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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink What information can you give me on designing small-scale intensive vegetable plots?


Answer: Thank you for your recent request for information from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. The following letter will provide information and resources for designing vegetable gardens for family-sufficiency on small plots.

If I recall, you are involved in Permaculture design and are very familiar with the biointensive method. These two design systems, which are very different, lay out designs for feeding 4-6 individuals. I say this because the research based on these systems shows the productivity of the systems and not just in yields. This includes soil and plant health, inputs, space, and energy (especially for biointensive in terms of calories).

For Permaculture, or rather perennial polycultures, the research and designs of Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier cannot be overlooked. This includes their research and discussions involving the substitution of perennials in place of annuals. If you are not familiar with Dave and Eric's 2-book volume, Edible Forest Gardens, you will find it fascinating. Eric also has a book published titled, Perennial Vegetables. Sepp Holtzer is a commercial farmer, but his designs target maximum efficiency and yields in small areas. There is some great information on Sepp online at

As a side, I remember an email you sent asking about designing a large plot of land. It mentioned a garden, woodlot, pastures, etc.... There is no set equation for formulating how to utilize land as there are variables that specifically address one's own needs. That said, I would like to refer you to Holistic Management International (HMI). HMI focuses on a specific management tool for designing and restoring land. There are several Permaculture designers who find that holistic management helps them address design components that are not considered in Permaculture. For more information on holistic management, please visit

As far as specific design layouts based on the number of individuals to feed, I must once again point to John Jeavons and the biointensive method. John and his colleagues at Ecology Action have documented their research for over 30 years. Most folks refer to his book, How to Grow More vegetables, but I would like to also refer you to all of his published findings. They are located at

Below is a list of a few resources that I use and find helpful in working with small-scale intensive agriculture. In addition to these resources, I would like to mention two other systems: Will Allen's aquaponics and Darrell Frey's Bioshelter. I have been familiar with Will Allen's urban farm for several years and had the chance to spend a week in Milwaukee on the farm in September. It wasn't until I was actually inside one of his high tunnels, looking at his aquaponic system, did I understand and appreciate his designs. It was truly magnificent. Check out Growing Power's Urban Farm at Darrell Frey is a friend of mine who lives in Northwest PA. He is a Permaculture designer and farmer and uses a bioshelter for growing. Although based on the original bioshelter model by John and Nancy Todd at the New Alchemy Institute some 40 years ago, Darrell has incorporated energy efficiency measures for sustainable vertical production. His web site is


Seymour, John. 1979. The Self-Sufficient Gardener. Garden City, NY: Dolphin Books.
- a guide to growing and using a deep bed method (biointensive).

Thompson, Peter. 1997. Self-Sustaining Garden. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd.
- based on a matrix planting and successive layers of vegetation.

Ruppenthal, R.J. 2008. Fresh Food From Small Spaces. Chelsea Green Publishing Company: White River Junction, VT.
- a square inch gardener's guide to year-round growing, fermenting, and sprouting.


Conner, Cindy. 2008. Cover Crops and Compost Crops in Your Garden. Homeplace Earth: Ashland, VA.

Wildcraft, Marjory. 2009. Food Production Systems for a Backyard or Small Farm. rooster Crows Productions: Bastrop, TX.



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