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"Intensive gardening: growing vegetables in this high-input style soon may no longer be practical"
Intensive Methods Will Fail Post Carbon Gardeners
by Steve Solomon
Nineteenth century urban market gardeners spaced their plants as closely as possible to maximize profit from extremely expensive land. Thus began what became known in the 1970s as intensive gardening.
Intensive gardening could not have developed without two abundant, cheap resources
- irrigation water to supplement rainfall (which usually meant from water mains, under pressure) and
- large quantities of nearly free potent manure, which in the 19th century were usually street sweepings from the many horses pulling wagons and carriages through the streets. Horse droppings were strong, potent fertilizer in those times because these were well fed and regularly grained working horses. The droppings cost the market gardener little because the streets had to be swept anyway and the market gardeners were not far from urban centers. I have read 19th century accounts of the growers wagon taking a daily load to the central produce market and returning with a daily load of manure.
Intensive backyard vegetable growing still requires both of these inputs:
abundant and inexpensive sources of concentrated fertility and high quality organic matter.
Since we homeowners and homesteaders are probably entering an era of post-carbon shortages, we will be wise to consider the science behind intensive's need for lots of water and soil nutrients, because growing vegetables in this high-input style soon may no longer be practical.
The easiest way I know of to grasp the essence of the intensive system is to consider how plants feed, which is elementary plant physiology.
The entire root system of plants does not efficiently assimilate nutrition. Only the emerging, naked, barkless tips of the roots do that, only the last few cells at the end of each root. The rest of the root system mainly transports what the root tips take in (and anchors the plant). Plants have evolved what seems to me to appear a highly intelligent mechanism to put just the right density of roots into a given volume of soil. The growing root secretes chemicals that, among other things, function somewhat like herbicides that repel or deter formation of roots, compelling the plant to find new, unoccupied ground to ramify with new roots. When densely spaced plants run out of unoccupied rooting zone, their production of new root tips slows greatly because the exudates secreted by the plant itself or its neighbours strongly inhibits further root development.
Water and nutrition are efficiently assimilated only through youngest few cells located at the growing end of the root called the root tip. This tip is only one cell thick and its thin walls are highly open to the passage of moisture, the nutrients dissolved in that water, and the invasion of fungal hyphae, which infuse the plant with complex organic vitamin-like substances that have been called phytamins. But after any particular cell that was part of the tip has existed for a few days, the root will have grown on past it and what was the tip a few days previously will have become a more central part of a still-expanding root. It will have developed a tough skin that prevents the ready inflow of moisture and nutrients and resists invasion by helpful fungi. In the event the root is prevented from further elongation by inhospitable conditions the ageing tip withers or otherwise ceases to function.
That much is straight textbook plant physiology. From here on, my explanation is based upon personal observation. When a plant grows crowded, when the tops are bumping, the root systems of those plants are also bumping. The roots then are prevented from forming enough new root tips, the plant's supplies of water and nutrition then have to be adsorbed through older, bark-covered roots, which are highly inefficient assimilators compared to skinless root tips. I have repeatedly observed that when densely spaced plants start bumping on raised beds their appearance begins to resemble plants that are slightly undernourished and suffering low grade moisture stress. Unless something is done by the grower to compensate for the difficulty crowded plants have obtaining sufficient water and nutrients, their growth will be very disappointing. The plant can be growing in moderately fertile earth that is reasonably moist but by their appearance would seem to be suffering from low grade nutritional deficiencies and moisture stress.
Soil conditions, incidentally, that make intensive plants look a bit stressed would be fertile enough and moist enough to lustily grow the same sorts of plants had they been given more growing room.
"greatly reduced ability of crowded plants to uptake moisture and nutrition"
To mostly compensate for a greatly reduced ability of crowded plants to uptake moisture and nutrition the intensive grower must maintain the soil moisture at unusually high levels and make sure the soil is unusually fertile. And even though this be done, once plants on an intensive bed begin to strongly compete for root room, they never grow as well as plants given more spacing.
