So, here’s another post about roots. This time, I want to talk about how deep soil preparation (double-digging) works to increase the health and yields of plants by giving them room to spread out.
Did you know that the average carrot puts down an 8-foot-deep root? It’s true – check out the picture on page 19 of the 9th edition of How to Grow More Vegetables! The more root a plant has, the more nutrients it can take up. More nutrients means healthier plants, higher yields, and more nutritious food for you and your family.
Typically, farm soil is only prepared 6-inches deep. However, the Royal Horticultural Society in England performed tests showing that soil prepared 24-inches deep – the same depth that results from the “double-digging” method that Biologically-intensive gardening uses – produced healthier plants and higher yields. When you prepare the soil four times as deep as “normal” (24 inches) you produce four times the root system and four times the nutrient-cycling occurs! See what happens in the soil when it is prepared 10-inches deep (upper image) and 20-inches deep (lower image) in the photographs to the left. These images are from the section “Living Quarters for Plant Roots—A Picture Story of How Soil Conditions Determine Root Development” by Henry C. De Roo. This is from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden out-of-print Handbook on Soils, 1956, which has been reprinted by Ecology Action with its kind permission (also available on Amazon). Which rooting system would you rather have growing your food- and compost-crops?
Now, I know that people can be a little doubtful about double-digging, because it seems like “work”. But Biologically-intensive gardening and farming is not really labor intensive…it is actually skill intensive! You do not need to work harder, you just need to think smarter! See p. 30 in HTGMV. Think of double-digging as an investment, that once made, will continue to repay you and your garden to as long as you maintain it correctly. You do not have to continually double-dig. Once good, deep soil preparation has been established for a sufficient time, you only need to surface cultivate 2- to 4-inches deep with a hula hoe. See pp. 14=32 in HTGMV for the overall process.
Good soil preparation increases the quality and quantity of your gardening and farming result!
Give double digging a try – even if it’s only one bed to start with. You won’t be disappointed, and your plants will love the extra space to sink their roots.
Spring has sprung, and it’s time to get your seedlings in gear for a productive year!
In keeping with the season, I thought that this would be a good time to discuss the benefits of pricking out your seedlings before you transplant them. Many people are in the habit of simply planting their seeds in flats, and then transplanting the resulting seedlings directly in garden beds. Most don’t know that you can greatly increase plant health and yields by including a step in between planting the seeds and transplanting the seedlings, called “pricking out” in which you select the healthiest seedlings and transfer them to a slightly deeper flat to continue to grow to the correct size and hardiness, before finally transplanting them into a growing bed.
In the 1950’s Dr. C.K Snyder of the University of California-Berkeley performed a study, with globally accepted results, showing that an increase in root health of just 2% to 4% enabled field crops to produce 200% to 400% the yield. The photograph above shows the difference pricking out makes to the root systems of the seedlings. Which seedling would you like to have growing your crops?!
Some people are reluctant to take the extra time and effort to prick out seedlings – and I understand that an extra step at an already busy time of year isn’t welcome, but believe me, the results are worth it! Years ago, a GROW BIOINTENSIVE Certified Teacher candidate did not believe that pricking out would make a difference. He had been starting lettuce seedlings in flats and then transplanted them directly into the double-dug growing bed, as most farmers do. After being encouraged for a long time to try pricking the lettuce seedlings into a second flat, allowing them to grow to the right size and then transplanting them into the growing bed, he finally tried it. The result? He found that he reliably received double the yield of lettuce from the pricked-out seedlings, time and time again.
If you want to get the most out of your garden this year, it’s easy to learn for yourself how and when to correctly prick out seedlings for different varieties. See pp. 85-86 in the 9th edition of How to Grow More Vegetables published by Penguin/Random House 2017. Also refer to Columns E through N in the Master Charts on pages 137-187 of HTGMV.
You will be amazed!
Sustainability isn’t a new concept.
