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Book Summary

Credits: Summary prepared by Kaye Derama

The Bioshelter Market Garden: A Permaculture Farm is written by Darrell Frey, the owner of Three Sisters Farm in Pennsylvania. He is a design consultant and a permaculture teacher who believes that in order to ensure food security and restore the earth's condition we need to go beyond industrial practices and focus more on farming with nature. The content of the book explains this belief. At the heart of his farm, showing great results, is the Bioshelter. The shelter is a solar greenhouse that has compost bins, poultry housing, potting room, kitchen, storage, library and a classroom. The whole book talks about the entire system of the Bioshelter and how it promotes biodiversity. It is also a method of crop production that can resist cold weather like the ones they experience in Pennsylvania. Frey shows visionary and practical information for permaculture application that includes energy systems, design and management for intensive market garden, soil management, pest control, wetland usage and solar greenhouse design.

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Welcome and be well
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Location: Pittsburgh PA
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Darrell Freys', Bioshelter Market Garden, is a one of kind book, with not many to compare to. 
I give it 10 out of 10 acorns. The title is short sweet and simple, and he covers it all. 

I had the personal pleasure and opportunity to have Mr frey, as my PDC instructor, and a chance to visit his farm. Darrell has taken passive solar greenhouses to a whole new level, when permaculture was in its infancy. After studying the new alchemy institutes bioshelter ark, Darrell set out to build his own. The book is a vast bank of detailed examples and explained systems of every aspect of his now, 30 year old bioshelter. As factual and scientific his writing is, Darrell frey, never ceases to use fluid, poetry - like descriptions of the bioshelter throughout the seasons, and changes. I try to explain what a bioshelter is to some people...and I compare it to the phrase, Beyond organic', to 'beyond a greenhouse'. 

That being said, there is also a vast amount of detailed information on , market gardening. Based off of a successful, 5 acre, permaculture farm, bioshelter included. 

Just a warning, it is only for the serious growers. Not that it is a bad thing, but some people may not be able to apply some of the aspects in an urban setting. 
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Bioshelter Market Garden: A Permaculture Farm by Darrell Frey

I give this book 7 out of 10 acorns.

Some of us may have the luxury of a permanent income, who can plant a Permaculture garden, eat the produce, give some of it away, and be comfortable knowing there is money in the bank for a drought. Those of us without such a luxury need to consider the fact that, unless we live very, very frugally, it's difficult to grow everything we might want on a farm of the kind of scale that one or two people can look after without machinery. With careful thought (and possibly some investment) actual living costs may be low, but are unlikely to be zero. In this sense, island sustainability is tricky and unpredictable, and thought must be given to the question of the extent to which sustainability needs to include some degree of exchange with the rest of the world, whether in trade or through gift economies and co-operative arrangements. Sustainability, as this book points out, happens at the level of the society, not the individual.

In my case, I need to know how I might be able to sell sufficient produce to meet the limited needs that a forest garden might not provide. This is one of several books I turned to seeking such answers.

The book doesn't start well, repeating Gaianist myths of self-regulation that were widely accepted when Mollison was writing, but that had been completely discredited by the time this book was published, although many of his points are valid. Some of his perspective is sheer ideology, and I can relate to most but not all of it, but this is, at least, a book written by someone who has gone and done it, in the face of the inevitable difficulties.

The first part of the book discusses concepts and methods, and the second moves on to a case study, which is their own bioshelter market garden.

There is little or nothing new in the author's analysis of the failures of the current system, and most of it will be familiar to anyone who is even thinking about Permaculture. I concur with his analysis that some sort of secondary income is probably necessary, at least in the short to medium term, for the small-scale Permie farmer (is there any other kind?). I also agree that we need to be cultivating intensively in order to allow wildness to regenerate in what Permies call zone 5. One of the reasons I'm drawn to Permaculture is its compatibility with rewilding.

Frey's discussion of ecology is simplified, but not wrong in the way Mollison makes mistakes. He knows what he's talking about, but recognises this is not a book about ecology.

