The books on biointensive gardening and other pamphlets, as well as the course work available through Ecology Action are second to none when it comes to gardening. Their course work and lectures are worth attending. You can find out more about this method of gardening at: www.growbiointensive.org, through the Ecology Action organization..
When it comes to growing food in a sustainable manner, biointensive gardening is the most recommended method. Many regard it as the most supreme method of organic gardening, as it’s virtually an all encompassing system that merges efficiency, nourishment, as well as sustainability in a very seamless fashion.
Producing food using the biointensive approach doesn’t require an enormous amount of space. In fact, an adult would need a mere tenth of an acre of space in order to grow a year’s worth of food for his or her personal consumption. It sure sounds hard to believe, but indeed, a nourishing diet packed with all the necessary nutrients and calories can be fulfilled with such little growing space.
One of the best elements of biointensive gardening is that it takes off all the right nutrients from the soil and at the same time, inserts those nutrients right back into the soil. Those who employ the method of biointensive gardening require less water usage, which translates to a significant amount of money saved in the long run.
Furthermore, it is capable of producing runoff water that’s much cleaner post gardening, and the soil becomes a whole lot healthier too. So what you’ll get from all these advantages is a garden that’s endowed with the wonderful ability to generate a diet that’s utterly complete, in a sustainable area with minimal space.
The methods of biointensive gardening are listed below:
- Deep Soil Preparation
- Close Plant Spacing
- Companion Planting
- Carbon Farming
- Calorie Farming
- Open Pollinated Seed
- Whole-System Approach
- Deep Soil Prep
The idea is to loosen the soil to introduce pore space, enabling the plant roots to penetrate easily and allowing more air to penetrate into the soil thus creating a “raised-bed” effect. Other benefits are:
- Moisture is retained without over watering
- Weeding is simplified with loose soil
- Erosion is minimized
Give Your Soil A Rest! Do Not Disturb!
If you have fairly good soil you will loosen your soil at about 12″. If you don’t have very good soil, you should loosen soil at approximately 24″. The idea is to loosen your soil gently and to not move it by tossing, turning or churning, etc. Here’s why:
A Private Microbial World Lives Here!
Microbes that provide essential nutrients to plants live in your soil. They live within the first foot or so of soil, but there are different microbes at different levels within that first foot. Different microbes—each helpful to your plants in a different way—live at 3, 6, 9 and 12 inches below the surface. It’s important to leave those microbes in place.
If they are tossed or exposed to air and sun, they will burn and die. If you mix them with a hot compost they will also burn and die. This depletes your soil.
Rooting For Your Soil!
Additionally, you should consider the root system on your plants. Some plants such as beets will grow up to 10 feet underground.
No Plowing! Use A Digging Fork (Get A Good One)!
Rich soil—is just a single dig to 12 inches. Just gently loosen the soil with your digging fork.
Poor soil—goes all the way down to 24 inches! This is known as “double-digging”. First dig a trench that is 12 inches down and place your soil to the side. Next, after digging your hole to 12 inches, loosen the soil at the bottom of the trench with your digging fork another 12 inches.
Then gently lay the first 12 inches into the trench. Make trenches and loosen the soil until you’ve covered the entire ground for your garden.
- Only loosen your soil once a year because each time you cultivate you burn organic matter.
- For countries at mid- and higher latitudes, springtime is the best time to cultivate.
- Assess your soil each year to see if you need to dig or double-dig. Test your soil for its pH balance.
Plant Crops That Grow Your Soil
It could take a few years to completely convert to biointensive gardening. Preparing your soil and your garden take planning and time. Some plants are great to grow a few years in your soil before you begin your biointensive garden. The deep roots of these plants assist in breaking up the soil at significant depths.
You should harvest the plant for food but don’t pull up the roots. Leave them to die and decompose back into the soil. For northern countries, an over-winter, deep-rooted annual crop also could be grown.
Cereal rye and winter wheat are examples of deep-rooted winter crops. These types of plants are 100% useful: they give 1/3 to help loosen the soil, 1/3 for food and 1/3 for organic matter for your compost.
The best compost is natural compost that has time to slowly decompose. By saving compost, you are feeding the microbes in the garden soil, conserving water, providing acidity (ph), nutrition and hummic acid, aiding drainage by maintaining the soil’s pore space, and adding organic matter that is recycled into your soil. You will want to compost throughout the year, and year after year.
Baking your compost—success is in the recipe & temperature
The ideal compost material to add to your garden has undergone a lengthy process as a result of microbial activity. The microbe activity produces heat. If the compost is not allowed to progress far enough, and is added prematurely to your garden soil, it can heat the garden soil and kill the soil’s helpful microbes. Compost is considered ideally ready when it reaches the cold compost stage.
Temperature stages of compost:
To test your compost, you’ll need a compost thermometer. It’s a must!
Cold: 90F to 100F (32C to 38C)
Warm: 100F to 140F (38C to 60C)
Hot: 140F to 160F (60C to 71C)
When you start your compost it will usually rise up to the Hot stage, then the temperature will start to decrease. Ideally, you would want to use the colder compost temperatures.
However, since it takes typically 6 months to one year for a compost to reach the Cold stage at mid-latitudes, it is important to have one or more composts going year-round. This way, you always have compost that is cool enough to add to your garden. A warm temperature compost of 140F will suffice however, but do your best to bring the temperature down from there.
