By Ian (Plot 215)
Sustainable gardening always involves challenging the norm and actively thinking about what is going on in your garden and what your garden is producing. This also includes, amongst other than food for today, habitat, soil health, environment, shelter, waste and future crops. It is all these many, often overlooked extras that make the difference as to whether our gardens and methods are sustainable and will be able to sustain our future generations and our wildlife.
Our gardens plants and organisms that share them with us, like ourselves, prefer it when it doesn’t get so hot and there are many little tricks that can help keep the garden cool in summer.
- Learn from nature, plant closer together, don’t thin or remove foliage unless for good reason. Using the thinned vegetation as animal food or bedding or at the very least mulch or compost.
- Use surplus vegetation and weeds as mulch to return nutrients quickly back to the soil.
- Use manures to encourage growth which will then shade the plant further.
- Use the shelter provided by taller plants to provide relief to other plants. An ancient trick, known as the 3 sisters involves growing beans, corn and a marrow (zucchini or squash). All three plants benefit in the relationship and perform well offering different things to each other.
The beans are a legume, this means they can fix nitrogen gas from the atmosphere in a manner readily useable by plants (they self fertilize basically).
The marrow with its prickly leaves and stems discourage many predatory insects and animal pests from the outside edges of the garden.
The corn offers shade from its height and a readily made climbing frame for the beans.
Other obvious plants with height to help with shelter are berries and tomatoes.
- Use the sun to dry weeds while they protect the soil below.
Increasing the amount of organic matter on and in the soil will help prevent the soil getting too hot and sun baking. Any organic matter will help but things like wood chips, paper, or hard leaves like gum or pine needles or tree bark need the addition of something higher in nitrogen, like a manure, fresh compost or blood and bone to name a few to help break them down. Many people worry about nutrients being removed from the soil to break them down, these are returned back to the soil at the end of the decomposition cycle it just takes a bit longer.
Leaving the soil covered in weeds or mulch is preferable to allowing the soil exposed to bake in the sun, weeds left on the surface on these dry days will quickly breakdown and produce very few viable further weeds. Weeds, plants and organic matter such as mulch, help prevent compaction and damage to the soils structure when we walk on it or use it as well as shelter and food for the soil
Soils with damaged structure are unproductive, difficult to work and time consuming. There are many examples amongst even our small gardens. Unfortunately a lot of traditional gardening advice often leads directly to damage and so should not be considered sustainable. Again traditionally the pattern we have all seen before is cultivate /remove weeds/ cultivate again the soil initially may become friable but usually ends up heavier and heavier as the structure deteriorate the gardener then looses interest and gives up having often invested a lot of time energy and money (resources) for little and reducing food return value.
We have also collected some ideas from people attending the February Whitehorse Urban Harvest Swap:
- Shade cloth over vegie beds
- Bed sheets and table cloths pegged with clothes pegs, to protect the plants
- Mound up mulch around the plant base
- Create micro-climates in the garden
- Water in the morning to sustain throughout the heat of the day*
- Water in the evening so the moisture is captured in the soil, not evaporated**
- Ensure plant is well nourished to withstand extreme weather – for example, banana skins are full of potassium and placed around tomato plants will really help tomatoes cope with the heat
- Survival of the fittest – only water plants that really need it; let others tough it out
- Create a ‘moat’ around plants on a slope, to capture water run-off
- Chives do well with no water
- ‘No-work gardening’ using Ruth Stout (USA) method of deep mulching
- Mix water crystals into the soil prior to planting.