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CLOSE THIS BOOKBio-intensive Approach to Small-scale Household Food Production (IIRR, 1993, 180 p.)
VIEW THE DOCUMENTCharacteristics of the bio-intensive approach to small-scale household food production
VIEW THE DOCUMENTWhy household food security through gardens makes sense?
VIEW THE DOCUMENTInformation, education and communication approaches to household vegetable gardening
VIEW THE DOCUMENTThe household as a production and consumption unit
VIEW THE DOCUMENTDefinitions of homegardens
VIEW THE DOCUMENTVegetables throughout the year

Bio-intensive Approach to Small-scale Household Food Production (IIRR, 1993, 180 p.)


Characteristics of the bio-intensive approach to small-scale household food production

THE big-intensive approach to small-scale household level food production differs considerably from the conventional gardening systems because of its stress on deep bed preparation, nutrient recycling, building up of the soil's biological base, diversified cropping, use of indigenous cultivars or locally adapted varieties and its emphasis on a balanced and integrated ecosystem. Here are some of the characteristics of the approach as developed and/or promoted by the author.


The big-intensive approach, as the name suggests, is a biological (as opposed to chemical) form of agriculture in which a small area of land is intensively cultivated, using nature's own ingredients to rebuild and then maintain the soil's productivity. At the heart of the approach is the effort to improve the soils' capability to nurture and sustain plant life. What a big-intensive gardener tries to do on his/her small plot is to simulate/replicate a natural forest (with the constant recycling of nutrients and maintenance of soil, moisture and microbial conditions). Many countries of the world (and China is particularly notable) have farmed biologically for thousands of years and have been able to sustain output levels over these years. In sharp contrast, the "efficient" but shortsighted approaches being used in many Western and third world countries have often been disruptive of the natural resource base. Farmers in many parts of the world are experiencing that they are having to use steadily increasing quantities of fertilizers and pesticides to sustain previous yield levels.

In the big-intensive approach being recommended here for small-scale plots, the soil is gradually improved and the composition of beneficial microbial life actually improves from season to season. The soil structure and humus content also greatly benefits. The nutrient content of the soil is built up after each crop rather than being depleted. A healthy soil means a healthy stand of plants, and that means fewer insects and less disease. In the big-intensive approach, yields continue to rise for the first few years and then tend to stabilize (at an overall higher yield). Such systems and the outputs (i.e., yields) are easily sustained at that level for many years with unchanging or even reduced levels of material and labor inputs.

Recycling of Plant and Animal Wastes and Residues

Every big-intensive gardener attempts to maximize the use of plant and animal residues and wastes. In an attempt to return to the soil much of what come out from it, material is recycled back to the soil. Typically, such material is transported away from the site where it came from in the first place and/or dumped in the garbage or burned. Organic matter must be resumed to the soil that helped build it.

A big-intensive gardener usually composts such plant and animal wastes before returning it to the soil. In addition, other materials (also produced at the soil's "cost") are added, such as ash, bone meal, etc. This replenishes the soil with what was taken from it. Soil requires food just as humans and animals do. Once again, the example of a natural forest and how it regenerates itself through continuous recycling (dead trees, fallen leaves decompose on the forest floor with help from forest animals and microbial life) is helpful in understanding the need for recycling nutrients in the backyard garden.

Source: Gonsalves, J. F. Paper presented at the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Centre, Taiwan. VIP Gardening Workshop. April 25,1985

Today, soils in conventional farming are being literally mined with little or no recycling of organic matter. In the past, various approaches to permit regeneration such as leaving lands to fallow or the abandonment of swidden plots (slash and burn) for periods of 3 - 10 years were used to permit the regeneration of plant and animal life and rebuild the organic matter status. In other parts of the world (in recent years particularly in India), available chemical inputs were combined with animal manure which served to partially return the organic matter to the soil. In the big-intensive approach, organic matter is returned to the soils in the form of compost after each crop.

The cultivation of a range of crops (each of different rooting lengths) tends to retain organic residues in the soil at different depths (when plants are pulled out, rootless and root hairs invariably remain in the soil). Organic matter builds and sustains soil life. No amount of chemicals can do that job. Such organic manure helps "break up" sticky and hardened clays and hold together separate soil particles of sandy soil. Organic matter acts like a sponge that soaks up moisture and retains it for future plant use (at a level) in the soil where it is readily accessible to the plant.

