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11 Mar 2009

Classic Book Review: How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible (etc. etc.)

How to Grow More Vegetables: and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. John Jeavons. 10 Speed Press.
This is not a new book, but given that it is the time of year when your thoughts may well be turning to gardening, I thought it might be useful for me to wax lyrical about what might lay claim to being one of the greatest gardening books of all time. ‘How to Grow More Vegetables’ wears its heart firmly on its sleeve, and sets out to teach you to do exactly what the title suggests. It has been my gardening bible for the last 10 years, and as you can see (left), my copy is well loved, covered in muddy thumbprints, having regularly accompanied me into the garden.

What the book is meant to look like...

What the book is meant to look like...

The book sets out the approach Jeavons has developed, which he calls ‘biointensive’. Biointensive food production has been defined thus;

The `biointensive` method is an organic agricultural system which focuses on maximum yields from the minimum area of land, while simultaneously improving the soil. The goal of the method is long term sustainability on a closed system basis. It has also been used successfully on small scale commercial farms.

Like many great things, it emerged from the same fertile period in the mid 70’s, bookended by the 2 oil shocks of ’73 and ’79, that produced other gems like permaculture design and passive solar building. The book begins with a look at historic precedents for gardening systems that aim to grow the most amount of food on the least possible ground. The Chinese were good at it, and so were the Mayans, the Greeks and the French, developing systems that used deep raised beds, lots of compost and also tight plantings, where plants are planted as close as possible together in triangles, like the 5 on a dice.

One of the great achievements of the book is how it highlights the absurdity of many gardening practices. On a conventional allotment, the whole thing is dug over, manured, and then rows are marked out, with the plants being planted in rows as the gardener walks up and down between the rows to look after them. Sounds logical in theory, and is has been the unchallenged orthodoxy for many years. But in practice, what is happening is that you are manuring the paths as much as the beds, digging the beds and then compacting the soil in them back down again, leaving space for weeds to grow in ground you have kindly manured for them, and basically creating several rods for your own back.

The cover of the latest edition

The cover of the latest edition

In the biointensive system, the raised beds are double dug, so as to maximise the depth of root penetration, and from that point forward, compost is only added onto the tops of the beds, which are never walked on. Most plants are started first in modules or in flat trays and then planted out into the beds on the tight spacings. This means that if you plant, say, lettuces, you may need to give a light weeding after a couple of weeks, but beyond that, they grow over and make a canopy, so there is no room for weeds to grow. Brilliant.

The successful application of the biointensive mode requires a lot of compost, but as we saw yesterday, there’s nothing wrong with that. This book goes through the key elements of making good compost, although his system of gathering all the materials and making the whole heap at once is never one I have managed to get the hang of, I tend to make them as I go, a process that takes longer, but still produces good compost at the end.

The book argues that the key aspects of biointensive food production are deep bed preparation, composting, close plant spacing, companion planting, the use of open pollinated seeds, and taking a whole system approach. The first year I had this book, I really went for it. The results were amazing. Since then, I always use this approach, albeit in a slightly adapted form (I used raised beds, close plantings, make compost, use companion planting, but tend to try and adapt them for a no-dig system). I usually start plants in modules, and I always use the spacings set out in the book, based on many years of research by Ecology Action (the organisation researching biointensive systems), first through the work of Alan Chadwick, and then Jeavons.  I swear by this approach.

Jeavons expands the biointensive concept to what he calls ‘mini-farming’. This is the growing of a range of foods, including grains and pulses, on the same system. In ‘How to Grow…’, Jeavons argues that if the US were to convert all the land it currently dedicates to lawns to biointensive food production, something like 97% of the landscape could be returned to natural systems and wilderness. Even if he’s only half right, it’s a wonderful aspiration. Jeavons also is a big fan of planting by the moon, that there are certain days when it is best to do certain jobs in the garden, there are particular days when it is best to sow seeds, other days when it is best to work with root crops.  I use the same system. although in mine, those days are called “weekends”.

If you have a copy of this, Joy Larkcom’s ‘Grow Your Own Vegetables’ and Charles Dowding’s ‘Organic Gardening’, that’s really all you’ll ever need.

(Here is the Wikipedia entry for Biointensive growing, and Ecology Action’s website).

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Mark Forskitt
11 Mar 8:54am

I endorse that – Jeavon’s book is a great starting point and jam packed with really useful material in the master tables. He skips over some essential practical information that you need to know about processing grains if you want to become a mini-farmer. If you can find a copy of Small scale grain growing by Gene Logsdon, that will fill the gap very well.

Oh and his idea of the amount of garlic a family of 4 needs is way too low!

