Scientists now are finding genetic markers that suggest that humans have been planting and harvesting crops for possibly tens of thousands of years longer than previously thought. Our long ago ancestors had to deal with the same factors we do, climate, rainfall, insects, vermin, storage problems and even raiding from neighboring tribes. But when they put seeds in the ground they grew. We don’t think about it much but this bit about seeds growing is one of the great gifts Earth has for us. There would be no civilization as we know it, except the most primitive, if all of us had to go out and scavenge, hunt and fish for each days food. There wouldn’t be seven billion of us on this planet either, because the carrying capacity of the earth wouldn’t allow it. By the time the Chinese were terracing their hillsides and the Egyptians were building their pyramids agriculture was already ancient. Archeological evidence now suggests that some Peruvian irrigation canals are eight thousand years old and the Americas were populated only recently. Irrigation canals that old suggest that it wasn’t a new invention even then. The beginnings of agriculture are hard to pin down because the very nature of the act destroys the evidence of previous years. I would not be surprised if people a hundred thousand years ago had some sort of agriculture, even if it was a nomadic tribe harvesting the produce which sprang from the seeds they dropped the last ten or a hundred times they visited that particular watering hole.
Agriculture confers a host of benefits to the human race and allows us to elevate ourselves beyond mere subsistence by producing enough food for some of us to contribute to society by doing something other than either scavenging or farming. Agriculture is so efficient at producing calories that just about any system used will support more people than are needed to perform the farming tasks. That lets some of us become doctors, dancers, crafts people, chefs, even tax collectors and politicians.
The production of food has been under intense study for all of recorded history. Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse, postulates that civilizations rise and fall on the back of agriculture and those that do collapse, do so because they exceed the carrying capacity of their land and over-farm or over-graze it which deteriorates the soil to the extent that it will no longer sustain the people of that region. From medieval times on we have an extensive pictorial record of farming practices in Europe and both the Chinese and the Egyptians recorded their farming practices in from several thousand years ago.
One method stands out from the others because of its ease, low cost and productivity. We call this method biointensive and it has the benefit of producing the most food from the least amount of land. Simply put, biointensive gardens are small, the soil is exceptionally good, plants are grown optimally close together, and often single plants are given special treatment like putting a cloche over them at night . This works best in small areas but the fact is, a small area is all you need when caring for your soil and plants this extensively. I won’t go into the particulars here but Wikipedia has a good, short article on it. No one knows the origin of this method but it was refined in Europe after the population explosion during the Medieval period and incorporated into a number of different growing systems.
John Jeavons has written a number of books on the subject, the most notable is, How To Grow More Vegetables – than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine. My edition is from 1995 and it is the 5th edition. A new edition is available but I have not seen a copy. This book is comprehensive and will teach you everything you need to know. Jeavons has a slim volume out called The Sustainable Vegetable Garden, which covers the same information much stripped down and very accessible. One of the hallmarks of this system is double digging which means removing a foot of top soil and loosening another foot of soil below that one in a moving trench across your garden bed. One picture is worth a thousand words: this Wikipedia article has a little moving diagram which is sort of fun and you can Google “pictures of double digging” and click into a whole page of photos and diagrams. Other aspects of his teachings are close plant spacing, using compost, planting so the plants enhance one another and creating a whole, interrelated system of growing. He says that when asked, gardeners will say that they produce “most” of their food from their gardens but he finds that this is actually only 5 to 10% of their vegetables during the growing season. His book will tell you how to grow the other 90% as well if you have the land and desire. Again, if this were your only gardening book you would be able well able to feed yourself and your family depending upon the land you have available.
I won’t try to summarize his methods here, they are somewhat detailed and done much better by the man himself. So far, this is the best method of growing a lot of food in a small space that we have. For instance, Mr.Jeavons tells us that in India just one copy of his book became a textbook for a gardening program and has evolved into a national biointensive program. Mexico, Kenya and the Philippines all have training programs teaching this efficient, labor saving and inexpensive way to grow food.
I have many gardening books and each is valuable in its own way. One more is notable for its lessons on how to actually build a garden in the easiest manner possible. This is Patricia Lanza’s Lasagna Gardening. She teaches how to build garden plots where you need them without a rototiller, without digging up sod, without breaking your back and without breaking the bank. If you are just getting started or if you need to expand this book will show you how. With a bit of extra work you might even have a garden ready by summer.
Next post will be about those calories we each need every day, just some stray thoughts.