The comeback of small-scale

An ever-growing movement of vegetable gardeners around the globe is certain: growing vegetables by hand still makes sense today! They are convinced of the power of the small-scale structure and the great potential of artisanal vegetable production for direct marketing. They work according to the concept of market gardening. Loosely translated, this means “gardening for the market”, i.e. growing vegetables in garden-like structures. By hand instead of with big tractors – just like gardeners do.

The Parisian Vegetable Gardeners

Eliot Coleman, pioneer of organic vegetable gardening in the United States of America, already studied the historical background of this agricultural principle some 45 years ago and in his book “Handbook of Winter Gardening” highlights in particular the sophisticated vegetable production in 19th century Paris as an inspiration for today’s market gardening. This “French gardening system” was small-structured (average area: 0.5 – 1 ha) and was essentially characterised by four central features:

  1. Regionality: The small horticultural enterprises were located in the middle of or immediately adjacent to a town. The supply routes were therefore extremely short.
  2. Variety & quality: This system supplied the urban population with a variety of fruit and vegetables of the best quality all year round (i.e. even in winter).
  3. Productivity: Meticulous planning, the most intensive use of the small areas as well as highly developed cultivation techniques enabled an enormous output per unit area.
  4. Sustainability: The necessary heat for winter vegetable cultivation as well as the additives for the natural preservation of soil fertility came from the transport system with horses at that time. The utilisation of their “by-products” was so successful that soil fertility increased from year to year despite the intensive production level.

However, the early days of tractors and the development of mineral fertilisers at the beginning of the 20th century increasingly pushed vegetable farming towards large-scale production. The advent of the first automobiles led to a decline in the use of horses and thus to a reduction in horse manure, which was so valuable for market gardens. The growth of the cities made land more expensive, agricultural use of the land became uneconomical, and so the market garden areas were successively built up. An impressively viable horticultural model came to an end. For the time being.

Market Gardening becomes Marktgärtnerei

Eliot Coleman took up many of these ideas and principles again, further developing tried and tested techniques and adding new methods. He founded a kind of revival of the Parisian market gardening tradition and inspired numerous farmers, gardeners and career changers to do the same. Jean-Martin Fortier from Canada is probably one of the best-known gardeners who took up Coleman’s principles and became extremely successful with them. With his bestseller “The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-scale Organic Farming”, he has become one of the central figureheads of the movement. Modern “market gardening” was born, initially in the USA and Canada. This movement has also gained popularity in Europe in recent years and is increasingly known as “Marktgärtnerei” in German.

Principles of modern market gardening

In addition to the wide variety of different crops and varieties, another typical distinguishing feature of a market garden is the use of permanent beds instead of the row plantings common in field vegetable production. “Permanent” means that this bed structure is created once and then remains in the same place for many years. Only the paths in between are walked on – to avoid even the slightest soil compaction.

The beds are cultivated by hand with the help of innovative hand tools and small machines. For soil cultivation, many farms use a so-called single-axle tractor instead of heavy tractors (see photo). Due to the exceptionally dense planting and the systematically planned, almost uninterrupted succession of the most diverse vegetable crops on one and the same bed area, the use of these permanent beds is described as bio-intensive. “Bio” because market gardeners attach great importance to the promotion of soil fertility and the protection of biodiversity and accordingly do not use mineral fertilisers or synthetic chemical pesticides.

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