We’ve been thinking about the garden a lot of late, about how it works for us, what grows well here and what do we really want to utilise the space for. Seed saving, time saving and the best plants for optimum nutrition with minimum inputs are important factors. Looking at what and how much we actually eat from it has been interesting too. All of this is coming together in a rather major change of tactic within the main vegetable garden, but also spreading out into the orchard and berry gardens. Plus having finally built our large tunnel house this too will change the growing abilities of our garden. Life is often busy and with the vege garden now reaching about 200m2 of growing space it sometimes gets a bit overwhelming. How can we simplify the food production to work with our time and energy?
A few of our key observations this year have been that brassicas have been more hassle than they’re worth. Between the white cabbage butterflies and the fact that they just don’t like growing here without a lot of pandering I just can’t be bothered with them. While our soil has improved dramatically there is still someway to go before it reaches a highly healthy alive state, so focusing on the plants which thrive here, or which will help enliven the soil makes more sense to us. The other issue I have with brassicas is the cross pollination which makes seed saving difficult. So, if we want to save true seeds, we can only have one variety flowering at a time. We like sauerkraut and fried cabbage so that means the humble cabbage leads the stakes there. Violet cauli would be a close second but I have accidentally fed our teen buggy brassicas too many times and now she won’t eat it. I’m not interested in constantly picking off caterpillars, having to buy BT (Bacillus thuringiensis a natural caterpillar killer) or having to use butterfly mesh cover the crops once they are big. We do use bird nets while crops are small, but once crops are big enough to handle the birds the nets or mesh just get in the way of weeding and harvesting etc. Cabbages tend to stay squatter and cover the ground better so nets could still work with these if necessary and once they have formed nice heads, they are less prone to caterpillars finding hiding places. One thing about brassicas though is that apparently their seed stays viable for several years so you could choose one variety to save seed from each year. You would have to not allow any other varieties to flower at the same time, therefore avoiding cross pollination. Though I’m not sure I’m that organised…
We are looking at other crops in the same way, pumpkins are notorious cross pollinators so choosing only one type from each species is necessary if we want to save true to type seed. This is fine for the Cucurbita maxima species as we are happy with just a Crown or a Triamble for our long keepers and then any Butternut for the C. moschata group it’s the C. pepo where we run into problems as this group contains courgettes, Kamokamo and the oilseed pumpkins, all of which have their place in our garden. To save true seed we need to either grow the plants a long way from each other (not really practical) or isolate flowers and hand pollenate. Other wise we will end up with mutant fruit, which could be fun or a complete waste of time and space. Still working on a plan for this issue…
Self-seeders tick a lot of boxes for us, they are self-proliferating, I don’t need to actively harvest, dry and store seed, they just appear enmass when the time is right. Because of this they are also acclimatised to our area and conditions so are less likely to suffer from pest issues. There is no garden prepping for them or planting to be done. This also leads into creating permanent growing spaces for these plants going against the crop rotation methodology and leaning more towards poly-cropping or mini ecosystems within the garden. An example would be a permanent salad bed where salad crops are allowed to set seed and apart from a bit of thinning if necessary, feeding when needed (like compost top ups or liquid feeds), removal of non-edibles and of course harvesting, the bed is left to cycle through the seasons. Miners lettuce, corn salad, and violas through the cooler months with heat loving crops like purslane, orach and magenta spreen emerging over the warmer months, but always with a base crop of lettuce and rocket and possibly some Asian greens (though these could mess with any brassica seed saving).
Rocket is a great self seeder popping up all over the garden, we also have calendula, parsnips, cutting celery, leeks, perpetual spinach, violas, parsley, chives, garlic chives and other herbs. Of course there are the brassicas, Asian greens, turnip, mizuna, mustard, Bok choy and mutants from them too. There are also wild grown potatoes and the Jerusalem artichokes which spread themselves. If we allow these plants to seed into the surrounding garden bed, they establish themselves without interference from us. This could allow for better root establishment without the disturbance of transplanting, though thinning might be needed to allow plants to reach their full potential. However, this also allows for a chop/pull and drop mulch which feeds back into and protects the soil. If need be other plants can be planted into this mulch. The less time soil spends uncovered the better it is for the soil, utilising these self seeders as a cover crop prior to planting other crops would be a beneficial practice. But just make sure you allow some healthy plants to complete their life cycle to allow for the next generation of plants.
There are some concerns about certain plants (tomatoes, potatoes, brassicas etc) growing repeatedly in the same bed but if your soil is alive and healthy and you allow other plants to establish around them there is no real reason to practice crop rotation. Diversity and soil health and life are better issues to focus on than rotation of mono crops. However, specialty cover crops can be used in between edible crops if needed as they can have different purposes. For example, mustard is said to be a fumigant, cleaning up disease issues in the soil. Or legumes which are the nitrogen fixers and are great before a heavy feeder crop. Cover crops are a great way to keep your soil covered and healthy over the winter months, they bring in more diversity and if left to flower can provide a nectar source at a time when not much is available. They can still be part of a permanent crop bed if they are cut and laid for mulch prior to any seasonal crop emerging or around any existing crops before the cover crops get too big.