The organic matter can contribute to the buildup of the soil's population of earthworms, which in turn improves the aeration and nutrient status of the soil. John Jeavons of Ecology Action indicates that earthworm castings are five times richer in nitrogen, seven times richer in phosphorus and 11 times richer in potassium than the soil they inhabit. When you consider that earthworms produce twice their weight in castings every day, that's a lot of nutrients added to the soil! The cultivation of a range of different crops having different rooting depths serves to tap different layers of the soil profile, thus, reducing soil exhaustion. In fact, different crops require different quantities of soil nutrients, e.g., leafy crops are heavy on nitrogen, root crops are heavy on phosphorus, fruit crops are heavy on potash and legumes in fact add nitrogen. Hence, crop rotation helps build a sustainable and stable soil.

Self-reliance in Production Inputs

As mentioned earlier, the big-intensive approach is characterized by a greatly reduced dependence on the expensive inputs that are generally used in conventional food production approaches. Many of these non-renewable inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, are produced at high energy costs (usually petroleum-based). Instead of such energy- intensive chemicals inputs, plants and animal wastes and natural mineral substitutes are used. In the methods being advocated here, the inputs required are bones, wood ash, eggshells, mudpress (by-product of sugar mills) or compost, ipil-ipil (Leucaena) leaf meal or fish meal (only in places where they are readily available). Liquid manures or manure teas (fresh manure fermented in water) are used as "top-dressing" every 2-3 weeks during the first two months of a plant's life.

Locally available seed material is advocated rather than the purchase of hybrids and other 100% imported substitutes. Experience suggests that it is feasible to achieve a 100% self-reliance in recurring input needs. Other than hand tools, all material inputs are usually available locally or are within easy access. This reduces significantly or eliminates the need for cash outlays. It also provides and produces a sense of being able to control the required production resources. Finally, by emphasizing the use of local and biological resources rather than energy-intensive fossil-fuel based chemical imports, a small step is being made in the direction of conserving the world's nonrenewable resources.

repellent properties as well as applications in the preparation of home remedies for minor ailments. By encouraging the use of traditional medicinal plants with proven values such plants (and knowledge) are "conserved" for future generations. Indigenous vegetable varieties are not readily available in stores; a big-intensive gardener must attempt to retrieve such varieties. Remote and neglected provinces and villagers are good places to begin the search for these vanishing resources. Many indigenous varieties have special features which make them invaluable to the gardener (e.g. hairy stems and leaves which reduce insect problems staggered ripening of produce tolerance to partial shade longer storage quality etc.)

Pest Control

In the big-intensive approach the soil and not the insects is considered the primary source of the pest problem. The wide diversity of vegetables within a single bed tends to reduce insect infestation. In addition specific plants are raised because their odor helps repel insects from plants surrounding them. The use of indigenous and resistant varieties of vegetables also further reduces pest problems (the very fact that these indigenous varieties have been around for generations says something about their resistance to pests). Finally various organic (usually botanical) formulations can be prepared at home for use on small patches of crops. These formulations are generally prepared from locally available material and have no adverse affects on the environment and pose no health hazard to the gardener or the consumer of the sprayed vegetables.

Elimination of Pesticide-related Health Hazards

Every year hundreds of thousands of people are killed due to accidental poisoning by agricultural chemicals. However what is equally concerning is the cumulative deposit of chemicals in the human body (chronic toxicity) which do not result in Immediate deaths but may have long-term effects the origins and causes of which are usually difficult to trace. The lack of "controls" in developing countries often account for the importation of banned chemicals or the use of chemicals without required safety precautions. Pesticide residues in vegetables in markets of the developing world are frighteningly high. Adequate documentation is already available to suggest that the health hazards at the family level both in the developed and developing world are serious. Biointensive gardeners may not be able to solve all the chemical hazard problems but they can ensure that all their own vegetable harvests can be totally free from such hazards. Thus the produce harvested from such a garden is worth far more than its market value in money.