The bioshelter system, using a large greenhouse, is one way to ensure continuity of harvest in a temperate growing zone. It will probably work well in similar climates. In a Mediterranean climate, with a summer dry season, a different model may need to be used (my current idea is to use woodland to hold temperatures down to a level in which photosynthesis will still work, and irrigate seasonally, but this may need to be revised on the ground): a walpini should allow cultivation over the winter, and perhaps the growing of tropical species.

Chapter 3 covers something I'm particularly bad at – direct marketing. If you stick me in a wood, I know what I'm doing. Put me in an economic relationship with others, and I really need someone with a degree of competence around. The kind of smallholding I have in mind is unlikely to need much in the way of money coming in, but there is a difference between “not much” and “none”. “Not enough” means failure. The realities of the situation mean that a smallholding is a business, and sustainability involves the long-term viability of that business, whether I like it or not (which I don't: I'm much happier growing things).

Mostly this will mean direct sales, retail, to the public in the local area. Frey's goals differ from mine, in that he and his partner have a more business-oriented perspective. To me, the business is secondary to the primary goals of approaching self-sufficiency, a list of environmental goals, from biodiversity to the reduction in food miles for those with whom surpluses are shared or traded to carbon management and, if I can work out the details, some degree of education. That doesn't mean I can ignore the business side.

My own tendency is a wish to grow for me and the rest of the household first, neighbours second and everyone else as an afterthought. If I can barter fruit and vegetables for a loaf of homemade bread a couple of times a week, so much the better. Frey has a different set of priorities. His model is also one that tends to work in North America, but may need tweaking in Europe and elsewhere. What this chapter does do is help place the issues in focus.

The first part of Chapter 4 on design really isn't worth the bother: it might be a useful remedial summary for someone trying to get their head round it, but Holmgren, Jacke and Toensmeier and even Mollison do a better job. What this chapter does do is provide a list of options for extending the growing season some of which, such as polytunnels and coldframes, may be more familiar than others, such as bioshelters. This got me thinking about options both here in Scotland, with a climate somewhat warmer that of Pennsylvania, but also of the Mediterranean climate of the area where I hope to end up, both of which have periods when growing is impractical either because it's too cold or because it's too hot and dry. The strongest point of this chapter is the case study conducted by the author of his own habitat. Any Permaculture designer will need to conduct a similar analysis and this is an excellent example of how it's done.

Chapter 5 effectively constitutes another case study, and is a good example of how to analyse the energy use in a market garden, how to extract energy from it, and how to reduce the necessary inputs, including keeping human labour happy and healthy. It goes into a great deal of detail on the subject of heating and cooling for the bioshelter at this point.

Chapter 6 discusses pest control. Again, this is probably more useful as case study than as something generally applicable, because what works (and what's necessary) in Pennsylvania will become less relevant the further you get from the north-eastern US. The author is concerned with organic and biodynamic standards, which any given Permie may find more or less applicable to their own situation. The chapter does emphasise the value of close observation of even invertebrate fauna. The discussion of plant-insect interaction is interesting. Non-native species may have fewer specialist pests, but equally will not encourage specialist predators that might eat them. Many pests and diseases are general, and the advice will apply. Others are more regionally specific.

Chapter 7 covers management, and is a continued case study of the layout of the farm. Planting is, by conventional standards, very diverse, but may not be extremely so by forest garden standards. Their own plans, at the time this book was written, for a forest garden ecosystem seem to be closer to alley cropping, which is easier to harvest, but exhibits less ecosystem mimicry. Nonetheless, they have managed to achieve a system in which they have successive harvests throughout the year. Their salad list impressed even me, and sounds like it would be worth replicating. This chapter is full of ideas for plants to grow and things to do with them.

Chapter 8 discusses the seasonal cycle at the farm. Again, much of this will be site specific, but much is more generally applicable. They are using more high-till, biointensive systems, with the heavy addition of manure and compost, and the long-range sustainability of this is unclear. The author has clearly thought about the subject, but has reached conclusions that I'm not sure if I share. There is a set of crop profiles, discussing common species. Most of the information here will be known to or readily accessible to the experienced gardener, although there are potentially useful tips. From this, however, it's increasingly clear that there are unsustainable aspects to the biointensive operation, in terms of the addition of certain soil remedies. It seems unlikely that they can make all the compost required for the site, and rock phosphate is a non-renewable resource that is running out.

