How To Grow More Vegetables

I’m not against the insides. People need meat to survive.

2013-03-15    »   book review, permaculture, rant

A rambly review of the 8th edition (2012) of John Jeavon’s book How to Grow More Vegetables (and fruits, nuts, berries, grains, and other crops).

In the first few pages there’s the casual misuse of the word myriad, which is never encouraging – especially in a new edition or reprint. I guess people rely more on spell-checkers, and less on editors and proof-readers now.

There’s also a distracting overuse of the phrase GROW BIOINTENSIVE, which occurs a total of 102 times through the book, with 6 of those appearing before the explanatory note that identifies it as Ecology Action’s registered trademark as of 1999, and that there may be crossover between grow biointensive and just plain Biointensive, though it’s not clear why the latter is cast here as a proper noun.

Layout of the book

The first two chapters (about a quarter of the book) don’t cover much new ground (ha ha) for yours truly, though obviously it may benefit people who have done little or no research, and have no experience, on the subject of growing food.

However it feels very much like motivational rhetoric that could do with some culling – by the time you’ve read 50 pages of it you a) have demonstrated that you genuinely have an interest in the subject anyway, and b) are feeling a touch patronised by the process and are eager to get into the meat of the material.

Chapter 3 covers compost in a way I found very prescriptive but without much evidence of research to backup the assertions. I’m sure they’ve been busy on their farm over the past few decades, and I don’t think it would put the reader off too much to see some tabulated results of variations on the formulae provided.

Chapter 4 deals with fertilisation, and there’s some interesting stuff in here, but also some frustrating insights (Oyster Shell grit is a useful fertiliser, but they warn that some products contain up to 2% lead, amongst other nasties – though it’s not made clear if this is a problem for certain regions, manufacturers, or just batches).

Chapter 5 is the big chapter - we go into seeds, seed and variety types (strongly advocating open-pollinated varieties), propogation [sic], spacing, and the saving of seed. We are offered a laborious description of hexagonal, or diagonally offset, spacing. Sadly they don’t seem to know of the word quincunx. While I accept offset planting – where every alternate row is planted such that each seedling is equidistant from the seedlings in the adjacent row – is a great way of maximising usage of your area … four pages describing this pattern seems more than a touch gratuitous. This chapter also introduces the idea of planting according to the lunar cycles. More on that below. The chapter wraps up with a stack of tables (more on these below, too) describing temperature ranges for popular vegetables.

Chapter 6 discusses companion planting. This is an area that’s generally accepted as received wisdom by all who, er, receive it. On the other hand, it’s also regarded sceptically by a lot of people, in no small part because there’s virtually no decently conducted scientific research on the subject – and this chapter repeats much of the orthodox thinking without adding anything to the explanation.

Chapter 7 talks, briefly, on the subject of a Interrelated Food-Raising System – but regrettably focuses almost exclusively on the Insect class of Animalia.

Chapters 8 and 9 cover Master Charts And Planning, and Sample Garden Plans. The former is dense and to my mind nowhere near as useful as the amount of space it takes up would suggest it’s intended to be. The latter includes some basic layouts that almost certainly won’t suit your environment (but it’s meant to be instructive, so that’s okay). It also includes some tool and structural design plans that I found interesting, but nowhere near as considered as I could hope they’d be after so many years ‘honing’ the designs.

Biointensive, meat permaculture

I was surprised to discover that animals have a curious (mostly absent) place in the Biointensive world.

As explained at Wikipedia:

The biointensive method typically concentrates on the vegan diet. This does not mean that biointensive farming must exclude the raising of animals. Animals, while not considered by biointensive practitioners to be sustainable, can be incorporated into biointensive systems, although they increase the amount of land and labor required considerably.

The Wikipedia article points the reader to the Ecology Action’s FAQ, which is worth a read.

Ecology Action’s FAQ seems to be implying that the primary reason for avoiding animals from your food production process is because of the space they use, and cite a rationale of there just not being sufficient space once everyone has their allotted 4,500 sq ft per person of arable land. This figure comes from, as far as I can tell, dividing the total arable land in the world by the total number of people expected to be alive in the year 2014, and then dividing by 2, for magnanimously setting aside half the arable land for wildlife.

Anyway.

Ecology Action’s site explains that to provide two eggs per day, you’ll need 3 chickens. Those 3 chickens require 120-300 pounds of grain, and that grain requires 600-3,000 sq ft.

