Self-Sustaining Garden – A Garden That Cares For Itself

Praying Mantis In My Self-Sustaining Garden
Insects like this praying mantis take care of my garden for me.

One of my goals is to have a self-sustaining garden.

Today is a good example of why. Heather and I are visiting her brother and his family in New York City.

I don’t know how anyone gets anything done with a 3 year old (sorry, 3 and a half) and a new baby in the house!

We’re actually traveling around the Northeast coast for the next 4 weeks, attending some health conferences and meeting up with some organic gardening & holistic nutrition folks.

That means my garden has been left largely to fend for itself over the next 4 weeks.

My mom may turn the water on every week or two, and tie up my tomatoes, but mostly, it’s on its own and things will be looking vastly different when I get home – much bigger plants, more food to harvest, etc.

Then we’ll be gone for as long as 8 weeks to the west coast later this summer, and many months at a time starting next year.

These 2 circumstances:

  1. Kids reminding me that many people don’t have much time to spend in their organic vegetable garden, and
  2. My absence from home reminding me that a good garden should be designed to take care of itself as much as possible…

…have inspired me to share with you the following organic gardening tips on how to have a garden that produces nutrient-dense organic food even when you don’t have a lot of time on your hands.

In Order To Get To A Self-Sustaining Garden

The main thing to understand is in order to have a self-sustaining garden, you need to put a little time into setting it up in the first place. Indeed, the more work you put in right at the beginning, the sooner you get to relax and the longer your work pays off.

Or as permaculture co-originator Bill Mollison once said, it’s when the designer becomes the recliner.

So, the questions we’re asking today are:

  1. What are the regular maintenance items that organic gardeners normally have to deal with, but could actually be taken care of with proper design and planning?
  2. What might I worry about leaving my garden for 4 weeks, and how can I plan to avoid that worry?

Weeds. As usual, I had my first flush of weeds in May a couple of weeks after I pulled the mulch aside to warm the soil (areas that were left mulched didn’t get many weeds at all). Most of the weeds were annuals, so when I removed them with a hoe, I knew they wouldn’t come back (the few dandelions in the bed can come back if they please – they improve my soil and I put them in salads). After I planted and seeded and my seedlings were up, I made sure the whole vegetable garden was mulched with straw and leaves. That takes care of most of your weeds right there.

Fertility/Biology. When I’m at home, I foliar fertilize monthly with organic fertilizers and microbial inoculants, again in order to get the most nutrient-dense food possible. But these organic products (sea minerals, kelp, microbial inoculants, etc.) aren’t necessary to use regularly in order to grow organic. It’s just a bonus. Fertility and a healthy soil food web can be built into your garden in your first couple of years when you amend the soil with plenty of good compost, and do some soil testing and fertilizing to balanced things out.

Water. I hardly have to water at all because I’ve covered most of my food garden with 12-18 inches of sheet mulch at some point over the last year, so it now holds water extremely well. The only reason I’ll have my mom water is because my goal is not simply a self-sustaining garden, but maximizing my yields and nutrition. For that, my plants and other organisms may need more water than nature supplies. But other than for the first couple of weeks after seeding, I could let the garden go irrigation-free year round if I wanted to walk down to Buenos Aires or something.

Pest Control. My healthy organic soil and diverse soil food web keep insects and diseases away. If a few take hold because of a lack of health in certain plants, I’m okay to let the predators have their dinner. They’re just doing their job removing the nutrient-poor foods from my organic garden.

Pruning/Pinching/Staking. All of these techniques can be helpful, but they’re not necessary if you plan your garden well. If I were planning to be gone all summer, I could let my tomatoes and cucumbers crawl along my straw mulch on the ground instead of on a trellis, and while they would produce less, they would do just fine.

Perennials. I try to include as many perennial food plants as I can. That means I don’t have to plant everything all over again every spring. I also love annuals that drop seeds which germinate each year. So various berries, herbs and greens make up a big part of my garden, and fruit and nut trees are part of the long term plan (Heather was pleased with the self-seeded dill this year, but could’ve done without all the cilantro).

I’ve run out of time, but there are certainly more concepts to be aware of when your goal is a self-sustaining garden. Feel free to add to the list in the comments below, or ask any questions.



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