(Dynamically evolving French Intensive spacings and planting design at Lillie House)
I love French Intensive Gardening, or French Intensive Method (FIM.) This old evolved set of French techniques using planting designs with precise, tight, non-row spacings, interplanting, and clever companion planting – all to achieve the highest possible productivity and quality – has a lot to offer the Permaculturist and expert gardener or producer. And this goes beyond the lessons that FIM teaches us about true sustainability, companion planting, soil building, plant spacing and size, and producing top-quality produce.
FIM is one of the major things that gives our garden its distinctive look, which many conventional gardeners find incomprehensible, or even “impossible.” Yes, we’re now used to hearing that many of the key techniques we rely on to grow superior produce while absolutely minimizing maintenance are all impossible: no-till, continuous cropping while growing 100% of our fertility at home, exclusively polyculture growing, and of course our precise FIM plantings and spacings. Gardeners often recoil at seeing these spacings, despite them being the research-based optimal spacings for superior produce and sustainability.
(A typical FIM planting, optimizing productivity and garden health, From Sunset Magazine.)
Of our impossible gardening techniques, FIM is one of the most vital. For me, my gardening, and my understanding of Permaculture, which is about using DESIGN to achieve a goal, there has been nothing more important than understanding how to control levels of “intensivity” in the landscape. This is as true for the home garden, landscape, or homestead as it is for the profitable farm.
By levels of “intensivity,” we’re talking about a spectrum where we let nature do all the work on one side, and on the other side, we add “inputs” like energy, work, time, water, fertilizer, pest-control and most importantly planning and design.
And when it comes to this one point, I have learned a great deal from French Intensive Gardening, and the simplifed systems taught by Alan Chadwick (Bio-Intensive French Gardening) and John Jeavons (Grow Bio-Intensive.)
(FIM is incredibly practical, yet naturally produces beauty as a by-product. This is a low-maintenance sustainable, and highly productive vegetable garden design, via Awaken.com)
To come to the point, it’s absolutely revolutionary to understand how these methods optimize the “Return on Investment” of a garden or farm system.
First, FIM gives the highest possible yield per square foot of any system. Consider this: Like historic FIM gardeners in the suburbs of Paris, Jeavons and Chadwich have both used similar methods to achieve yields that are typically 4-6 times the best conventional yields, and in some cases over 10 times! So, the FIM gardener can do on 1/4 or 1/6th an acre what a conventional market gardener using a tiller and planting in rows does on 1 acre.
Of course, this requires more work, more design and more fertility management. BUT – here’s the key – NOT PROPORTIONALLY more.
(A somewhat formalistic FIM design from Sunset, uses tight plantings of companion plants like a Permaculture “guild.”)
So, it will take significantly less time on average, according to Jeavons’ research, to manage 1/4 or even 1/2 an acre using FIM than it would to manage that acre conventionally. And it will not require a tiller or imported unsustainable fertility inputs. And finally, quality is often higher, and so is profitability. So, while it will typically take a couple of full-time workers to manage that 1-acre farm, one person could get the same (or better) outcome from 1/4 of an acre under FIM.
This leaves 3/4 acres which can be managed in extremely “extensively,” by handing management over to nature, in the for of edible hedgerows, edible forest gardens and edible-meadow type systems, or possibly small livestock. The best of these are traditional, evolved patterns with long-established proven viability and management techniques. All of this can add significantly to yield, while helping to maintain fertility sustainably. NOW, we’re using good energy-efficient design! And it’s also just good math.
As farm size grows, nothing changes this dynamic. The greatest yield is going to be defined by the same equation: how many labor hours you have to put in, how much can you put into intensive systems (which have the highest profitability) and how many do you need to maintain the rest of the land. Which is to say, at some point, once the farm is large enough, you will spend all your time managing broad-acre systems and have no time left for Intensive production. Because small intensive systems have been shown to be as high as 10, 30, 100 or more times as profitable per land area (University of Vermont, Berkley, etc.) Small market farms can sometimes gross in the ballpark of $100k/acre, whereas on the broad-acre, profitability is measured in hundreds of dollars/acre. So, once you are no longer doing intensive methods, to get back to the same value might require hundreds of acres with fossil fuels and chemicals, or large amounts of exploited labor.
So the best Permaculture designs will find ways to put as much land as possible into naturally managed “forage systems” to free up labor hours for more intensive forms of production with the highest ROI – this is the basis of the Permaculture “zones” system, which is radically under-apprecaited in today’s Permaculture world.
