In this post I’ll be chatting about the different natural methods I use to grow vegetables organically and sustainably, with very little effort!
- Preparing the beds
- No Dig Gardening
- Chop & Drop
- Crop Rotation
In August’s progress update I shared the pictures of building the grow cage – an area for growing our vegetables that is enclosed well enough to keep out the large local troop of marauding baboons. Once the cage was up, the next step was to prepare the beds.
Preparing The Beds
I began by digging down into the ground about 40cm (usually one would go deeper with this method, but as I’ve mentioned before, the soil was really hard clay and I had little muscles to work with haha). I created a layer of old rotting wood and sticks, dried leaves and cardboard before backfilling with the topsoil I’d set aside mixed with compost. This is an adaptation of the ‘hugelkultur’(1) method. After this one digging, I never turn the soil again, which is called ‘no dig’(2) gardening.
The reason for doing this is so that the plants get their start in a soft, compost-bulked topsoil. By the time their roots begin to reach down to the lower layer, the organic matter I’d placed there would have broken down further, enriching the soil and loosening the clay, making it easier for the roots to keep growing while getting all the nutrients they need. At the end of the plant’s season, I leave the finished plant’s roots in the soil, to continue the cycle of natural composting and soil enrichment. This means that instead of every crop reducing the soil’s viability, I’m actually able to improve it. I combine this with mulching (3), chop and drop (4), crop rotation (5) with legume cover crops to recharge the soil after heavy feeders, and companion planting to create and maintain healthy soil and healthy plants.
Describes a method of creating a garden bed by building a mound of logs, branches, leaves, grass clippings, paper, manure, compost and any other biomass available, topped with soil and then the vegetable plants. Hugel begs have lots of advantages:
- The gradual decay of wood provides a consistent long-term source of nutrients.
- As the natural composting process happens, it generates a bit of heat which helps extend the growing season in colder climates.
- Increased soil aeration.
- Increased water retention, reducing the need to water (the logs and branches act as a sponge, releasing water into the soil in dry times).
- Once created, hugel beds can continue to provide benefits for many, many years with very little to no additional effort needed.
No Dig Gardening
The no dig method was largely pioneered by Charles Dowding from around 1983 and refers to a style of gardening that avoids disturbing the soil (as opposed to the more traditional method of tilling or turning the soil after a season, digging up, turning in compost etc). It requires less effort and has great benefits! There are three main principles applied:
- The soil is left undisturbed (never tilled / turned over / dug into) so that the micro-organisms, fungi and worms making up the soil biosphere can work and multiply, helping feed and water the plant roots and fight off disease.
- Organisms are fed with organic matter on the surface, as it is done in nature (dead matter is spread on the surface of the soil, in the form of chop and drop, mulching, compost etc to decompose into the soil, rather than worked into the soil manually)
- Plant feeding focuses on biology (such as fungi) more than chemistry (minerals). The rapid intake of organic matter from the surface serves to continually improve soil structure, supports the biosphere and has a direct beneficial effect on the plants ability to absorb what it needs to thrive, thus reducing the need for adding synthetic fertilizers / mineral feeds.
Mulching is spreading any material over the surface of the soil as a covering, usually more than 5cm thick, and usually the material is organic matter. Mulching has the following benefits:
- It retains moisture in the soil, reducing the frequency of watering required.
- It suppresses weeds by covering any bare soil between growing plants.
- It helps keep the soil cool, reducing heat stress.
- Organic mulches also improve the soil’s fertility and structure as they decompose.
Chop & Drop
Chop and drop refers to a method of organic mulching much used in permaculture gardens. Growing mulching plants that produce a lot of biomass (lots of big leaves, for example) that can be chopped off the plant and dropped onto the soil as a layer of mulch. This is also sometimes referred to as sheet composting, which just references the layers of mulch that build up as you follow this method. The lower layers continue to break down and enrich the soil, which the fresher layers continue to provide the benefits of mulching.
Chop and drop can also be done at the end of growing seasons, instead of lifting up the whole plant, cutting off the tops, leaving the roots in the soil to decompose naturally, and dropping the tops onto the top of the soil as a mulch layer. Nothing is wasted! It’s not always a great idea to do this though as some plants, like tomatoes, can carry diseases that stay in the soil and will affect your next crop. You could also risk attracting lots of snails and slugs to your veg garden if you’re laying out a feast for them, so use this method with discretion.
My three favourite chop and drop wonder plants are comfrey, borage and tansy (all three also have fantastic medicinal properties, but that’s another topic for another time).
- Comfrey is high in just about every nutrient a plant needs, including the big 3, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and many trace elements. It speeds up the composting process (it’s a compost activator). It is an excellent source of nitrogen as it decomposes. It creates tons of biomass.
- Borage is a fantastic green manure, bringing up nutrients deep down in the soil with its long taproot system, making the nutrients available to plants with roots in the upper soil. As it decomposes, it releases nitrogen gradually, allowing more nitrogen to remain for future crops rather than everything being available all at once. Also creating lots of biomass, it provides lots of nutrients and deeply aerates the soil.
- Tansy is one of the most mineral rich of all herbs and adds lots of potassium to the soil. Super easy to grow, tons of biomass, and a great companion plant.
Phew, this is a big subject, but can be summed up very basically as such: Crop rotation means to grow different types of crops in the same bed each season. By varying the crops grown in the same space each season, it reduces the reliance on one set of nutrients, so the soil doesn’t become depleted. It also helps mitigate pests, pathogen build up, diseases and weeds that can all become a problem were I to grow the same crop in the same space, season after season.
It gets a bit more complex. We don’t want to avoid just the same crop, we actually want to avoid growing members of the same family in the same soil in consecutive seasons. For example, cucumbers, squash and marrows are all in the curcurbit family, so planting marrows after cucumbers, while different crops, would generally still be drawing the same nutrients and prone to the same sorts of pests and disease.
To add a further layer of complexity, each family is known to be generally light, medium or heavy feeders and may be more or less beneficial if followed by another certain family. For example, legumes (eg beans) are light feeders that can grow just fine in a depleted soil after a solanaceae crop (eg tomatoes) which are very heavy feeders. In fact, the legumes will enrich the soil and replace lost nitrogen, boosting it for the following crop. Legumes and cover crops are like a soil ‘reset’ between heavy feeder crops.
So following crop rotation methodology does take some planning… And don’t get me started on adding in companion planting (where you want certain crops to be close to each other and certain crops far away from each other) and heirloom seed saving (where you don’t want to run the risk of any cross contamination of plant strains to keep the seed variety pure)… It’s a veritable rabbit hole and up to you how deep you want to go down! 🙂
Here’s a look at the grow cage in full swing and some of our harvests enjoyed: