Adventures in Bio-intensive Growing

A few years ago, I picked up a book at the NC Organic Grower’s School called “How to Grow More Vegetables, (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine”, by John Jeavons. Some of the ideas in this book made sense to me, so I decided to commit one of our new fields to the concept, the Triangle Garden. This is one of our fields that is shaped like a triangle.

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Although there is more to it than this, here are the basic concepts of biointensive farming that we decided to try:

  • Double-Dug, Raised Beds that are wider than normal. Ours were about 3 ft wide.
  • Composting
  • Planting very densely on the wide beds
  • Companion planting. Avoid the monoculture of a huge field all of one crop.

Double digging normally means that you go out there with big broad forks and turn the land over regularly. You need to go down several feet. This keeps the soil loose, so the roots of your crop have plenty of room to grow. Well, our Triangle Garden is about ¼ of an acre, and there is no way I plan on heading out there with a fork and turning it all. So, Sunbelt Equipment Rentals to the rescue! We rented a backhoe and made six long beds that are about three to four feet wide. We used the backhoe to dig down about three feet deep and turn everything over. Wow what a chore this was! Remind me to never do that again. It didn’t work well. By digging down that deep and turning over the soil, we brought up tons of really bad red clay and rocks. The best topsoil was on the top of the ground and we ended up wasting it by burying it under the bad clay and rocks. Fail! Then we added precious compost to the top of the bad clay and rocks and tilled it all in. The good news is that it was very soft at that point, and it looked pretty good. We forbid anyone to walk in it, or drive any equipment over the beds, to keep this lovely soft texture. The bad news was that we couldn’t plant it until we sent a farm helper in there to remove all the big rocks.

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Once we got the beds all made and the backhoe returned to the rental company, we set about planting. I knew I needed to plant things very close together. The whole goal is to crowd your plants in there so that very little light gets down to the soil, and the weeds are shaded out. I think I went a little overboard with this, because I had so many plants in there, the crop couldn’t size in a normal way. Everything ended up long and stretched out, due to lack of light and overcrowding. To make matters worse, we started to get fungal diseases on the lower leaves of some of our plants, because there was absolutely no air flow through the plants, since they were so tightly spaced. I had to go in there and grab out handfuls of crop and remove it to make more room for airflow and normal crop development. I nearly threw my back out trying to get things harvested and removing too tight plants, because these beds were about 4 feet wide. I couldn’t reach to the middle without extreme stretching (remember you can’t walk on these beds). Fail again!

The last thing I did was try to companion plant. To accomplish this, I planted one type of crop on one side of the bed, and another on the other side of the bed. I also tried to make no more than 50 feet of any crop. This also was a problem because it meant that when it was time to harvest lettuce, we had to skip around to several different areas to find it. Jay was really frustrated because it seemed like the only one who knew where anything was located was me! I constantly had to be there to show Jay or our crew where to find the crop I wanted them to work in or harvest. Again, fail!

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It really wasn’t a complete failure though. We experienced some key learning that we now have incorporated into all of our farming, in all our fields. Although we don’t double dig, we do have wide beds that we amend with compost after every crop. We don’t walk on these beds because we don’t want to compact the soil. We have alleys between the beds that we walk on. The beds are wide, however, they are not so wide that we can’t reach across them to harvest. I also plant the crop very close, to crowd out weeds and be able to grow more on less land. This works great, now that I’m not overdoing it. We also companion plant, although not to the extent John Jeavons might have intended. Our Triangle Garden has about eight different crops in there, plus tons of herbs. I often will make one long fat row all one crop, then the next row something else. It is my form of avoiding a monoculture.

Even with our modified version of Bio-intensive Farming, we are growing more than I ever thought possible. So all in all, the book and methods are a success. Right now we are considering what we want to do with our new farm. To some people, 11 acres might not sound like much, but believe me, if you do everything by hand, 11 acres sounds huge. If you are farming mostly by hand, in a very intensive way, you save the money of buying lots of equipment. You also have much higher yields, because you don’t have to space your rows to fit a tractor in there. You can make the bio-intensive wide beds, and fit far more in the same space. The challenge is going to be the labor involved to plant, and to do the hoeing that we do when the crop is very young. If we plant in a traditional way, we can space things so the tractor can drive right through and cultivate between the plants, and rarely need to hand hoe. Hmmm… tempting!

Eat your veggies,
Robin

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