BACKGROUND: The GROW BIOINTENSIVE® Food-Raising Method developed by John Jeavons and Ecology Action is a whole-system, organic method of raising food crops that dramatically increases crop output and soil health.
The Biointensive methods were first developed at Santa Cruz, California, in the 1960s by English master horticulturist Alan Chadwick. Chadwick synthesized the wisdom of farming techniques from ancient China, Greece and early Europe, and then built upon two more recent systems: 1800s French Intensive Farming and the Biodynamic Techniques of restoring soil fertility developed by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s.
Inspired by Chadwick’s work, John Jeavons founded Ecology Action to apply science-based research in order to further develop this whole-systems approach to small-scale farming. Jeavons is the author of How to Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine (seventh edition now available) which provides a primer on the synergistic, combined Biointensive methods found by Ecology Action to produce the most food on the least land. This book provides the basis of the course for Biointensive trainers at Manor House Agricultural Centre. Several of our MHAC staff have trained at Ecology Action’s research farm in Willits, California.
METHOD: GROW BIOINTENSIVE soil preparation creates growing beds with more surface area, maximizing nature's life processes. Beds are double-dug, with soil loosened to a depth of 24 inches to aerate the soil, facilitate root growth, improve water retention, and allow healthy growth of micro-organisms. Fertility of the soil is maintained through the use of compost. Close spacing (intensive planting) of plants increases yields, facilitates the optimal use of nutrients, light and water, and creates a vibrant mini-ecosystem under the canopy of leaves. The use of open-pollinated seeds helps to preserve genetic diversity and enables farmers to develop their own acclimatized cultivars. Companion planting takes advantage of natural synergies that increase yields; and some plants attract helpful insects while others repel pests. A focus on the production of calorie farming for the gardener and carbon farming for the soil ensures that both the gardener and the soil will be adequately fed and that the farm will be sustainable.
Some fundamental components of the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method:
1. Double-dug, raised beds In this method, crops are planted in beds that are "double-dug." The gardener digs 12 inches down and then loosens the soil to a depth of 24 inches. The loosened soil enables plant roots to penetrate easily and allows more air in the soil, creating a "raised bed" effect. Moisture is retained without waterlogging, weeding is simplified because of the looseness of the soil, and erosion is minimized.
John Jeavons demonstrates double-digging at the Pan Africa Symposium hosted by MHAC
2. Composting The higher yields resulting from intensive planting would not be sustainable without a way of maintaining the health and vigor of the soil. Chemical fertilizers, which are derived from petroleum, are expensive and have been shown to deplete the soil over time so that as soil quality deteriorates, increasing amounts of chemical fertilizers are needed to sustain yields, further harming the soil structure and macrobiotic life.
The GROW BIOINTENSIVE Food-Raising Method avoids these problems through the recycling of organic waste products in the form of compost. Kitchen waste, garden trimmings and many other forms of organic matter, when properly composted, provide the elements necessary to maintain the biological cycles of life that exist in the garden. The structure and the micro biotic life of the soil are improved by compost, which creates better aeration and water retention. As the soil’s health improves, optimum plant health is maintained, so that garden yields are maximized.
3. Intensive planting (close spacing of plants) Avoiding rows and the wasted “mini-desert’ of unused soil between rows, seeds or seedlings are planted in 3- to 5-foot-wide beds using a hexagonal spacing pattern. Each plant is placed the same distance from the others so that when the plants mature, their leaves touch. This provides a shaded “mini-climate” under the leaves which retains moisture, protects the valuable microbiotic life of the soil, retards weed growth, and facilitates higher yields.
University of Wyoming students participate in offset planting during their tour of MHAC
4. The use of open-pollinated seeds With GROW BIONTENSIVE techniques, high yields can be obtained with normal open-pollinated seeds which have been selected by nature over centuries because of their advantage. Special hybrids are not needed for excellent results. In this way, a wonderful variety can be grown while the world’s genetic diversity is preserved.
Jeavons and Eric Werangai admire ‘Namba Nane’ open pollinated maize at MHAC
5.Companion planting Research has shown that many plants grow better when they grow near certain other plants. Green beans and strawberries, for instance, thrive better when they are grown together. Some plants are useful in repelling pests, while others attract beneficial insects. For example, borage helps control tomato worms, while its blue flowers attract bees. Also, many wild plants have a healthy effect on the soil; their deep roots loosen the subsoil and bring up previously unavailable trace minerals and nutrients. Use of companion planting aids the gardener in producing fine quality food crops and helps to create and maintain healthy, vibrant soil.
Push-pull technology for stem borer control in maize: Desmodium between maize rows repel insects; napier grass on field edges attract insects to lay eggs but produce sticky compound that disables larvae (courtesy of ICIPE, Kenya).
6. Carbon farming Soil fertility is facilitated by planting approximately 60% of the growing area in particular dual-purpose seed and grain crops that produce a large amount of carbonaceous material per unit of area, and they are used to build compost for improving and maintaining the soil ecosystem’s microbial life. These crops also produce a significant amount of calories. Corn, wheat, amaranth, millet, and oats are some examples of carbonaceous crops. Growing compost materials on the farm will be important in the future, since currently, large amounts of organic matter and nutrients are “mined” from soil in one area for use to improve the soil in other areas. Instead, gardeners can produce more organic matter and retain and recycle the nutrients within their own farm on a “closed-system” basis.
Sorghum, a dual purpose carbon crop
7. Calorie farming The production of sufficient calories efficiently in a small area is achieved by planting special root crops in 30% of the growing area. These crops include potatoes, sweet potatoes, salsify, burdock, garlic, and parsnips and produce a large amount of calories per unit of area. 8. A whole-systems gardening method It is important to realize that the GROW BIOINTENSIVE Food-Raising Method is a whole system, and that the components of the method should all be used together for the optimum effect. If all of the components are not used together, the soil can rapidly be depleted because of the method’s close (intensive) planting.