French Intensive: La culture maraîchère downunder


I is here. Yesiree.


After a very intense period of exploration and research I'm thinking that I have discovered my preferred gardening 'model'.

What I mean by that is that I have narrowed in on the 'system' that suits my environmental context and my journey.

It has a name and history and it's  called French Intensive Market Gardening.

La culture maraîchère referred to the intensive methods of gardening developed in the urban areas of Paris from about 1850 to 1900, and often referred to in English as "French intensive gardening." It was a series of techniques developed over the years by experimentation for gardeners to produce large quantities of fresh vegetables for city dwellers. It also dealt with a major urban problem at the time - what to do with all the manure from the horses used for transportation. French intensive gardening was designed to grow the maximum amount of vegetables on the minimum area possible, since urban plots were invariably small and noncontinuous...The average Parisian market garden was between one and two acres in size, with plants grown on eighteen-inch beds of combined straw and horse manure from the stables. Although the plots were relatively small, the techniques used to attend to them were highly detail-oriented and labor intensive. In the words of one grower, "always tend the smallest amount of land possible, but tend it exceptionally well." In order to get the maximum amount of produce from a small area, many techniques were used in concert. Crops were planted so close together that when the plants were mature, their leaves would barely touch. The close spacing provided a mini-climate and a living mulch that reduced weed growth and helped hold moisture in the soil. Companion planting was used - growing certain plants together that enhance each other. [Source]

French Intensive Gardening is often referred to as 'Double Dig' but I don't do that. There's no point because I've only got sand to dig up under my shallow loamy layer. I'm finding instead that with my trusty Ho-Mi  Hoe and my  handy sieve, I can fashion a version Francais that suits Terra Australis.

French Intensive Gardening is also linked with  'Biodynamic'  gardening because it was adapted, tweaked and repackaged by people like Rudolf Steiner,  Allan Chadwick et al.  I don't respond to these later quirks much at all, so I'm very much a French classicist and my interest is anchored in 19th Century Paris.

I'm also still caught between approaches so I'm no purist. I'm eclectic. While I may be trying to talk  French, my dialect is local and 21st Century. 

For the sake of context, I'll try to list why I prefer  La culture maraîchère to other systems:

  1. It relies on friable soils...and mine are sandy ++++.
  2. Its primary input is horse manure ...and mine is cow and horse dung. So there's no intense investment in making (aerobic) compost as an arduous supplementary activity.
  3. It is focused on making the best use of a small gardening space...and I'm gardening with marketing ambition in a suburban backyard.
  4. It merges my long time interest in English Cottage and French Potager  gardens with some core, and very dedicated, polycultural  -- mixed vegetable gardening -- preferences . I'm no formalist, so mix and match suits me just fine. 
  5. It is ruled by market gardening precepts so it isn't distracted by  countervailing 'food forest' and strict Permaculture shibboleths.
  6. It is driven by, and committed to, the growing of annuals rather than perennials.Any perennials are espaliered or coppiced.
  7. It is primarily a gardening system ruled by what's to hand and available -- horse manure -- rather than idealising inputs and paying big bucks for them. Très pas cher. (Very cheap.)

Nonetheless, I'm proceeding with a few adaptions in mind and the primary one is that the 'digging ' over of my soil is left to the critters -- like worms -- that inhabit it. I merely seek to 'scrape the surface'.

'Double Dig' be dammed. 

I also use, and rely on, sheet mulching when the French did not. But my mulch is grass clippings which begin life very desiccated anyway and break down quickly.

So I'm thinking it's coming together, so to speak, underfoot.

Before me I have this sharp learning curve as I get to know my plants in this novel Gallic environment. 

The principles in play do, however, lend themselves to adaptations. For instance their raised beds built atop manure cores remind of my own mounds built on mulch mixes...and I imported that edge, not from Paris, but  from the South Pacific. 

I'm also reliant on terracotta pots for irrigation when they relied on watering cans.

They long-trench mulched vigorously with manures, when I prefer  single holes -- as I don't want to 'disturb' the ecological integrity of the beds. They used pure manure(+straw) fills when I use grass clippings, paper and manure. My French forbears and I do, however, agree that manures can be buried when still  young.

And while I'm polycultural, I'm more polycultural, in a mayhem sort of way, than they were.I can so indulge myself  because the scale of my project is smaller.

Unlike them, I keenly engineer shade as a hot weather element in the design mix.

That said there are a few attributes of  La culture maraîchère  that I still need to understand and work through.

If it supposedly uses less water than other methods of gardening, how is that water 'held' in the garden bed? What's the sponge? While the method makes weeding easy, the business of churning up the soil surely activates weed seeding. Because the soil is loose and friable, weeds may indeed be  at a disadvantage, and are easily pulled up by their roots, but there's sure to be more of them, right? Especially since I mulch with cut grass and use manures.... But then I know my own weeds and the only problematical one in this context I can envisage is the low growing chickweed. Runner grasses, the ones I abhor, won't stand a chance.

So this is  'intense' also in the sense of labour intense. If the mulch regime fails I'll be weeding more.

C'est vie.

There's also these considerations to deal with, given my conditions:

The hotter the climate, the more you should consider whether or not raised beds are truly beneficial, especially with sandy soils. Sandy soils are likely to be low in nitrogen and organic matter; too much intensive digging may only exaggerate these problems. The hotter the summer climate, the faster organic matter is consumed. The more frequently you dig soils in hot summer weather, the more material you will need to add to compensate for oxidation. However, once the living mulch covers the bed, it will help to moderate high soil temperatures. In a hot, dry summer climate, the soil in a raised bed may not only heat up too much but also be vulnerable to drying out--thus negating one of the benefits of BFI.[Source]

Some useful online resources about French Intensive Gardening:

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  • Thanks for the ressources. I'll look into it further. I must be closer to the French side as I really enjoyed double digging this weekend. Btw, Très bon marché and c'est la vie :-)
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