Philosophy

Goal: Learn from the experiences of farmers through time

Winter lettuce growing in an 1890s cloche (bell-glass). The standard diameter is 163/4 inches.

Winter lettuce growing in an 1890s cloche (bell-glass). The standard diameter is 163/4 inches.

Bio Dome Greenhouse Moon

The grow biointensive method of horticulture is a quiet, vitally alive art of organic gardening that relinks people with the whole universe—a universe in which each of us is an interwoven part of the whole. People find their place by relating and cooperating in harmony with the sun, air, rain, soil, moon, insects, plants, and animals rather than by attempting to dominate them. All of these elements will teach us their lessons and do the gardening for us if we will only watch and listen. We become gentle shepherds providing the conditions for plant growth.

The grow biointensive method is a combination of two forms of horticulture practiced in Europe during the 1800s and early 1900s. French intensive techniques were developed in the 1700s and 1800s outside Paris. Crops were grown on 18 inches of horse manure, a fertilizer that was readily available. The crops were grown so close to each other that when the plants were mature, their leaves would barely touch. The close spacing provided a mini-climate and a living mulch that reduced weed growth and helped hold moisture in the soil. During the winter, glass jars were placed over seedlings to give them an early start. The gardeners grew up to nine crops each year and could even grow melon plants during the winter.

Biodynamic techniques were developed in the early 1920s by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian genius, philosopher, and educator. Noting a decline in the nutritive value and yields of crops in Europe, steiner traced the cause to the use of the newly introduced synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. An increase was also noticed in the number of crops affected by disease and insect problems. These fertilizers were not complete and vital meals for the plants, but single, physical nutrients in a soluble salt form. Initially, only nitrogen fertilizers were used to stimulate growth. Later phosphorus and potassium were added to strengthen the plants and to minimize disease and insect problems. Eventually, trace minerals were added to the chemical larder to round out the plants' diet. After breaking down nutrients into their component parts for plant food, people found it necessary to recombine them in mixtures approximating a balanced diet. This attempt might have been more successful if the fertilizers had not caused chemical changes in the soil that damaged its structure, killed beneficial microbiotic life, and greatly reduced its ability to make nutrients already in the air and soil available to the plants.

Rudolf Steiner returned to the more gentle, diverse, and balanced diets of organic fertilizers as a cure for the ills brought on by synthetic chemical fertilization. He stressed the holistic growing environment for plants: their rate of growth, the synergistic balance of their environments and nutrients, their proximity to other plants, and their various companion relationships. He initiated a movement to scientifically explore the relationship that plants have with each other. From centuries of farmer experience and from tests, it has been determined that certain flowers, herbs, weeds, and other plants can minimize insect attacks on plants. Many plants also benefit one another. Strawberries and green beans produce better when grown together. In contrast, onions stunt the growth of green beans. Tomatoes are narcissists; they prefer to be grown alone in compost made from tomato plants.

The biodynamic method also brought back raised planting beds. Two thousand years ago, the Greeks noticed that plant life thrives in landslides. The loose soil allows air, moisture, warmth, nutrients,1 and roots to properly penetrate the soil.

Alan Chadwick

French gardeners at lettuce beds in the early 1900s.

1. Alan Chadwick used to call these nutriments, the things that "nourish or promote growth and repair the natural wastage of organic life." He used the term to distinguish them from nutrients, which are merely "nourishing substances or ingredients." He did this in particular to note the importance of multinutrient organic fertilizers, which break down over a period of time and nourish microbial life growth. In contrast, chemical fertilizers generally break down rapidly and cause inefficient decomposition of organic matter. This organic matter is the microbial life's food source. In this book, nutrient has both meanings.

Artificial fertilization.
Natural fertilization.

French gardeners at lettuce beds in the early 1900s.

1. Alan Chadwick used to call these nutriments, the things that "nourish or promote growth and repair the natural wastage of organic life." He used the term to distinguish them from nutrients, which are merely "nourishing substances or ingredients." He did this in particular to note the importance of multinutrient organic fertilizers, which break down over a period of time and nourish microbial life growth. In contrast, chemical fertilizers generally break down rapidly and cause inefficient decomposition of organic matter. This organic matter is the microbial life's food source. In this book, nutrient has both meanings.

