Biointensive Victory Gardens: Higher Yields with Less Work

Approx Reading Time: 10 minutes

As we all know, the pandemic has been a big interruption to usual routine. Many people, for good reason, have re-focused on the importance of access to food during the disruption.

Most of our food at supermarkets relies on industrial agriculture and the requisite farm workers, distribution networks and commercial infrastructure. Even though we don’t have a food “shortage,” we certainly have a food system that has been disrupted.

There is presently a surreal disconnect between the lines of cars in the Midwest waiting for food banks to supply them with basic calories, while many farms based on institutional networks are dumping millions of pounds of food or plowing it under due to lack of labor, or upheaval of their normal distribution routes.

In this post, I will explore lessons learned from the WWII Victory Gardens and how to successfully grow your own Victory Garden with better results and less work.

Lessons Learned from Backyard Victory Gardens

It’s not too hard to see why there has been record sales of vegetable seeds and seedlings this spring as a new historic surge is taking place for people wanting to grow some food at home. The new inspiration for a 21st century Victory Garden is upon us.

This is great news in several ways, but carries some cautionary lessons from the past.

Victory Gardens Were Grown for Economic Stability

The main lesson being that during the last iteration of Victory Gardens in 1943 during WWII there were over 20 million gardens that collectively grew almost 40% of the vegetables for the entire nation in back lots and yards. Interestingly, almost half of those people were growing food for economic reasons, not patriotism.

But the one thing most overlooked during that episode is what happened the following years. By 1946, most of those gardens didn’t exist as people found it easier to rely on commercial agriculture and newly available processed food. On the home front, lawns became the new crop.

First Year Gardens are a Challenge

The Victory was short lived. We all know that the first year can be the hardest. But most of the people had thrown themselves into the ‘hard labor’ model of building a garden from scratch and tending to the crops all season.

Many were so exhausted by the process, and the various mistakes and crop failures, that far fewer people grew much of anything the next year. It was simply too much work. They had little experience with correct cultivation or processing of the harvest, and they didn’t have the cash to buy the recommended insecticides and fertilizers that were part of the model garden. There was very little composting going on, and an overreliance on chemicals.

This is the common hurdle most people stumble over when starting new gardens. They throw themselves at it, with the understanding that it is going to be very hard. And mostly due to lack of technique it becomes a self-fulfilling mantra.

Successful Gardens Partner With Nature

Gardening can be hard work. Growth is slow, and yields can be unpredictable. But growing some of your own food can still be one of the best steps to take toward food security and overall health. The key is to learn how to do it with the help of nature on your side. We have learned much since WWII.

When you align your garden with natural systems that are there to help, the gardens tend to produce more nutrient density per square foot, while reducing your labor. I’ve been growing organic food at home using Biointensive methods for over twenty years now, and I can safely say that it works better each year.

I grow about 1000 pounds of fruit and vegetables in 1700 square-feet of beds during a 130-day growing season at 6500 feet of elevation. If I can do it here, in the high desert, you can probably do it where you live.

What is Biointensive Gardening?

Biointensive gardening methods are proven to produce high yields of organic crops from small spaces. The method focuses on creating a sustainable system by improving biodiversity in the soil. Biointensive agriculture implements a closed-loop system to create a healthy environment where plants thrive without outside inputs.  

10 Reasons Why Biointensive Methods are Successful

Implementing the biointensive method is the trick to learning how to sustain a “Victory Garden.” Here are some key reasons I use biointensive methods:

#1 – Biointensive gardening brings soil to life.

“Living soil” is the main engine that drives fertility. When you feed organic material (compost) to the countless microorganisms and fungi that thrive underground, they will in turn, feed your plants.

This wild orchestra is called the “Soil Food Web.” And with over a billion bacteria in a teaspoon of healthy garden soil, there’s a whole lot of music. You get to be the conductor of the opus. No chemicals needed.

When you allow the organisms that have been here for billions of years to do their job, they protect the plants for you. It is how forests work, and we should all use those helpers in our gardens.

#2 – Biointensive gardening supports a diversity of plants and insects.

When you learn to plant a diversity of crops you attract a diversity of insects, the majority of which are beneficial, and they will help keep other pests at bay.

#3 – Biointensive gardening uses deep beds and intensive spacing.

By amending, and aerating soils properly, and planting in intensive blocks that cover the beds, you will only have to weed once a year. As the plant canopy covers the bed, it reduces evaporative loss and out-competes weed growth.

