The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Grow Biointensive garden divisions

Grow Biointensive crop areasOne of Jeavons' goals in his Grow Biointensive garden is to create a closed loop, growing all of his compost on-farm.  Finding enough compost can be an issue for sustainable gardeners since you won't get nearly enough organic matter from your garden "waste" to feed next year's plants.  Jeavons solves that problem by focusing a huge proportion of his growing area on grains that not only produce a lot of calories, but also build carbon for the compost pile.

The diagram to the right, from Ecology Action's website, shows how the group breaks their farm down into categories:

  • 60% grains (wheat, rye, oats, barley, triticale, corn, sorghum, amaranth, quinoa, pearl millet, and also non-grains such as fava beans, sunflowers, filberts, and grapes)
  • 30% roots (leeks, garlic, parsnips, sweet potatoes, salsify, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes)
  • 10% vegetables (everything else, including lower-yielding roots like turnips and onions)

Looking at Jeavons numbers, I'm a bit shocked by his ratios --- I'd be concerned if my diet consisted nearly entirely of grains and roots.  Jeavons allots 4,000 square feet of growing area (excluding aisles) to totally feed each person, which means I'd have to grow all of the non-root vegetables the two of us eat in 800 square feet --- a bit less space than we currently commit to tomatoes and leafy greens.  Meanwhile, I'd have to drastically expand the 21% of our garden (and diet) we commit to high-carbohydrate crops (roots and grains), and would actually increase our total vegetable growing area by 45% to match Jeavons' numbers.

Grow Biointensive grainsAs with other parts of How to Grow More Vegetables, I feel like Jeavons' garden divisions are based more on ideology than on reality.  Yes, the concept of creating a closed-loop farm is intellectually interesting, but why is it unsustainable to bring in manures if they're being heaped up in a stack of "waste" by your neighbors?  Alternatively, why not add animals to your own farm --- many studies have shown that small-scale, human-labor systems generally produce more calories per acre if you include animals wisely in multi-layered systems than if you stick to growing plants alone.

On the other hand, Jeavons' system can be considered from another point of view as a way of including cover crops that are useful for more than one purpose.  Rather than planning your grains to be winter-killed or mow-killed, if you've got the space to let them go to seed (and the equipment to process the grain), you'll end up with even more organic matter plus a high-calorie crop.  In traditional farming systems from a century or two ago, this is exactly what most farmers would do...but then they'd feed most of those grains to the chickens, pigs, and milk cow to produce high-quality protein for the family.

For an easy start on cover crops, check out my 99 cent ebook Homegrown Humus.

This post is part of our How to Grow More Vegetables lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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There are those who argue that eating meat wastes the value of the foods used to raise these meat sources. The argument is based on how the capacity of land to produce calories is being wasted, and the moral obligation to feed the growing population world wide. You hear arguments about the cost of grains being affected in 3rd world markets.

I may be a progressive kind of guy, but I do not like the politics of this mind set.

Comment by Gerry Wed Feb 6 13:02:13 2013

Hi Anna,

I agree with your comments.

I have been watching / just discovered Bill Mollison's Global Gardener series videos on youtube. His examples are pretty hard hitting and convincing in that the direction he proposes makes a lot of sense even for cold climates :). And that it is actually be done by real people.

As I interpret him, look around you for local plants that produce edible stuff regularly and for the techniques that work with them and put them in your growing area and nurture them.

I think an even more useful comment is how do we move away from regular gardening to a system in which all food is there for the picking and storing. Certainly the swales and uneven ground seems to be an important first step. I also like Sepp's idea of putting a large log inside each hill.

I also like your waste water garden beginnings as a good way to start!


Comment by john Wed Feb 6 13:57:35 2013
I lurk on your site more than I participate, and unfortunatley lack the time to lurk as much as I wish. Whenever I do view it, I am always impressed by your willingness to say things are as you see them. I totally agree that a closed loop system is impossible and livestock are essential. Continuous cropping is a very bad system. Historically it has never worked in a sustainable manner. Sustainable means a lot longer than a few decades. Grass breaks are essential. The cropping phase can be vastly extended with the use of manure from livestock that are grazed off the property as huge numbers are around the world,and it is normal practice even in western countries like Portugal.
Comment by Old McDonald Thu Feb 7 05:41:58 2013

If calories were the only important factor in producing food, then we should just raise sugar cane. But it's the protein that's more difficult to come by. We should allow the efficiency of the herbivores in turning plant calories and protein into calories and protein for us. it's also less labor & material intensive to grow pasture than crops.

To get a modest 60 gm protein/day, we'd need to eat over 3000cal of corn, rice & beans.(we could do a hi school algebra "mixing problem" to cut that down, but it would require eating much more beans and then we'd have to live with the digestive consequences ;-).

If you check the nutritional values of various foods, you'd be surprised how beef or chicken has even more vit & mins than most veggies per serving. Vegans live in FantsyLand, but we do have freedom of religion here.

Comment by doc Fri Feb 8 07:14:30 2013

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