How Soil Can Save the Planet: Q&A with John Jeavons

Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or First Lady Michelle Obama’s American Grown has inspired you to plant your first vegetable garden, you need a trusted reference to help you along. You can’t do much better than John Jeavons’ How to Grow More Vegetables (and fruits, nuts, berries, grains, and other crops), now in its eighth edition and “one of the most important how-to guides ever written,” according to Alice Waters. Jeavons’ method of sustainable and organic gardening, called Grow Biointensive, produces more food with less resources and also helps replenish one of the earth’s threatened resources: soil. We talked to Jeavons to learn more about sustainable gardening, which he has helped bring to 140 countries through Ecology Action, an environmental research and education organization. 

Books for Better Living: What is sustainable gardening all about?

John Jeavons: Sustainable gardening means that you’re growing as part of your garden the crops that you eat and all of your compost materials. This is so important because every time we eat a pound of food in the United States, six pounds of farmable soil are lost directly or indirectly due to wind and water erosion and the inputs that we bring in from other soils. There is as little as 34 to 48 years of farmable soil left in the world due to the agricultural practices being used. With Grow Biointensive, we have a way to raise more food, reduce our water bill, get good exercise and tasty food and build soil at the same time. Every time you eat a pound of food grown with Grow Biointensive techniques, you’re actually building up to 20 pounds of farmable soil. So rather than losing 6 to 24 pounds you’re building 20 pounds.

BBL: How is sustainable gardening different than other methods?

JJ: Sustainable gardening is actually much easier and produces a lot more food. You need to prepare one-quarter, on average, of the amount of soil that you would normally prepare and need one-quarter of the compost. You need one-eighth of the water, you have one-quarter of the weeding, and when you weed, because the soil has been prepared so deeply, you don’t have the weeds regrow. You plant all of the plants close together so that when the crops are mature, their leaves touch or barely touch and shade the ground and preserve the compost in the soil. It holds the water in the soil and you get healthier plants. You can produce more in a small area, or in the same area that you’re gardening in now, you can produce two to six times the amount of food.

BBL: Isn’t it harder to prepare the soil so deeply?

JJ: It’s actually is a lot of fun. We have a method for preparing the soil in a very easy way so you actually feel energized after you finish rather than tired. It all has to do with body mechanics. You let the body weight and the tool do the work. That sounds impossible, but it’s really true. Once you learn the technique, the spade just slides into the soil with no effort at all. We use a D-handled spade that you can hold centered in front of you, which doesn’t throw your spine out of alignment while you’re digging.

BBL: What impact have you seen from this work? How is this changing peoples lives?

JJ: It’s been reported that approximately 2.5 million farmers have learned biointensive food raising in Kenya. When there are classes scheduled for 50 people, 100 people show up. They’re really excited about it. People who don’t have enough water are growing food where their neighbors next door, who aren’t using this technique, say crops don’t grow. They are building soil. There are about 2 million people using it in Mexico currently. Representatives from a community will take a class and then go back and share it with other people.

In the United States, Salt Lake City has mapped out all of it’s farmable land within the city limits, and they’ve discovered that they actually could grow all the food for all of Salt Lake City using grow biointensive food raising. The diets would be different, but nutritionally very sound. New Orleans is mapping all of their farmable land as well.

BBL: What are some ways a gardener can get started with sustainable growing?

JJ: The smallest area you should prepare is 3 feet by 3 feet. That size of area will give you enough of what we call a mini climate. So you can learn this in a very tiny area. There are plans in the book for a 100-square-foot area, and it’s set up so you’ll be growing vegetables and soft fruit that the average person in the U.S. generally grows. The plan is totally revised and made new and easier.

Another thing you can do is grow a full-size apple tree, which will give you enough apples for one pound of apples per day for 3 and a quarter people for all year. You might say, that’s fine, but I don’t want that many apples in all one variety. You don’t have to do that. You can graft nine additional varieties onto your tree and you will have apples maturing from the end of June all the way to the first part of December depending on your climate. Then you have 10 different varieties to eat with different crunch, different colors, different tastes. You don’t need to have a whole forest of fruit trees to have a really large variety of fruit to eat.

BBL: What is one of your favorite crops?

JJ: There’s a crop I like to encourage people to get into if they’re not already, and that would be amaranth. Amaranth is very nutritious. It has a very good mix of essential amino acids, it produces a lot of compost material, it produces a lot of seed to eat, and you can even pop the amaranth seeds like you pop popcorn. People in Mexico make a thing called alegria, which means happiness. You take the popped amaranth and mix it with honey and a few raisins and a few sunflower seeds. It’s sort of like a Rice Krispies bar, but it’s more nutritious and even more tasty.

Learn more about Grow Biointensive and John Jeavons.

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