Wednesday, February 6, 2013

System of (Garden) Intensification

Most of the world's farms are very small, on the scale of a few acres or less, and they are mostly in what we think of as less developed nations, so changes in methods/practices that increase their crop yields have the potential to do a lot of good in the world. These are the farmers and countries for which enhanced farming success can make a real dent in local hunger and poverty levels.

An article linked over at (used to be Energy Bulletin), titled "How Millions of Farmers are Advancing Agriculture for Themselves," tells about a farming method that has improved crop yields for a lot of these farmers.Yields per hectare have shot through the roof for these people when they use what is called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). The system has been adapted to additional crops, but it started with rice.

According to the article, part of the advances made are from using huge amounts of organic material (mostly composted), part is from using a wider plant spacing, and part is from using healthy transplants at the right stage of growth. 

The different use of the word "intensive" was a little surprising for me. What I have come to know of as Intensive Gardens are usually planted with quite close plant spacings. However, one organization that I especially associate with intensive gardening, the Ecology Action group in California, recommends that each gardener find out for him or herself what the optimum spacing is for his or her own garden. The group has published at least one small booklet that teaches gardeners how to experiment to find the optimum plant-spacing for their own gardens. The teaching series that the group publishes is really, very useful for gardeners who want to improve their yields.

In my own garden, I have gone back to wider plant spacings than are generally recommended in the  better-known intensive methods, because it has seemed that my garden is more productive when the plants have a little more room. This may be because my garden isn't in full sun, causing shading to be a bigger factor than in other gardens, or it could have something to do with the humidity and heat in the Southeastern U.S.  There is no good way for me to know the exact "why" without running a bigger experiment than my yard has room for.

The "greater success when more compost is used" part of SRI  is the same across many styles/methods of gardening, especially for those used in areas where the soil is mostly clay, or sand, or rock. (Exceptions to the "needs more organic matter" rule can probably be found in places like the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where the topsoil is richly black, crumbly, and deep.) The article didn't say, though, where all that organic matter comes from for the SRI farmers.

The part of the SRI system that ends up being the biggest roadblock for some farmers is the transplanting part. Rice and other cereals that "tiller" are more likely to put out more tillers and to become more robust when the seedlings are set out at an earlier stage than is generally practiced. The SRI seedlings, being smaller and younger, require more care in the planting, and getting the spacing right also takes a bit more attention on the part of the planters. In other words, this whole step is very labor intensive.

However, even in non-grain gardens, the health of transplants (purchased or home-grown), their stage of growth, and the care with which they are set in the garden can be overlooked as factors in a garden's success. For my own grown-from-seed plants, I put a lot of effort into keeping them growing well, repotting when it seems they might be slowing down, and paying attention to the soil moisture and the lighting. When I've done a good job, I am rewarded with a productive garden!

I am less good at hardening-off the babies as it gets closer to time to plant them in the yard, but I do make an effort. When I don't phase them into the sunlight slowly enough, the little plants tell everyone who happens to glance their way about my lack of care by wilting.

For most of the SRI farmers, getting it right is crucial. And there are more and more people in this country for whom access to good food is getting tighter. Gardening, and getting it right, is looking like a pretty important endeavor.

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