For almost 50 years I have worked to create a form of agriculture that helps all people grow abundant nutritious food and fertile soil, in harmony with this beautiful earth. I know that I have been helped and guided along the way by those who came before me: the original farmer-to-farmer training network, stretching back thousands of years. Time after time, I have seen examples of “primitive” cultures that knew more about their environment and how to keep their land healthy and productive than many of the finest scientists our modern agricultural and educational systems have produced. And now that our civilization is seeing unprecedented challenges in the face of climate change, I find myself looking to the past, to the native people of North America for advice and resources on how to work with our planet to create the solutions we need to survive.
Three books that spring to mind on this theme are:
Written in 1997 by Thomas E Mails, author of the source-book for the epic film Dances with Wolves. According to the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center’s online biography, Mails’ “…spiritual awakening as a minister gave him the insight needed to see the wonder and beauty of the Indian life-way, the center and core of which is man’s relationship to creation. … He spent years writing and illustrating Native American history books. The first book he worked on was titled The Mystic Warrior of the Plains…[which became] a standard reference book worldwide for those interested in the culture of the Plains Indians.”
Mails wrote The Hopi Survival Kit in 1997, at the request of the Elders of Hotevilla, a tiny village on a remote Hopi reservation in Arizona, who for centuries had “…guarded the secrets and prophecies of a thousand-year-old covenant created to ensure the well-being of the earth and its creatures.” Mails was “…chosen by the last surviving elders to reveal to the outside world the sacred Hopi prophecy and instructions at precisely the time in history when they are most urgently needed. The Hopi Survival Kit is the first full revelation of traditional Hopi prophecy. … And though this may be a sobering realization, it is also our best defense. For the Hopi teachings give detailed instructions for survival–our actions can alter the pace and intensity of what will happen and help avoid a cataclysmic end.”
The chapters include:
- The Secret of Land and Life
- The Ark’s Instructions
- The Ark’s Warnings, and
- The Twist in the Secret
Much of this book is a historical narrative, and while some have criticized Mails’ writing style, I found it an interesting read and a valuable commentary on our current situation. The primary message of the Hopi prophecy is that humans must embrace peace and work with Mother Earth to achieve survival in harmony with nature. And within the narrative is a nugget of 30 pages or so of practical advice and survival techniques to achieve this goal.
(Of course, if you’re interested in growing your own food sustainably, I also have another book you might like to read… 🙂 )
The Medicinal Uses of More Than 3000 Plants by 218 Native American Tribes
An incredible resource! This is one of those books that really provides a link with the past for farmers into the future.
Written by renowned ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman, this 800-page compilation is a wide-ranging and authoritative font of information about medicinal plant usage by the first peoples, far outpacing other books I’ve seen on the subject. Don’t be daunted by its size – it’s an enjoyable read, and a good addition to your reference library, covering “…82 categories of medicinal uses, ranging from analgesics, contraceptives, and gastrointestinal aids to hypotensive medicines, sedatives, and toothache remedies. This book includes extensive indexes arranged by tribe, usage and common name…and is a…starting point for anthropologists, botanists, phytochemists and readers interested in ethnobotany natural healing and the preservation of biodiversity.”
The topics are arranged by tribe, usage, and common name, making it easy to access the richly detailed information. If you are interested in native plants, healing, naturopathy, survival, or botany, this is the book for you!
Another volume on the theme of native plant use, this handbook focuses on varieties used for centuries by people in the desert environments stretching south into Mexico. On an increasingly desertified planet, this epic 971-page treasure trove of useful information by Walter Ebeling is a great place to start learning how to make a proactive difference right where you are, growing food and fiber while conserving water in our gardens!
- The First Americans (including wild plant foods of the high plains and bordering mountains)
- The Great Basin Wild Food and Fiber Plants
- Owens Valley Native Food and Fiber Plants
- California Food and Fiber Plants of the Central Valley
- Food and Fiber Plants of Cahuilla Territory
- The Lower Colorado Basin
- The United States Southwest – The principal Useful Wild Plants
- A Historic Perspective
Pondering the predictions of the Hopi elders, wondering how things will go for our species and the planet, two of my favorite quotes from visionaries of different backgrounds spring to mind:
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” ()
“The best way to predict your future is to create it.” (Abraham Lincoln).