Chapter 9 finally gets round to defining a bioshelter. It's mentioned repeatedly in previous chapters, but you never get more than the vaguest description until now. It's a solar greenhouse managed as an indoor ecosystem. The design allows for control of various environmental factors such as heat and humidity, with some nutrient loops (it's not a closed system because food goes out and some inputs are necessary). This and following chapters should give you enough concepts not necessarily to duplicate the effort, but work out how to build one to your own requirements. Theirs is 4000 square feet (about 370 square metres) of which about three quarters is growing space, and incorporates a two-storey solar greenhouse, classroom space, a potting room, poultry housing, office space, kitchen, storage barn, compost chambers and cold frames.

It's pitched as sustainable, but I have a lot of issues with the design as it stands. It uses a lot of less than renewable materials, such as concrete and plastics. The ammonia filter in the compost chambers uses peat. There is also the question of the integration of livestock. Keeping poultry allows them to increase CO2 levels, which would otherwise become depleted in an intensive enclosed growing environment. This means that the poultry must be kept penned lest they damage plants in the growing area. It also means the input of poultry feed, some of which is provided on site (from weeds and so on), but presumably involves some supplementary feeding, with the inefficiencies that implies. Commercial growers often add CO2 to their operations, using fossil fuels and industrial-scale fans and so on. With all other major factors (such as heat and humidity) controlled, plants will respond with an increased growth rate to anything up to 1000ppm of CO2 (although there are growing questions about what this does to general nutritional levels).*

Simple physics dictates that the energy yield out must be less than the inputs. Poultry feed goes in, meat, eggs and assorted waste products (mainly compostable ones) come out, heat and CO2 are fed back into the system, and the plants inefficiently use that for growth, but there are losses in all parts of this, not least in the production of poultry feed. The same would apply to fish food for their proposed tilapia and catfish operation.

It's certainly more efficient than most conventional greenhouse cultivation, but I'm not so sure about long-range sustainability.

Chapter 10 describes how the author manages the bioshelter. In many ways I like the idea of the indoor ecosystem, and can see that it might be a good place to live and work over the temperate winter. Again, this is more useful as case study than direct application outside the author's region.

Chapter 11 talks about compost, which is classed also as a biothermal resource, and as a source of CO2 for the plants in the bioshelter. It's clear the market garden gets through a lot of compost, and they have a relatively sophisticated composting operation. There is a discussion of traditional uses of biothermal energy which is worth a read. There are many ideas that can be modified and used on many different scales that go well beyond the relatively few systems that allow waste heat to escape to the atmosphere commonly in use today. Again sustainability is an issue: the author obtains substantial animal manure from off site, and it's increasingly clear that the requirement for a general move down the food chain will make this unsustainable. On the other hand, it's the composting animal manure that creates most of the ammonia, which is then converted to and stored as nitrate by plants low-sunlight conditions over the winter, which is then converted to nitrite in the body. Composting also produces more heat than that from the poultry by orders of magnitude. What is clear is the need to close nutrient cycles when produce is being sold and taken off the farm. How this is done will depend on the availability of suitable organic materials and local regulations.

Frey advocates the keeping of chickens (Chapter 12) and/or other poultry not only in the bioshelter but also as part of any smallholding arrangement, and provides a solid argument in favour, but glosses over the question of the costs of supplementary feeding, not only as a matter of direct cost, but the indirect costs that may make the operation unsustainable (the production of animal feed is heavily subsidised and a source of environmental devastation elsewhere and Frey, like most livestock owners, ignores this). My own feeling is to consider some rescued hens or ducks if my own situation indicates a suitable mutualistic relationship can be found. The inclusion of poultry has clear advantages, but sustainability is a more complex question, one that is not properly covered. The author relies on the opinions of previous authors and his own experience, but does not trace the sustainability of his inputs.

