Cultivating Our Garden

Biointensive farming uses less water, land, machinery, and fertilizer
- and more human labor

One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Originally published in Fall 1995 on page 34
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

"They’re making people every day,
but they ain’t makin’ any more dirt."

Will Rogers

A sustainable community involves a dynamic inter-dependent relationship between each of us and the resources that sustain our lives. Rather than shirking human labor, trying to reduce the amount of it used or to increase its productivity in unsustainable ways, we need to exalt in its proper use and the maintenance of the very muscles involved in an effective human life. Properly performed, labor is not tedious or enervating, but strengthening and rewarding.

Using resources more efficiently – doing more with less – allows us to use our personal energy more effectively. The field of electronics was recently miniaturized on this basis. In fact, the world is on the verge of a major new discovery – that there are major economies of small scale, such as the miniaturization of agriculture. The sophisticated low-technology techniques and the approaches involved in this kind of food-raising will make possible truly sustainable agricultural practices globally.

Biointensive Mini-Farming

This miniaturization of agriculture is not new. Small-scale sustainable agriculture has supported such widely dispersed civilizations as the Chinese 4,000 years ago, and the Mayans, South Americans, and Greeks 2,000 years ago.

Ecology Action has dedicated almost a quarter-century to rediscovering the scientific principles that underlie these traditional systems. The people in Biosphere II in Arizona have been using techniques based on those outlined by Ecology Action: they raised 80 percent of their food for two years within a "closed system." Their experience demonstrates that a complete year’s diet for one person can be raised on the equivalent of 3,403 square feet!

This is an improvement over traditional Chinese practices, which required 5,000 to 7,200 square feet. In contrast, it takes commercial agriculture 22,000 to 42,000 square feet to grow all the food for one person for one year, while bringing in large inputs from other areas. At the same time, commercial agricultural practices are causing the loss of approximately six pounds of soil for each pound of food produced.

Biointensive mini-farming techniques make it possible to grow food using 99 percent less energy in all forms – human and mechanical, 66 percent to 88 percent less water, and 50 percent to 100 percent less fertilizer, compared to commercial agriculture. They also produce two to six times more food and build the soil.

The Biointensive Method

The basics of this whole-system approach can be summarized as follows:

Most life in nature occurs at the interface of soil, water, air and sun. 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 seeding spacing is used to protect the 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. The use of open-pollinated seeds helps to preserve genetic diversity and enables gardeners to develop their own acclimatized cultivars.

A focus on the production of calories for the gardener and carbon for the soil ensures that both the gardener and the soil will be adequately fed and that the farm will be sustainable.

How can the soil’s nutrient fertility be preserved with agriculture continuously removing nutrients as one crop is harvested after another? One answer is surprising. Each person’s urine and manure contain approximately enough nutrients to produce enough food to feed that person. However, those nutrients are not enough when they are spread thinly over the one-half to one acre that it takes mechanized commercial agriculture to produce that person’s food.

Biointensive mini-farms require much less area to produce the same yield of crops, so the nutrients contained in one person’s wastes can be applied in a more concentrated way. This enables the nutrients to be fully effective, and high yields can result.

Because of this higher productivity, Biointensive practices could allow one-half to three-quarters of the world to be left in wild for the preservation of plant and animal diversity.

It has been said that Biointensive practices might make it possible to grow food for all the people in the US in just the area now used for lawns. This possibility could mean thriving agriculturally self-reliant cities with ‘green belts’ to produce all their food.

Scarcity vs. Abundance

Scarcity can be changed into abundance when sustainable, resource-conserving agricultural practices are used.

  • The world continues to deplete its soils approximately 7 to 80 times faster with conventional forms of agriculture – even with organic practices – than they are built up in nature. Probably only 50 to 100 years’ worth of world soil productivity remains for us to use. We are rapidly depleting the soil base upon which civilization depends. In contrast, sustainable Biointensive farming, if used properly, can build the soil up to 60 times faster than in nature while producing more food and conserving resources.
  • Economically, conventional agriculture in the US produces on the average up to $100 per sixteenth of an acre; the net return on a $500,000 investment on the average 500-acre farm is about $12,000, or a little over 2 percent. We are depleting our agricultural economic base and indirectly our farming community base. Biointensive economic mini-farming, in contrast, can produce up to $20,000 on a sixteenth of an acre through increased yields, decreased resource use, and direct marketing. It also offers a foundation for community-based agriculture.
  • The average age of the US farmer is 55, with few young people entering farming. In fact, 0.2 percent of the population of the US is producing most of the nation’s food. We are depleting the nation’s skill base. With mini-farming approaches, everyone can be part of the rebuilding of farming skills wherever they are.
  • 75 percent of all the seeds ever used in agriculture are estimated to have become extinct by 1990. Ninety five percent are expected to be extinct by the year 2000. We are depleting our genetic base by overdependence on too few highly specialized varieties. It is interesting to note that many, if not most, normal open-pollinated crop varieties will produce equally high Green Revolution-type yields with a fraction of the resources and few insect and disease problems when Biointensive techniques are used because of the healthy soil they produce.
  • Conventional agriculture uses 100 times the energy in mechanical and human forms per pound of food produced, compared to Biointensive farming. This is because of current agriculture’s heavy dependence on machines and energy-intensive chemical fertilizers. We are depleting our energy base. Sustainable Biointensive practices, in contrast, recycle nutrients and are productive enough to be done manually without high energy consumption.
  • Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of all the water used by people on this planet, and dozens of countries already have insufficient water for growing all the food needed for their populations. Further, the agricultural practices being used do not generally conserve water in our soil. The result is that we are in the process of depleting our available water base. Biointensive practices use a third to an eighth the water per pound of food produced as conventional farming practices. Thus, the amount of water available for farming, which is currently insufficient, can be more than enough.

