my adventure in French Intensive/ Biodynamic gardening

Published online 11 December 2008.

This is a pictorial diary in French Intensive/ Biodynamic gardening, as regards the methods I use when working at the Pomona College Natural Farm.  The methods described here are a sort of “working intuition” that I use to pursue my own self-sufficiency amidst general economic dislocation.  The label “French Intensive/ Biodynamic gardening” describes a gardening strategy to coax maximum yield out of minimum space.  This was something I “learned by heart” when I was an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Cruz; I will just discuss the usual list of things to do here.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

A cursory search of Big Orange these days will reveal that survival blogging is alive and well.  This fits the times, of course; the new jobs are no fun, and folks out there are plenty hungry.  MiscastDice reflects upon the housing of the future: outdoors.  Bria shares my complaint: overeducated and underemployed. Teddifish recommends that you start networking; The Arse suggests that some of us are just plain doomed.

Here I’m going to recommend my strategy for hard times: grow your own.  In this diary I wish to discuss a particular strategy for growing your own: French Intensive/ Biodynamic.  The text you should get (if you want a text) is John Jeavons’ book: How to Grow More Vegetables etc.  I don’t tend to follow such books to the letter; everything will vary with the land you have.

Step one, of course, is to get yourself some land to cultivate.  Perhaps this is your political task for the incoming new year: I can think of no political venture more worthy than improving one’s community self-sufficiency through the creation of community gardens, free clinics, and other places to help local populations stick around on the planet.

Next thing you want to do is start a composting area.  The composting area will be the basis for your garden; sometimes your compost will itself produce the seedlings for your garden.  If you live in an area with a single planting season, maybe this is your task for the winter; you won’t be able to start planting until March or April at any rate, so for now you want to create a big clump of biomass, perhaps underground, perhaps in a “compost heap,” so you’ll have some good rich soil to work with.  The Jeavons book recommends a compost heap as follows:

The recipe for a biodynamic/ French Intensive Method compost is by weight: 1/3 dry vegetation, 1/3 green vegetation and kitchen wastes, and 1/3 soil — though we have found with our heavy clay soil that less soil produces better results. (30)

Of course, this is not entirely realistic.  You’re going to get your dry vegetation, i.e. dead leaves from deciduous trees, in the autumn.  And, yeah, ideally you want to layer your compost — if you sandwich your soil between your kitchen wastes and your dead leaves, the leaves stay wet and the earthworms stay happy.  Do it if you can.

Here’s my compost area on December 1 of this year — I live in southern California, so our tree leaves drop late — this area is, nevertheless, full of buried leaves.  In about two or three months your compost should be ready to use.

After you have the compost heap up and roaring (and you may have to find your local earthworm dealer to make that happen), and it’s almost time to plant, you want to “double-dig” your land.  “Double-digging,” a jargon word of French Intensive/ Biodynamic, needs to be spelled out.  What you want to do, to be sure, is go down maybe half a meter (19 or 20 inches) into the soil.  The same result can also be achieved through raised beds — if you can’t go down, go up.  But I’ve always favored the “going down” approach, since I really like the idea of shallow “pools” of water (to make it easier to water your plants without using a lot of water).  I live in southern California — we’re going to have to conserve water mightily in the coming years.

The point of all this digging or building activity is to provide plenty of soil aeration for your full-grown plants.  Let them spread their roots and establish a presence in the soil, and the more land they have for this the better.  When all of the local micro-organisms and worms are used to the presence of your garden crops, the reasoning goes, it will continue to be a good space for them.

Sometimes you will have to work on really tough, compacted dirt.  Maybe you are working on land that was used to park cars, or was paved with just-removed concrete or something.  In that case you should water your land thoroughly and let it sit awhile until it’s easy to dig.  Don’t break your back chopping away at tough, dry land.

It was really difficult to go down 19 or 20 inches when digging this bed.  (You can’t really see the markers on the yardstick, but, yeah, I made it.)  The soil in this particular plot was rich and coffee-black down to about 4 inches, but below that, the soil was dense, nutrient-poor, and very rocky.  Here’s a pile of rocks I removed for a rather small plot:

Everything below the big rock (upper center) is stuff I removed — and here’s the plot itself:

When you have lots of rocks you can use the biggest ones to mark off the bed itself.

Now, “double digging” usually means digging a big hole in your garden plot, putting compost in it, adding soil, adding more compost, adding more soil, and then digging another hole and doing the same thing until your whole garden plot has a fluffy, well-composted soil all the way down to about 19 or 20 inches and all the way across your bed.  The Jeavons book describes an orderly method of doing this; I’m not a very orderly person myself, so I’m not going to describe it here.  You’ll figure something out.

*****

At any rate, then, and only then, when you have given your plants a comfortable, fluffy, and nutritious living space, only then do you plant your seeds and your potted plants.  You want to plant your seeds “in season” — plant a winter crop (peas, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, mustard greens etc.) in the fall, and plant a summer crop (corn, beans, squash, tomatoes etc.) in the spring.  When-exactly, of course, depends upon where you live and what kind of length your frost/ snow season has.

You should try to plant your crops densely, but with enough room for each plant to grow.  Remember, you spent a LOT of time preparing your soil; you should expect super-high yield from your efforts.

Your best watering tactic is to water your plants a little bit each day; do what you can.  Remember, you are babying your plants so that they can grow up huge and so that their roots can go down deep.

Here’s my winter crop of peas and red mustard:

Here’s a picture of the same plot, earlier this year, decked out in late July’s Indian corn and squash:

My Roma tomatoes have survived into late November, moreover:

My chiles serranos got big quickly, and stayed big.  These plants are big producers, and they don’t seem to need a whole lot of water.  Here is their Thanksgiving appearance:

At any rate, you can see that this sort of planting strategy is really good for places where land is pricey, and thus in short supply.  It also requires a LOT of effort in garden bed preparation, and a lot of effort in creating a viable compost area and stocking it with lots of good compost.  My argument here is that all that work will eventually PAY OFF in lots of good veggies and fruit for you to eat.  And this will put something on the table when little or no money is in fact coming in, and eventually it will compensate for the high price of food when abrupt climate change results in poor harvests in the world of mainstream agriculture.  The more people who are doing this stuff, then the more people who will be able to share what they grow and the more varied our diets will be.

You can get really good compost if you are part of a school or college or place of employment; get the cafeteria employees at your academy or workplace to develop composting habits.  You can also be a compost entrepreneur — other people will usually give you their raked-up dead leaves for free, and you can usually buy and cultivate earthworms for cheap so as to integrate your dead leaves into the soil quickly.

Remember, DON’T compost meat; DON’T step on your garden beds.  You will also want to develop practices of good companion planting.  Certain plants go well together; beans, for instance, can accumulate Rhizobium bacteria which stimulate nitrogen fixing in the soil.  There are also things to do to deal with “pests,” gophers, and weeds without using nasty chemicals.  You may also have to deal with poor soils, and chemical crap that was already there before you arrived.  The Jeavons book describes solutions, clean organic solutions, to all that.  The chemical crap will be mitigated by your compost heap; earthworms can help clean up planet Earth if given opportunities and allowed to thrive.  What I’ve tried to lay out in this diary are some basic logistics of how to develop a French Intensive garden.  If you can’t plant in the winter, bookmark this diary; I’ll reference it again in another diary on the same topic in the spring.

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