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February 2006: News

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A BioIntensive Garden

We are including this article although the system used needs to be called Biointensive instead of GROW BIOINTENSIVE. That is because of the use of a rototiller, a shredder and drip irrigation, none of which are part of the GROW BIOINTENSIVE system. However, it should provide inspiration for those people just starting to grow food. The Groves live south of San Francisco, California.

A Biointensive Garden—Notes on Year One
By Nancy Grove
(Disclaimer: The author is a certified UCCE Master Gardener, but the opinions expressed herein are her own and do not reflect official UC policy or teaching.)

As David Mas Masumoto notes in his lyrical autobiography, Epitaph for a Peach, a true farmer, by the end of the harvest, is always thinking, "What will I do differently next year?"

It was a great first year for two newly retired physicians at what we half-jokingly, half-hopefully, call "Grove Farms." The "farms" are 500 square feet of double-dug, composted, almost-organic raised beds (we did use B. thuringiensis for tomato fruitworm, and grass clippings from lawns that had been fed with commercial fertilizers). As a recent retiree last fall with a newly available plot of land, I started taking the GROW BIOINTENSIVE courses whenever they were available at Common Ground, eager to start my vegetable garden while I awaited acceptance into the Santa Clara County Master Gardener training program. After the GROW BIOINTENSIVE overview course, I knew this was the holistic, integrated, sustainable approach that I was looking for. In retrospect, it has made our family intensely aware of the inputs and outputs from our land, to the point where we use our electric shredder (for the compost pile) only until noon, because we have gone to a time-of-use meter with PG&E and our rates go way up in the afternoon. Next step, solar photovoltaic!

We began with compost. Couldn’t get it hot enough. This year’s piles are so much better, due to 1) size (we aim for 4X4X4 feet solidly enclosed on three sides) and 2) drying the wet, messy stuff on chicken wire racks and then shredding everything but grass clippings. But with help from a couple of BFI free-compost days plus our home-grown material, we collected enough for two cubic yards per 100-sq-ft bed.

Winter greens: Our first experiment with building flats, making starter soil, and pricking out. We built ten flats for about $90 with Home Depot supplies. I was not happy with the recipe for the starter soil (half sifted compost and half bed soil, according to the textbook for the GROW BIOINTENSIVE courses, How to Grow More Vegetables…) mostly because the soil we started with was roughly the consistency of an adobe brick. I also found the multiple transfers from flat to flat incredibly time-consuming (the limiting resource in the GROW BIOINTENSIVE philosophy is assumed to be land, and to a lesser extent water, but we had some "time and labor" limitations as well!). But by November last year we had lettuce, kale, parsley, mustard, spinach, and radicchio in the ground, and just as one of our wonderful lecturers from Ecology Action in Willits predicted, the baby greens just "sat there and looked at us" because by then there were only about ten hours of daylight. But when they blasted forth in the spring, it was almost overwhelming. One change for next year is to commit to absolute rigor in sequential seeding so that everything isn’t ready for harvest at once.

The greens were started in reasonably tillable, loamy soil that had been previously used for flower beds. We couldn’t start the double-digging process in our orchard until we had had some rain. Yes, we rototilled (a no-no, but necessary for us). I sowed 25 lb of winter rye in early December (behind schedule already!) and in March-April we weed-whacked, rototilled again, and built the beds (4X25 feet instead of the recommended 5X20 feet), using five-foot lengths of 1X6 redwood and wood stakes.

The double-digging was really hard. I wish I had bought John Jeavons’ video, because I think our backs would be in better shape. (Yes, we had some younger volunteers pitch in, too.) But it was so rewarding to see the mass of tiny rye roots coursing through the clods we turned up. And earthworms! Talk about inefficient—I would keep stopping to crumble up clods by hand, because I had a terror of severing our allies the worms! At the end, we had raised beds that stood a good 6-8" above the surrounding soil and were dark and compost-y.

Irrigation: We put in a drip system, assisted in the design by the good folks at Urban Farmer, a wonderful store up in San Francisco (worth the drive; there’s nothing like them down here). Spent about $450 to put in 9V-battery-powered timers, pressure regulators, and emitter drip lines. It worked like a charm, and we only use about ten gallons a night (while seedlings were getting started) to every other night (rest of the summer). The best thing about actually buying components was that it FORCED us to be absolutely clear about our planting plan—adjacent crops, sun rotation, spacing, emitter size, etc.). Use graph paper and pay attention to scale. It really helps!

Plantings: We have gotten all of our seed from the open-pollinated cultivars available at Common Ground Store in Palo Alto. The germination rate was fabulous, and I would plant almost every variety again. We had some surprises—some parsnips in with our carrots and a lovely interloper among the squash in the form of a highly productive Kabocha squash (Japanese pumpkin) with a wonderfully sweet, orange pulp. We propagated all the squash, cucumbers, melons, leeks, chives, carrots, radishes, and turnips from seed; tomatoes, eggplant, chiles, and herbs we got at the Master Gardeners’ Spring Garden Market in April (an annual event, don’t miss it). The master charts in HTGMV for buying seeds or seedlings, spacing, and yield are incredibly helpful, and we paid attention.

Pests: Squirrels, squirrels, and more squirrels. They would have eaten every tomato, as they had all our stone fruits in the orchard earlier in the spring. They have no natural predators in our area, and definitive solutions are hard to come by. We ended up building a ten-foot-tall (the tomatoes had really taken off!) "Tomato Pagoda" covering our entire tomato bed, which contained 19 plants. Unfortunately the framing was first covered by bird netting. Forget it. The squirrels treat it like dental floss, and are through it in no time. Then we undertook an incredibly laborious process of covering the whole thing with hardware cloth (this structure cost, in total, about $450). We had to be rigorous about closing every opening because where the squirrels couldn’t get in the roof rats could. The project took two days, and my husband even camped out overnight with our German shepherds to keep the varmints away during the night the tomatoes were vulnerable.

But it all paid off in the end! We have had a phenomenal harvest and have had the pleasure of sharing produce with friends and those less well off, through the dining room at St. Anthony of Padua in Redwood City (a Second Harvest participant). We also revived our canning skills, and between freezing and canning are closing in on 150 quarts of produce for the year.

Yes, there are things we will do differently next year. But Common Ground and the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method were at the center of our success. If we, collectively, could put a spading fork in the hands of everyone in the world who now carries a gun, we’d have peace and vegetables, and renewed hope for "this fragile earth, our island home."



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