Intensive Gardening With Permaculture/Biological Gardening Principles

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:

Intensive Gardening

Intensive Gardening

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

Permaculture Gardening

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.

Biological Gardening

Biological Gardening

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.

Other Methods

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.

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 GardeningIntensive 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 GardeningPermaculture 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 GardeningBiological 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 GardeningIntensive 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 GardeningPermaculture 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 GardeningBiological 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.

Human Effort

  • Intensive GardeningIntensive Gardening. A fair amount of work, both physical and mental, not only in the beginning, but throughout every growing season.
  • Permaculture GardeningPermaculture 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 GardeningBiological 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 GardeningIntensive Gardening. Some intensive gardens aren’t all that much work once set up and once a planting schedule is in place.
  • Permaculture GardeningPermaculture Gardening. Some permaculturists are excellent soil scientists who get great yields and food quality.
  • Biological GardeningBiological 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:

Intensive Gardening

Intensive Gardening

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.

Permaculture Gardening.

Permaculture Gardening

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.

Biological Gardening.

Biological Gardening

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.


  1. JonathanBrown20 on July 21, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    Phil, Great start to an enlightening thread. Perhaps some examples of crops or multi-year scenarios for the first two types would be helpful. I am an Intensive- biological type since I am growing peas, lettuce, tomatoes, bok choy, and brusselsprouts in two 4 x 8 raised beds in SW Connecticut.I’m planning to enrich the beds with home-grown compost in November. What are your thoughts on also covering it with leaf mold? Last winter I covered the beds with painter’s plastic row covers in winter to keep it hygienically clean, and that worked well tprevent disease and keep the weeds out the following spring and summer.Thanks for your insights.Jonathan

    • Phil on July 24, 2012 at 9:06 pm

      I’ll keep that in mind for a future post. I think a crop list would be good. It’s a lot of the usual vegetables in intensive gardening, and leans more towards perennials or self-seeding annuals/biennials in permaculture.I love leaf mold, which is just leaves that have been slightly composted/fermented in a pile, and even easier is just to rake the leaves into the beds as they fall in autumn. It won’t be as sterile of an environment as with the row covers. I actually prefer a more natural approach – you’re creating more of a diverse biological ecosystem when you mulch with leaves.

      • renate on August 30, 2015 at 3:49 pm

        I used fine/medium shredded leaves last fall in Northern Michigan. When the snow left, nothing much had happened to them. I had to rake them all off plant and where I planted and used them as mulch, I had a major slug problem, the same with intensive plantig.

        • Phil on September 4, 2015 at 12:41 pm

          Yes, leaves can attract slugs, especially if your garden tends to be a bit moist already. We definitely all need to figure out what works for our specific gardens. For me, I love it when I have leaves (such as oaks) that haven’t broken down by spring because it means I have a nice mulch – but yes, I have to rake them aside in places I want to sow seed.

  2. Kris Johnson on July 21, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    I’ve been thinking along the same lines, Phil. Have been gardening for a long time, but have focused on biological methods recently, getting better, but still mixed results. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another – lack of rain, rabbits, unknown beasties that cut off vining pole bean plants 4 inches above the ground, insects in my Gold Rush apples….  I’m a retired and reformed dietitian. I’ve seen too many folks trying the vegan lifestyle and getting into trouble to recommend that.I will be ordering your book, hoping that it will be a resource I can recommend to folks. I occasionally teach a class I call, Gardening for Maximum Nutrition.

    • Phil on July 24, 2012 at 9:09 pm

      Yes, there’s always something, but I find the problems decrease every year as the soil and overall ecosystem improves. A vegan or vegetarian diet seems to be great for some people and not great for others. I agree that it’s definitely more complicated than saying one diet is the best for everyone. Sounds like an awesome class! I hope the book gives you some new ideas to incorporate (it’s available now at ).

  3. Lynne on July 21, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    Rather than calling my style a hybrid system, I call it an eclectic system… picking and choosing the best of the 3 methods. I have just arrived at that point where I am ready to concede that I need to plant cover crops instead of lawn. I am looking at buckwheat and oats to start. Would these be considered carbon-rich crops?

    • Phil on July 24, 2012 at 9:18 pm

      Yes, I would call them both carbon rich, probably oats more than buckwheat. I’m not sure where you live, but assuming both are suitable, I would suggest dividing the lawn in 2 and trying both. Perhaps you’ll like one better than the other, or perhaps one will do better than the other. They will die back in winter.

  4. Gigi on July 21, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    Well, if you really want a challenge, throw in a 4th category: growing vegan!  Heh heh. I am a beginner gardener, growing in raised beds (a 2×4 wood frame, and 2 kiddie pools). Growing organically and without any animal products (fertilizers).  I am only on year 2, so have rather randomly added a bit of organic fertilizers (kelp, plant-based compost, mushroom manure) to store-bought organic garden soil — to try to improve the soil.The first year, I grew veggies year round — not necessarily well or a lot. But, I ate everything that my little garden produced and thanked it for being so generous. I’d like to try cover crops — at least for any unused garden space in winter.

    • Gigi on July 21, 2012 at 10:03 pm

       City girl’s starter garden.

    • Phil on July 24, 2012 at 9:21 pm

      It can take at least a couple of years to get a good crop, but as you say, you always get something good in year 1, and it usually gets better every year after that. Perhaps you’ve found a plant-based source of mushroom manure, but in case you don’t know, it usually has animal manure in it.

