June 21, 2023

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If we make our food gardens as much like natural ecosystems as we can, full of diversity and interconnections, they'll be more vigorous and productive with less effort on our part.

This post discusses loosely related ideas for growing a vigorous, productive, low maintenance food garden with as little effort as possible on the part of the gardener. 

It began as a reply to a reader's comment on "How to Hand Pollinate Pumpkin Flowers," then those ideas expanded themselves and became this post. 

As you'll see, this is a discussion not a lecture: I'm far from having it all worked out and I'd love to hear your comments and tips at the bottom.

self-seeding pumpkin plant volunteering in our garden

On self-seeding/self-selection

Pumpkins, tree lettuce, and paw paws all volunteer themselves by self-seeding in our gardens and animal areas.

We assist the process by feeding pumpkin seeds to the pigs and paw paw seeds to the chickens, and by allowing tree lettuce to go to seed where-ever it chooses.

This has been particularly successful with pumpkins, which we never plant "on purpose." We just welcome them and make space for them where-ever they volunteer to grow. 

By definition, self-seeding also means self-selection for the specific local conditions a plant finds itself in. My assumption is that if you can establish populations of annual or short lived perennials that self-seed without your help, you're encouraging/allowing them to self-select towards being able to thrive in your specific conditions. And the better they get at doing that, the less maintenance you have to do -- a win for everyone. 

productive, easy maintenance food garden

On transplanting seedlings - or not

Every year for a while now I've purchased seedlings of annual European-style vegetables like kale, fennel, celery, lettuce, etc, to plant in our blue barrel garden during the winter months. (We live in the semi-tropics; winter is our season for growing veggies of European origin.) 

Being able to buy healthy seedlings from a like-minded grower near us has been super-helpful. It saves me from the forethought and effort it would take to be ready with seedlings when our peak veggie growing season arrives. 

But it has also allowed us to avoid examining the question of whether it would be better for us to either raise our own seedlings, or start our seeds right in the beds (we're in a  frost free area), or figure out other ways to make the most of our cool growing season. 

So transplanting seedlings has its pros and cons. One of the cons is that some plants just don't like being transplanted. Pumpkins have been one of these for us; transplanting pumpkin seedlings has always seemed to result in weak plants that don’t really get going.

I'm lazy and I also think there's a much smarter presence in our garden than me -- Mother Nature. So I like to let her do as much of the work as possible. With that in mind, should I be transplanting seedlings? Possibly not.

But some plants are difficult to get to self-seed for various reasons. Kale is one of these for us; the way our seasons role, kale just keeps going and going and never receives the prompt to set seed. Which is all very well until it gets too wet, rots or suffers an insect attack, and keels over without having provided for a subsequent generation.

I know -- maybe I shouldn't be planting kale. I'm having better luck with fennel, celery, and lettuce -- they all go to seed reliably for us. But I haven't gotten the hang of getting them to come again from their own fallen seed yet. It's a case of collecting the seed and saving it for replanting, which can be tricky in our wet conditions and so usually gets neglected.

Nutritious dandelion is part of a productive low maintenance food garden

On encouraging "weeds"

Dandelion and borage are usually prolific self-seeders, and I'd like to establish both of them in our gardens for all the useful functions they can serve. Neither of them are super-keen on our wet conditions and borage prefers alkaline soil whereas our soil tends toward acidity. But I'm thinking if I could get them going in a few areas and then support their self-seeding efforts, maybe they'd adapt and develop themselves into strains that can thrive in our conditions. 

Stinging nettle, chickweed, and many others do love our wet conditions and i make space for them where-ever I meet them (except I'm a bit choosy where nettle gets established for obvious reasons).

Now just in case you're stuttering, "but... weeds..."

You're probably not. If you're reading here, you're probably well aware that dandelion, nettle, chickweed and others are tremendously useful  nutritional and medicinal herbs.