It Is Simple to Begin

The thought of beginning to learn to grow all one’s own food seems overwhelming, but Ecology Action has designed a small one-bed growing unit from which to begin growing personalized solutions. This unit is a 100-square-foot bed that includes equal areas of compost, diet, and income crops. As we improve each 100-square-foot area of soil in our backyards or on our farms, we begin to understand our climate and the varieties of plants that thrive in our own micro-climates and mini-ecosystems. Each small portion that we grow of our own food enables us to better appreciate the farmers whose food we buy.

Voltaire in Candide suggests that if we each tend our own "garden," the entire world will be transformed. In the process, all of our work will be filled with meaning. In this way, we will "grow people" who possess a whole new understanding: that we must grow soil rather than crops – create rather than consume. When we do so, the harvest for our nourishment will be abundant beyond our greatest expectations!

John Jeavons is known internationally for his work developing small-scale sustainable food production techniques. His food-raising techniques are being used in 108 countries, rich and poor.

Ecology Action, founded 24 years ago, has taught the Biointensive method to organizations and individuals in over 100 countries through tours and workshops, and more than 30 publications – some in other languages. For more information, write to Ecology Action, 5798 Ridgewood Road, Willits, CA 95490-9730.


Long-term agricultural sustainability is likely to be a collage or synthesis of …


How To Grow More Vegetables, John Jeavons, Ten Speed Press, 1991
Lazy-Bed Gardening
, John Jeavons and Carol Cox, Ten Speed Press, 1992


An ecosystem design approach that aims to broaden and strengthen local resources and encourage farmers to grow food and plant forests for community use. Harvests rainwater rather than relying on ground water.

Permaculture One, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, Transworld Publications, 1978
Tree Crops,
J. Russell Smith, Devin-Adair, 1953

Traditional Chinese organic wet-rice agriculture

Makes use of blue-green algae to maintain the fertility of rice-growing soil. Produces good yields of nutrition and calories per unit of caloric input.

Fukuoka no-till methods

A natural farming system that minimizes human intervention by planting seeds directly into the stubble of previous crops. Produces excellent yields of healthy crops.

The One-Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka, Rodale, 1978
The Road Back to Nature
, Masanobu Fukuoka, Japan Publications, 1987

Natural rainfall methods

Growing food using only rainfall for irrigation; requires understanding the local climate, the varieties suited to it, and techniques to optimize use of rainfall.

Food from Dryland Gardens, David Cleveland and Daniela Solieri, CPFE, 1991

Traditional systems

From various parts of the world that make use of local varieties and a thorough understanding of local conditions to produce crops using local resources.

Become a Seed Saver

The potato blight in Ireland resulted from insect attack on a monoculture of genetically identical potatoes.

Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa is a non-profit grassroots organization devoted to preserving genetic diversity through cultivating heirloom and endangered garden vegetables. Nearly 13,000 rare vegetables are maintained at Heritage Farm. You can help preserve endangered seed strains by joining Seed Savers’ 8,000 members and exchanging seeds from your own backyard. For a do-it-yourself guide to saving seeds, write for Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth.

Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 North Winn Road, Decorah, Iowa 52101, tel. 319/382-5990.

The Soil Cycle

by Hideki Inoue

Organic agriculture is, in essence, how we nurture healthy soil. How can we help soil be fertile and vigorous?

For the answer to this question, let me take you on a walk through a forest. We are walking along a forest trail. Stand under this big tree and pick up a twig. Dig lightly in the soil under the tree. What do you find? We can see decayed leaves, twigs, and flowers piled loosely in the soil. As we continue to dig, we find millions of insects and other tiny creatures living there together with plants. Their excrement and their carcasses combine with fallen leaves, decaying and enriching the soil.

Leaves fall and decay. Twigs of trees are broken off by a strong wind. The trunks of trees are blown down and lie on the earth. Gradually, animals and plants begin to eat this organic matter. In due time, these tiny animals and plants also die and decay, and they become part of the soil, along with other organic wastes. Soon earthworms and ants eat these piles of rotting matter and they themselves return to the earth. It is this very process of decay which is the beginning of birth, an essential part of the natural circle of life.

In my view, the word "nature" can be equated with this circle. I see this same principle in the Buddhist teaching of reincarnation. The meaning of the word "ecology" is, in essence, this natural circulation. Fertile and healthy soil can be made in the long, slow process of the natural life circle. In other words, the circle represents continuity as well as sustenance.

Translated from Japanese by Tomomi Shugakuin. Hideki Inoue founded the Chikyujin Club, which supports the growing of agricultural products in harmony with nature and connects people who love and appreciate nature with their own health. (For more information about organic agriculture in Japan, see CSA Roots in Japan in this issue.)

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