Book Review: 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

I’m going to warn you right off:  this book reads like a technical manual or a short text book.  I’m looking at four densely hand-written pages of notes, and that’s about four times as many notes as I normally end up with for book review purposes.  I’ll try to be concise.
This is the handbook of the Grow Biointensive® method of food gardening: a combination of the French intensive technique (a method used around Paris in the 1700s and 1800s using copious amounts of horse manure and very close plant spacing) and the 1920s biodynamic technique of Austrian Rudolph Steiner (one of the first the rail against synthetic fertilizers and pesticides).  They (The Ecology Action Project members who developed the Grow Biointensive® method) make some pretty bold claims about the method (italics original):
  • A 67% to 88% reduction in water consumption per unit of production
  • A 50+% reduction in the amount of purchased fertilizer required per unit of production
  • A 94% to 99% reduction in the amount of energy used per unit of production
  • A 100+% increase in soil fertility, while productivity increases and resource use decreases
  • A 200% to 400% increase in caloric productions per unit of area
  • A 100+% increase of income per unit of area [pg xii]
Sustainability in the case of a Grow Biointensive® garden is self-sufficient; the idea is to amend the soil to perfection once and then carefully maintain the fertility using no outside inputs by returning everything to the soil that was taken from it and growing deep-rooted crops that will bring up otherwise unavailable nutrients from the subsoil.  They acknowledge that “according to the second law of thermodynamics, all systems proceed toward a state of entropy or disorder.  Therefore, no system, including agriculture, can be sustained indefinitely . . . However . . . we can maintain our soils at a level close to complete sustainability (instead of complete insustainability, as is now the situation with most agricultural systems).” [pg 20] So they say we should shoot for “99% sustainability”. [pg 21]
The system is complicated.  Depending on your soil, you may need to begin with one of four double-digging processes (Initial, Ongoing, Complete Texturizing, or U-Bar).  Tests are then taken and amendments chosen and incorporated to form a bed that is flat-topped but not contained, so that the edges are rounded shoulders (these are planted into at the same rate as the top).  Crops to be planted need to be chosen according to which of three categories they fall into (based on their production of calories and/or carbon), and certain percentages of these categories must be planted.  These crops are then planted in triangular or hexagonal patterns at a distance that will allow their leaves to just touch when they reach harvest size (an extraordinarily detailed and complicated chart spanning the better part of chapter 6 details planting spaces and yields for common vegetable, fruit, and cereal crops).  Certain watering techniques must be used.  Companion planting (both in the “companionship” sense and in the sense of crop rotation) must also be considered.  Gardening by the moon is also mentioned, though they do concede that it is controversial.  (I have not found a convincing argument for it yet, but I haven’t yet read a whole book on the subject.)
Complicated though it may be (and I don’t think I did it justice), most of the reasoning is quite sound and based on old, proven systems used by terracing farmers and farmers in difficult growing areas worldwide for centuries.  The spacing element in particular fascinates me, and I will be experimenting with it in the raised beds I’m installing in the front yard in the spring.
If you happen by this book at the library I would advise you to check it out.  It’s not an easy read but you can pick and choose parts of the overall method to incorporate into your own.  If nothing else, you’ll boggle at the astounding 68 page long bibliography of recommended reading.  (I decided to read that chapter last and I’m still working on it.  More book reviews may come of it!)
– Amanda

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