It’s not clear why grain is the presumed, preferred, and/or sole possible food of chickens.

Certainly grain has a useful feature of being able to be stored, but it’s not the most convenient thing to deal with (sow, weed, harvest, thresh, process) in ‘homestead’ quantities, and storable food is not required for the entire year in any case.

More compellingly, grain isn’t what chickens evolved to eat, which in turn means that the chickens fed exclusively on grain aren’t as healthy and consequently, so I’m told, don’t taste as good. Nor do their eggs taste as good, or are as healthy for you.

Anyway, the point being that they seem to gently encourage you in the direction of not keeping animals, and I don’t believe their reasoning is sound. While the above quote is from Wikipedia rather than an authoritative Biointensive source per se, the claim that animals are not considered to be sustainable is beyond bewildering.

Forget the fact that the entire system being discussed here is designed to provide food for, and requires the maintenance efforts of, one particular species of animal – there’s also the fact that we require bees and ants to pollinate much of our food, and the deaths of insects, invertebrates and other biota to ensure the cycling of nutrients through the soil.

In the book itself, chickens are discussed, albeit briefly and more as a pest control mechanism and a producer of manure.

Throughout the book there’s a repeated claim made that a GROW BIOINTENSIVE Mini-Farm can be maintained forever, so long as human nutrient is returned (humanure) to the system – the idea that a farm of any sort can be considered a closed system is just bizarre.

This attitude suggests that they really don’t understand the Phosphorous cycle (or problem). One of the big reasons to rely on grazing animals wandering away from your crop-food production area, and then back in again periodically, is to provide an easy way of retrieving and cycling this obviously essential, but often overlooked element.

Anyway, the word biodynamic pops up 23 times in the book, while the word permaculture doesn’t appear at all.

This worries me, given the strongly practical and scientific basis of permaculture compared to the myriad ‘_woo-woo_’ aspects of Biodynamic (with much of the woo-woo parts of the Biodynamic belief system relying on using various parts of animals).

For insight into some of Rudolph Steiner’s whackier ideas, have a read of this piece about tomatoes.

My kingdom for a joule

Note: Up to 6 billion microbial life-forms can live in 5 grams of cured compost, about the size of a quarter.

Just when you thought 95% of the world’s population would be able to easily comprehend the quantity (5 grams) they then compare this to the size of a quarter of a dollar (one of just two countries on the planet that have decimal currency but a historical addiction they can’t kick to a 25c coin).

Anyway, that’s one of three places they deign to mention a metric unit in the entire book (the other two occasions are grams, and they are both wrapped in an imperial measurement context). They are consistent in their avoidance of metres, litres, joules and Celsius everywhere else.

Consequently those of us raised in advanced civilisations have to contend with cumbersome constructs like these:

Optimally, do no <sic> use more than 0.33 cubic feet per 100 square feet (one-half 5-gallon bucket) of aged manure per year (about 8.3 pounds dry weight, one 24-inch layer.)

and a few pages further on:

Four cubic feet of Biointensive compost made with soil is about one-sixth of a cubic yard.

Apparently people brought up on imperial measurements don’t find this kind of sentence damaging to their brain.

Amazing, isn’t it? It’s even odder here given that 4/27 is much closer to 1/7th than 1/6th.

Miraculously they find a way to make things even more confusing – some instructions for making up a seed blend:

  • 2 ounces (about 1⅓ cups) hard red spring wheat-transplant or broadcast
  • 0.4 ounce (about 1 tablespoon) cereal rye—transplant or broadcast
  • 0.62 ounce (about 5¼ teaspoons) vetch broadcast after soaking seed overnight

So we’re now blending (ha-ha!) ounces, cups, teaspoons and tablespoons.

It’s worth noting that cups are not dreadfully standard things – in the USA there’s a customary and a legal cup. There’s also the mostly defunct half-pint definition, with the Japanese having their own version, while the rest of the world uses a ‘metric cup’ of 250ml.

Similarly a teaspoon is very slightly different in the USA to the rest of the world, with a tablespoon having a larger regional difference again.

Anyway, the point here is that it’s 2013, and this is a book aimed at a global market, either of which is sufficient reason to embrace metric.

