Developed in the 1970s by John Jeavons, biointensive agriculture is an organic food production system which focuses on growing large amounts of food on small areas of land, while simultaneously improving and maintaining the fertility of the soil. A happy combination of biodynamics and French intensive gardening, it was originally designed for developing countries low on resources, machinery and fossil fuels. This method is all about achieving long term sustainability on a closed loop basis and is particularly effective for back-yard gardeners and small-hold farmers.
The biointensive agriculture head quarters is in California at Ecology Action where it operates as a research and education centre. Practitioners on this side of the world are slim on the ground with only one person, Jodi Roebuck in NZ, a certified practitioner who has trained directly with Ecology Action. So when I found out Harry and Bonnie Wykman from Black Earth Collective were doing an internship with Jodi, we organised them to pay a visit to Tasmania to share their skills with us and others.
This dynamic brother/sister team have have been involved in urban agriculture, permaculture and small-scale farming for the past decade or so, are deeply committed to all things good and worthy and happen to be dear friends of mine. I love it when work and play come together!
Harry and Bonnie Wykman, Black Earth Collective, Perth – W.A
But why biointensive agriculture? Because we need to learn about methods (there’s more than one) that can guide us in reducing our ecological footprint – right now, we take up too much space/resources and our population is ever increasing. As is shown below, each person requires up to 28 000 square metres (around 7 acres) of land to provide their food and fibre and we simply don’t have that much fertile land available to us. Biointensive agriculture has proven that as little as 400 sq metres is enough for one vegan diet, that’s smaller than your average urban house block – wowsers.
To achieve its’ goal of having a closed loop system and using land efficiently, the biointensive method advocates the following ratios for our food and fibre crops.
This workshop was jam packed of useful, practical skills for efficient growing – here’s some snapshots to give you a sense of how great it was.
Once up and showing a couple of leaves, radish seeds were transplanted from a standard seed tray into a purpose built ‘planting flat’ (see below) to provide the plants extra room for their roots to mature. Turns out you can propagate and transplant all types of crops this way including carrots and beetroots… and they don’t mind it one bit. This means that you can completely avoid the sometimes patchy outcome when you do direct sowing of seeds.
Harry and Bonnie made these planting flats from pallets we salvaged from around town. They’re incredibly practical with extra depth and capacity, plus they’re totally beautiful.
Pallets are a great resource, free and everywhere in cities. Just be sure to only collect the ones which have the “HT” stamp on them which means they’re heat treated and chemical free.
Tool types, tool care and tool use are all central to successful biointensive agriculture. While we didn’t have the ideal array of tools that are usually used with this technique (check out that u-bar below!) we used common garden tools which still did the job. HOWEVER, be mindful that if you have hard clay soils some tools will bend and break. Invest in quality tools to do the job properly, key brands recommended by Harry and Bonnie are Wolfgarten, Bulldog and Spear and Jackson.
We spent some solid time learning how to use tools ergonomically to do double digging, which sounds simple, but actually requires some re-wiring of the brain and body to ‘get it’. But it’s worth it, as most of us know, when you don’t use tools correctly, you end up working harder and hurting yourself.
Harry demonstrating the right digging techniques
The above diagram shows the double digging process for which biointensive agriculture is famous. The aim of the game is to transform compacted and/or lifeless soil into friable, living, brown gold. To do this is, you do two lots of ‘digging’, the first dig turns over the top layer of soil while the second only loosens the subsoil (not turned). Depending on your soil type, compost can be gently integrated into the subsoil layer and/or just integrated into the top soil layer. For a thorough demonstration, watch this youtube clip from Ecology Action.
A really important point: Make sure your soils have a good level of moisture before you double dig. Too dry and it can be like digging rocks (especially with clay soils), too wet and you’ll just dig up large clods. It needs to be just right, damp enough that your spade/fork can slide in easily and not too wet that it’s sticky or muddy.
And then there’s the planting system where you can plant up to 4 times the amount of crops compared to a traditional market garden system – awesome.
Using a series of measuring sticks, you can precisely plant out seedlings to maximise the space.
But what about weeding, I hear you ask??? Good question, during the bred preparation a super thorough weed is done to rid the soil of 99% of any weeds. The thick planting helps suppress any weeds that may come up after the crops are in and then it’s up to manual intervention, i.e. the grower and their hands to pull out any tricky weeds that do come through.
Harry testing the friability of the new beds by seeing how far he can push his arm into the soil. While not exactly text book perfect, the beds are now around 1000% better compared to when we started.
And like all workshops which bring growers together, there’s a lot of this happening – ‘grower talk’ where experiences are shared and hot tips swapped for how to refine green thumbs. We love watching this happen… and taking part in it.
A massive thanks to Bonnie and Harry for making it to our island, staying with us for a week and teaching us some real life skills to add to our belt. We’re already dreaming and scheming on how we can work with these guys again!
Keep an eye on the Black Earth Collective, they’re about to unleash some damn exciting and fantastic things – watch this space!
Want to read more? Check out the How to Grow more Vegetables book by John Jeavons for a complete run down on all things biointensive agriculture and Ecology Action’s fantastic videos for practical demonstrations.
*Your blogger is Hannah Moloney, co-director of Good Life Permaculture and lover of all things garden-esk.