By Jonathan White
High yielding, low maintenance vegetable gardening that’s perfect for our modern-day lifestyle
When we think of organic gardening and permaculture we tend to conjure up images of bearded warriors dressed in overalls who dedicate their lives to working long days in their vegetable plots. Whilst this may be a wonderful way to live your life, it doesn’t suit the average suburbanite with a full-time job and a hefty mortgage.
Growing food is typically seen as either an art form or damned hard work. It’s no wonder that very few people produce enough food to feed their family. But what if a technique came along that was so easy and so prolific that even the busiest corporate executive could grow a significant portion of their family’s food in less time than it takes to drive to the shops. Ecological gardening just might be the answer. In my experience, it’s the ultimate modern-day convenience vegetable plot.
An ecological garden is an ecosystem made up of edible plants, and it behaves in exactly the same way as a natural habitat. Over time, you become more of an observer than a gardener as you watch Mother Nature do most of the work.
The wonderful thing about nature is that she works tirelessly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Nature follows very simple laws and works in the same way, on any system, anywhere in the world. To understand ecological gardening, observing natural ecosystems can provide us with the answers we need. A natural ecosystem is made up of thousands of living and non-living components all coexisting in a given area. Each living component occupies its own niche space and the role of the niche space is very important to understand when creating an ecological garden.
Let’s look at an example. Imagine a giant rainforest tree crashing to the ground after standing tall for hundreds of years. Such a large tree would have filled an enormous niche space. Lying in the soil, hundreds of dormant seeds spring to life, desperately fighting for their opportunity to occupy the best real estate in the forest – the empty niche space. The niche space is quickly filled and harmony is restored.
When we look at a traditional vegetable garden with this type of insight, what we see is a very unnatural system. There is very little diversity and a lot of empty niche spaces. Nature enforces her will on vegetable gardens in exactly the same way she does a rainforest, and this means that empty niches spaces will be filled as quickly as possible. However, in a traditional vegetable garden there are no desirable seeds waiting to fill the niches spaces, so weeds fill them instead.
The solution to this problem is to create a garden that has tightly filled niche spaces so that weeds don’t have any opportunities. We can achieve this by using a planting arrangement that mimics a natural ecosystem. This type of planting arrangement also creates a range of highly protected micro-climates. This ideal growing environment causes your plants to last much longer. Greens don’t bolt to seed as soon as a hot spell hits and cold sensitive plants are more protected as well. The planting arrangement also creates a natural form of pest management.
Managing an ecological garden is different to managing a traditional vegetable garden. With an ecological garden, there is far less to do. As you become the observer and allow nature to take over as head gardener, you will notice that the garden is in a continual state of gentle change, just like a natural ecosystem. It can be difficult for the traditional gardener to stand back and observe, as many of us instinctively like to control things. This style of gardening calls for a great deal of faith in natural laws.
Absolutely everyone from farmers to inner-city townhouse dwellers can create an ecological garden. It may seem strange, but if you have never grown food before then you are, in some ways, at an advantage. Like all industries, the gardening industry can get stuck in doing things a certain way and most seasoned gardeners will inevitably over-work the garden. As a species, human beings prospered when we learnt to cultivate food using tilling and other traditional agricultural methods, so it’s difficult to turn back to where we came from – nature. It might even feel like a step in the wrong direction. But if we can let go of our need to control every living thing on the planet, and start to work with nature, we actually gain more control by being able to grow food more efficiently than ever before. It’s a paradox – but it works!
Growing food is not hard work, especially when you have nature helping you 24/7. A small area can provide you with a bounty of food, saving your family thousands of dollars per year. Most of us don’t have much time to spend in the garden, including me. I only invest around eight hours per year to growing my food, and although I live on a small farm, I only use a space of around 6m x 6m. That’s an area that could fit into many suburban backyards several times over. The most wonderful thing about this method is that I know I can ignore my vegetable garden for months and it won’t miss a beat. So, if you believe growing food is only for tough, bearded warriors with a lot of time – think again. Ecological gardening could be just the thing for you.
Jonathan White is a self-employed environmental consultant and landscape designer. He is the author of an eBook and video package that shows the reader exactly how to set up and maintain an ecological garden.