Our Biointensive Vegetable Garden Is An All Year Around, Highly Productive, Growing Method That Can Deliver 8-9 Crops From Every Bed Each Year. It Combines No Dig & Ideas Gleaned From Les Maraîchers Parisiens, The Market Gardeners Of Paris, That Go Back To The 1600s. It’s A High Output, Low Input Method.
The term Biointensive Vegetable Garden has been used by a number of people who focus on starting the process by digging or even double digging the soil. In my view digging is a destructive process that damages the soil microfauna meaning the soil then has to recuperate before it can reach its full potential. In my view the starting point should not include digging but should follow the basic No Dig tenets.
The first European biointensive gardens I’ve studied are those of Les Maraichers Parisiens, The Paris based market gardeners, who produced enough vegetables to feed the city from around 1600 to the 1900s.
Producing More For Less
People frequently believe that to feed a family more and more land is needed. Some move from half an allotment plot to a full one, then to two or even more plots. One allotment holder recently told me it wasn’t possible to feed a family of four on less than four plots and that each one had to be rested for a year in rotation or they would lose fertility.
Sheeting down empty land during winter, growing one or possibly two crops maximum per year on each plot and following cropping advice from another continent is not the way to maximise production. And if we are to grow more with less effort and input it means being biointensive.
Biointensive isn’t the same as intensive farming where monoculture is practiced and only gives a profitable yield when synthetic fertilisers and tons of pesticides are used. In farming it is quite normal to grow just one crop a year. The inputs might nee intensive but it is rarely biointensive in the sense I mean.
The biointensive garden is a natural garden. Where, like in rainforests and other natural environments the plants grow thick and lush without “chemicals”. Managed correctly the biointensive garden can produce huge yields of tasty, nutritious crops. And the focus is as equally on nutrition and flavour as the weight of the crop. We aren’t aiming for tasteless crops that have been forced to provide early yields but no flavour or texture.
Having said that the biointensive garden is plant intensive, but in a natural way. We encourage the vegetables and fruit to live up to their genetic potential without losing the flavour, texture and yield. And by mixing crops together, interplanting and planting in succession we are able to allow as close to natural conditions as possible in a garden situation.
Forms of BioIntensive Gardens
Biointensive means many things to many people. Exponents of the Grow BioIntensive system do things differently to me. They advocate not only digging the soil but recommend double digging. I believe that well managed soil doesn’t need digging. Digging disturbs the soil porosity, releases carbon and damages the soil microfauna. A well managed No Dig garden can achieve as much, if not more, without all the hassle of hand digging beds! Why dig when nature will do the work for us?
The BioIntensive Vegetable Garden Concept
The Basic Concept
Being biointensive means that living plants and a bioactive soil are at the heart of the garden. The soil is fed with compost and this, in turn, feeds the plants.
Cropping continues 12 months a year without “resting” the soil.
Wherever possible do not dig except to plant trees and similar plants. In most cases this includes crops such as potatoes that can be grown under a mulch of compost, grass or similar.
Compost is added to the soil surface and NOT dug in.
Digging is NOT a feature of the true biointensive garden.
Interplanting and successional planting are the key to ensuring land is never left devoid of plant life.
Mix crops within beds to give variety, maintain the soil and ensure pests and diseases are not encouraged.
When interplanting grow suitable plants together having regard to plant size, maturity date and light/nutrient/temperature requirements. E.g. trying to grow lettuce amongst tall sweetcorn will mean the lettuce are short of light and will not reach their potential. Adding leguminous and non-legumes in a bed creates crop diversity, builds biodiversity and provides nitrogen for the non legumes.
Harvesting leaves from leaf salads rather than heads will extend the season and give more reliable yields.
With a few exceptions, e.g. parsnips and carrots, plants are normally started in modules or seed trays.
Where possible save your own seed, seed swap and maintain heritage seed lines.
Use open pollinated varieties where possible.
Avoid F1 seed where a good heritage variety exists. This includes growing from supermarket collected seed, unless you are certain of the variety and can be sure it’s not from an F1 variety. Understanding the Mendelian basics oil save many wasted months growing crops that will not provide suitable crops.
Grow perennials and edimentals wherever possible. E.g Perennial kale; fruit trees, bushes and canes; etc.