But just in case, and also because this is a favorite soap-box topic of mine: I believe that dandelion keeps persisting in our lawns, and all the the other "weeds" keep following us around in our gardens and farmlands, for two very good reasons.

One reason is that  they're able to thrive in the conditions we create. If we created different conditions, different plants would spring up in them.

The other reason, which I think is strongly related to the first, is that they show up to offer us the medicine our soils need. And also, the medicine we need. Many (perhaps most?)  so-called "weeds" are actually highly beneficial foods and medicines if you know how to use them.

Our grandmothers knew this; indigenous people, herbalists, and wild-food foragers know this. It wouldn't hurt if the rest of us remembered it and went back to partnering with the weeds instead of fighting with them. 

Diverse, productive plantings of plants in a low maintenance food garden - sweet potato, arrowroot, pigeon pea, sweet leaf, climbing beans

On diversity, inter-connections, and resilience

The topic of weeds leads onto the topic of diversity. Some of our garden areas are diverse, but tidy (these are the areas Alain takes care of). 

Other areas are just plain messy, full of odd jumbles of grasses and other plants as well as food plants. This is because of my long and frequent absences, along with my high tolerance for mess. 

But I do think that all that diversity, whether deliberate or due to neglect, helps with vigor and resilience. The more closely a garden resembles a wild ecosystem, the stronger it is. 

And stronger = lower maintenance = less effort on our part. We're always looking for ways to manage things and for plantings to choose that are as productive as possible with as little input from us as possible. 

We count a wide range of things under the definition of "productivity:" insect habitat and food, mulch production, shelter and wind protection, water harvesting (bananas in particular harvest and hold water in our system, as does Queensland arrowroot), nitrogen fixing, fodder for animals.

Food for humans is important, but it's only one in a long list of productive functions.

Which makes it go almost without saying that we especially value plants that fulfill multiple functions. Arrowroot is a good example: it provides food for humans, food for pigs, leafy fodder for chickens, mulch for the garden, water-harvesting and soil improvement abilities, and shelter for other plants like ginger

Chickens are great fertility builders for productive low maintenance food gardens

On fertility

How are we to build and maintain the fertility of our soil? We can make our choices along a continuum that runs from chemical fertilizer inputs, to organic manures and composts using imported materials, to creating systems that can produce and recycle their own fertility on site without having to import anything. 

Replacing chemical fertilizers with manures and composts is a step in the right direction. We can take it further and build more resilience and interconnections within our system by striving towards zero-input systems. 

Natural systems cycle fertility continually within themselves to stay viable and thriving. The only inputs are sunlight and rainwater (assuming we're talking about land-based systems).

To be fertile enough to support large animals like humans without requiring fertility inputs, a garden system has to be very complex. Tidy rows of vegetables braving the elements all by themselves aren't going to cut it.

There are lots of things you can add to your garden system to make your garden more productive and less reliant on inputs:

  • mulch-producing (or "chop and drop") plants, including deep rooted plants that draw water and nutrients up from beyond the reach of shallow rooted veggies
  • legumes (nitrogen fixing) plants
  • worm farms or black soldier fly larvae farms
  • small animals like chickens or rabbits, or larger ones if you have the space and inclination

And finally, if you're eating from your garden and not returning your own manure to it via a reliable composting system, that's potentially quite a significant loss of fertility from your garden system.

In closing 

That's a lot to think about. Let's not drive ourselves around the twist trying to do all that at once. But I hope you found one or two useful ideas or reminders, and if you have more suggestions for a productive, low maintenance food garden I'd love to hear them in the comments below.

Please comment...

Tell me about your ways of being lazy and allowing Nature to help out in your garden? Or anything else that comes to mind πŸ™‚

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  • love your attitude. thanks. hooked on nature, west coast Peloponnese olive grove off-gridder

    • thanks for commenting, Zol πŸ™‚

      • ops! so sorry, Zoi, I just saw that I spelt your name wrong. Humble apologies.

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