Improved Family Nutrition

One of the most important reasons for raising one's own vegetables using organic methods is the high nutritional quality of the produce. The nutritional value of a vegetable is greatly affected by the condition of the soil. The carbohydrate vitamin protein and mineral content are linked to the soil's mineral and trace-element content. One needs a healthy soil in order to produce a healthy and nutrient-laden vegetable crop.

The emphasis on techniques that do not involve costly inputs tends to provide a greater assurance that vegetables produced this way will be consumed (at the minimum one knows that the vegetables are not being sold in order to recover the capital invested - no small concern of the poor). The emphasis on a diversity of vegetables improves the range of sources of food typically available. By growing a diverse selection of vegetables (as opposed to monocropping) the availability of nutrient-rich vegetables is spread more widely throughout the season. Also since only small quantities of many different kinds of vegetables are being produced the incentive to sell such produce is reduced (relative to the situation when only 1 or 2 crops are raised resulting in peak harvests.

Space Intensive

Given the use of big-intensive techniques, between 60 - 150 sq m of land area (depending on how much land is available) is all that is needed to meet the vegetable needs of a family. This makes the approach highly relevant to areas where there is a high population pressure on land resources or if people are landless. Landless people often have access to at least some backyard space. Also, organizations can often arrange for small community lots where each family can be allocated 60 - 90 sq m of intensive gardening.

In many parts of the world, particularly in the continent of Africa, while land might not be a limiting factor, other inputs such as water and fertilizers are usually severely restricted. Since big-intensive gardens almost always produce higher yields per unit area compared to conventional approaches, such intensive plots may be relevant even in areas where land per se is not limiting. The big-intensive plot is intensively used throughout the year. Plant spacings (i.e., very close) are such that, when plants are fully grown, their leaves barely overlap. Maximum use of space is achieved through companion cropping, succession cropping and multistoried cropping.

Labor-intensive rather than Capital-intensive

The bio-intensive approach is labor-intensive initially and, therefore, is best suited to smallscale, family-centered food production. It is also particularly relevant to the poorest section of society who generally lack the capital but often have underutilized family labor potential. Typically, each of the two beds (30 sq m each) recommended for a family takes 4-8 hours to prepare if the double digging option is chosen. If the other options to prepare raised beds are used, 50% less time is required. However, if the double digging option is chosen (in humid tropics such as the Philippines), a single onetime bed preparation is all that is required.

No subsequent digging will be necessary, (assuming the beds are always covered with some plants and/or mulch). Whatever the option, the amount of labor required declines from season to season.

Water Conservation

The big-intensive approach described in this kit uses significantly less water than conventional garden plots. The method of deep bed preparation and the fact that the soil in the bed remains loose (only the soil in the path between beds is subject to compaction) permits the absorption of most of the water which is applied or falls (in case of natural rainfall) on the bed itself. Once in the soil, the judicious quantity of compost which was added to the soil serves to retain moisture within the rooting zone. The closer spacing of plants recommended in the big-intensive approach reduces the evaporation of water from the soil surface as a result of the sun's action on the soil. Mulching (a layer of grass or straw applied onto the soil and between plants) serves to keep the moisture loss to the minimum. The close spacing of plants reduces further the loss of moisture as a result of the wind's action on the soil and plants.

Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources

The big-intensive approach, as developed by the author, puts strong emphasis on the use of indigenous vegetable varieties. Ideally, a home garden should aim at 100% dependency on such selected traditional seed varieties. The strategy which emphasizes indigenous cultivars not only provides a significant insurance against pests due to the diversity, inherent hardiness and pest tolerance (through years of evolution) but also serves to ensure that this valuable heritage of humankind is conserved for future generations. The best conservators and curators may not always be the seed banks but the farmers and gardeners themselves.

Another aspect stressed by the author is the inclusion of indigenous plants which have insect quantities that are far greater than the consumption needs of the family). Special emphasis is given to the nutritional aspect of vegetable gardening and preparation of produce with special emphasis on leafy vegetables (e.g., amaranth) and grain legumes (including winged bean) besides the crops more commonly grown. The emphasis on traditional varieties means that more than one plant part is usually edible (e.g., roots, leaves, flowers, pods, etc.). Certain plants are usually good contributors of energy (e.g., lima, pigeon pea, rice bean, hyacinth bean all consist of approximately 50% energy and 20% protein).

