When you consider an ideal vegetable garden I imagine that many of you (as well as myself at one point too) had the following image in mind: Vegetables arranged in neat regimented lines or blocks containing one type of vegetable, perfectly bordered by some type of hedging and clear weed free paths between the planted beds. No weeds, no bugs – simply a beautiful garden with lots of bursting fruits…
Sadly, this reality is rarely achievable due to the high maintenance of such a garden. Also vegetable production, soil health and pest control will be very poor. Let me give you a breakdown of the impact of the ‘perfect, clean and neat’ garden design has on food production and its ecosystem;
1) Mono-cropping of vegetables, either as rows or blocks has the following implications:
a) Soil becomes depleted of a certain type of nutrient. For instance, a block of leafy veggies will consume a lot of soil nitrogen, a nutrient required for leaf growth. This creates a large imbalance in the NPK ratio of the soil in that area.
b) Plots are separated by barren soil – this are likely walkways, which prevent soil compaction in growing beds, but these separate areas of beneficial insects and limits/prevents their spread to other areas.
c) Disease spread like wildfire through mono-cropped plants resulting in large losses.
Solution: Increase diversity of plants by planting multiple types and species of crops in each bed – resulting in a mixed plant population. Allow separated beds to become connected by adding an organic soil cover, either living or dead.
2) No organic soil cover on the bare soil paths or planted beds, leads to:
a) Extensive erosion of soil by all the elements, including topsoil loss through wind, rainwater runoff and leaching of nutrient, as well as the loss of moisture through excessive sun.
b) Soil structure breakdown, due to erosion, which has a direct impact on soil health, where micro- and macroscopic soil animals cannot flourish and their biochemical processing of the soil is at a minimum resulting increase nutrient depletion of the soil.
Solution: Add an organic soil cover, either living or dead. It increases soil nutrients and soil life during decomposition, as well as preventing erosion of soil structure and leaching of soil nutrients.
3) The rigid design of the vegetable garden, either as rows or squares, results in:
a) Lots of labour, not only in the initial setup of the garden, but the maintenance as well. Weeding will be a constant battle as bare soil becomes a haven for them. Plants are sickly due to mono-cropping and require lots of pest control (usually in the form of chemical control as beneficial insects are non-existent). Soil structure is poor leading to tillage, which breaks down soil structure even more, leading to nutrient loss that needs to be replaced by synthetic fertilisers for a quick fix instead of organically derived sources.
b) Plants are disturbed regularly by pruning and pulling of plants to fit exact plant spacing, which leads to a marked decrease in beneficial insects that would have assisted with pest control.
Solution: Let the plant become a bit wild – do still prune them to shape, for exposure to maximum sunlight and optimum production, but allow them to become intertwined. Disturb them as little as possible, but when you prune, give the prunings a vigorous shake to return any beneficial insects to the garden. A more ‘wild’ vegetable garden scheme will allow less weeds, pests and fertilising – as well as an increase in crop production, health and overall enjoyment of the garden.
The solutions I have posed are aimed at letting Mother Nature work with you during your food growing endeavours, where beneficial insects keep pests at a minimum level (pest will never be eradicated!), organic soil covers provide nutrients to the soil and acts as weed barriers, lastly the diverse and dense plantings decrease pests and diseases as well as assisting with balanced soil nutrient consumption and improved soil health (through a diverse soil life that inhabits plant roots).
You will notice that much of this introduction is aligned with two other posts: the Conservation Agriculture and my Insectary post. These two posts cover the main ‘natural’ principles to keep in mind, but I would replace crop rotation with diverse plantings rather (where multiple crops are planted in the same bed) in the Conservation Agriculture’s principles list. Leading from this new approach to gardening, let me give you an example of what my garden looked like last summer (2014-2015 season):
Now you will likely tell me that it looks like a royal mess! – it does seem a bit untamed, but it actually took a bit of planning to get it this way and I have not yet perfected the technique. Therefore, my ‘Vegetable Garden Design’ will not be a set of measurements and crop groupings as many books and internet design software will dictate. This is mainly due to the fact that;
1) Each garden is unique. My sizes are not standard, therefore I have to work around this.
2) Everybody eats differently. Many of us will eat different types of vegetables and in different amounts – for instance we eat a lot of tomatoes, but don’t plant any chillies, therefore the garden will look different to someone who loves chillies.
3) Trial and error is part and parcel of working with Mother Nature. You will have to grow a bunch of different vegetables with different vegetable layouts to discover what works for your garden. This is where record keeping is integral, note down where the cucumbers did well, or the radishes suffered, which pests are prevalent and what plant(s) to include in the garden next year for attracting beneficial insects to assist with that specific pest problem.
Although, I am not going to put down an exact fool-proof universal planting method here, I will provide an example of my garden plan…
I have a very strange garden outlay with 8 beds and three sides of the garden is surrounded by walls. One bed is permanently occupied by herbs (blocks indicate their relative overlap with one another), whereas the others are open for planting. The pathways between the beds are paved with bricks and the bare soils in the pathways are occupied mostly by penny royal. The bare soil areas outside the garden beds are occupied by penny royal that spilled from the pathways and some parsley as well as an ice plant/vygie (Mesembryanthemaceae).
I roughly divided the plots into 36 circles for approximate planting position. Large vegetables such as the tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and cucumbers have one plant occupying a circle, whereas root vegetables and onions contain multiple plants. I have white clover (Trifolium repens) in my two left-most plots (the top and side one), the other two top beds have sweet potato as a ground cover as it occupies the whole bed between the other vegetables, whereas the rest of the plots have the lesser trefoil (Trifolium dubium) clover as ground cover.
I want to show you two pictures of vastly different vegetation types – do you see the similarities?
- Sustainable, Productive and Economical Vegetable Gardening Series
Part 1: Vegetables Worth Growing
Part 2: Conservation Agriculture
Part 3: Integrated Organic Gardening
- Insectary: Beneficial Insects & Garden Security Force
- Lunar Gardening: Planting by the Phases of the Moon
- Biodynamics: Lunar Gardening Revisited
- Penny Royal: The Living Mulch (coming soon!)
- Green Manures: Cover Crops & Green Forage
- Natural Biofertilizers & Living Mulches: Edible Legumes