If you’ve spent time in the market gardening space, you’ve likely heard the term “biointensive” thrown around quite a bit. A foundational piece of the biointensive farming model is the practice of intensively planting crops in a permanent bed system.
This article will explore where the concept of intensive plant spacing came from (along with the term “biointensive”) and why it is so beneficial.
What is Intensive Plant Spacing?
Intensive plant spacing is the practice of strategically planting crops in close enough proximity to one another to where they are far enough apart not to stunt growth and compete for resources but close enough to where their leaves are just barely touching each other when fully mature.
What’s the Benefit?
Intensively planting crops forms a natural canopy to protect the soil from erosion and drying out and also prevents weeds from growing – with no access to light under the canopy.
Please keep reading for a deeper dive into the benefits of this approach and a brief history of where it came from!
A Short History of Intensive Plant Spacing
Many present-day small-scale market gardeners have been heavily influenced by the work of pioneers such as Eliot Coleman and, more recently, Jean-Martin Fortier. Central to their market garden farming model is the principle of intensive plant spacing. This is a deviation from the industrial agriculture model of single rows of crops with pathways between each row. However, intensive plant spacing is not a new concept but a return to an old one.
The French Intensive Technique
Intensive plant spacing was a move away from the industrial row cropping of heavily mechanized Big Ag and a return to a more sustainable European method known as the French intensive technique, developed in the 1800’s just outside of Paris.
“In this technique, crops were grown on 18 inches of decomposed horse manure (a readily available fertilizer). The crops were strategically grown so close to each other that when the plants were mature, their leaves would barely touch. The close spacing provided a microclimate 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 yearly and could even grow melon plants during the winter.”
– John Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables
In the early 1920’s philosopher/educator Rudolph Steiner came up with Biodynamic Farming. Skeptical of newly introduced chemical fertilizers and pesticides, he discovered that crops grown with these chemicals were significantly lacking in nutrients compared to the old organic practices. In addition, he found they were killing off the beneficial bacteria in the soil that made organic nutrients available to the plants. Steiner was a significant influence in encouraging a shift away from industrial farming and back to natural practices that promoted soil life.
Biodynamic/French Intensive Technique
In the 1930s, an Englishman named Alan Chadwick, who studied under Steiner and the French intensive gardeners, synthesized his influences into what he called the Biodynamic/French Intensive Technique. In the 1960s, Alan Chadwick brought this technique to the United States and developed a 4-acre student garden at the University of California’s Santa Cruz campus.
After studying under Alan Chadwick, a man named John Jeavons then developed and simplified Chadwick’s techniques even further into what we now know today as the “Grow Biointensive Method” (taught step by step in his book “How To Grow More Vegetables”). Jeavons, in partnership with his non-profit Ecology in Action, has been a leading voice in biointensive agriculture for the last 43 years. His Grow Biointensive method is now used in over 143 countries and has been a primary influence on the current model of small-scale farming used by most market gardeners.
Benefits of Intensive Plant Spacing
When intensively spaced plants have reached maturity in the garden bed, they form a canopy or “living mulch” over the soil. This protects the soil from wind and rain exposure that would otherwise lead to erosion.
The space between the canopy of plants and the soil also creates its microclimate, helping to retain moisture and regulate temperature. This fosters an environment where soil biology can thrive.
The canopy of intensively spaced plants also blocks wind-born weed seeds from reaching the soil while also depriving light from any existing weed seed on the surface of the soil. This prevents most weeds from competing with your crops for available nutrients.
Industrial Row Cropping vs. Biointensive Planting
Detriments of Row Cropping
Spacing crops too far apart leaves the soil around them exposed to the elements. This typically leads to the top layer of soil drying out and crusting, leaving it vulnerable to erosion by getting washed away in heavy rain or blown away in high winds. Nature is programmed to cover the soil with vegetation to prevent this. Weeds will naturally try and do their job to protect the exposed soil. This then creates the need for regular cultivation and weeding for the crop’s life.
When monocropping hundreds of acres with tractors, there are efficiencies that row cropping provides. However, the quality of the product is sacrificed in the pursuit of quantity. Pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilizers become necessities. It’s a domino effect of treating symptoms that ultimately creates a subpar product.
Benefits of Biointensive
When farming biointensively on a small piece of land with no heavy machinery, every square foot gets utilized! See the following graphic from John Jeavons’ book, How to Grow More Vegetables:
As illustrated above, intensive plant spacing makes it possible for up to four times the productivity per unit of space compared to planting single rows of crops with pathways between each row. In addition to more yield per square foot, there is the added benefit of protecting the soil. However, when you put such a high demand on a smaller space footprint, you must regularly feed the soil with nutrient-rich compost to replenish it.
Another piece of intensive plant spacing is cultivating permanent beds with designated walkways between them. There are different schools of thought regarding walking in beds to avoid compaction, but John Jeavons recommends against it whenever possible. Regardless, the practice of focusing all of your efforts on fertilizing and build up organic matter in the beds will help you to conserve your most valuable resource: compost.
Compared to just spreading compost indiscriminately on an entire field when row cropping, the permanent bed system allows you to channel your efforts to only the beds (and not the pathways).
Here is another image from Grow Biointensive illustrating intensively spaced plants in a permanent bed (both as seedlings and mature):
Intensive plant spacing is just one of many components that have allowed modern-day farmers to make a comfortable living on as little as one acre in intensive production.
While the current model of small-scale market gardening doesn’t necessarily subscribe to all of the tenants of John Jeavons’ Grow Biointensive system, it’s fascinating to learn where these biointensive methods evolved from.
From the French Intensive Method to the Biodynamic Method, to the hybrid Biointensive/French Intensive Method, to the Grow Biointensive Method, to the current Market Gardening Method, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants! As we continue to share knowledge and resources, biointensive small-scale farming will only continue to improve.
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