005: Biointensive Growing in a Permaculture System
Biointensive Growing in a Permaculture System
Before I found out about permaculture, I was studying up on the bio-intensive method of growing food, and was about to dedicate the whole property to a biointensive farming system. As it happened, permaculture swept me off my feet and into a swirl of fascinating ideas and possible directions. As the dust settles now – as my head drifts gently out of the clouds, the bio-intensive idea is still glowing, but not as something separate from permaculture, but as a potentially integral part of it.
The biointensive growing method is an organic small-scale farming method designed to allow a maximum yield for a given area of land. The beds are rectangular and just wide enough that you can reach to the centre from either side without stepping into the bed. The soil is prepared by ‘double-digging’ – loosening the soil to a depth of 2ft whilst involving compost and other organic amendments. Loosening the soil to such depth allows the roots of plants to extend effortlessly, enabling them to take up more water and nutrients. The extra vertical space also enables you to plant with a much closer spacing, which means more produce from a smaller area of land. Finally, the beds are mounded up (raised), with a 45deg slope around the sides, which is also planted into. By the time crops are established, the soil is completed shaded and maximised.
Now this method is quite removed from any pattern in nature, and there’s probably permies out there who would contest the biointensive method, but I think biointensive growing beds can integrate nicely into a permaculture system, and I’m going to find out for sure.
There’s a flat area of land in the front yard which was sheet mulched 3 years ago. It’s since had a few trees put in and they’re taking off slowly. I had paved a narrow pathway dividing the area into biointensive-sized plots before I got involved with permaculture, but after crop failures due to the poor quality of the soil (and the farmer), I mulched right over the area and left it. Now, the soil is ready, and so am I.
I’ve excavated the paved path, and double-dug a single bed, adding copious amounts of clay to the sandy soil (could probably add a lot more), worm castings and partially cured compost. Due to the enormous amount of mulch being mixed into this soil (enough to call it hugelkultur!), I’m likely to run into a ‘nitrogen draw-down’ situation where microbes breaking down all that mulch will temporarily take up all the nitrogen in the soil, leaving none for plant growth. That’s okay for now, because the first crops are going to be nitrogen-fixing legumes, which take much of their nitrogen from the air and actually make it more available in the soil. I will experiment with some other veg too, but without any lofty expectations.
As mentioned before, I see a spectrum spanning from unmanaged wilderness to the other extreme of petro-chemical agriculture, and permaculture is anywhere along that spectrum that’s sustainable or regenerative. The core goal of bio-intensive growing is closed-system sustainability. So while it’s closer to the artificiality of industrial agriculture (something permies try to steer clear of), it’s only artificial in its soil preparation and plant spacing – the rest is left to natural organic processes. The results, well, I’ll post an update and let you know…
If you’re working at establishing a permaculture system in your backyard, but want to dedicate an area to intensive annual vegetables, consider the biointensive growing method, established by Alan Chadwick and further developed by John Jeavons and Ecology Action.