Chaper 13 discusses Permaculture for Wetlands, a subject I've been giving some thought to. Most of our food is cultivated on land, but there are any number of crops that can be grown in water or on margins, and ponds and other water sources are important parts of most ecosystems, and certainly all those where we hope to grow crops. I'm also concerned about the growing unpredictability of rainfall with climate disruption and the likelihood of rain in more concentrated bursts, with higher rates of evaporation. This chapter gives a good overview, including coverage of wastewater treatment, but there are better books for the latter.

Chapter 14 covers education. I'll be the first to agree that education is vital for encouraging others to think about sustainable agriculture. For myself, the kind of direct education done at this site is probably not for me – I'm simply not good in groups and would probably not make a great job of it. It is an important subject to be considering and may bring in a secondary income. My own plans involve less direct strategies.

There are also some appendices, of which the most useful is a set of calculations for solar gain in a greenhouse. The problem, as with much of this book, is the author's insistence on using archaic measurements unfamiliar to just about anyone outside the US, Myanmar or Liberia. By the time I got to this page I was about ready to throw it across the room (BTUs per square foot WTF seriously??!!). There is also a good list of temperate zone wetland plants.

With that said, this book does have many things to be said for it. It's good as a case study to show you what can be done, and at least some of the problems and potential pitfalls. Some of what he writes can be generalised.

I wonder if a bioshelter could be used in a subtropical climate to grow tropical perennials as well as a tropical annual crop in summer and a temperate annual crop over the winter. The main problem with the bioshelter was its cost, at US$80,000 at 2010 prices (‎€72,000/£56,000). The author funded this through a one-off grant unlikely to be available to most of us. Redesigns using local materials and suited for different needs might bring this down, but it's clearly a massive investment. I've also considered how it might be combined with the design for a walpini, further extending the growing season. The Frey's integration of chickens requires them to be penned at one end of the bioshelter, while direct integration of rescued ducks during the winter in a different climate zone would shelter the ducks during cold periods while breaking pest life cycles.

The book suffers from structure issues which make it a poor work of reference. For example a good introduction on pond design should perhaps have been moved to the longer section on this subject. I also found the author's insistence on using archaic measurements without conversion annoying, since this required regular reference to other sources. There is a long description of how to manage energy needs (in outdated measurements of heat and temperature) of a bioshelter before a detailed description of what a bioshelter actually is. The book is clearly aimed at a US market, and suffers from what could be greater generalisation to other parts of the world. It's excellent as a case study, but could have been a great deal better with minimal extra effort on the part of the author or a good editor. It was worth the Inter-Library Loan fee, but I wouldn't give it an important place on my bookshelves.

*This should not be taken to mean I have any time for the myth perpetuated by some deniers about CO2 fertilisation effects with global warming. Note that I made the important point about controlling other values such as heat and humidity, which is possible in a greenhouse, but not where most of our food is grown. Recent research has also drawn attention to the decreased nutritional quality of food likely as the climate warms.
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I give this book 9 out of 10 acorns. It was my favourite read of this year. I loved it partially for personal reasons, because I have been living with and growing a variety of annuals and perennials in an attached greenhouse for more than 20 years, and I haven't seen any other books about this so far. Also he talks a lot about my early role models, at New Alchemy on Cape Cod, where I interned about 30 years ago.

Since most readers won't get this kind of personal warm fuzzies about this book, I'll agree the downsides are, as mentioned above, that the book seems a bit poorly organised. It all comes together eventually but it is true that some information is referred to in chapters long before it is explained, and problems like that.

Our greenhouses are very different from his, much simpler, and only for the winter (removed for the summer every year) and we haven't ever tried to incorporate animals (other than winter calves, to keep them warm. Oh, and ourselves, who live in the attached houses!)

Overall I'm a a big advocate of the attached greenhouse in cold-winter climates, and this is the first book I've read about diverse permanently growing greenhouses like mine, and I enjoyed the entire book.
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