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- What is
- How it
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food in the
A SUSTAINABLE SOLUTION FOR GROWING FOOD.
We have dedicated our research to rediscovering the scientific principles
that underlie millennia-old traditional farming systems. These have
guided us to the eight essential aspects that are the foundation
of GROW BIOINTENSIVE:
- Double-Dug, Raised Beds
- Intensive Planting
- Companion Planting
- Carbon Farming
- Calorie Farming
- The Use of Open-Pollinated Seeds
- A Whole-System Farming Method
Image © 1995 Jim Bones
Most life in nature occurs at the interface of soil, water, air
and sun. GROW BIOINTENSIVE soil preparation practices create growing
beds with more surface area to maximize the effect of nature’s
life processes. Double-dug beds, with soil loosened to a depth of
24 inches, aerate the soil, facilitate root growth, and improve
water retention. The health and vigor of the soil are maintained
through the use of compost. Close plant spacing is used to protect
soil microorganisms, reduce water loss, and
maximize yields. Companion planting facilitates the optimal use
of nutrients, light and water, encourages beneficial insects and
creates a vibrant mini-ecosystem within the garden. A focus on the
production of calories for the farmer and carbon for the soil ensures
that both the farmer and the soil will be adequately fed and that
the farm will be sustainable. The use of open-pollinated seeds helps
to preserve genetic diversity
and enables gardeners to develop their own acclimatized cultivars. All of the components of this system must be used together for optimum
effect and to avoid depleting the soil.
GROW BIOINTENSIVE mini-farming techniques make it possible to grow
- 67% to 88% less water
- 50% to 100% less fertilizer
- 99% less energy than commercial agriculture, while using a fraction
These techniques can also:
- Produce 2 to 6 times more food
- Build the soil up to 60 times faster than in nature, if properly
- Reduce by half or more the amount of land needed
THE NEED FOR GROW
Globally, the health of farming is being threatened
by severe challenges:
- Because of population growth, pollution of water sources, and
greater use of water for industry, by 2050 each person on the
Earth will have only 25% of the water that was available in 1950.
Current agricultural practices use 80% of the Earth’s available
- There may be as little as 40 years of farmable soil remaining
globally. For every pound of food eaten, 6 to 24 pounds of soil
are lost due to water and wind erosion, as the result of agricultural
- 95% of the seed varieties ever grown in agriculture are now
virtually extinct. Much of this is due to the growing of relatively
few crops, and the frequent use of hybrid seeds for the crops
that are grown. Seeds that are no longer used soon lose their
viability and are rarely available.
- Global warming may cut agricultural production in half within
as little as 20 years. In February, 2004, the Observer in the
United Kingdom reported that climate change is a greater threat
to the world than terrorism.
- With supplies of petroleum and natural gas running out, conventional
agriculture—heavily dependent on these resources—will
become more expensive, raising food prices accordingly. As natural
gas to make inexpensive nitrogen fertilizer is depleted, it may
take significantly more land to grow the same amount of food,
when conventional agricultural practices are used.
- The number of farmers globally keeps decreasing. In the US,
only 2/5 of 1% of the population now farm. Many people would like
to farm but are unable to afford the land and equipment current
wisdom says is necessary for a farm to be economically viable.
Other farmers have been forced off their land due to heavy competition
from globalization and subsidized food. As farmers go out of business,
their skills—often passed down through millennia—are
also lost to the world. Once thriving communities that served
rural populations deteriorate and die as farmers leave.
GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farming can
provide a solution to many of these challenges. The method:
- Requires 67% to 88% less water than conventional agriculture.
- Properly used, is capable of building up soil while growing
- Grows a wide variety of crops, using only open-pollinated seeds.
- Requires no petroleum or natural gas products. It is based on
human energy and will still be productive when oil runs out.
- Can produce high yields on small pieces of land with limited
resource use, making it accessible to almost everyone who would
like to grow food.
Small-scale farming is as old as agriculture itself.