Income Generation

The dependence on home-grown vegetables usually results in a significant saving of cash resources. This can be used for nonfood needs of the family. However, the big-intensive approach can also be used as an income-generating project, through the production of vegetables for sale Lo nearby markets. Such ventures must be preceded by a well-designed educational campaign to ensure that at least a certain percentage of the harvest is utilized at home.

The cultivation of a wide variety of crops tends to insulate cultivators against the risk of (i) devastation of monocrops by pests and (ii) risk of price slumps resulting from overproduction of a particular crop. If the big-intensive approach is to be used as an income-generation project, the number of beds needs to be increased from two (each 30 sq m) to at least ten or twelve. If these are prepared during the slack period (e.g., after harvest), the bed preparation can usually be accomplished over a period of time and with no cash outlay: family labor or through mutual help in a village community. Since small quantities of a large number of vegetables are raised, the producer can market them locally or/and directly, thus, ensuring higher cash returns.


The use of readily available natural resources and the total reliance on family labor in the bigintensive approach reduce any financial risks to the family. The use of organic nutrient sources, the continuous improvement of soil and the growing of a highly diverse selection of vegetables (usually 8-10 in two beds) tend to reduce very significantly, pest problems. If pests do cause damage, only a portion of the crop is lost because of the diversity of crops grown. (The risks of monocropping are eliminated here.) If-a complete shift can be brought about to the use of traditional varieties (those that have been around for generations), the pest problems and therefore, the risks are negligible.

Ecologically Sound

The big-intensive approach suggests that human beings must work with nature rather than attempt to dominate and control it. Renewable sources of energy are used in this system. Every attempt is made to maintain an environmental balance. The non-use of increasing quantities of chemical-based inputs reduces the contamination of the environment with chemicals that tend to persist in the soil for many years after use (i.e., they are not big-degradable). The use of animal manures (in countries where they are not already being used, as in parts of the Philippines and Africa) can reduce environment sanitation problems and related health problems in rural areas. The big-intensive approach at the home-garden level can set people thinking about the "larger" environmental issues. It can get people to question what they may hitherto have accepted as an inevitable consequence of modernization and development.

Why household food security through gardens makes sense?

Rural people in many parts of the world have always used their house-yard space to grow food, but modem agriculturists have generally not recognized this.

Degradation of the agricultural and natural resource base requires the use of intensive small-scale biological approaches to vegetable production.

Garden produce is usually raised with the use of ash, compost, waste water and mulch. This provides an opportunity to recycle household waste and maintain sanitation.

Pesticide residues on vegetables have reached alarming proportions. Growing ones own is one way of ensuring pesticide-free and safe vegetables.

Food grown around homes and without the use of external inputs is usually consumed by the family. Fresh and higher quality vegetables with better nutritional values are harvested.

Why household food security through gardens makes sense

Information, education and communication approaches to household vegetable gardening

View the garden program as a multiagency activity and not the prerogative or responsibility of specialised agricultural agencies.

Conduct short appreciation courses for policymakers and agency heads using day-long garden tours and slide lectures accompanied by testimonials from gardeners.

Identify the landless, or populations with limited or ecologically marginalised land holdings, for whom food acquisition is currently a problem.

Select three or more project sites as opposed to a single one. Start with a few gardeners in each site.

Conduct short courses for gardeners (three days at maximum). In the first year of a new program, conduct follow-up courses every quarter.

In the second year and when scaling up, rely on cross-visits and garden tours conducted by experienced gardeners rather than on formal training.

Make available simplified, single-concept technical information sheets to gardeners, extension workers and agency staff.

Involve both the nutritionist and the agriculturist in the garden program.

Document and share experiences an an annual basis through written reports to agency staff.

With the advancement of the program, solicit more and more gardener involvement in training and monitoring. Give technicians the responsibility for trouble-shooting and training- orchestration.

In the third year, consider an interagency newsletter to exchange experiences between gardeners and across agencies.

Devote a minimum of three years and preferably five years to any major effort to introduce gardening.