An even more compelling point is that in this particular ‘recipe’ they’re describing a ratio of seeds, so they could completely avoid this 0.62 ounce (about 5¼) bollocks and just say ‘… a blend at 100:20:31 …’ and assume the reader has the requisite maths ability (or at least knows of a twelve year old child they could ask to explain it).

Regional oversights (and another complaint about metric)

At the end of Chapter 5, we have 35 tables that look like this:

Table pepper
 

In normal countries, pepper refers solely to the fruit from Piper nigrum – a tropical vine that produces tiny fruit which is typically dried and used as a spice. You know – pepper.

But here the author assumes all their readers are based in the USA, or perhaps the UK, where peppers refer to the fruit of the genus Capsicum. Elsewhere, of course, capsicums are called capsicums, and pepper is called pepper.

I can see why yanks and poms find that approach confusing.

The whole problem would disappear if these 35 tables used the scientific name in addition to the common (regional) name. It’s not like they don’t have room there – much white space to spare.

Once you’ve worked out what Americans call the vegetable you’re thinking of, and then translated Fahrenheit into the more sensible Celsius, you’ve then just got the problem of finding the table that describes it, which they’ve made a smidge more challenging for you by keeping them mostly in alphabetical order, but with some tables showing information like this:

Table cool-season
 

Some of these items have their own table (so they’d be easy to find in an alphabetical list), but some (like Chard highlighted here) do not.

Yes, there is some sense in grouping cool season crops together, but the reader must know that these are cool season crops already, and the fact that we’ve spent four pages describing to the reader what a quincunx pattern is, suggests the author(s) aren’t especially confident of the reader’s experience or intelligence.

Anyhoo, the fact remains that there are much, much better ways of displaying these kinds of data.

 

Towards the back of the book we have the Master Charts, which are presented on facing pages, and look like this:

img-master-chart-1-thumb   img-master-chart-2-thumb
 

Productivity is described in pounds per 100 square feet, density is in plants per acre (there’s 43,560 square feet in an acre, so it’s apparently considered quite easy to flip between areas in your head), and sowing rate per flat (a flat is 23 inches x 14 inches, as you’d expect).

Bizarrely two of the nutrition specs provided are Calcium (measured in milligrams per pound – ouch), and Protein (measured in grams per pound – again, ouch). So that’s it for the three places they’ve used (milli)grams in the entire book.

Parochially they provide figures in these tables for the ‘_average consumption per American in pounds_’. Bless.

Lunacy, from the Latin luna, meaning moon

In Chapter 5, the idea of planting according to lunar cycles is raised.

The following concession is offered up front:

One of the most controversial aspects of the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method is Alan Chadwick’s method of planting seeds and transplanting seedlings according to the phases of the moon.

As others have noted, this kind of belief is based on some pretty dubious science.

On skeptics.stackexchange.com, Alain writes:

Invariably, the studies are near sighted, providing only a single (anecdotal) data point in time, mistakenly claiming statistical significance due to a large number of sample germinations. Studies that confirm the behaviour fail to account for the majority of independent variables which are known or theorized to affect germination and growth.

I’d suggest that Alain’s entire response is very much worth a read.

Long story short is that a combination of confirmation bias, scarcity of genuine, long-term, sanely conducted research, and the strong association between people who’d go to this effort and people who generally take care of their plants, all suggest that it’s probably a load of old bollocks.

Nonetheless, these Biointensive types seem to take it seriously.

This time of increasing gravitational, moonlight, and magnetic forces gives seeds that have not yet germinated a special boost.

Breathtaking stuff.

Our moon’s magnetic field is a fascinating thing, mostly because it’s entirely unlike Earth’s. Earth’s magnetic field is dipolar, due to the molten core, which is something that the moon very much does not have. The moon orbits us every 28 (ish) days, but we rotate each day (ish) - either way, its magnetic field wouldn’t vary based on how much light is reflecting from it to us (ie what phase the moon was in).

Weeds are often specialists and doctors in the plant community. They take very well to sick soil that needs to be built up and almost seem to seek it out. Where cultivated garden plants cannot manage, weeds are able to draw phosphorus, potash, calcium, trace minerals, and other nutrients out of the soil and subsoil and concentrate them in their bodies. Plants seem to have uncanny instincts.

Anthropomorphism is always questionable – it’s rarely a useful metaphor in terms of making things easier to understand – but here it’s egregious.

