BioIntensive Vegetable Growing For Gardeners Is A Method Of Growing 8-9 Crops Per Year Based On The Techniques Developed By Les Maraîchers Parisiennes (Market gardeners from Paris) Starting In the 1600s.

BioIntensive Vegetable Growing sounds so new and modern that I was recently asked if it was being developed so mankind can travel to distant planets and grow their own foods. But it is not a new technique. It’s a technique that saw Paris growing most of its veg and some of its fruit in small plots within the city boundary. Starting in the 1600s (some sources argue as early as the 1500s) and lasting around until the 1900s, the technique is probably the most intensive vegetable growing technique I’ve ever seen.

Improving On The Most Intensive Vegetable Growing Technique

As it was such a good BioIntensive Vegetable Growing technique it might be thought that it is the best we will ever see. But I don’t think so. I believe that by combining the best of the techniques used by Les Maraîchers Parisiennes with No Dig we can grow even more crops. The secret has to be the marriage of biointensive growing methods with the soil improvements that the soil microfauna delivers when No Dig is used.

How Many Maraîchers Worked The Parisiene Market Gardeners?

Numbers will have varied over time depending on the population of the growing city and due to history. The French Revolution impacted so much of the French way of life and Les Maraîchers Parisiens were not immune.

According to Courtois- Gerard in 1844 there were 1125 growers managing about 1500 acres of land within the city of Paris. So the average area managed per maraîcher was just over an acre. They also employed staff and the gardens were very intensively managed. More on that later.

How Did Les Maraîchers Parisiennes Grow Their Crops?

To grow their biointensive crops the maraîcher used the latest technology and manure! Of course the latest technology was a bit different to what we use today. But glass was one of their high tech bits of kit. They had bell cloches to cover plants and glass covered frames that they used for crop protection and in hotboxes.

And, similar to No Dig, they used a lot of compost. Or in their case manure, mainly horse manure, as there were plenty of horses in Paris and horse manure was a waste product. So, here was an early example of one of the key permaculture tenants being practised. Waste in one place became an essential material in another.

The manure was however used differently. Unlike in No Dig where the main use is as a surface mulch type material, the Maraîcher’s dug it into the soil and also used it to generate heat. They used hotboxes to start plants. This is where a layer of decomposing manure is covered with a layer of soil or bones of soil, then a glass covered frame is added. The seeds, seedlings or plants then benefit from the warmth generated by the rotting manure.

The principle of using decomposing manure to generate heat was later used by Victorian gardeners to grow melons, pineapples etc in their walled gardens. In fact the Victorians adopted many of the Maraîcher’s techniques which then became the basic teaching and practice of later English gardens right up until the 1950s. And some of the methods are being resurrected by gardeners who are influenced by seed germination over compost hotboxes as practised by garners such as Charles Dowding.

More BioIntensive Techniques

Let’s start by defining biointensive.

To me biointensive means an “organic” system that focuses on achieving maximum yields from a minimum area of land, while simultaneously sustaining soil fertility & increasing biodiversity.

Stefan Drew

In is useful to note the following. The definition of organic in the above system depends on personal values and beliefs and can mean either the definition used by the Soil Association or the use of “organic” materials ie those derived from living matter.

Many other techniques were used to keep crops growing. For example, where crops were grown in cold frames without a layer of decomposing manure to generate heat, the Maraîcher would heap manure around the cold frames when frost threatened. They would also do so in winter but for another purpose. It was to help maintain sufficient moisture in the soil for the plants to grow. The heaps of wet manure encouraged moisture to spear sideways, by capillary action, into the cold frames and hence ensure there was sufficient moisture for the crops.

Bell cloches were also used on a large scale. Made of glass and placed on the soil over plants, like a large glass bell, the cloches produced a microclimate suitable for seedlings and small plants to thrive. On hot days the side of the cloche was raised on a peg, to allow air flow. The rule was that one peg was used per cloche and the open side was downwind, to allow air movement without draughts.

Une fourchette

The design of the Fourchettes, the forks used to lift the cloche edge, was precise. They were designed to enable quick use. Looking like a notched tent peg, the notch had to be at 90 degrees to the upright. If it were more the cloche could slide off the peg. If it were more the cloche became trapped in the notch and removal was difficult. When the design was exactly 90 degrees a Maraîcher could walk along a row of cloche and remove a fourchette with one hand. And when storms threatened, and hundreds of cloches needed closing, time was of the essence.

French water pot
French water pot

Maraîchers were a breed of practical thinking people steeped in understanding how plants grew and how to get the best out of every square inch of soil and every movement they took. There was no profit in working hard, but plenty in working clever. So even equipment like watering cans were designed for perfection. A maraîcher’s can had a semi circular handle. This enabled them to carry two and “activate” them with the flick of the wrist which enabled them to change their grip and go from carry to pour in one easy movement.

I’ve used a pair maraîcher type cans and can vouch for the fact that when using two cans it is easier to used them as a pair. This means that when walking down between beds it is possible to water the beds on both sides at once. Try activation just one can and the movement is difficult if the other can is full of 15-18 litres of water. But do both at once and the movement is fluid and easy. Practice makes perfect, both in watering and in designing the cans.