Temperature control tips:
Adding soil to the compost-provides moisture and mediates the temperature
Water your compost
Materials to build your compost:
Use one part mature plant material, one part immature plants, and one quarter part soil. Many people mistakenly associate all brown plants as mature plants, and all green plants as immature plants.
Color is not necessarily an indicator of plant maturity. A mature plant is one that was mature before it was picked or harvested. Mature plants provide carbon. Examples of immature plants are grass cuttings, plant clippings, kitchen scraps etc. Immature plants provide nitrogen. After being processed by the compost, they will feed the helpful microbes in your garden’s soil.
Build your pile in layers and repeat
1) Reserve a space 3′ by 3′ by 3′ for bigger gardens.
2) Loosen the soil on the ground.
3) Put debris such as branches on top of the loosened soil (this will provide a space for airflow underneath the composted material).
4) Lay down the first layer of mature material plants such as straw, barley, rye etc. Water the layer.
5) Lay down the second layer of immature material such as grass, leaf cuttings, kitchen scraps. Water the layer.
6) Add soil to the top-Water the top.
7) Repeat 4, 5 and 6 until it is time to start a new compost pile. When the pile is complete, top and pat down with soil or an organic burlap sack material.
8) Remember to water your compost frequently.
9) Start a new pile after one month. Store your other compost for 3 to 6 months
Please note: If you plan ahead you won’t need to turn your compost. This is best! Just let it age, but water it frequently to keep it moist. Don’t add worms, but if they come, let them stay. When it’s time to use the compost, mix it gently with the top soil in your garden.
Close Plant Spacing
It’s best not to plant in rows. Plants are crowded and take up 4 times as much area for half the number of plants. Close space planting is beneficial for the following reasons:
- Fewer weeds will grow
- Less watering will be needed
- The soil will compress well
- Less space will be used
- Less preparation needed
- Less observation needed
How to Grow More Veggies
Use flats that are in 11 1/2 ” by 14″ by 3″ to start your plants, or plant directly in a 3′ to 5′ bed. Plant your starters or seeds in a hexagonal pattern. In hexagonal planting, the plants are located at each corner of a hexagon, and also one at the center of the hexagon.
In this way, each seed/starter is an equal distance from all of its neighbors. Measure the distance necessary between each plant for growth by using plant characteristic recommendations.
Get your starters ready early for spring planting or garden all year round. In colder climates with distinct seasons, you could first put your flats in a greenhouse, then move them to a cold frame and finally to the bed in the garden for the summer and fall months.
Be sure to grow your starters and your plants at the proper distance from each other by using the hexagonal spacing described above. The plants grow until their leaves just touch those of the adjacent plant. At that time the plant is mature and ready to harvest!
Some plants can be helpers and others can be antagonists. Companion planting is making the use of plant characteristics to benefit the garden as a whole. Flowers are used with vegetables to draw insects for pollination. Some companions assist others by reducing disease or damage from pests. Companion plants can also store nutrients for each other.
Diversity planting will discourage disease. It is good practice to “layer” your garden vertically: a low-growing plant that needs some shade will be aided by a taller companion plant that needs the intense mid-day sunlight.
Always rotate your crops each year. You will need to really plan for this. Take as much time as you can to experiment, read, ask and learn by doing. Keep thorough records of what works (and what does not) for your specific location and soil.
The best method for soil fertility is achieved by planting approximately 60% of the growing area in a dual-purpose crop; for example, a grain crop that provides both food and a large amount of carbonaceous material to use in your compost.
Mature material may be had from grains such as corn, sorghum, and wheat, and from beans too. These must be allowed to grow through to their full maturity, and harvested. After harvest, the remainder of the plant will be cut and put into the compost to supply the compost with carbon.
The soil also needs nitrogen, which can be provided by rotating in nitrogen-fixing plants such as alfalfa and comfrey. These plants are often called “green manure”, as opposed to animal manure.
They are cut at the immature stage and turned back into the soil. Wait a month before you add your compost to this area and prepare your soil for planting. Soil prepared in this way will provide you with an abundant harvest!
Be sure you plan your garden space for the correct balance of nutrients and calories. Your garden should be proportioned as follows:
- 60% grain (good for soil, compost and eating)
- 30% root vegetables
- 10% vegetables
Each person needs a minimum four thousand square feet, or 1/10 of an acre, to meet their year-round calorie needs. The idea is to produce a large amount of calories per unit of area.
Open Pollinated Seeds
Our website has a page dedicated to storing and growing plants for seeding each year. Biointensive gardening uses hybrid open pollinated seeds.
The biointensive gardening method is a whole-system approach that permits sustainable gardening in a minimum of space. All of the above steps must be used together for the optimum effect. If you don’t implement all the steps, your soil can be rapidly depleted because the high crop yield per unit area demands continual replenishment of your soil.
Each year, your double dug beds will improve as your soil skills begin to improve. Once your beds have had plenty of compost and a diversity of crops, you will enjoy a healthy garden, ecosystem and food consisting of rich, wholesome vegetables year after year!
We will add more on this topic in the future as we learn these methods. In the meantime, check out the following video on biointensive gardening.