One of the key principles of working with Permaculture is to make the least possible invasive impact to your garden (or other eco-) system. Digging or re-structuring landscaping should only be made where it is absolutely necessary to achieve the desired design, and turning over the soil every year just for the sake of it is something we try to avoid. Most people are used to turning soil over, tilling and/or digging every year because it looks neat to start with fully clear soil, but the fact is that this actually disturbs the microorganism in the ground and makes your soil more prone to weeds taking over.
Weeding around your crops and leaving the soil fully bare without covering up with mulch is also no good. Bare soil is like a wound, and this is why it is so rare to find in nature. Nature heals itself as soon as it can and covers up the soil as fast as it can after animals have been digging around in it. Just like you need skin on your body the soil needs plants or mulch to be protected. As soon as soil has been turned over or cleared of weeds, pioneer plants take the chance to start growing on this bare soil to protect it from erosion through heavy rain, drying sun and wind.
In colder climates it might be necessary to leave the soil bare temporarily to get the heat up in the beginning of the season. Covering the soil with too much mulch will keep the soil cold longer when you will want to get some heat to get your first plants going. You have two alternatives here. Either you raise all your seedlings in small pots indoors or in a greenhouse before you clear the soil only in the spots where you put out your plants or you clear the soil in a larger area to spread out seeds directly. Using the second method you have to make sure to weed out unwanted plants manually until the wanted ones grow big enough to put mulch on the ground between them.
As you can see in this picture, I have left the soil bare between my plants, but this is because I’m waiting for spinach and other ground covers to take over and protect the soil. If I would cover it all with mulch at this time the spinach probably wouldn’t start to grow.
Once you have established your garden beds it is best to provide new nutrition to the soil from the top, for instance leaving garden scraps, mulch, pouring on liquid fertilizer or adding manure or compost. Just like in a forest where dead plant materials fall down and is converted to new soil the microorganisms and animals such as worms will take care of getting the nutrients down to the lower layers. There simply is no need to pull everything out and turn in fertilizers manually to the lower layers.
Another plus with not digging a lot is that you can save the energy for something better. Sit down and enjoy your garden instead of breaking your back and sweating to death!
Focus on perennials
Try to plant more perennials since they don’t have to be exchanged or renewed every year. Make them the framework of your garden. Then you can plant annuals in different cycles around them without having to turn over the whole garden. Larger perennials also help providing shade, support for climbing plants and much more. You don’t need a large garden to be able to work with bushes or trees. Today there are even special varieties of for instance fruit trees created to grow in very small spaces or in pots. Perennials also make sure that you have something in your garden, even if you don’t have much time during one season. Some tulips coming up every spring or perennial herbs such as chives or lavender guarantee that you will have something green in your garden without having to do more than water a bit.
Raised beds are a great way to create growing spaces that have loads of nutrition, maintain moisture in the soil and provide heat for your plants to grow better. If you build them high enough they are practical to work by also for people with back problems and wheelchair-bound people. The idea is that you create garden beds in several layers that are possible to reach from all sides without having to step on them. Avoiding to step on the soil where you grow your crops also helps them grow better. When we step on soil it gets compressed and the roots have a harder time expanding freely since the soil structure is compacted and also the microorganisms in the soil need air to work properly.
If you create your raised beds on free-land you may have to create some kind of border to hold the soil in. For instance you can create frames of wood – the frames from Euro pallets are a great option and usually quite cheap to buy. Building walls from rocks or bricks create sturdy beds that keep heat well, but are quite expensive unless you get across scrapped materials.
When creating a raised bed you may need to protect the bottom with a weed fleece or cover the ground with cardboard or newspapers to be 100% sure that weeds don’t come through. After this you can either fill up your frame with soil mixed with a bit of manure and put your plants straight in, or you can work with the so called lasagna method. Here you create various layers of different organic materials that provide nutrients when they break down. For example start with newspapers, add a layer of straw, then horse manure, another layer of straw or grass clippings, then finally add soil or fresh compost.
Once you are done with the foundation, sow your seeds or plants your seedlings and then mulch around them for protection. The mulch provides extra nutrients and prevents weeds from taking over. I will talk more about different types of mulch, fertilizers, weed and pest control in the next article.
In my own raised beds I first put in weed fleece (mainly for drainage, not to avoid weeds since I have #mycompactgarden on a terrace), then tree bark and twigs from our discarded Christmas tree (not too much to not become too acidic). After that I added garden soil, then I planted seeds and some plants from the garden center. I still need to provide some more fertilizer to get things going properly and I have started adding mulch to some of my garden beds where the seedlings have grown large enough to not get choked by it.
Square foot gardening
Square foot gardening is a popular method among people who prefer a bit more order in their gardens and for beginners who feel insecure of what is what once the garden starts sprouting. In this method you divide your raised beds into squares the size of one foot (approximately 30 cm) per side. More or less standard is to create beds which fit a 4 x 4 square grid (12 square feet in total) where one or two types of plants fits into each square. This size is good since you can reach all parts of the garden bed from the sides without having to step on it.
You still reap some benefits of planting different plants next to each other, such as some herbs deterring pests, tomatoes and basil being beneficial for one another and that you create a system that isn’t a pure monoculture. The disadvantage is that it doesn’t optimize the space in the same way as the methods suggested in the earlier articles. You also have to work harder to fit in plants in a way to make higher plants give shade to lower ones etc. All in all, I still find this to be a useful method for those that are just starting with gardening and want to make sure that they know exactly what is coming up in each square. It’s a great way to get to know the plants, how they look and what needs they have. Later when feeling more confident you can switch to a more “chaotic” way of gardening to fit in more on the same space.
Question: Can you name at least three different functions that mulch has in your garden?
Activity: Create a raised bed or fill up a pot or garden container using the lasagna method.
Post some pictures of your progress using #mycompactgarden