig but to be sustainable it depends on a lot of compost being continually added. I’m really looking at the bed size here.
Some aspects of market gardening and large scale agriculture are useful to home growers but not all. Charles methods do work for him on his soil and in his conditions but my soil (or builders aggregate) isn’t quite as good as his base.
The red gardens in Ireland’s eco village have test gardens and shown better results with digging on new gardens created on pasture.
As Munty used to say “werks for me” 🙂
I think there might be a misunderstanding in the amount of compost that is added, in the first instance 6 inches is recommended but thereafter it is only 1-2 inches a year. Plus the soil would improve depth with the additions of said compost, I suppose you could sieve the stones out of smaller beds but not so practical on larger areas.
I know what you’re saying and I do understand the theory of ‘no-dig’ as well as some practical experience. My view is that it has its plus points but it’s not the only system that works. The real trick is to go for the most appropriate method for your individual situation.
I’ve (reluctantly) used raised beds on one half of my plot because, like yours, the ground is virtually undiggable. Unfortunately the reason in my case is that it’s full of scrap… digging out tangled wire, mattress springs, wheels and a milk churn takes precious time, which I have very little of. Some raised beds allow me to grow on part of the plot while I dig my way through the rest of it!
It’s amazing what you find, Anna. I’m still hoping for a hoard of gold though…
30″ beds are ideal as you can straddle them to allow access to the middle… Although they’re not a new idea, the 30″ (~75cm) beds are typical of the market gardens in Paris and Italy, the latter of which provide the walk-behind BCS tractors for the smallholdings like J.M. Fortier has.
I am about to set up a market garden on land we just bought and we’ll be using 30″ beds 40′ and 20′ long… and using hand tools such as the broadfork – a tool which you may like to investigate for your stony soil! They’re incredibly difficult to get hold of in the uk, but I’d love to see more people using tools like this and getting involved in smaller scale (organic) agriculture – I hope more people are becoming aware of the mass damage that monocrop big ag is doing
I have enough problems getting a normal width fork into this soil, let alone a broadfork. You wouldn’t try a commercial market garden here. It’s very much livestock pasture.
Growing depends on skills and knowledge – using appropriate methods for the conditions.
I’m not proud, I’ll steal any idea that works for me!