Once again I’m in the realm of planning another new productive garden area and as usual I’m starting by looking at the basic concepts of productive garden design. Ticking of the crucial points of sunlight and water access, I am now focusing on the layout, with a preference for six garden beds. It does not have to six perfectly aligned garden beds, although for me personally, I’m a neat freak with a craving for order and symmetry!
I often get asked why I consistently mention the need for six garden beds. In summary, the six bed rotation system enables orderly crop rotation of the plant families whilst allowing for all the vegetables to be grown in the appropriate season.
Crop rotation is vital for organic gardens as it helps manage soil-borne pest and diseases. It works by ensuring that each plant family is rotated to a new bed each season, consequently preventing a build up of host-specific pest and disease.
Furthermore, due to the subtropical climate being conducive to pest and disease growth, a dedicated green manure crop incorporated into the rotation helps to break their cycle whilst adding invaluable organic matter and nutrients.
Finally, having the set six beds enables you to keep track of your plantings over the seasons. We practice similar rotations on a large scale on our farm, ‘Green Valley’, with crops and animals moving in rotation to break pest cycles as well as help build up the condition of the soil.
Obviously, it is not imperative you strictly adhere to the six bed rotation. However, for the more pest and disease susceptible plants, such as the Solanaceae family (tomatoes and potatoes), I would not tempt fate.
Let’s hope that the winter season sees more consistent weather that allows our gardens to flourish.
Due to recent news regarding food contamination from overseas sources, a greater awareness of what we are actually consuming has risen. Whilst I would have no concerns about consuming Australian produce whether it be organic or conventionally grown by Australian farmers, I am definitely weary of much of our imported foods. The irony of it all is that it is predominantly us as consumers driving this demand as we seek cheaper food and/or produce out of its growing season.
Obviously in my opinion the answer is to experience the joy and rewards of growing your own and eating seasonal vegetables, and when this is not possible, then buying Australian grown produce. Making your backyard garden more productive and sustainable to do this is no more difficult than any other type of garden.
If you are time poor and you are after a low maintenance sustainable garden, there are many easy care productive plantings. Consider bananas, passionfruit and citrus trees, with an understory of herbs and interspaces filled with strawberries, eggplants, sweet potatoes, rocket and cherry tomatoes. All of these plants will produce adequately with very limited care once established. Obviously with more care they will produce even better, however it is possible to maintain a time and production balance.
Now if time is not limited, a constant cycle of seasonal fruit and vegetables is a must, along with chooks! I just love the efficiency of chooks in the backyard. As scrap consumers, they are second only to pigs, but most urban backyards probably should not have pigs! They produce one of the best fertilisers for the garden and they provide the daily gift in the form of a glorious egg! Initially, years ago, I also believed that they would be great at eating all the caterpillars in my garden, and whilst this is in fact true, they tend not to just eat the caterpillar, but all the leaves too!
On a final point, you will note that your homegrown produce, you will get some perfect specimens as well as those with imperfect blemishes and some will be nibbled by pests. However, they will be full of flavor that wont be due to microscopic bacteria from human effluent used for fertilizer in another country….and if it is, at the very least it will only be from your family…eewwh!
Whether you are starting from scratch or your garden just needs a top up, the method that I adopt can be applied to both. In my personal opinion, Lasagne Layering is one of the best ways to provide a good year long supply of nutrients cheaply.
My version of ‘lasagna layering’ is where the garden beds are filled predominantly with alternate layers of Lucerne mulch, spent mushroom compost and manure as indicated in the diagram. However, if you are just topping up your garden you only need to do the top four layers.
Lucerne mulch is regularly available at the local produce store and we are fortunate to be living within scenic driving distance of a couple of mushroom farms that are more than willing for you to buy their spent mushroom compost. An added bonus of the mushroom compost is that you are more than likely to gain a few fresh mushrooms as your first harvest!
When it comes to the manure layer, anything you can get your hands on is great, but generally the nutrient scale from highest to lowest is chook, goat, pig, sheep, horse and then cow. It should also be noted that the higher nutrient rich manures are the most processed by the animal and therefore are less likely to have viable weed seeds.
However, if you can’t get your hands on some fresh manure, an alternative is to use dynamic lifter or other pelletised manure based fertilizer. You will only need to scatter this across as your layering and make up the bulk with the lucerne mulch.
Once your garden is filled, it helps to leave it settle for about two weeks and then plant seedlings or seeds into pockets of compost. It’s a great idea to use this waiting time to raise some seedlings of your own to plant in.
2015 looks to be an exciting and productive year in the garden with it being the International Year of Soils! This is definitely one of my favourite subjects and often one of the most overlooked when it comes to productive gardening.
A healthy soil is one that is alive! Im talking really alive, teaming with both plant and animal life, nutrient rich compost, sufficient water holding capacity and good porosity to enable it to breath. Yes, ALIVE! All of these things combined make it virtually impossible for plants not to grow health and productively.
To achieve a healthy soil environment like this certainly takes time. You are in essence trying to build a population of many million microorganisms, and then on top of that, waiting for the new populations to reach equilibrium and work productively to breakdown organic mater and transform it into soluble nutrients.
In previous years I have spoken of the raised bed, lasagna layering garden as my preferred productive gardening set-up. It is this combination of ingredients, Lucerne mulch, compost, lime/dolomite and blood and bone, that create a living soil.
Lucerne mulch provides organic mater that is quick to decompose, feeding microorganisms, and as this happens, a steady supply of available nitrogen is released. Plants grown in soils that are low in nitrogen will always grow slowly and appear to be a yellow/green instead of the usual healthy green. Humates, which are moisture retaining organic particles, are also a product of lucerne decomposition and aids in maintaining optimal soil moisture.
Compost provides the life - Bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes that chemically decompose organic matter. There are literally millions of these little guys in just a teaspoon of healthy soil! The more you have, the quicker the decomposition process, and hence, the quicker plants are supplied with readily available nutrients. Plants can grow without compost and simply be supplied with synthetic fertilisers instead, however the beneficial microbial populations can prevent outbreaks of pathogens and increase the overall immunity of the plant.
Lime and/or dolomite aid in providing an ideal pH environment for soil organisms and facilitates the decomposition process. Furthermore it provides essential Calcium and Magnesium to the soil. An incorrect pH for a plant will prevent nutrients from becoming available to the plant regardless of whether they are in the soil matrix or not.
Blood and bone is a great quick way to maintain a food source for the soil organisms. It is also a good source of nitrogen that will assist with plant growth.
Finally, time is what is required to establish the physical decomposing macro-organisms such as worms, mites and millipedes. At this point, you will have the most productive soil teaming with life.