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.

14 Comments

  1. Ellen Hendrix on June 23, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Thanks Phil,This is an excellent reminder that the work we do early on pays off! I’m curious as to whether you have your perennials mixed in with annual vegetables and how this effects your crop rotation. Also, how to dandelions improve our soil? (tillage, for sure, but I’m guessing you know some other benefits)Let us know when you get a chance – enjoy your travels!

    • Phil on June 26, 2012 at 11:52 am

      Hi Ellen, I have annuals and perennials in close proximity and sometimes intermingled, but for some crops that take up more space like potatoes/corn/squash, it’s nice to have beds that are mostly dedicated to them and their companions. Makes it easier to plant and maintain them.Dandelions alleviate compaction, increase calcium (perhaps by bringing it up from deeper or maybe some form of transmutation) and other nutrients, invite beneficial insects and microbes, and probably do other cool things.

  2. Cori Rose on June 23, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    Thanks Phil, all excellent suggestions for us newer organic veggie gardeners. I am so far behind this year due to the usual rigors (work, kids etc.) and with the real hot season on me I REALLY need to get my act together. Enjoy the tips immensely!

    • Phil on June 26, 2012 at 11:53 am

      Ya, it can be tough to get plants in on time in the spring, but you can still do well with many crops planting now.

  3. Heidi on June 23, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    Are these ideas similar to permaculture design concepts?  Would a permaculture take on gardening be different in some ways?  Happy trails!

    • Phil on June 26, 2012 at 11:56 am

      Hi Heidi, permaculture design really just means sustainable design, so it would include all of these tips and others depending on the situation.

  4. Nicki on June 24, 2012 at 4:12 am

    Thanks Phil! Speaking of travel.. i am heading through Canada to Alaska.. I would like to take a look around Canada as i travel through. Any  suggestions on some “must-see” spots? 

    • Phil on June 26, 2012 at 12:00 pm

      Heather and I lived and Kelowna for a few months and we took a road trip up to Whitehorse via Liard River Hot Springs, where we camped and went in the springs, which were the best we’ve been in because they are very natural. It was a special spot. It was early November, so hardly anyone was around. Actually that whole drive through the interior of B.C. was wonderful. You can go up one route and come down more of a coastal route (or vice versa).

  5. Diane Keane on June 25, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    Phil, I’ve heard of sheet-mulching (“lasagna gardening”) but never tried it. Seems that sheet-mulching is mostly done to create new beds. What about using sheet-composting to improve my existing raised veg beds (and the flowerbeds too)? I’ve had on-going problems with poor soil, weeds, and bugs. After reading about sheet-mulching, I’d like to build a “lasagna garden” over top of all of my raised veg beds (mixing in their soil as part of the lasagna) over next winter. But what about my flower beds? Would I need to move my perennials to a “holding bed” during the sheet mulch treatment, or, could I just sheet mulch over the perennials? Would they survive this or become another component of the lasagna? What about the bulbs?Any advice would be greatly appreciated, and I love your site!! Thanks a bunch.

    • Bill_G on June 26, 2012 at 3:48 am

      Diane – I’m not Phil, but I am quite familiar with sheet mulching. It comes under many names including lasagna and IBM (interbay mulch). You are correct – it is used to make new beds, or to increase the size of existing beds. You essentially smother everything in the new area, and wait for it to decompose enough to plant in. That’s fine for veggie beds that are seasonal with long periods of dormancy, but it doesn’t translate well for landscaping and perennial beds. You would have to salvage everything you wanted to keep, and hope you can maintain it until the new bed is ready.Over time (measured in years) all of the OM (organic material) you used in the lasagna would thin to nothing. If you never added any more OM or compost,  the bed would return to it’s original height. This is a program you can easily use in rotation in the vegetable garden to rejuvenate the rows, but it would take it’s toll on the perennials. I commonly move soil from the vegetable garden to the flower beds as well as compost. They also receive a heaping layer of leaves in the fall to protect them from winter. In spring I pull a good portion off that goes to a pile in the back leaving some leaves to feed the soil in the flower beds. The only precaution with using veggie dirt is the occasional potatoe in the rose beds.I hope that helps.Bill

      • Phil on June 26, 2012 at 12:03 pm

        Couldn’t have said it better myself. Sheet mulch is great on veggie beds, not so great on perennial beds. You could move your perennials if you think it makes sense, or you could just top dress with compost and then a 2 inch layer of mulch.

      • Diane Keane on June 27, 2012 at 6:01 pm

        Bill, thanks so much for your input. I had my doubts about sheet-mulching over plants I wanted to keep–as you have confirmed!

  6. Finlinea on June 26, 2012 at 11:40 am

    Nice article. Most of the time I just worried about the pests and forget other activities so most of the time I don’t find success. But this is a wonderful article, hope this time i will be successful gardener 🙂

  7. advanced nutrients on September 18, 2012 at 2:59 am

    Hey PhilGreat article, you sound like a great gardener that knows his way around the rough edges. People don’t realize that keeping a clean and organic garden is not an easy task, but with work and dedication and a green thumb maybe can find their steps much closer to you. 

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