Biointensive Gardening Course
Aug 20, 2011
On July 23rd, I attended an introductory course on the Biointensive Method as developed by John Jeavons and reported in his book, "How to Grow More Vegetables (than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine)." I had a working knowledge of this gardening method from reading his books and website, but I thought it would be good to see firsthand what the method was capable of. The class was held at a private residence in Walnut Creek; the instructor's garden was gorgeous and balanced with a large selection of edibles and ornamentals. I didn't know quite what to expect, but was excited at the prospect of meeting other gardeners with like-minded interests. The other class participants were mostly older women in their 50s and 60s, so when this twenty-something kid from Oakland pulled up on his motorcycle, I felt a bit out of place. Demographics aside, it was fun to mingle and learn with everyone else.
In case you aren't familiar with the method, Biointensive gardening focusing on deep soil preparation, extensive composting, and intensive, high density planting. The Ecology Action website (http://www.growbiointensive.org/) has a lot of information and resources regarding the techniques employed. Jeavons has led 35 years of research to develop a system of farming that minimizes external inputs while providing a nutritional complete diet on as little land as possible. Jeavons claims it takes as little as 4,000 square feet to feed one person using the biointensive methods (to provide a vegan diet); this is in stark contrast to the 21-28,000 square feet required with conventional methods (without the use of fossil fuels). To accomplish this vegan-based diet, the farmer is to focus on calorie-dense vegetables laid out in a grid pattern (rather than rows) to maximize planting density (with optimum plant spacing determined from several decades of Ecology Action research). The foundation of the method, though, is the bed preparation. Each planting space is to be double dug; this involves removing the first foot of soil, breaking up and loosening the second foot of soil with a spading fork and returning the top foot of soil with the addition of home-made compost. In this way, the method can ensure light, friable soil to a depth of 24 inches; a foundation which is sure to support the development of extensive, healthy root structures. This level of cultivation certainly seems warranted when you consider the amazing fact that a healthy beet can produce roots THAT EXTENDED UP TO 10 FEET DEEP IN THE SOIL!
While I certainly can't argue for or against this method, I am an experimentalist at heart. I act, observe, record and refine. Ideally, the process repeats, lessons are learned from countless mistakes, and the methods improve. I'm interested in exploring Biointensive gardening, so I decided to start with my fall planting of root crops. I wanted a large selection of carrots and beets, so I have devoted a 4'x10' portion of my garden to Atomic Red & Cosmic Purple carrots as well as Mammoth Red Mangels, Crapaudines and golden beets; all grown Biointensively. The Crapaudine beet I've grown before with seed acquired from Bakercreek Heirloom Seed Company; some experts believe the Crapaudine to be the oldest beet still in existence, dating back 1000 years of human cultivation! It certainly is an odd beet, having more of a carrot shape with very rough skin and extremely dark flesh.
So on July 29th, I began work to double dig my root vegetable bed. The work was hard going, especially within the second 12” of soil. As I toiled and sweat, I laughed gently at myself. I imagined Masanobu Fukuoka (author of “The One-Straw Revolution) rolling over in his grave as I fumbled as a feeble urbanite far disconnected with the natural cycles and patterns of nature trying desperately to impose his will on the earth. If you haven’t read “The One-Straw Revolution”, I highly recommend it; it’s a wonderful book of farming and philosophy. But as I double-dug the beds, I was about as far as one could be from the philosophy of Fukuoka. This was hard work!
The double digging also made me question my impact on the microbial soil life and soil structure. Permaculture followers and no-till advocates would be shaking their heads in shame at my sweat and muscular exertion. It’s quite obvious that the methods of Biointensive gardening are highly disruptive to soil structure, which is a primary objection from no-till proponents. As is typically touted in organic agriculture, the farmer should not focus on growing vegetables but rather in growing soil. Thereby, a diverse and extensive population of soil microbes may grow and flourish to support the secondary growth of the plants. As I dug deep into the trenches, I could see innumerable creatures and caverns, bountiful worms and bifurcations of roots from seasons past. Within a single cubic foot of soil there was immense structure to the earth. The argument against soil tillage is that it unnecessarily disrupts microbial life, accelerates soil erosion, degrades soil aggregates, and results in the loss of organic material through exposure to the atmosphere and oxidation. As I turned shovel-full into shovel-full, I imagined great civilizations of earthworms, arthropods, mycorrhiza and bacteria collapsing without a moment’s notice. As exclaimed in “Teaming with Microbes” (a wonderful book on soil biology by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis), a single teaspoon of good garden soil should have well over a billion thriving microbes (including 20-30,000 different species of bacteria, several yards of fungal hyphae, several thousand protozoa, and a few dozen nematodes). Given this fact, consider the implications of double digging a 4’x10’ bed to a depth of 24 inches: This represents 80 cubic feet of soil, which would amount to well over 153 trillion living organisms. For a moment, suspend your reason, your modern,western views and adopt a Zen attitude: if you were to equate each microbe with a human life, assuming only a 25% death rate, the double digging of this one 4’x10’ bed would amount to a cosmic massacre equivalent to the death of over 5000 Earths each populated with 7 billion people. Wrap your head around such an absurd analogy and you have a brief introduction to my silly mind. The point I wish to make is that double digging represents a tremendous disruption of soil life and structure. When I raised this concern to the instructor of the Biointensive course, she suggested such no-till methods are best suited to perennial crops, and that to maximize production within the smallest space such intensive methods were essential. Fair enough; I’ll play along and see what comes of it.
It took me well over 5 hours to complete the double digging process, although I was interrupted for a portion of this time by the curious minds of neighborhood kids. I have a friendly acquaintanceship with most of the kids on my block, and they are always eager to play in the garden or lend a hand in planting vegetables. On this occasion, I was swamped with eight friendly kids, Jabri, Noelle, Omarion, Kelis, Raymond, Nia, Briyon and Byron, all fervently asking questions, speaking a mile a minute and hoping to get their hands dirty. I took the time to initiate an impromptu garden class and spent half an hour planting Climbing Italian Summer Squash and Broom Corn with the kids. Afterwards, I returned to the double digging duty; I relished in the genuine grunt of the work. To toil in such honest-to-goodness work is a rare treat in my modern life, and I take great pleasure in such back-breaking labor. In the end, I had added 4 cubic feet of steer manure (fully composted) and 1 cubic foot of worm castings with the ground level rising 6-8 inches due to the released soil compaction.
My goodness! I just babble on and on and on. Is anyone even reading this? At the very least, this should serve as an amusing journal for myself to look back on and laugh. I suppose time and yield must be the judge as I evaluate the merits of Biointensive gardening; though, my hopes are high as I read through Jeavon's book. He reports that the average US yield per 100 square feet for beets is 34 pounds; nothing in comparison to the reported biointensive upper yield of 270 pounds per 100 square feet!!! We'll see about that John Jeavons, we'll see.