The plants and perspectives included in these wonderful publications are a link with the past that can make all the difference in the world to each of our futures – if we take the time to understand them and integrate the wisdom of the first peoples into our actions! Why not start taking care of our part of the web of life, and growing a future where all beings can thrive today, with one of these books?
These days, everyone seems to have a slow cooker to make life easier. But guess what? There’s a simpler, less expensive alternative that’s been helping rural people cook food and conserve fuel for at least 200 years!
According to Wikipedia, a haybox is a “…cooker that utilizes the heat of the food being cooked to complete the cooking process. Food items to be cooked are heated to the boiling point, and then insulated. Over a period of time, the food items cook by the heat captured in the insulated container.” Haybox cookery (sometimes called “thermal cookery”) may well be the original “slow food” as it takes about 3x longer to cook the food than when using direct heat, but as long as you’re not in a hurry, it’s an excellent way to conserve energy – up to 80% according to some sources.
First thought to have been practiced by Norwegian peasants and “officially” appearing in publications in the early 19th century, hayboxes were used in WWI and WWII in England to conserve rationed cooking fuel, and were also promoted by the US government during the Great Depression. Fast forward to the 21st century, where the concept is still used by hikers and campers, who heat up food in the morning and then store the heated pot in a sleeping bag or backpack through the day, to provide a hot meal in the evening. True today as in the 1800s, the haybox method saves fuel and labor. No food is overcooked, or burnt. No nourishment is lost. The resulting flavor is exquisite!
There are several books available on the subject, but my favorite is Haybox Cookery by Eleanour Sinclair Bohde, published by George Routledge and Sons, Ltd, London in 1939. Even though this book is out of print and somewhat difficult to find), I recommend getting a copy if you can, because it gives detailed information and is an excellent place to get started. Topics covered:
If you’re interested in trying haybox cooking, and can’t find Haybox Cookery, there is a wealth of information online, including the following:
One note: When using any thermal cooking method, you need to be careful to maintain a high enough temperature to prevent the growth of dangerous bacteria. If the temperature of the food drops below 140°F (60 °C) for any length of time, you risk food poisoning. Therefore, a) it’s important to make sure the food is truly boiling when you place it in the thermal cooker so it stays good and hot and b) it’s best to use a thermometer to make sure the food stays at a safe temperature. There are several digital cooking thermometers with remote sensors that can be used to monitor the temperature of the food in your haybox cooker without opening the lid – a quick internet search will show you several options.
Grab a box, some hay, a covered pot, and your favorite ingredients and start exploring a whole new exciting, delicious, resource-conserving world!
In the 1980s, Ron Whitehurst of ACRES U.S.A. wrote: “Central Florida is being mined down sea level for phosphate clay; and spiraling natural gas prices are making synthetic nitrogen fertilizer exorbitantly priced. Even using all the solid and liquid wastes from the cities, there isn’t enough nutrient value to keep America growing. The answer is to use particular legumes and fast-growing plants as green manure to be turned into the soil to enrich it. This is growing fertilizer and soil conditioners in place; right where they are needed in the field.”
30 years later, Ron’s concerns are still valid, and more urgent than ever: we are seeing peak phosphorus, farm bankruptcies, agricultural pollution from chemical fertilizers and sewage sludge, farm resource shortages, and most dangerous to our food security, a massive decline in the fertility of our soils. And the solution is still the same: we need to regenerate and maintain our soils by growing our fertilizers and soil conditioners right in the field, in a closed-loop system.