[…] Culture does a review on the classic gardening book, “How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought […]

Peter Bralesford
11 Mar 1:04pm

I have this book, and it is brilliant. I’ve only done one raised bad at the moment, and it’s certainly a lot less work (In the long run, at least.) than conventional gardening.

Joanne Poyourow
11 Mar 4:18pm

I too love this book, and my copy looks pretty bad (mud, coffee spills, lots of notes taken inside) but at least mine still has some residue of a cover on it!

I like to tell people in my garden classes that this is a book you’ll use as a beginner, you’ll use it when you’re an intermediate level gardener, and you’ll return to it as an veteran gardener of vegetables.

It gives a broad overview for the newbie, but the intensity of the charts and calculations are invaluable for even those who have been gardening for a very long time. I’ve grown veggies for more than 12 years, but still dived back into this book when presented with a new, much larger scale garden project.

As an accompanying text for beginners I recommend Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening: Vegetables by Patricia S. Michalak (1993) which has color photos and brief descriptions of all the common veggies. It is a nice compliment to Jeavons.

Joanne Poyourow
Transition Los Angeles

12 Mar 9:07am

I bought this book on recommendation. Yes it is full of great ideas but too complicated for a beginner in an urban garden. For that I’d recommend Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening. The principles are very similar but much simplified. I started with square foot gardening in my medium-sized back garden and have now progressed on to the Jevons system – increasing yeilds (even more).

Transition Stratford-upon-Avon

12 Mar 2:47pm

I use Jeavons and Larkcom as my core books although I am not perfect in practice.

Found to my astonishment that a couple of the very old sources he referred to were on the shelf at my parent’s house.

Some of these ideas have been around since the 1930’s and we still do not get it?

12 Mar 3:37pm

There are a couple of requirements for any intensive management system that are almost always kind of casually not mentioned.

The manager has to be pretty intelligent.

And the manager has to have the time to do the work. Without fail.

It’s a very seductive idea- but my impression is that 90% of the folks who start this kind of operation wind up with “well, it didn’t work because_____” fill in the blank. My daughter broke her arm. (she did!). The chickens got into the beds. We had to go to a wedding, and the weeds took over, and I never got it back together. Etc. The dog ate my peas.

Now- I’m not opposed to the concept- it really can be wildly successful, and fulfilling. But I wish the books would cover the human end of the bargin more, and give instructions for how to really succeed, in the long run.

When you see a really successful one, there’s almost always one person, with a massive case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, who is responsible. Either that or a full family- with grandparents, parents, and children; all involved, and all taking responsibility…

13 Mar 3:20am

Yes it’s a great and inspiring book, no. 1 in my opinion.It also has plenty of charts and tables which for a beginner can be a bit off-putting.
So I agree with James – Square Foot Gardening is a great way of entering this method gently – (but it needs to be done organically).
The biointensive approach really does work. On moving to Australia I had real problems getting anything at all to grow in the (by European standards)ridiculously infertile Blue Mountains soil. The key was to start with the soil, by serious composting in raised beds. Some Australians seem to be taken with ‘no dig’ gardening, but I’ve had poor results from this. Much better has been to start with a big dig, then add compost on top in successive years. Jeavons recommends a kind of ‘closed loop’, where you grow crops specifically for composting. This is great (especially if you grow compost crops you can also eat) but one of the features of modern life is that everyone with a garden has masses of compostable material with nowhere to put it. So all you need to do is ask the neighbours if you can take their ‘green waste’ off their hands.
The other thing about How to Grow More Veg… is that it appears to suggest you’re going to grow all your family’s food. Much better to start very small, perfect the growing methods, then expand gradually. that way you don’t get the burnout from over-reaching yourself that Greenpa wrote about. I think the main limit on food growing isn’t space, ir even water – it’s time.

14 Mar 10:50pm

I’ve read the book and constantly refer to it when needed. However, double-digging (AKA “bastard trenching”) is woefully out of date and needlessly laborious from a permaculture perspective. Not only does it invert the natural soil strata, but it also wantonly kills necessary fungal hyphae that already exist in the soil. Why on Earth would we want to do this? This is certainly not a natural process found in nature, except perhaps, where landslides have occurred, so it is thoroughly unnecessary.

The preferred method of building wide, raised bed is the technique outlined by Toby Hemenway (as originally proposed by Patricia Lanza in ‘Lasagna Gardening’) in his fantastic book ‘Gaia’s Garden’: sheet mulching/composting/soil layering right on top of the existing soil. Granted, this takes time, but in many cases where the native soil is so poor (as it is here in the Sierra foothills of N. CA), this process can be expedited in a matter of hours with additional healthy soil, compost or humus brought in from off site. The best thing is, it will save your back and a whole lotta sweat.

Great book, but save your back!

14 Mar 11:28pm

I’ve put my comments about this on my blog here