If you’re just starting out at vegetable gardening, you’ll probably be starting with the popular plants like tomatoes, zucchini, and maybe some herbs. Most people can successfully grow these, but sometimes the garden conditions you are working with (i.e., sun, soil, water) make even these common plants an uphill battle to grow. I’ve found that by applying some of the principles of permaculture to my backyard veggie garden, I’ve decreased my gardening workload and increased my yield.
Now, by its nature, gardening takes years in the same plot to really perfect the growing. So don’t worry if you’ve just bought a tomato, a zucchini, and some herbs, plunked them in the ground or in a pot, and were hoping for the best. It might work out pretty great for you, or you’ll find some things that worked and some things that didn’t. Gardening – especially veggie gardening – is art on a canvas that gets wiped clean every winter. You get to recreate and try new things every year. Hopefully these lessons I’ve learned in permaculture techniques will help you as your garden grows and changes over the years to come.
1. Pollinators are everything.
If you follow gardening, agriculture, or environmental news, you’ll know that populations of pollinators (like bees) are declining because of pollution, pesticide use, and loss of habitat/food sources. Without pollinators, most of the fruit and vegetables we eat will never form on the plants. Over the years I have learned that doing nothing to attract pollinators has had a detrimental effect on the amount of food I can grow. For example, I have 6 tomato plants in excellent, rich soil, I fertilize them, I water them, they get full sun, and they are properly pruned and tied to supports. The plants are extremely healthy and grow sometimes 5 feet tall. But each year I’m lucky to get enough tomatoes to eat in a few salads. Ideally, that many tomato plants would stock my freezer with tomato sauce to last all winter. In my neighbour’s garden, small, wimpy tomato plants are interspersed among a large wildflower garden. You should see how full with fruit these little plants get. They are so weighted down they look like they’re about to collapse. Unfortunately my neighbour’s front yard wildflower garden is far enough away from my back yard veggie garden that the pollinators she attracts don’t often find their way to my side. So on my list of garden to-do’s is to plant more flowers in and around my veggie gardens. There are a lot of flowers that are reportedly great companions to vegetables, and many are even edible. They also don’t have to take up a lot of space if you plant them interspersed among your veggies.
This has been a tough one for me… I have a big back yard and raised beds that are situated right in the afternoon sun. But if I look realistically at my yard, very few of my garden beds actually get full sun (i.e., ~8 hours a day), and the outside perimeter of my yard is pretty much in full shade all day. I also planned my garden when we moved here 6 years ago, and since then a neighbour’s tree has grown enough to completely shade the berry garden I had planted (the annoying part of gardening in the city…). If you plant plants that thrive on the actual light that your gardens get, you will be rewarded. If you plant high sun requirement plants (e.g., tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, strawberries) in insufficient sun, you will get leafy green plants with very little payoff. Waste of precious space when you’re trying to feed your family from an urban or suburban yard. I’ve started to adjust my garden to meet its changing light patterns. I no longer try to grow sweet bell peppers or eggplant, and I devote my two sunniest raised beds for the produce I know we will make the most use out of (like tomatoes). I also plan to move my asparagus this fall out of a spot that has become shaded thanks to tree growth, and I am slowly replacing my berry garden (currents, strawberries, yellow raspberries) with a wild native black raspberry that grows in the shaded understory of farm hedgerows around here. The berries are smaller and the thorny brambles are bramblier, but they taste amazing and they should grow like wild in my backyard. Which brings me to my next tip…
3. Plant native.
I have been doing my research on native edibles and slowly changing my veggie garden from high needs annual vegetables (many from the Mediterranean, which is a long way from Canada!) to low maintenance native edibles from, well, right in my own backyard, so to speak. It’s amazing to discover what edible plants grow wild where you’re from, and an adventure in culinary creativity to learn to cook with them. For example, fiddle heads are a delicacy to buy in the produce aisle, but it turns out they grow rampant where I live as Ostrich Fern. I now grow Ostrich Fern in a shaded part of my backyard and have amazing stir frys with home grown produce as early as late May. The wild black raspberries, as mentioned above, are another example. There’s also a native perennial version of kale, called sea kale, that I plant once and eat from for years to come. So many hidden native treasures out there…
4. Mulch.Mulching is permaculture 101, and it’s not just for the fancy shrub or ornamental grass garden you see in posh neighbourhoods. The right kind of mulch holds moisture, provides nutrients to your plants, suppresses unwanted weeds, and will even attract beneficial insects (back to that point about pollinators!). I’m lucky enough to have a local organic mushroom farm that gives away a spent horse manure and straw combo that works GREAT as a mulch and as a tilled in compost for soil amendment. We can also use straw from our chicken run now.
These four points are some of the most important concepts of permaculture, and I’ve been able to apply them to my backyard veggie garden to make my life a lot easier. Gardening is always easiest if you can find a way to work with mother nature. Humans will never win in a battle against her (a fact I have to constantly remind myself every time a squirrel decimates my strawberries or my corn…).