Edwin McLeod’s Feed the Soil is a practical volume on nitrogen fixing “green manure” crops to provide an alternative to the increasing costs and environmental damage of chemical fertilizers and is beyond a treasure trove for sustainable farmers and gardeners. In 1982, my good friend and amazing seedsman Lorenz A. Schaller (The Kusa Seed Research Foundation) wrote the following review of the book in East West Journal – I can’t improve on it, so I’m including it whole:
“Feed the Soil is a unique instruction text and resource guide for the practical work needed to lay a foundation for a new order of agriculture on earth. One central premise agreed to by all factions of the organic-growing movement is the necessity to ‘feed the soil’. In turn the soil feeds the plants. This single fact is the most basic and essential key for understanding and practicing natural fertility plant culture. How this approach functions and the benefits it bestows are given in an outstandingly clear and readable manner by Edwin McLeod.
Feed the Soil can be used as a resource to understand how natural agriculture works and as a guide to putting this understanding into practice. It serves with equal reward anyone interested in increasing their understanding of soil fertility, gardening, or the farming arts.”
Chapters and other key topics include:
Though this publication in great part emphasizes the use of “green manure” Ecology Action and its biologically-intensive GROW BIOINTENSIVE method utilizes a combination of composting and inter-planting with legumes instead. The reason being that when green manuring plants that have high levels of readily available nitrogen are turned into the soil, the nitrogen seeks out carbon in the soil and breaks it down to C02— reducing the soil’s precious organic matter levels and releasing that carbon into the atmosphere. But the topics in Feed the Soil are still just as useful – the varieties described can be used with the interplanting and composting method instead of green-manuring.
Excitingly, Feed the Soil describes key little-known soil-building legumes and other crops, as well as enhanced descriptions of well-known ones.
Diverse Bromegrass Varieties
The important Pidgeon Pea
The deep-rooting Jack Bean which is important in drier regions
The Sword Bean
Small Blue Lupine
Several Bur Clovers
Several Sweet Clovers
Sanfoin – one of Alan Chadwick’s favorites
The Moth Bean/Mat Bean, which “covers the ground so completely that there is practically no water evaporation from the soil”
The Adzuki Bean
Austrian Winter Pea
Woolly Pod Vetch, which has the potential of fixing up to 3 times the nitrogen compared with other Legumes
Fertile soil is priceless. Growing it is easy – if you do it right. Feed the Soil (plus the GB method) will help you find the right varieties to put nitrogen and organic matter back into your garden. Give it a try!
More recent podcast interviews with John:
Online: John Jeavons is featured on TUC Radio
John Jeavons was featured as a part of a TUC Radio mini series on Soil,
a response to the devastating forest fires in California in 2018, in this episode called Soul of Soil.
Online: John Jeavons is featured on the Gardenerd Podcast
John Jeavons was featured in an interview on biologically intensive gardening and farming.
“While planning my trip to the Heirloom Expo I contacted some of the world’s top garden experts for interviews, and when John Jeavons of GROW BIOINTENSIVE responded to my email inquiry with a date and time to meet, I jumped out of my chair. What luck!” – Christy, Author at Gardenerd
Join me for a full day of Biointensive fun at Evergreen College in Olympia WA on February 10, 2019!
Each year around this time, following months of freezing cold and heavy rain, Northern California experiences a “false spring” – the sun shines, the temperature is balmy and pleasant, and the grey and wintry landscape is suddenly covered in a bright green veil as the hardy early risers begin to sprout and come awake. It’s not really spring – we’ve got months of cold weather to come – but this is the preview, and the whole world seems bursting at the seams with life. Riotous, juicy, joyful. What could be better?
Well… if you look at the “gardening” aisle of a random box store with the row upon row of poisons and growth inhibitors, you may get the impression that “better” means doing things that limit this juicy exuberance without delay and regardless of the consequences. The industry built around the production and sale of pesticides and herbicides emphasizes an aggressive approach that seeks to “help” nature by killing off the “undesirables” and appeals to an all too popular “person against the world” mythology. This isn’t my imagination – There is a commercial that uses an old-west gunfight theme to sell weed killer! It won’t surprise you that this paradigm doesn’t appeal to me. Having worked for decades to develop farming methods that work in harmony with nature and its life forces – with excellent and productive results! – I believe that we can all benefit from cultivating (literally) a more sensitive and integrative perspective of our place (and our food- and soil-growing place) within the whole and balanced natural system.
