Garden (6m 22s)

“All of the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.”

Geoff Lawton

The principle for the garden chapter is to grow food.

Today we’ll talk about a few aspects to consider when designing and planting a garden. And we’ll also cover a few useful planting techniques to grow a healthy harvest. 

A few years ago, my buddy Troy and I had an opportunity to start a permaculture site at the Art of Living Ashram, in Bangalore, India. Our friend Venkatesh set the project up after taking a permaculture course in Thailand.

One of the elements of this project was to make a garden. The space we had for the garden was a gradually sloping piece of land with hard, cracked, topsoil.

We soon learned the ashram produced tons of organic waste everyday they had little use for. So we asked Binay, our co-project manager, to have them drop off their “waste” at our site. Everyday for the next few months, and even still today I believe, a truck dropped off materials like banana leaves, coconuts, cow manure, straw, food waste and thousands of pressed banana leaf plates from the cafeteria.

We layered each of these materials directly in the garden. This is a composting-in-place technique. Then we planted seeds. …And the seeds… exploded. Tomato plants grew with 50 tomatoes. Papaya’s the size of footballs hung in the air. Basil seeds turned into basil bushes. And pumpkin vines took over piles of yard waste.

One of the greatest lessons I learned from this project, as basic as it may sound… is when you put seeds in the ground, they grow. They do. We don’t know why seeds grow. Maybe it’s magic. Maybe it’s the universe expanding upon itself. But it happens. It’s amazing to watch something go from dirt to green after applying a few basic concepts.

Garden site location

Okay first, where is the best place to put a garden?

  • First, observe the natural and existing conditions of the space like wind, aspect, climate, edges, slope, soil conditions.
  • How far is the garden from the nursery, from the tool shed, from animals, from the compost pile? What about animals? Will you fence the animals or fence the garden? How will you physically harvest the food?
  • Think about water – how you can provide a constant supply of water to the garden? Consider installing water points.

Garden beds

The traditional gardening method is to plow and plant, right in the ground. If you decide to plow, be aware it disrupts the ecosystem of the topsoil. It’s an ethical decision. If you decide not to plow, you can make a raised bed garden.

Typical raised bed gardens can be about ~15cm tall. You need to make some kind of frame using grasses, bottles, straw, rocks. This lets the roots penetrate the soil themselves.

  • Sheet mulching, also called lasagna gardening or composting-in-place, as mentioned, are effective options.
  • And finally, if you have lots of thick organic materials, you can do Hugelkulture, a very tall raised bed. Here’s a Huglekulture garden from Sepp Holzer’s Holzer Permaculture book that illustrates a lady going through a supermarket and actually picking vegetables straight from the plant.
  • Here’s another image by Sepp Holzer, kind of shows how to stack it and things like that

You can also build a sunken bed where you dig down and have different organic materials in the base of the garden.

An herb spiral garden is for growing edible and medicinal herbs. The sloping height of the garden creates small microclimates, which help grow different herbs. Here is a list of suggested planting arrangements for an herb garden:

Square Foot Gardens divide a raised bed into square foot sections. Designed by engineer Mel Bartholomews, this style of garden maximizes garden space and makes it easy to keep track of what you planted. Here are a few images to show the spacing of common annual plants.

Garden structures / vertical gardening

You can also grow food up. One strategy when it comes to vertical gardens is to make gardens more like buildings and buildings more like gardens.

  • A-frames or teepees are simple structures for vine plants to grow on. As plants grow, they create shade. This helps newer plants take root. Growing food using A-frames, can quadruple the amount of space in a garden with just a few sticks. (1m to 4m)
  • Arches or trellis are good for building over small streams or pathways.

For growing indoors, you can install window boxes, plastic bottles hangers, hang vinyl sheet with pockets, hanging planters, upside down tomato planters, container planting, palettes… lots of variety.

Companion planting

Companion plants are plants that support each other as they grow. For example, corn and beans are often grown together, the corn stalk supports the beanstalk. One good note I learned is, if they taste good together, they grow well together. Here are a few annual crops that grow well together:

  • Pumpkin, corn and beans (Three sisters guild)
  • Tomato, garlic and basil
  • Sweet potato and taro
  • Cucumber, beans, peas
  • Carrot, onion, cabbage, lettuce
  • Chiles, sweet pepper, tomato

Annual versus perennial

Annual plants complete their growing cycle in one season. Life cycle of an annual plant goes something like, You plant a seed, the plant grows, it flowers, it sets seeds and then it dies. Examples of annual plants are corn, wheat, rice, lettuce, peas, watermelon.

Perennial plants live for more than 2 growing seasons. Examples are squash, broccoli, taro, potato, leek, strawberry, Brazilian spinach or Cuban oregano.

Garden succession

One trick to produce a steady harvest of crops is to stagger the timing of when you plant. For example, plant a few seeds of one crop one day, then two weeks later plant a few more seeds of the same crop. This creates a succession of fruiting plants.

Crop rotation

Rotating crops after each harvest helps balance soil fertility and prevent diseases and pests. First you plant legumes, then leaf crops, then roots and fruit crops. Legumes, like beans, fix nitrogen in the soil; they pull it to the surface for other plants to consume. Leaf crops are “lightweight feeders”, they consume some nutrients, then “root crops” consume a medium amount of nutrients, and finally “fruiting crops” are heavy feeders. [They consume the rest of the nutrients. Then, you start over, you plant legumes to fix nitrogen in the soil again.

Here are some examples of each type of crop in a crop rotation:

Legumes – Nitrogen fixers

Peas, beans, lentils

Leaf – Light feeders

Lettuces (leeks, kale, bok choy, spinach, chard)

Herbs (dill, fennel, basil, parsley)

Brassicas (cabbages, mustard, turnips, cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts), chives, celery

Root – Moderate feeders

Carrot, potato, onion, garlic, radishes, turmeric, beetroot, sweet potato, taro

Fruit – Heavy feeder

Tomato, strawberry, peppers, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, corn, eggplant]

To recap here,

  • When making a garden, first find a good location with lots of sun and a good source of water
  • You can grow food in many types of beds – In the ground, on the ground, above the ground and way above the ground

So in your designs, you want to find a good location, with lots of sun and water and consider the shape of the garden and the elevation more or less, is it sunken, raised, planted on top of the soil. And then think about crop rotation and things like that. Good deal. That’s the garden chapter. Thanks for your time.