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For centuries, people have been growing and harvesting crops around the world with nothing more than hard work. It is only since the mid-20th century that we began to change our farming methods. Hybrid plants, synthetic fertilisers, and chemical pesticides were introduced to make farming more cost effective - higher output for less money. However, this disruption to the natural ecosystem of plant growth has been detrimental, not just to the planet, but also to our health.
There is a growing movement towards living a more sustainable, organic life that is in harmony with nature. A sustainable garden is one that flourishes with nothing but input from the homestead. Here are 5 key components that will help you to establish a successful venture:
Soil needs to be continually supplemented with nutrients to ensure healthy plant growth. Each year as crops are raised they deplete the soil of essential nutrients. By using a combination of methods you can ensure that your soil is replenished on an ongoing basis.
- Compost: This is probably the most widely known method. The great thing about carbon composting (compost heap/bin) is that it recycles natural waste, is easy to do, and free to make. There are alternatives like worm farms or bokashi bins, a method to suit every space and situation.
- Animal manure: Manure from vegetarian animals such as chickens, rabbits and cattle must be cured like plant-based composts. Many gardeners simply layer it on top of the garden after Autumn and let it cure over winter. By spring the garden is ready to go.
- Cover crops: Also known as green manure, cover crops are not as well-known as the traditional compost. Cover crops are grown in the garden after the food producing crops have been grown. They protect the soil from erosion and add nutrients back into the soil for the next crop. Once cover crops have grown and died down they are tilled back into the soil.
- Mulch: Similar to cover crops but without having to intentionally grow the materials. Shredded leaves, straw and grass clippings are all excellent choices. Mulch helps to control weeds and reduce water evaporation.
For an ongoing sustainable garden, seed saving is a must. Most seeds and seedlings available from nurseries are hybrids. Although these plants will produce abundant crops you cannot use their seeds to re-sow. You will need to purchase heirloom, or open pollinated, seeds to begin your garden. Seeds from heirloom plants will yield fruit identical to the parent crop year after year.
Gardens grown without chemicals usually have a healthy ecosystem and this truly is the best defence against most pests and diseases. That said, there are some practices that will help to minimise loss of plants. Crop rotation, companion planting and even handpicking pests (in smaller gardens) are all effective methods. Did you know that ladybirds and their babies provide free pest management services in a chemical free garden? Or that radishes, when planted amongst squash, will deter squash bugs?
Installing simple rainwater collection tanks will not only ensure you have access to clean water for your garden, it is also a step in the self-sufficient direction.
Keep Good Records
By keeping good records of all your activities you will have information available to help you plant more effectively each year. You should at least note how much you planted, when you planted, where you planted and whether the amount you harvested was too much, not enough or just right.
Like all good things, self-sufficient gardens take time to establish. Give yourself three to five years to reliably generate compost, save seeds and learn about pest control. By starting out well you will be sure to literally reap the benefits.