Information, education and communication approaches to household vegetable gardening

The household as a production and consumption unit

The household, seen as a production and consumption unit, has three subsystems:

A. The Household Subsystem: This is the socioeconomic unit concerned with the household structure and its composition: husband and wife, children, grandparents and often other family relatives. Different responsibilities (some culturally defined) are to be found with regard to food production and utilization and related decision-making. The access to, and control of, productive resources may differ from household to household.

B. The Production Subsystem: This refers more to the physical unit with an emphasis on homestead-level production (halaman sa bakuran) and, to a lesser degree, on field production (pulo or bukid). This subsystem is affected by the access to productive resources mainly land area, capital and other inputs. This includes production from backyard activities, such as small livestock, home gardens (including traditional sources such as the mixed backyard garden) and, sometimes, fish ponds. If the production from the main field is even partly consumed at home, that physical unit must also be considered (e.g., cereals or large animals).

C. The Consumption Subsystem: This is the biological unit and refers to the actual utilization of the food produced at the household level. Consumption is affected by factors such as: the total quantity of food produced; the numbers of consumers involved; the pressure to market the food (e.g., to repay capital costs); cultural values and attitudes to the kinds of food produced and not produced locally; patterns of distribution of food within the household system; and, food preparation and preservation practices (to prevent waste during peak production months).

Food consumption includes items that were not specially grown by the consuming unit or purchased but were either bartered, or scavenged (mamumulot), collected from other sources (e.g., fish, backyard trees or halaman sa bakuran) or procured as part of some culturally accepted norms (hunusan or share of harvests given to laborers assisting in the harvest).

The household as a production and consumption unit

Definitions of homegardens

1. Homegarden is an area of land, individually owned, surrounding a house and usually planted with a mixture of perennials and annuals. (TERRA, 1954)

2. A plot of land that has a residence on it, fixed boundaries and a functional relationship with its occupants. (Second Homegarden Seminar Indonesia, 1978)

3. A subsystem within larger food procurement systems which aims to produce household consumption items, either not obtainable through permanent shifting agriculture, hunting, gathering, fishing, livestock, husbandry or wage earners. (Anonymous)

4. A garden is defined as a supplementary food production system that is under the management and control of household members. A household garden can be consumption-or market-oriented, but at least some of the produce will be consumed by the household. As a supplementary production system, the household garden is secondary to both the primary source of household food, whether from field production or purchase and to household income, whether from sales of field produce, wage labour or other sources. (Soleri, D.; Cleveland, D. A. and Frankenberger, T. R., 1991)

5. Homegarden covers the production of vegetable for family use. It is an important but inexperienced way of providing a continuous supply of fresh vegetables for family table. Yields from the homegarden contribute to the family nutrition and may even provide additional income. (Soriano, J.M. and R.L. Villareal, 1969).

6. Homegarden is a land use with definite boundaries and a house, which is usually (but not always) a mixture of annual, perennial plants and animals and serves as variety of biophysical, economics and sociocultural functions for the owner. (Soemarwoto and Soemarwato, 1985)

7. A small area where vegetable-growing is being done. In this type of garden, planting is done regularly. Its primary purpose is to provide a continuous supply of nutritious but cheap good quality vegetables for home use. In certain cases, it also provides an extra income when excess vegetables are sold. (Aycardo, H. B. and C. R. Creencia, 1981)

8. Refers to garden within the household perimeter, including the garden located out in the field, the produce of which is normally intended for household consumption. (Eusebio, J. S., 1988)

9. An area within the home lot or elsewhere cultivated for home consumption. (Torres, E. B., 1988)

10. A piece of ground usually adjoining a dwelling where vegetables, fruits and ornamentals are cultivated. (Javier, F. B., 1988)

Definitions of homegardens

Vegetables throughout the year

You can fight malnutrition right in your backyard!

The Food Always In The Home (FAITH) gardening method is a nonconventional form of gardening that, with minimum capital and lots of-native enterprise, can assure needy families of a steady supply of nutritious food - and extra income. FAITH can provide the necessary protein, vitamin and mineral requirements needed by a family of six. It can also reduce the country's heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers that pose health hazards and wreak havoc on the environment.

The system was developed and popularized by the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC), a nongovernment organization working in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur, Philippines since 1974.

