First, a few notes:
- I love intensive gardening, permaculture gardening and biological gardening. They each have their potential strengths and weaknesses that were the inspiration for this article, but I’m a fan of them all, so the point of this article isn’t to put any of them down.
- There’s no one perfect system. The solution depends on many factors, including the climate, soil, water availability, etc., so intensive gardening might be perfect for one place whereas more traditional dryland gardening might be better for another.
- The following methods aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re probably more similar than different. They’re all about growing food, caring for our planet, and they’d probably agree on 90% of organic gardening topics, such as the use of some compost/mulch, heirloom seeds, non-toxic inputs, renewable resources, and so on.
But they emphasize different things.
Let’s define the 3 terms from my title. These aren’t proper definitions, just what I mean in the context of this post:
The goal here is to produce a lot of food in a very small area, by putting in some serious manual labor to produce perfect planting beds and intensive plantings.
Calorie-dense crops such as potatoes are emphasized in order to achieve this in a small area.
Alan Chadwick and John Jeavons are popular proponents of biointensive gardening methods, and a number of the techniques stem from French intensive gardening.
They advocate raised bed gardening to allow for soil building, double digging to loosen up the soil deep down, very intensive plantings to utilize all space, and succession planting throughout the year so the garden is always producing food.
It’s vegetarian/vegan friendly, without the need for animals in the garden. There’s a focus on keeping the soil fertile through ongoing composting in order to avoid depleting that soil due to the intensive vegetable gardening production.
Most of the compost ingredients are to be grown on-site in the form of carbon-rich crops, mainly grains. And yet the garden is often fairly formal in appearance.
Permaculture gardening is “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.”
The core tenets are care of the earth, care of people, and setting limits to population and consumption.
A main goal here is to establish gardens that provide food and other resources for people, gardens that last a long time and largely take care of themselves rather than needing our continuous input.
It’s much less work in the long run than intensive gardening techniques, with the tradeoff generally being a smaller harvest, and more area used.
Permaculture gardening originated from Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, along with thousands of others who have contributed since then. It’s become an international grassroots movement.
And I should also mention Masanobu Fukuoka, who could be considered a permaculturist and basically promoted the opposite of intensive gardening, one of his main objectives being to do the least amount of work and let nature take care of itself.
Producing food is a major priority in permaculture gardens, but not as intensively as intensive gardening. Emphasis is put on establishing a perennial forest of food that doesn’t need replanting every year.
External inputs of energy and resources are allowed in order to get the system functioning more quickly, but in the long run, this decreases substantially.
Animals would ideally be incorporated for the various tasks they perform in a sustainable ecosystem. Permaculture gardens tend towards a wilder, more natural aesthetic.
I would call most of my educational background, research and experience “biological” gardening, which is admittedly a rather generic, useless term, as “biological” could obviously mean a lot of things.
But term is often used by proponents to denote a strategy that works with nature and goes beyond legal organic gardening standards in order to produce the highest quality food while improving the health of the soil and ecosystem.
So most of the knowledge we’ve gained in this biological strategy come from the organic/biological/sustainable farming community.
I suppose “biological” is used in contrast to a “chemical” viewpoint, where chemistry is seen as the driver of crop growth and chemical fertilizers and pesticides are a focus.
It’s also different than an “organic” viewpoint, where organic products are often a focus, instead of a holistic approach to achieving the desirable end result.
With biological gardening, increasing the health and diversity of the biology in and on the soil is the focus. That may include some organic inputs and rare chemical inputs, but also many other practices that accomplish the goal.
There are from hundreds of brilliant soil scientists, consultants and researchers who promote or have promoted biological farming, such as William Albrecht, Carey Reams, Arden Andersen, Elaine Ingham and a long list of many others.
The ultimate goal here is producing nutrient-dense food.
External inputs are prominent, mostly organic fertilizers, naturally-mined minerals, microbial inoculants and biostimulants.
It may or may not include the odd synthetic fertilizer, and even a very rare pesticide, but only in such a way is to improve soil food web and plant health in the long term.
And of course there are many other important disciplines. I can’t get into all of them in detail because this post is already plenty long, but for example:
Dry Gardening. Advocated by Steve Solomon, who has some great ideas, there are some methods which are very different from the above that allow you to grow food when water is scarce. I don’t love everything about the methods, but there are extremely important implications for those of us trying to garden without much water, and indeed, much of the world will eventually be in that camp. Very important stuff.
Hunting. I don’t eat meat, and my wife is a vegan nutritionist, but there are some compelling arguments that we should be restoring parts of the planet to natural ecosystems with wild animals, and then perhaps hunting them. There are many good arguments for and against this idea and it’s simply not a black and white issue any way you look at it, in my opinion. It’s beyond the scope of this article, but deserves a mention.