Biointensive Beds
(Left) grow biointensive raised bed; (right) traditional rows.
Row plants are more susceptible to soil compaction.

The curved surface area between the 2 edges of the landslide bed provides more surface area for the penetration and interaction of the natural elements than a flat surface. The simulated landslides or raised beds used by biodynamic gardeners are usually 3 to 6 feet wide and of varying lengths. in contrast, the planting rows usually made by gardeners and farmers today are only a few inches wide with wide spaces in between. The plants have difficulty growing in these rows due to the extreme penetration of air and the greater fluctuations in temperature and moisture content. During irrigation, water floods the rows, immerses the roots in water, and washes soil away from the rows and upper roots. Consequently, much of the beneficial microbiotic life around the roots and soil, which is so essential to disease prevention and to the transformation of nutrients into forms the plants can use, is destroyed and may even be replaced by harmful organisms. (About 3/4 of the beneficial microbiotic life inhabits the upper 6 inches of the soil.) After the water penetrates the soil, the upper layers dry out and microbial activity is severely curtailed. The rows are then more subject to wide temperature fluctuations. Finally, to cultivate and harvest, people and machine trundle down the trough between the rows, compacting the soil and the roots, which eat, drink, and breathe—a difficult task with someone or something standing on the equivalent of your mouth and nose!

These difficulties are also often experienced at the edges of raised beds prepared in clay soils during the first few seasons. Until the soil texture becomes friable, it is necessary to level the top of the raised bed to minimize erosion (see chapter on Bed Preparation), and the soil on the sides of the beds is sometimes too tight for easy planting. increased exposure to the elements occurs on the sides, and the tighter soil of the paths is nearby. The plants along the sides usually do not grow as vigorously as those further inside the bed. When raised beds are prepared in friable soil, the opposite is true. The top of the bed can now be curved and erosion will not be a problem. The soil is loose enough for plants to thrive along the sides. The edges of the beds are included in the mini-climate effect created by closely spaced plants, and the water that runs from the middle of the bed provides the extra moisture the edges need.

Between the 1920s and 1930s, Alan Chadwick, an Englishman, combined the biodynamic and French intensive techniques into the biodynamic/French intensive method. The United States was first exposed to the combination when Mr. Chadwick brought the method to the 4-acre organic Student Garden at the University of California's Santa Cruz campus in the 1960s. Chadwick, a horticultural genius, had been gardening for half a century and was also an avid dramatist and artist. He studied under Rudolf Steiner, the French gardeners, and George Bernard Shaw, and worked as a gardener for the Union of South Africa. The site he developed at Santa Cruz was on the side of a hill with poor, clayey soil. Not even "weeds" grew well there—except poison oak, which was removed with pickaxes. By hand, Chadwick and his apprentices created a good soil in 2 to 3 years. From this soil and vision, a beautiful, wondrous and real Garden of Eden was brought into existence. Barren soil was made fertile through extensive use of compost, with its life-giving humus. The humus produced a healthy soil that grew healthy plants less susceptible to disease and insect attacks. The many nuances of the biodynamic/French intensive method —such as transplanting seedlings into a better soil each time a plant is moved and sowing by the phases of the moon—were also used. The results were beautiful flowers with exquisite fragrances and tasty vegetables of high quality. As an added bonus for all the tender loving care they received, the vegetable plants produced yields four times greater than those produced by commercial agriculture.

As the biodynamic/French intensive gardening method has continued to evolve and be simplified by Ecology Action, so has its name. It is now known simply as grow biointensive

Lush growing beds at Common Ground make optimal use of garden space.

Lush growing beds at Common Ground make optimal use of garden space.

Growing VegetablesSoil Structure And Plant Growth
Proper soil structure and nutrients allow uninterrupted and healthy plant growth.
Organic Gardeners Composting

Organic Gardeners Composting

Have you always wanted to grow your own vegetables but didn't know what to do? Here are the best tips on how to become a true and envied organic gardner.

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