While vegetables can be grown easily in the Philippines, Filipinos do not grow enough of them. The average per capita consumption of 12.4 kilograms of green and yellow vegetables is far short of the recommended allowance of 32.4 kilograms per year. (Medrana 1988)

Home gardening can reduce, by about 20%, a family's total daily food expenditures. (Tones 1987)

19%, or one out of every five of the country's pre-school population, is severely or moderately underweight.

16.8% of the country's school children (7 - 10 years) have weights that fall below the standard weight for their age.

The Ten Steps of FAITH Gardening

1. Locate the best site for the garden. Select a site with a good water supply (it is vital, particularly during the dry season), good soil drainage (if your land is flat, dig drainage channels or ditches around the planting site) and fertility (it must be fertile enough to make plants grow), sunlight availability (growing plants need sunshine to manufacture food), and good air circulation (the site must have natural windbreaks).

2. Provide enough space. The ideal garden size is 96-100 square meters and has a dimension of 6 × 16 meters. This size is adequate to supply every day the fresh vegetables needed for a family of six.
3. Thoroughly prepare the plot. Prepare the land manually with a hoe and rake. Clean the site and save cut grasses and weeds for composting later on. Dig the land at least two times to a depth of 15 - 20 cm, harrowing with a rake and pulverizing clods between diggings. To provide good surface drainage, make raised beds 10 - 15 cm above ground level.

4. Fertilize with compost. Make compost baskets of wire or shape flexible bamboo strips around stakes to make round forms at least 30 cm high. Plant seeds/seedlings 5 - 8 cm away from the composts. Watering should be done inside the baskets - not directly to the plants.

5. Plant 1/3 of the section to early maturing vegetables. Divide the garden into three sections. Set aside the first section for vegetables that you can harvest in 2-4 months, such as tomato, pechay, sweet corn, etc. Do not plant the whole section; reserve I/2 of the section for relay planting.

6. Plant another 1/3 to semi-annual vegetables; Set aside the second section for vegetables that are harvestable in 6-9 months. Examples: winged bean, bitter gourd, cucumber, ginger. As in the first section, plant ½ of this section and reserve the remaining half-portion for relay planting.

7. Plant the remaining 1/3 to annual vegetables. Set aside the last section for planting year-round vegetables like lima beans, upland swamp cabbage, basella, pigeon pea, etc. Reserve In of the section for relay planting.

8. Plant the surrounding area of the garden to permanent crops and semipermanent crops. Examples of these crops are papaya, pineapple, guava, yam beans, horseradish, banana and citrus.

9. Plant reserved portions on time. This will further help ensure continuous and adequate supply of fresh vegetables in your home. In the third section of the garden, plant the reserved half-portion when the first crops in the other half are about 5 months old. In the second section, plant the reserved portion when the first crops are about 4 months old. In the first section, plant the reserved portion when the first crops start to flower.

10. Practice crop rotation when replanting. This is done to improve soil fertility and prevent the spread of pests and diseases. This means that you plant leguminous vegetables (like soybean, bush sitao) to garden plots where non-leguminous vegetables (such as tomato, eggplant, ginger) were previously planted and vice versa.

Locate the best site for the garden

Thoroughly prepare the plot

Fertilize with compost

Plant 1/3 of the section to early maturing vegetables

Plant reserved portions on time

Before transplanting seedlings in the garden plots, "harden" them first for several days. This is done by exposing them gradually to strong sunlight in the field or by withholding water from them.

Cultivate or loosen the soil around the plants to enable their roots to expand and develop fully.

When you observe that your vegetable crops are no longer productive, you can rejuvenate plants like ladyfinger, lima beans, winged beans, eggplants sweet pepper and horseradish by cutting to a height of ½ to 1 foot above the ground.

Plants like cucumber, bitter gourd, bottle gourd, winged beans, string beans and snap beans need trellises or supports. Poles 2.4 - 2.7 meters in length are usually set in the ground to a sufficient depth in a tepee-like arrangement.

FAITH is not the final word in family gardening. This is only an attempt to develop a home garden that can provide adequate food with minimum cost, labor and land utilization. It is meant to be used as a guide.

Source: Tacio, H. D., HR. Watson and W. A. Laquihon. (Undated). Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center.