One study of 15 countries, primarily in Asia and Africa, found that
per-acre output on small farms can be as much as four to five times
higher than on large ones. Russia, over the years, has often produced
30% to 50% of its food on household plots representing as little
as 3% to 5% of all Russian farmland. The productivity of small-scale
farms is also being widely recognized by agricultural economists
who call it the “inverse relationship between farm size and
SOIL AND GROW BIOINTENSIVE®
All of life on Earth depends on six-inches of topsoil and the fact
that it rains! The soil is a living organism that must be fed and
nurtured to keep it feeding us. Down through the millennia farmers
have known this and have renewed the soil with organic matter and
However, this basic understanding has been lost by the current conventional
agriculture. Soil has been viewed as simply another commodity, an
inert medium for growing, and has been inundated with chemicals
to provide high yields and kill insects and plant diseases. In the
process, once-fertile soils have become severely depleted of organic
matter, nutrients, and micro-organisms—the army of invisible,
beneficial workers in the soil. Depleted soils are in danger of
being blown away by wind or washed away by rain.
Thirty percent of the world’s cropland has been abandoned
in the last 40 years due to severe erosion.
- As little as 40 years of farmable soil remain globally.
- For each pound of food eaten in the United States, approximately
6 pounds of soil are lost to wind and water erosion, resulting
from agricultural practices.
- Twelve pounds of farmable soil are similarly lost in developing
countries, with 18 pounds of farmable soil lost in China for every
pound of food eaten.
- Approximately 213,000 people are added to the planet daily,
requiring about 34,000 more farmable acres each day to feed them—acreage
which does not exist.
- Due to all of these factors, by 2014 only about 64% of the world’s
population is likely to have an adequate diet.
On June 15, 2004, the United Nations observed that the world’s
land is turning to desert at an alarming speed—at twice the
rate that was occurring in 1970.
Action started its research in 1972 in its first research garden
on Syntex Corporation land at the Stanford University Industrial
Park. ‘A’ and ‘B’ horizons soil had been
removed and the garden was created on ‘C’ horizon subsoil.
In 1980 it was necessary to give up this site because Syntex needed
the land. Before the garden was moved Doug Maher, a student at the
University of California, Berkeley, tested the soil in one of the
growing beds. He listed the results in his Soil Science Master’s
thesis, finding that the humified carbon level in the upper 1 to
1.5 inches of the soil had been built up in only eight years to
a level that would have taken nature alone 500 years to accomplish.
The thesis extrapolated that GROW BIOINTENSIVE techniques, properly
used, have the potential to build soil up to 60 times faster than
it can be developed in nature.
In the GROW BIOINTENSIVE system, soil fertility is maintained
by allotting 60% of what is grown to compost crops. A focus on the
production, through these crops, of calories for the gardener and
carbon for the soil can ensure that both the gardener and the soil
will be adequately fed and that the farm will be sustainable. Because
this biologically-intensive method requires much less area to produce
the same yield of crops as conventional agriculture, if it were
used globally at least one-half of the world’s acreage could
be left in the wild for the preservation of the all important plant
and animal diversity.
“The soil is a living
organism. Like all other living organisms, she breathes, feeds,
grows, develops, and moves. Nature gave her external and internal
spiritual beauty. This must be understood by first seeing, then
feeling, understanding, and above all, falling in love with her.”
---Irina Kim, Biointensive practitioner and teacher in Uzbekistan
To download this image as a PDF click here
CLARIFICATIONS AND EXAMPLES
(General Aids for Planning Your Diet)
• 60-65% of the area — “Carbon-and-Calorie Crops” — High-Carbon-producing and
significant-calorie-producing (weight-efficient [see below]) crops
Grains: Wheat, Cereal Rye, Oats, Barley, Triticale, Corn, Sorghum, Amaranth, Quinoa, etc.
Fava Beans (grown to maturity for dry bean and dry biomass production)
Sunflowers (sunflower seeds very high in fat; maximum to avoid copper toxicity = 0.62 lb / day)
• 30% of the area — “High-Calorie Root Crops” — Area- and weight-efficient crops for calories
Crops for this category need to be both area- and weight-efficient. As defined for this worksheet, a crop is considered to be “area-efficient” if the annual area needed for total calories is 16 beds (1600 sq ft) or less, assuming GROW BIOINTENSIVE intermediate yields; it is considered to be “weight-
efficient” if the daily weight of food to be eaten for total calories is 9 pounds or less.1
|Potatoes (12.2/6.7) Maximum to avoid potassium toxicity = 2.5 lb /day
Jerusalem Artichoke (12.3 / 7.0)**
Garlic (10.8 / 3.6)**
Leeks (6.6 / 8.7)
Parsnips (10.8 / 7.1)
Sweet Potatoes (11.2 / 5.0)
Salsify (11.8 / 6.5)
AREA in 100-sq-ft beds / WEIGHT in lb: e.g., it takes 12.2 beds of potatoes to produce the 2,400 calories per day needed by an average person—who would have to eat 6.7 lb of potatoes per day.