To better appreciate what this means, consider the opposite approach, extensive vegetable growing as our ancestors did it in their farm-kitchen gardens for centuries. Pre 20th century rural gardens could not be substantially irrigated because any water added had to be carried in buckets or watering cans, and pumped by hand from wells or else carried from streams and springs. In order that plants could maintain themselves on rainfall, and get through rainless weeks without wilting, they had to be placed quite a bit further apart than urban market gardeners did. Because these well-separated plants were able to constantly expand their root zones without experiencing competition or running into the root exudates of neighboring plants it was not necessary to make their soil nearly as fertile because they were more efficient assimilators of nutrients as well as better foragers for moisture.
I first observed these realities when, in the 1980s, I went into the mail order vegetable seed business and began growing a variety trials ground. In trials work the object is not to produce a lot of food, it is to produce a lot of information. To evaluate a variety and compare it to other, similar varieties, every plant is usually given sufficient space to fully express its genetic potential. So trials are laid out in single widely spaced rows providing sufficient space to walk freely between them while carrying a clipboard, taking notes. The plants usually are put far enough apart in the rows that they do not touch or just barely touch at maturity. My business supplied home vegetable gardeners so my trials were designed to duplicate the average home garden soil only moderately fertile and minimally moist so as to reveal which varieties are best able to handle less than ideal conditions.
In contrast to how my intensive raised bed personal garden grew, (given far more water and its raised beds made super fertile) what I observed on those trials was:
Because my variety trials took far less work, water and fertilizer for the amount of food I produced I began using the same extensive methods in my personal gardening. I had traded the use of somewhat more space for the need for less water, less fertility and less work.
- plants of all sorts in my trials ground became much larger, so broccoli for example made enormous flowers and heads of incredible quality and flavor, the side shoots of widely-separated broccoli plants were far more numerous and larger and kept producing far longer;
- quality of root crops did not decline after they had become what I might have considered overly large (even six-inch-diameter carrots or beets that grew on for months after what might have normally been considered mature, were still tasty and tender);
- fruiting plants like tomatoes or peppers or zucchini did not quit yielding nor tend to get diseased so readily toward the end of the season. Instead they grew to monsters and their yield steadily increased as ever larger numbers of flowers formed ever greater numbers of fruit on ever-huger plants;
- bush beans did not quit yielding after a few weeks as many garden writers believe they must, but kept on producing several weeks longer than anticipated because they could keep on growing, besides, their pods were larger, formed more rapidly and so were more tender, so it took less time to fill the basket;
- despite lower levels of fertility (but given more growing room per plant) sweet corn grew six to twelve inches taller and their ears an inch or so longer and somewhat fatter;
- I could considerably expand this list.
Our civilization is entering an era when everything made with petroleum is going to become ever more costly. And that includes soil fertility boosters such as seedmeals and animal manures. Feeding chickens will cost more; transportation of their waste will cost more; I predict that bagged chicken manure fertilizers will significantly increase in price. Municipal water is becoming more costly if for no other reason than purification and pumping are all energy intensive activities.
Municipal water is also becoming more scarce in places as watersheds degrade and population increases make larger demands on a limited resource.
"Our civilization is entering an era when everything made with petroleum is going to become ever more costly."
So it behoves the home food grower to examine their methods and consider producing
as much or more food of higher quality using less water and less soil building by using a bit more land and, as I found in my trials work, and the bonus . . . doing a heap less work to get it.
I predict that the intensive raised bed systems that become standard practice in North American backyard gardening about 1975 are going to pass into oblivion, as we return to the methods of our ancestors.
Read earlier Garden Corner articles:
Why I grow a big vegie garden
Building Fertile Soil The Easy Way
"It behoves the home food grower to examine their methods and consider producing as much or more food of higher quality using less water and less soil."
Read more articles by Dr. Shelton: