Traditional vegetable gardens require an enormous amount of hard work and attention – weeding, feeding and strict planting schedules. There is also the problem of seasonality, allowing beds to rest during the cooler months producing nothing at all. Then we are told to plant green manure crops, add inorganic fertilizers and chemicals to adjust imbalanced soils. It takes a lot of time, dedication and a year-round commitment to grow your own food the traditional way.
But does it really need to be that difficult?
Let me ask you this question. Does a forest need to think how to grow? Does its soil need to be turned every season? Does someone come along every so often and plant seeds or take pH tests? Does it get weeded or sprayed with toxic chemicals?
Of course not!
Traditional vegetable gardening techniques are focused on problems. Have you noticed that gardening books are full of ways to fix problems? I was a traditional gardener for many years and I found that the solution to most problems simply caused a new set of problems. In other words, the problem with problems is that problems create more problems.
Let's take a look at a common traditional gardening practice and I will show you how a single problem can escalate into a whole host of problems.
Imagine a traditional vegetable garden, planted with rows of various vegetables. There are fairly large bare patches between the vegetables. To a traditional gardener, a bare patch is just a bare patch. But to an ecologist, a bare patch is an empty niche space. An empty niche space is simply an invitation for new life forms to take up residency. Nature does not tolerate empty niche spaces and the most successful niche space fillers are weeds. That's what a weed is in ecological terms – a niche space filler. Weeds are very good colonizing plants. If they weren't, they wouldn't be called weeds.
Now back to our story. Weeds will grow in the empty niche spaces. Quite often there are too many weeds to pick out individually, so the traditional gardener uses a hoe to turn them into the soil. I have read in many gardening books, even organic gardening books, that your hoe is your best friend. So the message we are getting is that using a hoe is the solution to a problem.
However, I would like to show you how using a hoe actually creates a new set of problems. Firstly, turning soil excites weed seeds, creating a new explosion of weeds. And secondly, turning soil upsets the soil ecology. The top layer of soil is generally dry and structureless. By turning it, you are placing deeper structured soil on the surface and putting the structureless soil underneath. Over time, the band of structureless soil widens. Structureless soil has far less moisture holding capacity, so the garden now needs more water to keep the plants alive.
In addition to this problem, structureless soil cannot pass its nutrients onto the plants as effectively. The garden now also needs the addition of fertilisers. Many fertilisers kill the soil biology which is very important in building soil structure and plant nutrient availability. The soil will eventually turn into a dead substance that doesn't have the correct balance of nutrients to grow fully developed foods. The foods will actually lack vitamins and minerals. This problem has already occurred in modern-day agriculture. Dr Tim Lobstein, Director of the Food Commission said. "… today's agriculture does not allow the soil to enrich itself, but depends on chemical fertilisers that don't replace the wide variety of nutrients plants and humans need." Over the past 60 years commercially grown foods have experienced a significant reduction in nutrient and mineral content.
Can you see how we started with the problem of weeds, but ended up with the new problems of lower water-holding capacity and infertile soils. And eventually, we have the potentially serious problem of growing food with low nutrient content. Traditional gardening techniques only ever strive to fix the symptom and not the cause.
However, there is a solution! We must use a technique that combines pest ecology, plant ecology, soil ecology and crop management into a method that addresses the causes of these problems. This technique must be efficient enough to be economically viable. It also needs to be able to produce enough food, per given area, to compete against traditional techniques.
I have been testing an ecologically-based method of growing food for several years. This method uses zero tillage, zero chemicals, has minimal weeds and requires a fraction of the physical attention (when compared to traditional vegetable gardening). It also produces several times more, per given area, and provides food every single day of the year.
My ecologically-based garden mimics nature in such a way that the garden looks and acts like a natural ecosystem. Succession layering of plants (just as we see in natural ecosystems) offers natural pest management. It also naturally eliminates the need for crop rotation, resting beds or green manure crops. Soil management is addressed in a natural way, and the result is that the soil's structure and fertility get richer and richer, year after year. Another benefit of this method is automatic regeneration through self-seeding. This occurs naturally as dormant seeds germinate; filling empty niche spaces with desirable plants, and not weeds.
Unfortunately, the biggest challenge this method faces is convincing traditional gardeners of its benefits. Like many industries, the gardening industry gets stuck in doing things a certain way. The ecologically-based method requires such little human intervention that, in my opinion, many people will get frustrated with the lack of needing to control what's happening. Naturally people love to take control of their lives, but with this method you are allowing nature to take the reins. It's a test of faith in very simple natural laws. However, in my experience these natural laws are 100% reliable.
Another reason that traditional gardeners may not like this method is that it takes away all the mysticism of being an expert. You see, this method is so simple that any person, anywhere in the world, under any conditions, can do it. And for a veteran gardener it can actually be quite threatening when an embarrassingly simple solution comes along.
I have no doubt that this is the way we will be growing food in the future. It's just commonsense. Why wouldn't we use a method that produces many times more food with a fraction of the effort? I know it will take a little while to convince people that growing food is actually very instinctual and straightforward, but with persistence and proper explanation, people will embrace this method.
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