Thursday, 30 June 2011

Biointensive (organic) agriculture

John Jeavons, one organic agricultor has designed years ago, a system of intensive biodynamic farming that produced yields of food around several-fold larger than conventional farms! We can feed ourselves in a much small space, nearly 40 per 40 square meter, and leave three quarters of similar land for wild nature and animals.

"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."

Strawberries grown in a city balcony; tasty harvest!

This is, 32 meters x 32 meters for a property to cleverly produce all our necessary food (1 person for a year!) or around 1000m2 (a quarter of an acre, a tenth of hectare).
In chinese practices 42 x42 meters is necessary for producing food for feeding a person over one year (around 1800m2 or half an acre). Conventional agriculture needs around one hectare, 10000m2 or 100m x 100m).

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."

The same results are obtained in calculations from other people, by practical experience: 0.1-0.4 acre per person or 4-people family

That would be roughly 30-40 meters per 30-4o meters square land in a property.
We could grow about 10 main cultures in ten 10x10m squares, which would give our 30x30m big square

This is a one-acre square of land for most food self-sufficiency.

These garlic were grown in a city balcony and close to each other, in a small container

However when considering water catchment, compost and grey water treatment, solar and wind energy, wood for fuel, possibly goats for milk, one should have at least 3-5 acres, which is roughly 10 times the size for plant-based food self-sufficiency.

I think a square of quarter-acre for vegetable production (as suggested), plus another quarter-acre for an house and energy/water facilities, plus another two quarter-acres for one orchard and a wildlife forest garden and a goat place, that give a good one acre for self-sufficiency.

Please check our drawing for a self-sufficiency property:

One common mistake is expecting too much land for self-sufficiency.
Our tenth of our quarter-acre is enough for producing potatoes for a year for a couple.
Another mistake is to expect 100% self-sufficiency. Neither is desirable neither humanly possible. Some food is still very cheap. It is more desirable by promoting local shares of different self-sufficiency families to create the necessary abundance of food for everyone.

Please check these amazing links for further insight:

- (calculation for food self-sufficiency)
- (fantastic assay)
- (a personal story)

*Feel free to share this information and text*

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Enriching your soil, part II: Weeds are not bad! They are your organic fertilizer!

Weeds as nutrient dynamic accumulators

Weeds are often considered a nuisance. However, from both the Permaculture and Biodynamic farming point of view, weeds are not a problem, they are nature way of correcting a problem with your soil.

For example, some plants are nitrogen accumulators, this is they can fix nitrogen in the soil, from the air. Curiously, these includes some of the most invasive weeds in the planet, plants like acacia (picture above), lupins (picture below), mustard and clovers. In Mediterranean countries, acacias often grow in disturbed soils after house or road construction, or forest fires. In Iceland, lupins are a widespread invasive plant because it can grow in the very poor sandy and cold soils that were deforested many centuries ago.

Therefore, look at these weeds, as nature way of correcting a nutrient problem. And also as a sign that your soil is not nutrient-rich as it should be, to grow your vegetables.

It is wise from the Permaculture perspective, to grow some of these plants, so that there can be a natural way of replenishment your soil with nutrients again, such as these nitrogen fixating species.

Another example, comes from the very poor acid soils of some pine forests, where almost only ferns seem to be able to grow. This indicates not only a very poor soil, but also ferns (brackens, Pteridium) have the unique ability to capture the missing potassium, phosphorus and other nutrients, from the deepest layers of the soil. So does nettles, and that's why you often can see it growing in the walls and rocks! Nettle roots penetrate very deeply and are able to capture the nutrients from the broken rocks. They also make a very rich compost or fertilizer, and they also make a very mineral-rich soup!

For this reason, today I was thinking about the sorrels / docks (Rumex) that I see growing close to our house. I read that they are dynamic accumulators of calcium, phosphorus and potassium, that seems to be missing in our garden (calcium lack can be signaled also by the growing dandelions in our garden!). So, I thought of collecting the sorrels and dandelions and making a compost tea out of them, to fertilize my tomatoes and broccoli, that are hungry for potassium, phosphorus and calcium. By the same token, I thought about using the lupins for a special nitrogen compost tea, for the more leafy vegetables.

To give you more technical (and useful) information, dandelions are accumulators of silica, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, coper and iron. Comfrey accumulates silica, nitrogen, magnesium, calcium, iron and potassium. Chickweed (a sign of fertile soils) accumulates potassium, phosphorus and manganese. Clovers accumulate nitrogen and phosphorus. Buckwheat accumulates phosphorus, chicory accumulates calcium and potassium, borage (picture above) accumulates silica and potassium, burdock accumulates iron, and chives accumulates sodium and calcium. Carrot leaves accumulate potassium and magnesium.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Enriching your soil, part I: Organic fertilizers for your vegetables and flowers! (Compost tea, egg shells, banana skins, nettles, seaweed, urine)

How to make simple homemade organic fertilizers!

This article is the first of a series that will teach us how to enrich our soil, from a Permaculture /Biodynamic perpspective.

To start with, below are some simple steps we should follow when growing vegetables and flowers:

  • First, when you plant, remember to incorporate compost and sand into the soil, to provide nutrients. Cover also with mulching, and add egg shells and coffee grounds around plants (you can also dilute the coffee ground in water and apply to acid-loving plants like tomatoes, azaleas, roses and blueberries)
  • Fertilize heavy feeders (tomatoes, zucchini) with a seaweed fertilizer (add seaweed to water, let sit for 2 weeks, and dilute before use). Fertilize occasionally green leaf vegetables with diluted urine (1:20, and use immediately). If you eat fish or meat, you can also prepare a fertilizer made from bones and from fish leftovers, because it is very rich for your plants.
  • Fertilize adding regular doses of compost tea (add compost to water, and let sit for 2 weeks, dilute before use). Spray on plants for a foliar feed and to eliminate pests. Fertilize occasionally with a tea made from composted nettles (do as the compost tea). Comfrey is also very good. You can also add banana and potato skins as these are full of nutrients, especially potassium. The best is to mix everything together: compost, nettles, comfrey, banana and potato skins, and other herbs that accumulate specific nutrients like docks or ferns. Remember that this will smell bad, so let it sit for the 2 weeks in some hidden place. And dilute this black compost tea before use.
  • Fertilize with a spray or tea made from herbs used in Biodynamic farming: dandelion, yarrow, nettle, horsetail, chamomile, valerian and oak bark. Some of these plants also accumulate nutrients, and according to Rudolf Steiner, they release "energies" into the soil which are very beneficial to your vegetables. Remember to use those weeds!