is a Sustainable Garden?
I was planning to jump right into
the guidelines for managing a sustainable garden until I realized
that there are many levels of sustainability and many choices
for the gardener to make. How you define it, determines how
you practice it and what guidelines you use.
The ultimate sustainable garden system would mimic nature
by requiring no inputs from the gardener – no water,
no fertilizer, no compost, no nada. Achieving that in a southern
New Mexico food garden would provide a dependable diet of
beans and weeds, with the possibility of corn, amaranth and
squash in wet monsoon years.
So where on this slippery slope of sustainability do you
wish to perch? Dry gardening in the desert is an interesting
experiment – but not dependable. I have grown tepary
beans without irrigation and got some yield from Hopi Black
Pintos by using water harvesting and good timing. Nevertheless,
I consider additional water a necessity for sustainable gardening.
What else can you add and still be sustainable?
For the purists, the answer is nothing. Your garden would
run on sunlight and sunlight would meet all of its energy
needs – just like natural systems (with some exceptions).
The key to maintaining a “nothing added but water”
garden is converting enough sunlight into nitrogen and growing
enough organic matter. To provide site grown nitrogen rich
organic matter, while growing food to feed the gardener requires
a disciplined year round approach to intercropping and rotation
planting. Success lies in how you manage the legume cycles
and how you maintain organic content in the soil. I have also
found that managing the waste flow from the kitchen through
the worm bins and into the soil to be an invaluable way to
compensate for my miscalculations in soil nutritional needs.
If you import organic matter and organic nutrients into the
garden you will be able to produce more food per square foot,
since less space and time is required to grow legume crops
that only enhance soil nitrogen. “Sunshine only”
beds in my backyard sized food garden produce about half as
much food as those that receive compost imported from the
outside world. Therefore, parts of my garden get outside imputs
(compost and organic nitrogen) and parts do not. My decisions
are based on soil condition and growing space. If I don’t
time and space to grow one or two legume crops in between
other heavy feeders then I add compost to the surface of the
beds. When I have time and space to use legumes and sunshine,
I do that.
Guidelines for a Sustainable Food Garden
• Do not dig, plow or roto-till the soil except to
establish new growing beds. You can start new beds without
disturbing the soil, but it is faster to open up the soil
and add organic matter. Once this is complete keeping the
soil open and rich is a natural process.
• Keep the soil covered with organic mulch. Mulch moderates
soil temperatures, reduces evaporation and feeds the soil
dwelling organisms that breaks down organic material into
the elements that plants use. There are some exceptions to
always keeping soil mulched, but it a good general rule to
• Grow crops in beds of mixed plants. I treat the growing
beds as special ecosystems where I disturb the soil as little
as possible. Occasionally it will need loosening to increase
its ability to hold air and water. Not digging up the soil
enables me to grow annuals and biennials together and maintain
a continuous cycle of intercropping and rotation planting.
• Leave all roots in the ground, except for the ones
you eat. Consider the size of a plants root system in proportion
to the above ground part. Some plants may have two to three
times the vegetative growth in roots that they have in aerial
vegetation. As the plant activity changes the composition
of soil community will change, the roots will decay in place,
making elemental nutrients available to the new living roots
and making passageways deep into the soil for air and water.
• Leave some plants to bloom, produce seed and complete
their whole life cycle The complex relationship between plants,
roots and soil organisms requires the wholeness of a complete
cycle. The blossoms will provide nectar and pollen for insects
and preferred plant juices for aphids and a host of other
subtle and essential factors in the food garden ecosystem.
• Rotate and intercrop with legume to add nitrogen to
The nitrogen required for plant growth is free, if you let
those nitrogen-fixing microbes work for you. When you plant
legumes and have eaten your share, cut them back, use the
tops for mulch and leave the roots full of nitrogen nodules
to decay underground. That will keep the soil open, aerated
• Return unused produce (kitchen waste) to the garden
We actually consume a small amount of what the garden grows,
with a few exceptions. The uneaten parts are either left in
the soil (roots), used as mulch (and eventually returned to
the soil) or go into the worm bin (and are eventually returned
to the soil)
Seeing the garden as a managed yet self-sustaining solar
powered community of edible plants can radically alter how
you garden in ways that are both liberating and demanding.
Dona Ana Extension Master Gardener
garden well - eat local
The One Straw Revolution – Masanobu Fukuoka
This publication is difficult to locate today, but is available
on the web at (http://fukuokafarmingol.info/fover.html#ov17)
Synergistic Gardening – Emilia Hazelip
Emilia was a permaculturist and student of Fukouka who researched
sustainable market gardening in southern France. Her writing
is available on the web at (http://fukuokafarmingol.info/faemilia.html)
The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book – Ruth
One of several publications by Ruth Stout, all with a similar
theme of not digging and mulching to sustain a healthy food
garden. Although published in 1971, it remains readily available
through most booksellers.