How to Grow More Vegetables

“How to Grow More Vegetables” (Ten Speed Press, $30) is a set of directives that, if followed to the letter, could radically change your life.
“How to Grow More Vegetables” by John Jeavons has been translated into six languages for gardeners around the globe. It demonstrates that an average-sized front yard of 800 to 1,000 square feet can provide enough vegetables and soft fruits (strawberries and melons) to meet the yearly produce requirements of a family of four or five.
The book, now in its eighth edition, is not speculative; it is based on more than 40 years of hands-on growing and research by the author.
Reached by phone in Willits, in Northern California, Jeavons informed me that his methods are now utilized in more than 143 countries. The technique he advocates is called biointensive gardening. It combines ancient agricultural systems, from Chinese to Mayan, with two more contemporary agricultural methods: the biodynamic and French intensive techniques.
Biodynamic farming, developed by Rudolf Steiner in Europe during the 1920s, substitutes organic or natural fertilizers for synthetic, chemical ones. It demands that crops be grown in fluffy, raised beds, where water can easily penetrate and gas exchange around plant roots is maximized.
The French intensive technique was begun outside Paris in the 1890s. On manure-enriched soil, “crops were grown so close to each other that when the plants were mature, their leaves would touch,” according to Jeavons’ book. “The close spacing provided a mini-climate and a living mulch which reduced weed growth and helped hold moisture in the soil. During the winter, glass jars were placed over the seedlings to give them an early start. The gardeners grew up to nine crops each year.” And that was in Paris, where winters are considerably colder than in Los Angeles.
It has been shown that the 322 pounds of vegetables that you consume on average per year can be successfully harvested from an area as small as 100 square feet, which is about half the size of most kitchens. The secret is in the soil. Proper soil preparation will bring crops along faster and in better health than when you just dig and plant.
Each year you garden in a biointensively improved bed, your yields will increase. But even if you start with only average garden soil, you should not need more than three years before you are producing 300 pounds of vegetables per 100 square feet of raised beds.
In biointensive gardening, crops are grown in raised beds 5 feet wide that are surrounded by footpaths. Narrow beds make it possible to garden without stepping on and compacting the soil; you never have to reach more than 21/2 feet to weed, hoe or harvest. Initial preparation of beds involves double digging, which entails loosening and amending the soil to a depth of two shovel blades — 20 to 24 inches below the surface.
Central to biointensive gardens is the concept of sustainability. Ultimately, little fertilizer or manure is brought in from outside to nourish crops because green manure — in the form of peas, beans, clover or vetch — is periodically grown in the beds. When turned under, green manure plants provide the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other minerals that vegetable, fruit and cereal crops require. Ideally, once sustainability is achieved, except for some occasional compost enrichment, water will be the only input brought to the garden from the outside. Everything else, from fertilizers to seeds, will be produced by the garden itself.
Jeavons emphasized that biointensive gardening is highly appropriate for the sort of drought that California experiences every few years. Growing vegetables in raised beds, as compared to conventional row planting, results in water savings of up to 75 percent, in addition to increased crop harvests.
Successful vegetable growing depends upon skillful crop rotation, with the addition of nonedible, soil-enriching cover crops such as pink clover. For example, in a four-year rotation for spring/summer crops, you could plant tomatoes in year one, corn in year two, beans in year three and zucchini in year four. You could grow all four crops every year as long as you divided your vegetable garden into four sections, making sure to rotate the crops appropriately in each section.
To enhance soil fertility, plant legumes such as red or pink clover after your squash and corn have established themselves in the garden. You can broadcast the clover seed in between the developing crops or even underneath them. After you have harvested your edibles, allow the clover to continue growing as your next crop. Three weeks before planting your fall or winter vegetable garden, cut the clover plants at ground level and work them into the earth. Clover provides nutrients, aerates the soil with its penetrating roots, and helps to keep pathogenic soil fungi at bay.
Often I hear gardeners complain that they cannot grow tomatoes anymore or that their pansies or impatiens simply will not flower like they once did. The reason for such failures is repetitive planting of the same species in the same spot, year after year. Where such monoculture exists, there is a proliferation of soil-borne fungi that are harmful to the repetitively planted species. In addition, monoculture robs the soil of plant nutrient reserves since each crop has a tendency to extract particular minerals from the earth.

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