I now have a plastic can with an almost semi circular handle, but it isn’t so easy to use as one with a perfect semi circular handle. The latest designs are inferior to those of hundreds of years ago. Of course fabrication is easier when blow moulding plastic, rather than fabricating metals. But the design is inferior today. The early Maraîcher “water pots” were made of copper. It was easily dented but much easier to shape into a perfect water pot.

What BioIntensive Vegetables Did Les Maraîchers Parisiens Grow?

Cropping would undoubtedly have changed over time, as tastes changed and as crops were developed. French gardener, La Quintinye, (1638-1688) wrote a book entitled Instruction pour les Jardins fruitiers et potagers (published in 1690, after this death). In it he wrote the following list of veg he had grown and sent to the table of Louis XIV.

Asparagus and Sorrel in December; Radishes, Lettuces, and Mushrooms in January; Cauliflowers in March; Strawberries early in April; Peas in May; and Melons in June.

Bear in mind that Paris has a mixed Oceanic/Continental climate and, though further south than London, is cold in winter. The average winter months temperature today in Paris is only just above freezing. And before the industrial age would have likely been much colder. This seems to evidence that biointensive veg growing in Paris is well advanced in the seventeenth century.

Frames were in use in Louis XIV’s time as were cloches which had been used for many years.


And in cold weather frames were covered with mats at night. The mats were either purchased or were made when work routines permitted. To ensure they didn’t quickly rot they were treated with various noxious chemicals. Even in these days they would have failed the Soil Association Organic requirements!

Of course not everything was grown in Paris or the horticultural area to the north, around St Denis. The Parisian clientele, more solvent than in the countryside, was also fond of Argenteuil asparagus, Clamart peas, Montreuil peaches and wines from the Rhone and other wine growing areas.

How Much Equipment Did A Maraîcher Use?

The heyday of the Les Maraîchers Parisiens is beyond living memory, but we have many written records, plus some paintings to illustrate the techniques used.

John Weathers researched and wrote on the market gardeners of Paris and records the following about the 1125 growers.

These growers have about 460,000 lights, and from 5,000,000 to 6,000,000 bell-glasses or cloches among them. The largest number of lights used by a single individual is said to be 1,400, and the smallest 60; while the greatest number of cloches used by one man is said to be 5,000, the lowest number being 100.

John Weathers

How Profitable Was Parisienne Market Gardening?

It would have varied over the centuries. And much would depend if the land was rented or owned, paid for or a debt on which interest was payable. And much would depend on the skill of the grower.

But we have some indication. Here are some more quotes from Weathers.

The produce grown by these market-gardeners is considered to be worth over half a million sterling yearly-_giving an average of about £400 to each grower.

John Weathers

He goes on to write ….

….. expenditure of a French garden is very great for the first year-£924 sunk in capital, and £630 in expenses, making £1,554 altogether.

Out of this sum, however under proper management and with normal markets, it is estimated that £86o of the outlay would be returned.

This represents a profit for the year of £230, or nearly 25 per cent. on the capital. It may therefore be assumed that at the end of four years not only would the capital be paid back, but all expenses would be paid into the bargain. Under exceptionally favourable circumstances, this desirable result may possibly be attained at the end of three years; but it is difficult to see how it could be accomplished much sooner.

On the other hand, if the freehold of the garden is purchased, and a good house be erected on the land, it may possibly take six or eight years to wipe out the capital and expenses, before one can really look upon the results of his work as being pure profit.

John Weathers

Les Maraîchers Parisiennes In Art

I’m currently researching Les Maraîchers Parisiennes in art and the first painting I came across is one by Gustave Caillebotte called Les Jardiniers (the gardeners). It was apparently painted between 1875-77. See below.

Bear in mind these are gardeners rather than maraichiers. But there are similarities in some of the equipment and practices.

Let’s first look at the differences. The beds are not biointensive, and contain only one species of plant per bed. Les Maraichers interplanted and were generally far more intensive. Plants of the size shown here were more likely to have been in amongst a maturing crop that they would replace.

And on the walls are trained fruit. The maraichers don’t bother with fruit. They did plant wind breaks however, but I’ve seen no record of walled gardens in my researches. This is more likely the garden of a chateau … one of the big houses as the English would say!

Manure carriers in Les Maraichers Parisiens
Manure carriers in Les Maraichers Parisiene

The pathways are also much wider than a maraicher worth his “sel” would have tolerated. Land was in short supply and every inch had to be productive. The reason that manure carriers were wedge shaped was to get through narrow paths!

Similarities include the cloche complete with fourchettes. And in the far distance are frames aligned to catch the sun.

My second image is much later but demonstrates the scale of cloche use.

A gardening scene by Gustave Caillebotte called Les Jardiniers. Painted between 1875-77. It demonststrs some examples of Les Maraichers Parisiene

In this image, an early postcard, a field of cloches is seen. And in the foreground is seen a pile of reed mats whilst behind the figure on the right are a series of frames, ready to be covered.

Les Maraichiers Parisien - A field of cloches and some mats beside a row of frames.
A field of cloches and some mats beside a row of frames.

BioIntensive Gardening is my next article where I will explore how Les Maraichiers Parisiennes and No Dig can come together to increase fertility and all year around veg production and harvest.

There will be some serious limitations in terms of the amount of labour required by the old ways, but I believe we can combine the two techniques and produce more, especially on a garden scale, though probably not so much commercially.

Tag: Les Maraîchers Parisiens

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