Gardening for Health and Nutrition—An introduction to the Method of Biodynamic Gardening by John & Helen Philbrick is one of my favorite books in terms of building this sensitivity and perspective! It introduces gardeners to a fact that is often strangely overlooked in modern farming: that gardening is about living things and the life force that runs through us all. In the book, John Philbrick “… talks about how each morning he was in the habit of visiting his garden at sunrise, meditating and communing, until, gradually, he realized that the important things at work were ‘the forces of life’—‘that life is the key to existence on this planet!’”
The Philbricks realized that most gardeners were concerned not with life and growing things, but with death, and getting rid of things—bugs, weeds, fungi—and that this focus was obscuring the fact that nature is a whole fabric, and that all the threads that make it are interconnected and vital to its (and our) functioning:
“…everything that is alive is dependent upon everything else that’s alive…which are constantly changing…To be healthy, this network of living things must be kept in balance. The gardener must become aware of the network of processes making up the garden and must become familiar with the particularities of the soil, the seasons, and the plants and animals there. Then on this foundation, working with nature, one can make one’s garden a living organism.”
While all the practices and techniques shared in this wonderful publication (it is a garden planning guide for beginners using the biodynamic method) are not the GROW BIOINTENSIVE ones we use, the feeling communicated is enlivening, and I think any farmer or gardener will benefit from reading it. The book is a treasure!
This month (December 2018) a commentary piece, Put More Carbon in Soils to Meet Paris Climate Pledges, was published in the journal Nature. It was written by scientists specializing in climate change and agriculture who serve on the science and technical committee of the organization 4 per 1000 (4p1000.org) – an organization dedicated to demonstrating that agriculture, and in particular, agricultural soils, can play a crucial role where food security and climate change are concerned. In the article, they outline how using carbon sequestration to build soil organic matter can mitigate climate change and boost soil fertility. The scientists suggest that the KJWA (a UNFCCC initiative directing the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) to jointly consider how to tackle agriculture issues in the context of climate change) formally commit to increasing global soil organic carbon stocks through coordination and activities related to eight steps.
The eight steps they suggest are:
5. Test strategies – Determine what works in local conditions by using models and a network of field sites.
6. Involve communities – Employ citizen science to collect data and create an open online platform for sharing.
7. Coordinate policies – Integrate soil carbon with national climate commitments to the Paris Agreement and other policies on soil and climate.
8. Provide support – Ensure technical assistance, incentives to farmers, monitoring systems, and carbon taxes to promote widespread implementation.
As anyone who knows me will tell you, the situation of “Peak Farmable Soil” is one I have been aware of and vocal about for a long time. And while I can’t say I’m glad that what I’ve been worried about for so long is true, I’m relieved that finally, the world’s soil and agricultural scientists and policy makers seem to be awakening to the grave threat – and the huge opportunity! – the cumulative effects of soil depletion and climate change represent to agriculture and food security.
The quantity of carbon stored in our global soils is over 2 times the amount stored in all the trees and other biomass on the planet. This is good. It means that we can store huge amounts of carbon in our agricultural soils if we know how to work with nature to do so. Currently, however, that’s not the case: conventional farming and development has already degraded over a third of the world’s soils, limiting agricultural production and, rather than storing carbon, adding almost 500 gigatons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—an amount equivalent to burning 216 billion hectares of U.S. forest.
This is a lot to process. But keep reading, there’s hope!
In a nutshell:
There is an urgent need to incorporate more CO2 into our soils in the form of fertile soil organic matter (SOM) to pull carbon out of the air and help stop climate change.
