In the 19th century, innovative market gardeners outside of Paris developed an agricultural system that is considered by some the most productive in the history of humanity. The goal of this growing system? To keep the city of Paris, one of the largest in the world at the time, supplied with fresh vegetable the whole year round.
The Parisian market gardeners, known as “maraîchers” because they cultivated the marshes (marais in French) on the outskirts of the city, used horse manure (incredibly abundant in those pre-fossil fuel days) to fertilize their small plots of land. They had to grow vegetables incredibly intensively in order to make a living off of holdings that were often less than one acre in size.
Horse manure not only provided the fertility the market gardeners needed to maintain a high level of production, but also an important source of heat for season extension: as it decomposed inside wood-and-glass coldframes, the manure provided heat for starting transplants and even growing out-of-season vegetables. With the help of these compost-heated cold-frames, prototypes of the modern-day hothouse, 19th century growers harvested cauliflowers in February and cantaloupes in May, harvest dates previously unimaginable in the northern French climate.
In North America, Eliot Coleman, founder of Four Seasons Farm in Maine, popularized intensive growing in his books The New Organic Grower, published in multiple editions beginning in 1989.
More recently, our home-grown hero, Jean-Martin Fortier, published the Market Gardener in 2012, a wonderful manual on small-scale, intensive market gardening, under the flashy new name “biointensive growing”. In the Market Garderner, Jean-Martin and his partner Maude-Hélène Desroches explain how they make living for their family by cultivating 1.5 acres of vegetables at their farm les Jardins de la Grelinette à Saint-Armand, applying 19th-century techniques to their contemporary, north-American reality.
Compost has replaced horse manure, and heated greenhouses made out of galvanized steel and polyethylene have replaced wood-and-glass coldframes. But biointensive growing follows the same principles and uses the same techniques as the 19th century Parisian gardeners: take a small piece of land, build the soil, and garden it hard.
Thanks in large part to the Market Gardener, biointensive growing is experiencing a renaissance right now: more and more organic growers, in Québec and around the world, are choosing the biointensive approach. Many young growers appreciate the human scale of biointensive growing, which doesn’t require a tractor—in fact, a tractor can get in the way when you really need to cultivate every square inch of a small piece of land! Biointensive growing is also well adapted to growing high-value, high-demand products like pre-washed, ready-to-eat mesclun and other baby greens. And perhaps best of all, it can be practiced on small pieces of land close to urban centers, a big advantage in our world of ever-increasing real-estate prices.
Some of these market gardeners’ descendants were able to keep growing in their suburban plots into the 1960s, but most had to abandon farming at the city of Paris grew and swallowed up their land. The advent of fossil fuels and tractors in the postwar era also hastened the decline of the suburban market gardens. Fresh products could be more easily transported long distances, and tractors and synthetic fertilizers made extensive, industrial-scale growing cheaper and easier than labour-intensive, manure-fuelled growing.
But the Parisian growers didn’t disappear without leaving us a record of their techniques, notably in the form of the Manuel pratique de la culture maraîchère de Paris, a guide born out of a competition held in 1842 that offered a cash reward for the best book on Parisian market-gardening techniques. The tradition of intensive market gardening was also transmitted from farmer to farmer right down to the present day.