When it comes to gardening, nobody can accuse Steve and Monica Farnsworth of taking the easy way out.
The Farnsworths are carving out a garden site on their 1.5-acre piece in Talent using a technique called "French intensive gardening," which is a lot like it sounds: intensive.
The idea is to plant veggies, flowers and herbs close together in blocks, not in the neat, little rows so commonly seen. Similar to an approach known as square-foot gardening, French intensive gardening is aimed at squeezing maximum production out of small spaces.
But to do it right, you need to spend some time — and effort — getting your ground ready because deep, fluffy, well-fed soil is the key to making it happen.
"The soil needs food just like we do," says Monica, as husband Steve holds out a fistful of dark-brown soil full of earthworms and organic matter.
Their soil didn't start out that way. As any Talent gardener can tell you, the ground in this part of the county could win awards if they gave blue ribbons for clay content. The Farnsworths have spent seven years "double-digging" small plots that are roughly 5 by 6 to 5 by 10 feet in size, doing a few more beds each year.
They start by digging down a foot deep and removing all the old dirt, then they use a soil fork to cultivate the bottom of the trench another foot deep, loosening the clay and allowing air to penetrate. Then they backfill with the soil they dug out in the beginning and mix it with compost, sand, kelp, bone meal and blood meal.
Each bed is ready to plant at that point, but it'll take about two years of feeding and care before each plot reaches its productive prime. That's because the Farnsworths are not just creating beds; they're creating living, soil-borne colonies that need time to become fully established.
"French intensive gardening is a centuries-old technique," says Steve, a 53-year-old Oregon State University Master Gardener. "They got the idea from their colonies in Southeast Asia and used the technique to feed Paris."
He looks like a proud papa as he kneels at the edge of a 5-by-8-foot melon patch that illustrates his approach. The plot contains six cantaloupe plants, but rather than letting the vines wander far and wide, as melons are wont to do, he has pinched off the ends of the vines again and again, forcing the plants to stay compact and produce fruits close to the base of each plant. The result is a tight, little cluster of vines that will produce 20 melons in a space the size of a broom-closet floor.
The whole garden is like that. The Farnsworths brag about getting 310 garlic bulbs out of a 5-by-10-foot rectangle, some of which they sold to Green Springs Inn outside of Ashland.
One 30-square-foot bed — 5 by 6 — contains six beefsteak tomato plants, 10 pepper plants and a dozen or more heads of lettuce. The couple use lettuce as a form of living, edible mulch, interspersing it throughout the garden, where it shades the roots of larger plants such as corn and beans and retains moisture.
Flowers and herbs are interspersed with vegetables too. Some, such as borage, are there to draw bees and other pollinators. Others, such as calendula and marigolds, are there to repel or attract veggie-munching insects.
The companion-planting approach, combined with liberal use of straw mulch, means they don't have to water much — about once every three or four days even in the heat of summer — and they don't have much trouble with insects, they say.
"Nothing is rototilled," says Monica. "We use a soil fork to dig. And we never walk on the garden. If we have to get into a bed, we lay a board down and walk on that to disperse our weight."
The goal is to avoid soil compaction and keep lots of air in the root zone, says Steve.
"It's called the landslide effect," he says. "The Greeks noticed that after landslides, plants did really well from all the air in the loosened soil."
He gets a lot of his gardening ideas from a book called "How to Grow More Vegetables," written by John Jeavons 30 years ago.
A classic in the field of sustainable farming, the book explains how to use biointensive gardening techniques to raise enough organic vegetables for a family of four on a parcel of land as small as 800 square feet.
They don't have a family of four, however. Monica's son, Daniel, lives in Placerville, Calif., so it's just the two of them living on the output of their garden and the income from their business, The Sower and Seed Hydroseed Co.
Their goal is to sell excess produce to one or two local restaurants "that like to offer fresh, healthy, gourmet food," says Steve. They'd also like to line up some families willing to buy farm-fresh produce once or twice a week.
Along with breaking ground for new planting beds every year, the couple has embarked on a number of projects to expand the reach and diversity of their garden. They are building a 60-foot-long greenhouse they hope to have completed by September, which will be devoted to winter greens. They have added a cow and a few dozen chickens and recently took an OSU Extension class on chicken processing so they can sell home-raised poultry.
It's all part of a plan to be as self-sustaining as possible. When the economy was humming along, their hydroseeding business was humming, too.
"We couldn't even keep up when the economy was good," says Steve. "Now, it barely keeps us going."
But with a productive piece of land feeding them and a few customers, the Farnsworths aren't in any danger of going hungry.
"I don't believe in a retirement plan," says Steve. "I believe in an expirement plan. I can do this until the day I die."
Reach Mail Tribune Features Editor David Smigelski at 541-776-8784 or email@example.com.