Gardens are ecosystems like any other – but unlike other ecosystems, we as gardeners have the power to influence what happens within their borders. While all areas in the natural world can be shaped to a degree – it is our gardens where we have the greatest level of agency and control.
In our gardens, we can shape the natural environment and work with nature to meet our own needs and desires. The key to designing, creating and maintaining a successful and sustainable garden lies in understanding what we as gardeners can do to work with nature to achieve our goals. The tips below will help you to create a great garden culture – a holistic system that works for you and for all the plants and wildlife with which you share your space.
Promote Biodiversity in Your Garden
One of the biggest mistakes that can be made in a garden is attempting to grow mono-cultures. One of the main problems with large-scale food production is that too few crops are grown over too large an area. Growing only one type of plant en masse can lead to all sorts of problems. Not only are mono-cultures more likely to succumb to pests and disease, but they are also less resilient to changing weather patterns and can cause a degradation of the overall ecosystem.
The same that is true of large-scale agriculture is also true in a garden. Organic gardeners have discovered the benefits of creating polycultures (cultures with a diverse range of plants). By growing a wide range of species, organic gardeners can reduce the likelihood of disaster and improve the resilience of their growing areas. Interplanting various different plants can increase the range of beneficial interactions between them, as well as making it easier to garden organically. Of course, having more plant species can also help to attract a wider range of beneficial wildlife.
To promote biodiversity, interplanting (creating polycultures) is crucial. Annual food crops can be interplanted with other secondary crops of herbs, other vegetables or flowers, while perennial planting schemes form ‘guilds’ of plants which help one another in a wide range of different ways. Companion plants may:
- Provide shade for other plants.
- Provide ground cover around plants which reduces moisture loss from the surrounding soil.
- Dynamically gather nutrients (nitrogen from the air, or nutrients from far below the soil surface) which can be taken up by neighboring
- Attract pollinators (such as bees and other insects) that allow pollination to occur and fruits to set.
- Attract predatory insects or other animals such as birds or mammals which eat pest species and keep an ecosystem in balance.
- Serve as ‘trap’ crops to attract pests that would otherwise damage or destroy more valuable crops.
As well as concentrating on creating a biodiverse planting scheme, organic gardeners can also take other measures to improve the biodiversity (and resilience) of their gardens. For example, gardeners can:
- Create a wide range of different habitats – g., wild corners, brush piles, meadow, woodland/forest areas, a garden pond, etc.
- Provide food for birds during winter/ periods of scarcity.
- Provide ‘housing’ for bees, bugs, birds, bats and other beneficial garden creatures.
Control Pests and Disease
Creating a biodiverse garden is the number one way to control pests and mitigate the effects of the disease. The more biodiverse a culture is, the more harmony will be found within the system. This means that pest species are far less likely to get out of control. There will be no need for harmful chemicals to control pests when the wildlife can do a lot of the job for you.
Of course, there are also other things that you can do to control pests and disease in your garden. Maintaining a great garden culture involves understanding the mechanisms by which pests and disease will spread and doing what you can to reduce the risk of these problems occurring too often in your growing areas.
Good plant hygiene, tidiness and an orderly approach can help to stop things getting out of control. For example, gardeners should:
- Avoid growing certain annual crops in the same growing area year after year. A good system of crop rotation for plants in the tomato family, brassicas, alliums and legumes can help keep the disease at bay and keep things running smoothly.
- Keep on top of weeds to avoid excessive crowding or competition. (Weed little and often in main growing areas – though remember some weeds can be useful to the garden as a whole.)
- Keep paths, greenhouses, polytunnels and garden furniture clean and clear of debris.
- Avoid spreading disease from one area of the garden to another or from one season to the next on garden tools, pots or containers, gardening equipment or through compost.
- Only incorporate plants into your garden that come from a trusted source and not damaging biosecurity by importing non-native plants or species, or items that may have come from an infected site.
- Promptly remove all plants in your main vegetable garden that are past peak-production or have come to the end of their useful life, so the disease cannot fester and the area can be used for successional crops.
If you do have an outbreak of pests or disease in your garden you should:
- Treat pests/disease organically where this is possible.
- Where plants will not recover, remove all damaged or diseased materials as soon as possible and dispose of them well away from other crops. (Burning items where necessary and making sure they don’t end up contaminating your growing areas or composting area.)
- Thoroughly clean all garden tools, gloves, etc. that have come into contact with the diseased
- Wash hands, pots, etc. thoroughly before using them for any other jobs around the garden.
- Look for ways to promote better harmony/ greater biodiversity in your garden culture in the future.
Feed And Protect the Soil in Your Garden
Promoting biodiversity and taking measures to reduce the incidence or spread of pests and disease will go a long way towards creating a great garden culture. But there is one more vital element that will ensure that you can keep your garden culture sustainable over the years to come: care for the soil. No matter how well you tend your garden in other ways, if you do not care for the soil – production and appearance will soon begin to suffer.
In an organic garden culture, feeding and protecting the soil should always be a number one priority. As mentioned above, crop rotation is one of the important ways to make sure your garden thrives. As well as reducing the incidence of pests and disease, moving annual crops from one growing area to another on a rotational basis each year will also help to ensure that the soil retains a good balance of nutrients. For example, legumes planted the year after brassicas or other leafy plants will help to replace the nitrogen in the soil.
Other methods that should be used to protect garden soil include:
- Adoption of a ‘no-dig’ approach
- A no-dig garden is one in which the soil is disturbed as little as possible. This allows the soil’s complex web of biota to function as it should. Bacteria and fungi and larger soil creatures such as earthworms all, serve important functions in the soil web. No dig gardening allows these creatures to flourish – to the benefit of the plants and, ultimately, the gardener.
- The use of organic mulches
- In a no dig garden, rather than digging compost/ manure or other amendments into the soil, the gardener simply leaves these materials on the soil surface as an organic mulch. It has been shown that this material is naturally incorporated into the topsoil below without the agency of a spade. Using compost, fall leaves, grass clippings, comfrey leaves, seaweed, straw, bark or other materials to cover the ground around cultivated areas helps to complete the natural cycles and return nutrients into the system. Choosing the right mulch materials for the right situation can help the garden culture to remain healthy and even to be improved over time.
- The use of green manures to protect and enrich the soil
- ‘Green manures’ are simply cover crops that protect the soil surface from erosion and degradation. Nature abhors bare soil in most situations and leaving soil bare for too long means causing damage to the fragile topsoil ecosystem. Cover crops create a ‘green carpet’ over an area to make sure the area of soil is preserved. Green manures are cover crops which have been chosen to not only protect but also to enrich the soil. These are cover crops which are chopped and dropped to return the nutrients to the topsoil system. Like other organic mulches, these ‘green manures’ can form an important part of an organic garden system.
The above should help organic gardeners to plan and implement their garden cultures in a way that will ensure that the culture is not only great, but also sustainable, and can continue to provide food and other resources for them and their families for years to come.