Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Last weekend I attended a presentation on 'Sustainable Gardening'. It was put on by Cindy Conner of Homeplace Earth and the focus was on the Biointensive method of growing things.

A couple of years ago I was prowling through a bookstore when I spotted a book called How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons. The double subtitle was "(and fruits, nut, berries, grains, and other crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine". I was intrigued to say the least. I bought it and took it home and read quite a bit of it.

I'm not sure I understood it all. The method in the book is called "GROW BIOINTENSIVE" (often followed by a little registered trademark symbol). I will simply refer to it as the Biointensive method. The presentation with Cindy Connor was helpful. She gave out a handout that said (among other things):

Sustainable Mini-farming

Deep Soil Preparation
makes possible
Close Plant Spacing.
The use of Open-Pollinated Seeds
to grow
Carbon/Calorie Crops
for carbon and compost materials as well as
Special Calorie Root Crops
for area efficient calories with good
Companion Planting
provides sustainable soil fertility and a complete
balanced sustainable diet within
A Whole System.

The bolded words in the above excerpt are the eight principles (essential aspects) of Biointensive agriculture. These same principles from the Ecology Action website:

  • Double-Dug, Raised Beds
  • Composting
  • Intensive Planting
  • Companion Planting
  • Carbon Farming
  • Calorie Farming
  • The Use of Open-Pollinated Seeds
  • A Whole-System Farming Method

A lot of this isn't new. John Jeavons and the folks at Ecology Action out in California learned most of it from Alan Chadwick, an English horticulturist, who combined Rudolf Steiner's Biodynamic approach with French intensive farming. Here's what these points mean.

The most controversial part of the method is the initial, double-dug beds. This is the 'Deep Soil Preparation' from Cindy Connors hand out. The method is illustrated in a little animated piece on the Wikipedia article on Biointensive. At the presentation, a couple of folks had questions about this, pointing out, not only all the work involved, but that this destroys the whole soil ecosystem. (I will post on soil ecosystems at some point in the future, I hope.) Cindy said that even though some people think the double digging should happen every season, that it is probably only necessary initially as it recharges the bed, uncompacts the soil, and is the necessary preparation for the work.

Compost should be added often to build up soil fertility. Like the permaculture folks, biointensive gardening is done with very close spacing between the plants ('Intensive Planting') so that there is little need to weed or mulch much once the plants are grown.

Biointensive focuses on what they call 'Carbon' crops--crops that are grown to add carbon and other nutrients to the soil. These are sometimes referred to as 'compost' crops or (in garden magazines) 'cover crops'. The biointensive folks believe that 60% of your crops should be these compost crops. They include things like bean and cereal crops as well as traditional cover crops like alfalfa and clover (both of which add nitrogen to the soil, as do the bean crops) and rye and timothy. The Homeplace Earth folks sell a video on Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden for $35.

The focus on 'Calorie' crops is about the idea that each person should be able to grow enough in their garden to live on--and therefore, in addition to vegetable and fruit crops for vitamins and minerals, the Biointensive approach focuses on high calorie crops, to allow each person to get enough calories from the food that can be grown in a small amount of land. They particularly single out potatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic (garlic?), burdock, and parsnips as high calorie crops that don't take up a lot of acreage.

Biointensive encourages companion planting which several other systems do as well. They encourage the use of Open-Pollinated as opposed to hybrid seeds--again something many other organic gardening methods do. (Someone at the presentation asked about which seeds were open-pollinated, and Cindy Connor pointed out that all Heirloom seeds were open-pollinated although not all open-pollinated seeds were Heirloom. She also pointed out that the seeds in the catalogues that say 'F1' next to them are hybrid.)

Finally, Biointensive advocates see this as a 'Whole System'--in other words, if you skip any part of this, you aren't doing Biointensive farming. This is important because, as John Jeavons points out, if all the elements aren't used together, many of the techniques can deplete the soil faster than conventional agriculture. And one of the key purposes of Biointensive gardening, the reason it's referred to as 'Sustainable Mini-farming', is that it is a way of building up the soil as food is grown. Biointensive agriculture is meant to be sustainable for the grower and the earth.

Quote of the Day: "Start now with just one raised growing bed. Self-reliance in your own 'foodshed' will make all the difference in the world. Each one of us has tremendous potential to heal the earth." - John Jeavons

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