Work with nature, not against it.
Weed control is achieved by the use of mulches, plant density and occasional hand weeding. Rainwater is harvested with hydraulic rams used to lift water where required and sunlight is used to warm structures and growing area. Natural ventilation of structures its encouraged. Solar energy can be harvested and stored as electricity should the need arise.
Some “weeds” are worth having! Nettles can be harvested for early shoots and then left for butterflies and other inc=sects that depend on them. And “weeds’ such as ??? make a good salad addition.
Use natural methods where ever possible. E.g. to germinate seed use hotbeds rather than electrically heated propagators … (but don’t over-stress about this because your mental health is important).
Use natural pest control methods e.g ladybird larvae or jets of water to control aphids, nematodes or slug pubs to control slugs and snails (having first ensured that you’ve cleared the places they like to shelter!).
Think carbon. Soil is a natural carbon sink and provides soil fertility when organic material is added to the soil and it is not dug.
Recycle carbon and other nutrients by composting. As per permaculture what is waste elsewhere can become your raw material.
BioIntensive Gardening History
To date the biointensive movement has used words such as biointensive agriculture, homesteading, backyard gardeners and smallholder farmers. And though there is a Wilkipedia post on biointensive agriculture there isn’t one on biointensive gardening. The nearest to it is biodynamic gardening and organic gardening which are related but different concepts.
Historically various versions of intensive gardening goes back many centuries, though it was never characterised with this name.
A more formal approach was made by Alan Chadwick who merged ideas from biodynamic and French intensive gardening methods, in to what he called the Biodynamic-French Intensive method. It was clearly a productive method but grew intensively grown crops in beds where one type of plant was grown in isolation from other species. This is similar to what I practiced when I grew commercial lettuce, bed after bed of the same thing. It’s a form of intensive monoculture that isn’t anything like biointensive gardening this post is about.
Another proponent of the biointensive concept is John Jeavons. His work as director of the non-profit Ecology Action focuses on what he describes as mini-farming and, through admirable, is not biointensive gardening. Jeavons’ work has been internationally recognised and his book stimulated my brain, but his main focus is on a scale beyond that of the gardeners I know.
Eliot Coleman is another biointensive farming advocate. But, though much of what he advocates goes along parallel lines, the emphasis is on farming. Indeed, alongside being a farmer, he was Executive Director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), and advised the USDA.
A market gardening advocate from Quebec is Jean-Martin Fortier, and as a retired market gardener myself I can relate to a market gardening approach. But it isn’t biointensive gardening that will suit the domestic gardener or allotmenteer.
One couple who, having studied both Alan Chadwick, John Jeavons and others, really intrigued me are Perrine and Charles Herve-Gruyer. Their book, Miraculous Abundance, traces their gardening journey as it became a market garden. It’s a fascinating story as it is much about their discovery as their garden. But it’s more than that as it describes how mainstream academics measured their outputs and reports on them. The figures are impressive. And much of the books content had my brain racing from topic to topic.
Lastly, I cannot finish. this section without a mention of Charles Dowding who, having owned market gardens in France and England, has developed No Dig to a fine art. Though running a commercial market garden, much of his work applies to the domestic gainers and allotment gardener. Indeed I would say his methods are the closest I’ve seen to biointensive gardening anywhere in the world. If we did nothing more than follow his methods we would be almost there. But I believe gardeners could refine these methods just a little more to suit garden even better.
Though all the above people have developed their own biointensive systems they are geared to organic market gardening, microfarming, microagriculture, homesteading or whatever other name suits a scale that is beyond many traditional gardens.
The BioIntensive Gardening Challenge
The lack of good biointensive gardening advice is obvious. Yet gardeners could produce much more food from very small areas if they were more biointensive, growing many crops per year from each piece of land they have, however small it might be.
So my challenge for you is to help me to develop a framework that works for ordinary gardeners on a small scale. Whether it is based on a small vertical garden in a concrete yard or on a balcony; in a residential garden, polytunnel or greenhouse; or on an allotment.
For example, The BioIntensive Vegetable Garden Concept above, is a first draft for discussion. do you agree with it or would you amend it? If so how?
What other thoughts do you have on the biointensive gardening concept.
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