This reduces the frequency for watering and weeding, two of the most time-consuming chores. Each year your soil conditions can improve, with lower compaction, more water retention, and less need to till. I usually only need a brief pass with a broad fork each spring to prep the beds when I add new compost.

#4 – Biointensive gardening closes the loop on waste.

By composting all the organic matter that travels through your household, you increase the fertility of your soil each year for free, while reducing the amount of unnecessary waste of a valuable resource.

#5 – Biointensive gardening lets you grow the crops that you like to eat.

Rather than getting into exotic crops, stick to ones that work in your climate zone. Deep greens are one of the best places to start to enhance micronutrients and strengthen your immune system.

A simple 4 X 8 foot bed can grow an intense amount of deep greens for “green-juice,” stir-fries, salads and casseroles. They also tend to be one of the best cost-saving vegetables to grow. Try collards, kale, arugula, beet greens, Swiss chard, spinach, and Asian greens, like pak choi.

#6 – Biointensive gardening is sustainable when you collect seeds from open pollinated plants.

By using open pollinated seeds, you allow yourself the opportunity to grow your own seed for the following season in perpetuity. This is one of the best ways to increase self-reliance in your food growing efforts, and helps your plants acclimatize to your local conditions each year.

#7 – Biointensive gardening reduces the need to purchase annual materials for the garden.

Once you get an understanding for the organic methods, you won’t need many outside inputs, which enhances your self-reliance. You don’t need fancy materials. You just need to understand how to create the natural organic conditions that plants need to thrive.

#8 – Biointensive gardening can reduce food costs.

You can grow vegetables that are more nutrient-rich than what’s available at the store, and do so with less cost.

On average my cost is about 10 cents a pound for most of the vegetables I grow. I acknowledge that I’m not counting the value of my own labor, but I just see that activity as healthy exercise that saves me the cost of a gym membership each summer.

By optimizing nutrient-density in your garden beds, you can help sustain health during most challenges, whether they be market interruptions or a wobbling in climatic conditions.

#9 – Biointensive gardening works best when systems are automated.

Don’t be a “hose-dragger.” A key labor saving method I use is drip-fed irrigation on a timer. This simple system allows me to be gone for weeks at a time during the growing season. The timer doesn’t “forget” to water during critical periods the way we do.

Once the seedlings are set, and stable, the drip-fed irrigation helps reduce water-borne diseases and brings the water to the root zone efficiently with less water use. It also allows the home gardener to become more of a garden “manager” rather than an “employee.”

You tend to the garden on your own schedule and do more of a check-in on systems and garden health. A drip system  frees you from having to drag the hose around every day.

#10 – Biointensive gardening helps you increase the amount of healthy plants in your diet.

By growing more leafy greens and vegetables, you will inevitably add more of them into your diet. And in the United States, that can make a big difference in the average family’s overall health.

A diet rich in organic plant material is key to a healthy immune system and strong resistance to illness. It helps with “metabolic health” without which people are more prone to the threats of heart disease, inflammation, diabetes and obesity.

You Can Grow a Sustainable Victory Garden!

These are just a few tips on how to align your food growing efforts with natural systems that help move you forward.

Each family has its own challenges, likes and dislikes, much like the diversity of soil types across the country. But once you fully experience how a patch of soil can come to life naturally, when given the right conditions, and a thriving soil food web, you will change the way you grow food from that point forward.

We humans are a member of a vast community of living organisms and re-joining the basic rhythm of a balanced system can be an incredible feeling. It’s a re-awakening to what it means to be fully human, and staying healthy by eating the food coming from your own labor is so rewarding that it’s hard to describe. It’s a solution that leads to more solutions, and you can ride the momentum for decades to come.

Let Tom Teach You How to Successfully Grow Your Own Food

Growing a garden can seem a bit overwhelming. Watch “over the shoulder” of garden coach, Tom Bartels from GrowFoodWell.com in his most recent video workshop. Here he shows his favorite methods for growing carrots and deep nutrient-dense greens in home gardens. Click here to access Tom’s free workshop.

Tom is also offering a major discount on his entire program to help people succeed in their home food gardens this spring. No matter what size your garden is, or where you grow, you can learn how to align your organic garden with natural systems for perennial fertility.

Tom Bartels

Tom Bartels has been using biointensive methods to grow organic food at home since 2001. Due to a short growing season in the high desert of southwest Colorado, he’s learned to closely align with natural systems to get perennial fertility and improved soil each year. He’s been teaching biointensive methods to gardeners for the past five years and has students all over the world. His workshops show busy people how to grow nutrient-dense food in small spaces with less work. Learn more at GrowFoodWell.com.