The idea of utilising permanent crop beds brings us to Perennial food plants. Asparagus immediately comes to mind as a permanent crop but there are so many other Edible Perennial Plants which can be utilised in the vege garden. These are generally easy care and provide more than food in your garden. Having areas where the ground is hardly disturbed apart from an occasional weeding allows a safe place for the underground life. These soil and plant critters, bacteria and fungi are all part of the ecosystem of your garden. Allowing them safe havens within the garden protect them from the constant tilling and bare soil which many vege gardeners seem to favour. The more life you have in your soil the healthier and more nutritious your plants will be. Sure, you can grow beautiful big plants with well-manicured beds, fed with artificial fertilisers and any issues controlled with chemicals. But wouldn’t you rather care for your soil, the life within and around it and not have to buy so many inputs? What happens if for some reason you can’t get those inputs anymore? Its these issues which lead us to soil health by sourcing and nutrient recycling as much from our own property as possible. If we are to create a survival garden it needs to be able to do just that itself, survive off its own systems and not be reliant on false nutrition to grow. If left to its own devices a landscape will grow and evolve, it will move through many stages with the processes of life and death within the soil and the plants, cycling the nutrients to support growth. By allowing your garden to experience its own cycles of sprouting, growth, producing, seeding, dying and decay it creates an ecosystem. When you remove food from the garden you return the waste as compost, vermicast or manure to keep it as part of the cycle.
We also need to consider the ‘weeds’ in the garden, not the dock and buttercup they just need annihilating! (Unless you’re planning on making dock seed flour) But the dandelions, chickweed, puha, land cress, fathen, stinging nettle, purslane, plantain… these volunteer plants are also nutrient packed and super easy to grow. We really need to step away from the concept that what you buy in the supermarket are what veges you eat and grow. There are so many more options to full your tummies and many of them will grow regardless of what you do. The reality is that if you just let your backyard naturalise you could probably harvest greens all year round. Sometimes I walk through our garden and think what is ready, but there are always greens there they were just not planted by me. We delight in the massively healthy dandelions growing in the middle of a bed, there were none when we first came here. Now I see them popping up in the lawn too and the paddock with their sunny flowers and fluffy wishes. Plantain is now everywhere, but it was missing from the pastures before. We now have it throughout the garden, though more often harvested for the rabbit’s dinner, but I know if I need it its there and not just for eating but medicine too. Puha is a thriving spring leafy green and the little cress plants and chickweed make a great salad crop and ground cover under the bigger plants.
Mix low growing plants with taller plants, deep rooting with shallow rooting, climbers with sturdy support plants, highly scented plants to block pests from smelling which plants to attack. Companion planting has long been used for plant health, improved pollination and pest repelling. But I struggle to remember more than the basics, like tomatoes and basil together. I need to utilise this more as by mixing crops which support each other, such as leeks with carrots to prevent pest issues, cropping is improved while lessening our workload. Mixed plantings which are supportive of each other, and which have their own succession make a lot of sense to me. Late summer and autumn can become a muddle of trying to balance the late producing crops with the need to plant crops for winter eating. If a plant is still producing late in the season, I am loath to remove it because the space is needed for the next lot of crops. But if it can be trimmed (tomatoes) or moved aside onto the path (courgettes) then other plants can establish around it. When it has finally finished it can become mulch for the garden or be cut off at the base for composting, there is no need to remove the roots, just let them break down in the soil.
The inclusion of more beneficial flowering plants in the garden also makes for a pretty workspace. These beneficial companion plants generally fit into the self-seeding category too and can be utilised as living ground covers to support soil health, aid pollination and for their own edible or medicinal uses. Around our blueberries we have a living ground cover of violas and strawberries (both ‘normal’ and alpine) while we do have to weed it occasionally the garden generally looks good with the green of the strawberry leaves and the bright splashes of purple and yellow violas. This bed is also prolific with its fungi which is all part of the biodiversity. We actively encourage fungi in the garden with regular top ups of wood mulch on the paths and around perennial plants. We have also inoculated an area of the garden with King Stropharia mycelium an edible decomposer mushroom. While we are still waiting for the fruiting bodies (mushrooms) to appear the mycelium has spread throughout the whole area in an impressive white network of hyphae.
These fungi networks are one of the reasons why less disturbance of the soil is better for its health. Healthy soil is a thriving mass of life, tiny critters, earthworms, bacteria and fungi all entwined in the roots of the plants, the earth and the mulch surrounding them. This is another reason why we are loath to garden in a conventional way of bare soil, digging over beds and using any insecticides, fungicides or chemical fertilisers which kill the underground life rather than nurture it.
The survival garden is not just about us having a constant source of food it is about our soil’s survival too…