Biodynamic Gardening. Right now, biodynamic and other energetic methods of gardening seem ridiculous to many people (until they see and taste the incredible food that can come from a good biodynamic farm). We may all be growing food energetically in 50 years, using physics and quantum physics much more than the current chemical and biological paradigm. Biodynamic gardening is actually a small part of the biological gardening model I came up in, and apparently informed some of the intensive gardening methods.
So back to the original three. Here are some general insights into how they compare:
Soil Improvement And Food Quality
- Intensive Gardening. Soil testing and organic fertilizing/soil balancing is mentioned, but the emphasis is on double digging, composting and cover cropping. Healthy food is definitely possible, but is not emphasized and verified as much as in biological gardening.
- Permaculture Gardening. Soil improvement is done less scientifically, so while the food produced is certainly fine, the goal is not nutrient-density. Additionally, most permaculturists are very much lacking in their understanding of soils and plants. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, but there’s a lot of bad horticulture information I come across on permaculture gardening forums (of course I’ve never given bad information in my life 🙂 ). There’s a lot of brilliant stuff, too.
- Biological Gardening. The goal is high brix, nutrient dense food, and so soil management and food quality are the best parts of a biological gardening model.
- Intensive Gardening. Sustainability is a main goal and there is definite potential to achieve it. The idea is to get most fertility from on site through a lot of composting and cover crops. But while composting is important, it also produces a lot of greenhouse gases, so perhaps shouldn’t be relied on indefinitely. Space used is minimal, which is where intensive gardening methods shine. Fertilizers are used more so than in permaculture gardens. Labor is substantial, which needs to be factored into the sustainability equation. It also uses a lot of water, but I’m not clear on how much water it uses per unit of food produced.
- Permaculture Gardening. Overall, sustainability is emphasized with a goal of establishing gardens that take care of themselves, on as little land as possible (although still much more than intensive gardening), and even restoring damaged land. The goal is to capture as much energy as possible (wind, water, sun, etc.), and to mimic nature such that the garden doesn’t need many external inputs in the long run. There is, unfortunately in my view, a frightening habit of introducing inappropriate non-native species into new areas, some of which have become very invasive.
- Biological Gardening. Certainly sustainability is important to biological gardeners, but it needs to be addressed more. We can’t keep mining and shipping mineral fertilizers forever. Fortunately, the best practitioners are indeed using external inputs only to bring the system towards balance, with a goal of mostly internal inputs in the long run.
- Intensive Gardening. A fair amount of work, both physical and mental, not only in the beginning, but throughout every growing season.
- Permaculture Gardening. Work up front, but then less to maintain it if the design is good. Some permaculture design systems can go on for decades without much help.
- Biological Gardening. Work up front and some to maintain it – falls somewhere in between the first two.
Again, the above comparisons are just broad examples. It’s not like you can’t have a biological gardener who uses permaculture garden design and intensive gardening principles, and vice versa. For example:
- Intensive Gardening. Some intensive gardens aren’t all that much work once set up and once a planting schedule is in place.
- Permaculture Gardening. Some permaculturists are excellent soil scientists who get great yields and food quality.
- Biological Gardening. Some biological gardeners/farmers are careful about being as sustainable and local as possible.
A Hybrid System
Here’s what I suggest.
First, I must mention that I’m not some kind of gardening guru who gets everything right. I’m still trying to figure it all out like you. And I mostly just learn from a bunch of different smart people who have figured some cool stuff out, and then incorporate it all into my paradigm.
With that being said, here’s what I suggest: let’s combine the best of all of them.
To be clear, these systems already do have a lot in common. It’s not like they developed independently – they feed each other, but I still think we can make a better hybrid system:
We can consider doing some of the heavy work, such as building raised beds and double digging in year one, in order to build some good soil and get some good compost and organic fertilizers down in there.
We can intensively plant our beds as long as we can collect enough rainwater to do that. We can start growing our own carbon through cover crops, not only during the fallow season, but also in parts of the garden that aren’t being used, such as part of the lawn.
We can use compost in the first couple of years along with mulching and then eventually it’s mostly mulching. In my view, we shouldn’t keep digging/tilling the soil in the long run, and we shouldn’t make too much work for ourselves when there are other important things to accomplish in this world.
The strongest part of permaculture gardening is the overall ethic and the design process, the idea of always trying to make connections and integrations in the garden so that the garden takes care of itself.
The use of perennial plants, biological resources and capture of any water and other energies that come onto the site are also important. We can incorporate that stuff, leave the invasive plants, and bring in some more sound soil and plant management practices.
We can use the science. The chemistry – the soil testing and organic fertilizing in order to produce amazing soil. The biology – the soil food web and microbial inoculants. The physics – the biodynamic and other energetic methods.
We can take all of the good science and learn to get more sustainable.
Incidentally, my book (which is coming out at the end of the month – more on that soon) is basically the biological gardening side of the equation, while the Smiling Gardener Academy brings all of these disciplines together into one framework that you can mold to your situation.
I can see that this article needs some more fleshing out, but it’s time to go make breakfast. Perhaps you’ll add your 2 cents below, and your questions are always welcome.