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When you think of organic gardening and permaculture, you tend to conjure up images of bearded warriors dressed in overalls, who dedicate their lives to working long days in their vegetable plots.
This may be a great way to live your life, but it doesn't suit the average suburbanite with a full-time job and a hefty mortgage!
Growing food is typically seen as either an art form or really hard work, so it's no wonder few people produce enough food to feed their family. But what if a technique came along that was so easy and so prolific that even the busiest corporate executive could grow a significant portion of their family's food in less time than it takes to drive to the shops?
Ecological gardening just might be the answer. It's the ultimate modern-day convenience vegie plot.
Nature has the answers
To understand ecological gardening, we need to look at natural ecosystems for answers. A natural ecosystem is made of thousands of living and non-living components, all coexisting in a given area. Each living component occupies its own 'niche space' - and it's very important to understand the role of this space when creating an ecological garden.
For example, imagine a giant rainforest tree crashing to the ground after standing tall for hundreds of years. Such a large tree would have filled an enormous niche space. In its absence, hundreds of seeds lying dormant in the soil spring to life, desperately fighting for their opportunity to occupy the best real estate in the forest - the empty niche space. The space is quickly filled and harmony is restored.
When you look at a traditional vegetable garden with this type of insight, what you see is a very unnatural system. There is very little diversity and a lot of empty niche spaces. But nature enforces her will on vegetable gardens in exactly the same way she does a rainforest, and this means empty niche spaces will be filled as quickly as possible. However, in a traditional vegetable garden there are no desirable seeds waiting to fill the niche spaces, so weeds fill them instead.
The solution to this problem is to create a garden that has tightly filled niche spaces so that weeds don't even get a look in.
You can do this by planting the garden very tightly with a diverse range of plants of differing shapes and characteristics.
The result is a dense, jungle-like planting arrangement that can yield an unbelievable amount. The denseness
also helps create a highly protected microclimate. This ideal growing environment helps plants last much longer. Greens don't bolt to seed as soon as a hot spell hits and cold-sensitive plants are more protected as well.
Little time, little space
Growing food in an ecological garden really doesn't require that much space. Just a small area can provide you with a bounty of food - enough to save your family thousands of grocery dollars a year.
Although I live on a small farm, my own patch, for example, only uses a space that's around 6 m x 6 m. That's an area that could fit into many a suburban backyard several times over. And even people living in units or townhouses can adapt the method to grow food aplenty on the smallest of balconies.
Even better news is that you don't need to invest a lot of time to reap the tasty vegie rewards. In my own case, I'd spend only about eight hours out of an entire year tending to my plot.
The best thing about the method of ecological gardening is that I can ignore my vegetable garden for months and it won't miss a beat.
There's no more need to rotate crops
Crop rotation isn't necessary with ecological gardening, as the mixed-up planting arrangement counteracts the effects of mineral depletion that are caused when a single species dominates an area. Green manure crops are also not necessary. Ecological gardening tops up the nitrogen in the soil in two ways - first, through planting edible legumes such as peas and beans within the jungle-like mass, which fix nitrogen from the atmosphere through special bacteria associated with their roots; and secondly, by the addition of compost to the surface of any bare areas. Composting Compost is an important part of the ecological garden and a very valuable commodity. Composting is a way of building valuable nutrients that will one day feed you and your family.
Look at it this way. When you buy food from a shop, you consume it and send the waste away. The nutrient flow only goes in one direction. Composting is a vehicle which allows you to create an ongoing nutrient cycle in your home and backyard. You're part of this cycle because you consume the nutrients when they are, for a brief time, in a useful (food) form. Then they are returned to the compost, where they slowly make their way into another useful form, and ultimately, you consume them again. This self-sustaining cycle is able to go on indefinitely as it would in nature.
Throw away the hoe
Natural ecosystems don't require gardeners with shovels and hoes to come along every season to turn their soil, and neither does an ecological garden.
Digging upsets the soil structure, which in turn reduces the soil's ability to pass on valuable nutrients to plants. The loss of soil structure also reduces the soil's ability to hold water.
Developing and maintaining good soil structure is, in fact, the best water-conserving technique and when practised in conjunction with a dense planting arrangement creates a holistic soil ecology. A dense planting arrangement will shade the soil's surface and stop surface crusting, which causes run-off and nutrient-depletion. It's also best not to walk on the garden beds as this will cause unnecessary compaction. Of course, this requires the installation of permanent pathways that are positioned in such a way that the gardener can obtain access to the plot.
Natural pest management
The dense, mixed-up nature of the ecological garden creates a natural form of pest management.
Pests generally locate their target plant species using sight or smell. Imagine how much more difficult it is to see your target plant when its outline is blurred by a sea of green. And how on earth could you smell your target plant when there are so many conflicting smells?
An awe-inspiring feature of rainforests is their towering canopies. However, the future of the rainforest lies in the soil, in the form of seeds - tiny cells of life waiting for their opportunity to prosper.
A sustainable ecological garden needs to have a future, too. By allowing some plants to go to seed, you can build up seed stores just like the rainforest.
As with a rainforest, we should aim to have thousands of seeds of many varieties spread right across our plot. Most of these seeds will never germinate, because in the ecological garden the niche spaces are so tightly filled that opportunities for new life are limited. However, eventually a plant will be eaten and a niche space will appear.
If there are thousands of seeds lying dormant, the chances of the niche space being filled with something desirable are pretty good. Of course this also saves time and effort, as you don't have to fully replant your beds each season. It also saves money, as you won't have to buy new punnets!
A good tactic is to allow one plant of each variety to go to seed each year, which will provide more than enough seed to ensure the survival of future generations. Leafy plants such as celery, silverbeet and lettuce can simply be left to do their own thing. However, fruiting plants such as tomatoes and zucchini generally require you to harvest the seeds and replant them.
I'm not overly clinical about this process. For example, every year I know there will be a handful of rotten tomatoes that don't get picked. They fall to the ground and will naturally self-seed the following year.
Similarly, with zucchinis, there will always be a monster fruit that you didn't see growing under the jungle. I usually grab a handful of seeds from these and dry them out for the following year's sow.
As you can see, by mimicking nature, you can build your own effortless edible garden that the whole family will love.
JONATHAN WHITE is an environmental consultant, landscape designer and author of an eBook and video package that shows exactly how to set up and maintain an ecological garden. www.freshfoodgardenguru.com