However, these dramatically productive and sustainable techniques were once so associated with Permaculture designs, that it was common to hear the terms used interchangably by some observers, such as in this interesting article from Mother Earth new
(Dynamic Polyculture at Lillie House, throw-cast then selectively thinned.)
FIM gardening is a highy information-intensive form of gardening, which requires knowledge and experience beyond what I can blog about. However, there are some key points, which I’ve taken from Jeavons, Chadwick and Aquatias, one of the first to attempt to present French methods to an English-speaking audience.
1. Growing in double-reach sized, permanent beds, with permanent, narrow access paths. These are sized so that one can reach to the center of the bed from either side, without stepping on the beds. Certainly, the #1 thing one can do to improve the maintenance and productivity of a garden is to NEVER WALK ON GARDEN BEDS. Permaculture has improved on this with patterns like keyhole design and hierarchical path and node systems (see Gaia’s Garden, or search this blog for more information.)
It’s very important to note that these are often referred to as “raised beds,” but that these differ greatly from the modern “raised beds” of wood or plastic made popular by HGTV and glossy magazine covers. These are created simply by deeply digging the soil and refraining from ever walking on it again. These actually aid good landscape hydrology and conservation of fertility and water. Meanwhile modern “raised beds” have benefits as well, looking tidy and in some cases increasing accessibility, but for both fertility and water, these have been proven to yield a decreased result.
2. Intensively managing soil. This is typically done through additions of compost, organic teas and sprays, and a one-time double-digging of the soil. In the best systems, FIM beds become no-till through a combination of careful succession planting, cover cropping and mulching.
3. “The Greenhouse” (Chadwick) – tight plant spacings with no rows. “Close plant spacings, as found in nature.” (Jeavons.) Starts are spaced tightly in a grid-like formation, rather than rows, with naturalistic spacings so that there is no soil visible at maturity and leaves are brushing together. With many crops, seed are hand-cast, then thinned as they grow to dynamically maintain these dense spacings. This is what we do with most of our crops at Lillie House. Research by ecologists have discovered that plant cooperation in such conditions outweigh competition, helping to maintain optimal growing conditions in the top soil layer and the atomosphere under the plants. This is probably why FIM systems are so productive, sustainable and healthy.
4. Intercropping polycultures. While Jeavons and and Chadwick eliminated much of this tradition for their simplified versions for the American audience, intercropping was a major part of the French tradition, and one of Aquatias’ 4 principles. This maximzies utility, yield, use of space, and garden health for home and small market garden systems. However, at a certain scale, it may become necessary to simplify designs. This is another major principle to our growing at Lillie House. (It is also something you can see in the FIM pictures in this post.)
5. Synergistic planting, or companion planting. This is especially done with a high percentage of strong, older, established aromatic herbs, kept in the garden over a long period of time. These are traditionally in every bed, and near every crop.
6. Growing your own fertility (Jeavons) or sourcing it smartly and sustainably (Chadwick, Aquatias.) At Lillie House we use 0 inputs, and grow 100% of our fertility on site. We feel that Jeavons was correct, that in this modern world, that is the only true measure of sustainability.
7. Use of open-pollinated seed, rather than hybrids, to enhance seed security, diversity and self-reliance.
To these Grow-Biodynamic adds some information crop selection for sustainability and self-reliance. These are excellent recommendations, but may be designed for in other ways in a Permaculture system.
FIM gardening is a method that creates expert gardeners. This is perhaps one of its main benefits. But that takes time to develop as the soil develops.
Beginning gardeners may want to start with Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening program, but try also creating some FIM beds. Jeavons’ How to Grow More Vegetables is an excellent place to start, with resources for spacing and companion planting, as well as sustainability.
A more Permaculture approach is to create a bed in the FIM fashion, then cast a polyculture like the Iano Evans Polyculture in Gaia’s Garden, thinning to maintain good spacing as plants grow. This both forces you to learn good plant spacings through observation, and to eat a salad a few times per week!
Later, expert gardeners can integrate other patterns and techniques, such as sheet-mulch, water harvesting and perennial guild design.
Yes, FIM takes some extra knowledge and design time. But the rewards are phenomenal. The FIM garden will build soil, grow incredible amounts of superior produce, create a beautiful healthy landscape, and most importantly, grow your own knowledge of gardening, plants, and the natural world.
For more information:
Aquatias’ classic manual