** Jerusalem artichoke and some varieties of hard-neck garlic may produce significant amounts of dry biomass.
The crops below are weight-efficient, but require more area to grow and produce relatively little biomass. Therefore, they should be included in the 10% “Vegetable Crops” category.
Peanuts (34.1 / 0.9) Very high in fat
Soybeans (58.0 / 3.8)
|Beans (except Fava Beans) (56.8 / 4.7)
||Burdock (17.8 / 7.3) (assuming Carrot yield)
Cassava (20.1 / 3.3) May produce modest amount of carbon
The following crops can be area-efficient if yields are high enough, but the daily weight of food exceeds the guidelines, so they should be included in the 10% “Vegetable Crops” category.
Onions, Regular (12.7 / 14.0)
| Turnips + Tops (8.8 / 19.4)
(assuming 2 crops are possible OR yield is two times intermediate)
Rutabaga (13.4 / 14.7)
NOTE: For diet diversity, you may choose crops that are less weight-efficient (e.g. regular onions, 14.0 lb per day); in which case, you need to have a significant amount of food from crops that are more weight-efficient (e.g. filberts (0.8 lb per day) and/or increase your design area.
ROOT CROPS THAT ARE NOT GOOD CHOICES FOR THIS CATEGORY:
Carrots (30.0 / 12.3) Beets / Mangels (roots only) (40.8 / 12.3) Radishes (48.1 / 26.4)
• 5-10% of the area — “Vegetable Crops”
Low-calorie-producing, low-carbon-producing miscellaneous vegetables
for vitamins and minerals
1 In the book One Circle by Duhon, an “area-efficient” crop can provide total calories with 700 sq ft or less (550 sq ft for a woman, 850 sq ft for a man), and a “weight-efficient” crop can provide total calories in 6 pounds or less for a man or 5.5 pounds or less for a woman.
60/30/10 Clar. Revised 2/15/06, based on updated nutrition information in the 7th ed. of How to Grow More Vegetables.
© 2006, 2005, 2003, 2001, 1999, 1997 Ecology Action, 5798 Ridgewood Road, Willits CA 95490-9730.
To download this clarifications sheet as a PDF click here
THE BROCCOLI TEST:
vs. ORGANIC AGRICULTURE
vs. GROW BIOINTENSIVE® AGRICULTURE
GROW BIOINTENSIVE Agriculture
What is the most effective way to grow healthy crops in poor soil
while improving the fertility of the soil?
The following comparative yields were obtained
from chemical, organic and GROW BIOINTENSIVE agriculture-type tests
run in our compacted "C-horizon" material at Ecology Action's
first site in the Stanford University Industrial Park in Palo Alto,
California. This material, which is broken down rock, normally takes
about 500 years to become soil. The topsoil and subsoil from this
site, the "A- and B- Horizons", had been previously removed
during a construction process. Several crops were grown in side-by-side
trials with each test acting as a "control" for the other
tests. The broccoli test described below is a typical example. The
plants in the above photograph are representative samples of the
broccoli plants grown with each of these techniques. In addition,
the relative differences in the results are representative of those
which occurred with each of the crops tested in this way.
Chemical Agricultural Practices
The stunted broccoli plant on the left was grown using chemical
agricultural practices: loosening the soil about 7 inches deep and
adding chemical fertilizer as indicated in its directions plus 2
cubic feet of composted organic matter without soil per 100 square
feet. The crops were planted in rows with the conventional distance
between rows and between plants within the rows. The broccoli heads
were about 1/4 the size of an adult person's little fingernail.
Organic Agricultural Practices
The broccoli shown in the middle was grown using organic farming
practices: loosening the soil about 11 inches deep and adding an
appropriate amount of organic fertilizers plus 8 cubic feet of composted
organic matter without soil per 100 square feet. The crops were
planted in rows with the conventional distance between rows and
between plants within the rows. The broccoli heads were about 4
inches in diameter and weighed about 4 ounces each.