If you’ve got an area of soil that hasn’t been tilled, isn’t tended or weeded, perhaps because you think the soil is sub-par, then you should not be surprised to find a) that the generally less hardy varieties of plants (ie the ones that humans have selected and cultivated over the years for flavour or productivity) won’t volunteer or thrive in that soil, and b) indigenous weeds thriving uncontested in that area.

They do go on to concede:

Companion planting is still an experimental field in which much more research needs to be performed.

They cite a handful of companionships that are known to have an effect, including these:

o Marjoram (Origanum majorana): Has a “beneficial effect on surrounding plants.” o Oregano (Origanum vulgare): Has a “beneficial effect on surrounding plants.” o Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica): “Helps neighbouring plants to grow more resistant to spoiling.” Increases the essential oil content in many herbs. “Stimulates humus formation.”

The quoted phrases are attributed to these two sources:

  • Helen Philbrick and Richard B. Gregg, Companion Plants and How to Use Them (1966)
  • Rudolf Steiner, Agriculture - A Course of Eight Lectures (1958)

So a thoughtful discussion on whether there’s valid science, or even empirical observations worth a damn, is not something that’s worth troubling the reader with at this juncture (or indeed anywhere else in the book).

Then they dive into a truly contentious subject – the work of Ehrenfreid Pfeiffer:

Ehrenfreid Pfeiffer developed a method known as “crystallization,” from which one can predict whether or not plants will be good companions. In this technique, part of a plant is ground up and mixed with a chemical solution. After the solution dries, a crystalline pattern remains. Different plants have distinct, representative patterns.

When 2 plant solutions are mixed, the patterns increase, decrease, or stay the same in strength and regularity. Sometimes both patterns improve, indicating a reciprocal, beneficial influence. Or both patterns may deteriorate in a reciprocal negative reaction.

One pattern may improve while another deteriorates, indicating a one-sided advantage. Both patterns may remain the same, indicating no particular companion advantage or disadvantage. And one plant pattern may increase or decrease in quality while the other undergoes no change. Two plants that suffer a decrease in quality on a 1 to 1 basis may show an increase in strength in a 1:10 ratio.

The chemical solution isn’t defined or described, and we’re expected to believe that there’s some actual science in here because, well, hey, crystals! They’re sciency. If a chemical solution is involved, there’s no way it can be a big steamy pile of woo-woo.

No images of the patterns are provided, so we’re left to ponder by ourselves as to what an ‘_increased pattern_’ actually looks like.

While I don’t wish to be accused of attributing guilt by association, Pfeiffer was one of Steiner’s top researchers <sic>, so they obviously bought into each other’s somewhat whacky view of the world. It’s certainly an interesting meta-subject – that of the Steiner movement, the anthroposophists, biodynamics, and similar divergences from actual science.

In conclusion

I can’t really recommend this book.

It’s heavy on woo-woo, very light on explanation, substance, and science.

I’m a big fan of permaculture which offers and promises a far more integrated and sustainable system, more scalable, more versatile and adaptable to different environments, more and better explanations for the myriad practices that it advocates. The fact that the GROW BIOINTENSIVE crew have hitched themselves to the Biodynamic wonky-wagon is likely sufficient to deter (or at least give pause to) thoughtful people.

The whole system assumes that you will grow a 60/30/10 ratio for carbon (green manure) / carbohydrate-based calories / vegetables, which is just not something everyone wants to buy into in terms of their dietary intake.

Similarly there’s much talk of using lawn clippings (and similar) in your compost, but lawn clippings assumes that you have a lawn, and are happy to mow it regularly – two assumptions you just can’t make about people who actually understand the ecological cost of lawns. It also is at odds with the basic premise of the book, which is that we somehow have to live on an allotted 4,500 square feet per person, which doesn’t leave much room for lawns.

There’s undeniably some interesting subjects covered in this book, but just not enough to be compelling. I can’t recall reading anything in there that made me have an aha-moment – something that I was genuinely hoping for.

It may be due to feeling overly cautious about trusting things from a book that’s scattered with so much mysticism and pseudo-science, but I think it just lacks any great insight, other than the arguably pointless task of making compost. (A lot of the ‘no till’ types prefer to keep the whole garden as the compost, as it were, and only generate small quantities of actual compost purely for the role of potting mix for starting seedlings.)

Whether this book truly delivers on the promise to ‘grow more vegetables (etc) than you thought possible’, I’ll probably never be able to say first-hand.