8 Garden Resolutions To Plan For Now

By / Photography By Anca Apostoaei | October 31, 2016
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a backyard garden with a greenhouse and netted row of vegetables

For 2017, the resolutions “eat healthier, exercise regularly and do something good for the planet” can all be achieved by one thing: growing as much of our diet as we can in our own backyards. At Common Ground Garden, we use GROW BIOINTENSIVE® (GB) farming, which allows us to grow a complete vegan diet with the necessary nutrients and calories, in a small area (two to six times the yield per square foot as a conventional farm). The GB system is also healthy for the environment, as it can build soil up to 60 times faster than in nature, whereas conventional agriculture results in a loss of soil, and it uses 67%–88% less water. Since we do everything by hand, especially loosening the soil, we end up getting a lot of good exercise too!

The elements of the GB system are summarized in the following eight principles. (See our Farmer’s Mini-Handbook and “How to Grow More Vegetables” at for more details).

1. Deep Soil Preparation: Healthy veggies need healthy roots and healthy roots need healthy soil. “Ideal soil structure has both pore space for air and water to move freely and soil particles that hold together nicely.” To accomplish this we use the double-digging technique to loosen the soil down to 24 inches. 

2. Composting: A fundamental aspect of running a sustainable garden is building compost. Aside from returning nutrients to the soil, amending with compost improves soil structure, buffers high or low soil pH, holds moisture in the soil and sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. We use a balance of “mature” and “immature” materials from the garden (kitchen scraps should make up a small portion of the pile). 

3. Intensive Planting: For 40 years Ecology Action has been experimenting to find the optimal spacing between veggies to achieve the highest food yield, using “hexagonal spacing.” Planting in permanent vegetable beds using this method, rather than rows, allows you to grow much more food per square foot. Also, intensively spaced plants shade the soil more completely and act as a “living mulch,” keeping the ground cooler and reducing evaporation by creating a microclimate (requiring less water!). 

4. Companion Planting: Different plants growing near each other interact and can help create a mini-ecosystem. In the classic “three sisters” planting, corn is grown to provide a pole for beans, which add nitrogen to the soil, while squash does OK with a bit of shade and covers the soil. Other plants can be added to attract predator insects to eat pests from companion veggies and also pollinate them. 

5. Carbon and Calorie Farming: The GB system is sustainable because all of our compost material is grown in the garden. To achieve this we grow summer and winter grains, with a nice stalk, and bulky compost crops, like favas, as a significant portion of the garden. The winter is a great time to do this: We can fill the garden with wheat, rye and fava beans and these crops also feed us. In summer this works with flour, corn, amaranth and quinoa. 

6. High-Calorie Farming: The goal is to “grow a complete diet in the smallest possible area.” To help us grow enough calories, we use the 60-30-10 rule to divide up our garden—60% grains, 30% “special root crops” and 10% lower-calorie/high-vitamin vegetables. The 30% crops include potatoes and sweet potatoes and allow us to grow a lot of calories in a small area—up to 20 times more calories per unit of area and time compared with wheat! 

7. Open-Pollinated Seeds: To “maximize seed production and quality and preserve genetic diversity,” we only use open-pollinated seeds. We want to be able to save seeds to adapt veggie varieties to our local climate and we want to be as self-sufficient as possible, not relying on seed vendors. For instance, we cannot save hybrid seeds because they do not produce “true to type” off spring (the genes get mixed up). 

8. The Whole-System Approach: For our garden to be sustainable—while feeding us and the soil, for the foreseeable future—all eight principles must be used in tandem. Leaving one out, like composting, could lead to the depletion of our soil or someone else’s (if we import compost). Or, to leave out calorie farming could result in an incomplete diet. GB hopes to achieve “a thriving mini-ecosystem that sustains itself and its farmers.”  

Want help getting started on your new resolution? Common Ground Garden is a sustainable demonstration garden in South Palo Alto with a mission to teach everyone to grow soil, food and people sustainably. Check out our Saturday classes on a variety of sustainable gardening topics, or show up to a volunteer session (Wednesdays from 10am to noon) where you can learn aspects of this farming method hands-on. Common Ground also runs education programs for the local preschool, high school and grade school, and donates fresh produce to the South and Downtown Palo Alto Food Closets.

quinoa grown in a backyard garden
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