GROW BIOINTENSIVE Agricultural Practices
The broccoli shown on the right was grown using GROW BIOINTENSIVE
agricultural practices: loosening the soil about 24 inches deep
and adding the same appropriate amount of organic fertilizers plus
8 cubic feet of composted organic matter without soil per 100 square
feet. The crops were planted in raised-growing beds 6 feet wide
by 19 feet long with standard GROW BIOINTENSIVE offset spacing (and
no widely spaced rows), so the plants' leaves touched at maturity.
The broccoli heads were about 10 inches in diameter and weighed
about 10 ounces each, or 2.5 times greater than in the organic farming
test and 120 times greater than in the chemical agriculture test.
In addition, the overall yield for the GROW BIOINTENSIVE agriculture
test was 7.5 times higher per unit of area than the organic farming
test, because 3 times more plants could be planted per unit of area
with the close "living mulch" crop spacings used in raised-bed
After this initial test in 1973-1974, it was discovered
that more than 8 cubic feet of composted organic matter without
soil per 100 square feet is not normally sustainable. However, 8
cubic feet of composted organic matter, including 50% soil, should
produce similar, though different, parallel results
GETTING STARTED WITH
Growing your own food can be rewarding on
many levels, and can bring benefits both to you and the planet.
It is empowering to know that you are able to provide for yourself
in such a basic way. The taste of fully-ripe food fresh from the
garden may be an eye-opening experience. Fresh air and exercise
are added benefits. And each food item that comes from your backyard
rather than the supermarket means less of the oil use, resource
use, air pollution and soil pollution that are required for commercial
growing, processing and transporting of foods.
We realize that the thought of learning
how to grow all your own food can seem overwhelming. Don’t
overdo! We recommend starting slowly and simply, with one 100- square-foot
bed. Reading How to Grow More Vegetables or The Sustainable Vegetable
Garden will show you how to double-dig the soil and become aware
of the other processes that make up the GROW BIOINTENSIVE system.
A smaller area to work in can lead to successful growing and self
confidence in the process. You will gradually learn about your own
soil, microclimate and mini-ecosystem and the plants that thrive
You will be surprised to see, when using
GROW BIOINTENSIVE, the amount of food that can be grown in such
a small space. Dig in and enjoy!
Standards for GROW BIOINTENSIVE® Sustainable Mini-Farming
GROW BIOINTENSIVE® Sustainable Mini-Farming is a remarkable method for increasing yields, decreasing resource use, and building soil fertility at very low cost. When used properly, it has the potential to change our world for the better. However, when putting this method into practice, it is important to be aware that GROW BIOINTENSIVE is a whole system, and that the components of the system must all be used together to be sustainable.
If you are using GROW BIOINTENSIVE, be aware that if you do not use all of the components of the system together, the method’s high yields can rapidly deplete the soil, and can potentially cause as much damage to your land as conventional farming practices.
If you use all of the components of the system together, the method can build up the soil rapidly while producing higher yields and conserving resources.
We are eager for people to put GROW BIOINTENSIVE into practice, but we want to make certain that each farmer is aware that their garden or mini-farm is only as sustainable the techniques used by the farmer. For this reason, we have created the following “check-list” to help you keep track of your progress away from soil-depletion and ecosystem destruction, and towards true, abundant sustainability.
To be considered as a true GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farm, the garden, mini-farm, or farm of an individual, project, program, or organization must be using a specific group of practices in a specific way. These practices are grouped in three levels of increasing involvement:
Basic GROW BIOINTENSIVE Mini-Farmer
Transitional GROW BIOINTENSIVE Mini-Farmer
Full GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farmer
To see what level of sustainability your farm or garden has achieved,
please download and read the following checklist,
and check off the practices which apply to your garden, mini-farm or farm at this time.
Checklist for GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farming (~43MB PDF)
ABOUT GROW BIOINTENSIVE® TERMINOLOGY
For the purposes of the educational materials and presentations on the Curriculum Resources and
Self-Teaching Tools pages, as well as other learning and teaching resources available on this website, it is useful
to have alternative terms to use when discussing biologically intensive practices that may differ
from the officially certified GROW BIOINTENSIVE processes developed by Ecology Action.
Before using GROW BIOINTENSIVE presentations or other material please download and read Ecology Action's Description of Terminology, which explains the proper use of the terms "biointensive", "Biointensive" and "GROW BIOINTENSIVE®".