So how do we do it? I was hoping you’d ask. Ecology Action’s Closed-Loop Sustainable GROW BIOINTENSIVE food- and soil-growing system offers practical methods for gardeners and farmers around the globe to be part of the solution! GB has been proven to grow soil organic matter (SOM) over 60 times faster than in nature. We have already shown that for each pound of food eaten, GB can grow up to 20 pounds of farmable soil. A recent preliminary study shows that, for properly maintained GB growing beds, it may be possible to sequester up to 5 metric tons (5.5 US tons) of carbon from the atmosphere, per hectare (2.5 acres) per year.
Extrapolating from this study, if the world’s agricultural soils (~80% of which are farms of 1-2 hectares) were cultivated using GB to accumulate carbon at this rate, in ~31 years, it could be possible to bring atmospheric carbon dioxide levels down to 350ppm, a significant, and life-saving reduction compared to the damaging 408 ppm of CO2 causing global warming and climate change today. (read more about GB and Climate Change here.)
It’s not a complete solution, and we need to do more work to see if the levels of carbon sequestration can me maintained at the level suggested by the study, but it’s a very good start, based on low-tech methods and universal scientific principles that we can all use right now! In combination with other climate change mitigation, it might just do the trick.
Not sure it’s really possible to build soil fertility faster than nature? Look at the chart below on GB Soil Fertility I use in my teaching: in only 8.5 years, we took the soil at the Common Ground Garden at The Jeavons Center from essentially unproductive to flourishing SOM levels that would have taken over 500 years to achieve naturally. You can see the lower levels of pale, depleted soil that would barely grow scrub merge upwards into the dark, carbon-rich soil that grows an abundance of crops each year. This is carbon sequestration in action. This is what the world needs more of, NOW.
Want to be a part of the solution? Put in a GROW BIOINTENSIVE bed. Then, put in another. Keep going. Maintain the beds properly with rich GB compost that you make on-site from the residues of your carefully chosen diet crops – get that carbon in the soil! And enjoy the veggies, fruits, grains, fertile soil, and climate change mitigation you harvest. Who knew fighting global warming could be delicious?
Need help getting started? Take a workshop: my next 1-Day event is in February in Olympia, WA. Ecology Action’s spring 3-Day workshop is in March. Use Ecology Action’s self-teaching tools to get started. Read How to Grow More Vegetables. It’s easy to begin. And once you do, you won’t want to stop. Love it? Start showing others how to do it. That’s how we save the world.
Remember, The Plants are Rooting for Us to Succeed! ♥
PROFESSIONAL ORGANIC BIOINTENSIVE FARMERS NEEDED
Do you want to give up your commute, grow organic food, live and work in a rural community in harmony with nature, and help solve our climate, hunger, and sustainability issues with a group of like-minded people? Well, Ecology Action may be the place for you to put down roots!
We’re looking for stable people eager to make a long-term commitment (at least 5 years) to work as year-round Biointensive Farmers starting in 2019 at two separate biointensive research and demonstration mini-farms in Mendocino County, CA: our headquarters at The Jeavons Center (TJC) site near the town of Willits, and our Victory Gardens for Peace (VGfP) site near the town of Mendocino.
Benefits include salary, housing, food or garden space, education and meaningful connection:
The Job: Ecology Action is a non-profit organization focused on sustainable agriculture research and education. As a farmer, you will work closely with Ecology Action staff, mini-farm managers, apprentices, interns, and members of the public participating in farm tours and workshops. Farmer tasks and responsibilities include garden planning, bed preparation, planting, composting, weeding, watering, harvesting, data collection and record keeping. Additional tasks include teaching and outreach (you will receive training in biologically-intensive farming and teaching methods to prepare you for these activities).
Please note: our research and demonstration sites focus on the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method; no other farming methods may be practiced on site by staff farmers. No animal husbandry, hunting, or fishing occurs at these sites. TJC is vegetarian (no meat or fish products on site) and VGfP is 100% vegan (only plant-based food products allowed on site).
Interested? Get the full details and more pictures here: growbiointensive.org/Opportunities.html