    • Paranormal Skeptic on November 1, 2012 at 2:17 am

      Just make sure you log by weight what you harvested. This allows you to track what works, and what didn’t 🙂

  5. Tross3 on July 21, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    As always insightful. TY!bte-recheck this line:Calorie-dense crops such as potatoes are emphasized in order to achieve do this in a small area.

  6. Bruce on July 24, 2012 at 2:53 am

    You are the Bruce Lee of gardening! Keep up the good work!”I have not invented a ‘new style,’ composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from ‘this’ method or “that” method. On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds.”

    • Phil on July 24, 2012 at 9:25 pm

      Cool, I’d never come across that quote. Interesting.

  7. yardenlb on July 24, 2012 at 4:51 am

    I wonder from where trace elements come when animal wastes are excluded from a system. When say, a vegan, eats the homegrown veggies, some of the nutrients are taken out of the system and flushed down the toilet. After repeating this process enough times, won’t the trace nutrients be depleted?

    • Phil on July 24, 2012 at 9:25 pm

      Perhaps eventually. That’s why we really should be composting our own human manure. And encouraging some wildlife in the garden, at least birds. Also, bringing in kelp and/or ocean water provides most or all of the trace minerals.

  8. Paranormal Skeptic on October 28, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    One correction I have to add here:  Composting, while releasing “Greenhouse gases”, does not contribute to the net gain of atmospheric greenhouse gasses.  These releases were just recently (In the scale of time) locked up in the soil/plants/etc.It’s not like unlocking carbon that was sequestered billions of years ago, but rather locked up at best, a year ago.  And, they will be locked back up in a year or so.  So, there’s no net gain of greenhouse emissions.

    • Phil on October 30, 2012 at 12:15 am

      Yes, great point, thanks. What I meant to get across was that composting can hasten the release of greenhouse gases when compared to processes such as incorporating organic matter into the soil or even just mulching.

      • Paranormal Skeptic on November 1, 2012 at 1:56 am

        Incorporating them into the soil will release just as much into the air, as compost piles would. Simple biochemistry.But, again, there’s no net gain.

        • Phil on November 1, 2012 at 11:39 pm

          Perhaps simple for you, but to me it is complex for the average person, certainly for me. You’re right that we are not increasing net greenhouse gases, but what we do with our organic residue does affect how much gets released back into the atmosphere. If we create a hot, often turned, highly aerobic compost pile, we release more gases than if we have a cooler, unturned pile that keeps more of the carbon. If we use anaerobic composting techniques, we create methane which if released into the atmosphere is much more effective than carbon at trapping heat. Or if we can get the organic residue incorporated down into the soil and subsequently increase the humus content of the soil, we can sequester greenhouse gases. So yes, we’re not creating gases out of thin air, but what we do with our organic matter does matter.

          • Manu on January 5, 2014 at 1:42 pm

            For what I know by now, I guess the best way to fix carbon in the soil and getting fertility improvements with it, is by making biochar, (composted or mixed with manure prior to putting it in the soil, it won’t help fertility until it’s cleaned of tar and colonized by microbes). That carbon will hardly never get to the atmosphere again, as can happen with humus.

          • Paranormal Skeptic on January 5, 2014 at 6:14 pm

            True, however the releases from organic materials were “recently” sequestered. Again, no net change.The temperature only makes the difference in speed of release, not amounts released.

        • Christine Baker on August 30, 2015 at 9:34 pm

          I’ve read that the whole idea is to sequester carbon in the soil and that proper agricultural techniques could actually solve the entire carbon problem.I don’t have a clue about biochemistry and will appreciate a link!

    • Manu on January 5, 2014 at 1:56 pm

      Also, there are some evidence that the antropogenic climate change theory is not true, I mean, the climate is slightly changing but it’s not because of our gases. Also, some vast arid areas are becoming greener due to the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, thus, fixing more carbon back in the soils (Gaia is always smarter than us!). (I’m gonna look for the sources of this infos).I’m not a fossil fuel supporter, (for the sake of God!) I just think that, as organic gardeners and conscious citizens, we should not give too much importance to our emissions, but we should emphatize carbon fixing methods because they improve fertility and resilience of gardens and any ecosystem.

      • Paranormal Skeptic on January 5, 2014 at 6:13 pm

        No, there’s actually very little, if any, evidence that Anthropogenic climate change isn’t true.

  9. Ruth on September 6, 2013 at 10:13 pm

    Thanks for the “compromise” of the three. I’ve not been able to be a strict “disciple” of either of the two methods so have combined both with some success. Love the dedication of both groups and your site gives a viable compromise. I was recently introduced to and the cation exchange soil test. I am considering it, need to find the expense, etc.

  10. Frank Holzman on February 26, 2019 at 1:49 pm

    I practice, research and teach Biodynamic/French Intensive market gardening. This is what was developed by Alan Chadwick. I was fortunate to work in his garden. John Jeavons was an earlier student that went off and created a hybrid version. All three of these method have a lot of overlap. I use permaculture design and develop agroeco systems in various parts of the world (hense biological). My book, Radical Regenerative Gardening and Farming covers all of these subjects.

  11. Donna on May 3, 2019 at 1:39 pm

    I am trying to do all 3? Very difficult with sandy soils.

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