Crowding a bunch of plants in a narrow plot might not seem like a good idea at first. After all, it runs counter to everything you’ve learned about gardening. But this specialized method of planting – called French intensive gardening – is actually a tried-and-true technique to maximize your harvest in a small space. Even if you’ve only got a tiny plot, you can get amazing results if you develop it properly.

Raised bed vegetable garden

Raised beds and tight plantings are hallmarks of French intensive gardening.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Beans up a trellis

Growing beans or other vining plants up a support is one common space-saving practice used in French intensive gardening.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Wilde, L’Atelier Vert, Everything French Gardening, frenchgardening.com

Juvenile garden

This juvenile bed in a French garden shows how closely young plants are crowded together in intensive planting.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Wilde, L’Atelier Vert, Everything French Gardening, frenchgardening.com

As you might’ve guessed by its name, French intensive gardening evolved in Europe. Its purpose is to make the most of limited growing space. Known as “square-foot gardening” in the US, it’s also the preferred method of many growers who want extra produce for themselves or to share with friends and neighbors.

Be forewarned: French intensive gardening isn’t for the casual hobbyist. Thorough planning and research – as well as a strong back – are required to ensure success. But if you’ve got the fortitude, you’ll get great results!

Setting the stage for your garden is where that strong back comes in. Raised beds work best for a number of reasons. First, it allows you to work from all sides without having to step over rows. Second, soil compaction is reduced, which increases drainage and oxygen availability to roots. Third, a raised bed heats up quickly and allows you to extend your growing season.

Before you build the bed, you should “double dig” the garden soil beneath your garden frame to a depth of 2 feet. Unless you want a really intense workout, consider tilling the soil with a Rototiller (which you can rent from a garden or hardware store). This deep digging provides a cushion of soil, allowing plant roots to grow more easily and reach water and nutrients. After double digging, work the soil with compost or other organic material like ash, bonemeal or seaweed. Some experts recommend retaining at least a third of your garden soil and mixing it with the new soil you add into the raised bed.

Now for building your raised beds. You can just mound up the dirt, but framing your bed in is more efficient. Your framing should be constructed from untreated wood (be sure to reinforce boards with screws) or stone, bricks or other nontoxic materials. It should be about 12-16 inches high, and the planting space about 5 feet wide (length can vary according to the space you’ve got). If you don’t feel like building your raised bed from scratch, you can find the framing commercially.

It’s also a great idea to read up on companion planting – probably the most important aspect of French intensive gardening. In fact, this method of small-space gardening relies on grouping plants that are beneficial to each other. Some plants thrive when planted next to others, either thanks to the nutrients they provide or by deterring pests. For instance, beans, which are a good source of nitrogen, benefit corn, cucumbers, potatoes and pumpkins. By contrast, don’t plant corn with tomatoes because it’s not good for them. Marigolds, on the other hand, secrete a natural pesticide that suppresses nematodes, so they’re suggested as great companions for corn, tomatoes and squash.

Other plants flourish when planted together because of their varying heights. For example, in the Southwest, Native Americans gave us the concept of the “Three Sisters” planting of corn, beans and squash. As I mentioned, beans give nitrogen to the other plants, while the squash shades out weeds and the corn provides a stalk for the beans to grow on. But your companion planting research shouldn’t stop with these few examples. Do your homework to determine which plants will work best in your raised beds.

Planning is everything with this type of gardening, and there are several additional timing practices French intensive gardeners use to increase their yields. These include alternating crops between those that feed the soil and ones that deplete it, as well as staggering plantings of the same crop so they can harvest it all season long. These specialized gardeners also start their spring plantings with crops that mature early, and then follow with a summer crop. After that summer crop is harvested, they plant a cool-season crop that matures in fall.

There’s no doubt that French intensive gardening will give you a workout – both for your body and your brain. But rest assured, the effort you expend will be worth it in terms of your crop yields. Whether you eat your harvest yourself or share it with friends and neighbors, you’re sure to be impressed with all your extra produce!