The Biointensive Garden: Getting the Most Out of a Small Garden

You don’t need a lot of land to create a biointensive, sustainable garden. Step 1 is finding a method that works for you.

  • John Jeavons’ Ecology Action in Willits, Calif., uses his Grow BioIntensive method which produces everything a farm needs on its own land.
    Photo by Christy Wilhelmi
  • The French Intensive method involves never leaving beds fallow, but instead planting with heavy feeders (like tomatoes and corn) followed by heavy givers (like legume and cover crops), followed by light feeders (lettuces).
    Photo by Christy Wilhelmi
  • In a Square Foot Garden, large crops like broccoli and kale are planted in the center of each square foot while lettuces are planted in a four-square pattern, one in the center of each divided quadrant (4 per square foot).
    Photo by Christy Wilhelmi
  • French Intensive method utilizes small spaces by planting in hexagonal (or offset) rows. Typical beds are 4 to 5 feet wide and as long as 100 feet. Crops are nestled up against one another, forming living mulch as they grow.
    Photo by Christy Wilhelmi
  • With Square Foot Gardening — quite possibly the most popular technique of modern home gardening — once you have your garden beds set up, you’ll never need a shovel again.
    Photo by Christy Wilhelmi

We need more land. That's typically what a gardener thinks after his or her first season of successful gardening. While it’s prudent to start small, it’s only a matter of time before we yearn for more space to grow. There are so many new and newly discovered seeds to try (so it seems) and never enough space for all of them.

We dream of having the luxury of acres to work with, but the truth is that most home gardeners are limited to a few hundred square feet for growing food crops. In most urban settings, that number decreases to under 100, so it’s important to utilize the space we have to achieve the highest yields without compromising sustainability. Enter biointensive gardening.

“Biointensive” is an umbrella term used to describe several methods for growing a lot of food in a small space. The idea centers around nutrient-rich soil that can support growing crops closer together, reducing the amount of resources and hands-on labor required. It incorporates compost, livestock, beneficial insectaries, and strives toward a closed-loop system on a homestead, whatever the size. Sound intriguing? Let’s take a closer look.

Over the years biointensive gardening has taken many forms. To understand these concepts, we first have to take a step back in history. Biointensive methods were used by ancient Romans and have traveled alongside us through the years, morphing with other techniques and integrating modern innovations. In essence, this is the way our ancestors farmed before industrial farming changed everything.

It starts with creating your ecosystem, that is, not just what’s in your garden beds, but everything around it. A healthy garden is surrounded by habitat for beneficial insects, so good bugs can take care of bad bugs for you. It may include habitat for bats or toads (which also eat bugs) and it may even provide food for wildlife (deterrents away from our highly protected vegetable beds). A healthy ecosystem has a way of recycling nutrients, be it by composting or mulching beneath existing perennials. As mentioned before, these concepts may have sprung to life long ago, but they came into focus with Rudolf Steiner.


Steiner was an Austrian scientist and philosopher who developed the concept of Biodynamics in Europe in the 1920s. His work found its way to the United States in the 1930s, encouraging farmers to view their entire farm as a living organism. His guidance led people to develop self-sustaining systems, integrating livestock manure as fertilizer and growing feed for the livestock on site. Pest problems were viewed as a symptom of a weakened system, and measures were taken to bolster the system (think soil microbiology here) to heal the organism.



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