The three pillars of sustainable farming/organic gardening are:
- Do not plough, dig or rotary hoe the land.
This is the way nature teaches us to grow. By having a large range of crops you minimise the risks to your business. It reduces the risk arising from price fluctuations. It reduces the impact of climate change and also the risk from attack by pests and diseases. If you follow the conventional farming path of specialising in 1 to 4 crops or animals, you have a bigger area to attract pests, viruses and diseases who like that crop. We have seen farmers lose most of their income in a year because the crop is wiped out by a disease or virus.
Biodiversity is an essential feature of organic gardening/farming and also adds to your interest and excitement. Humans need variety in their food and clearly you will benefit financially by lowering your own food budget as you grow more of what you eat and this will benefit your health too.
2. Mulching and no ploughing or tilling.
Soil preparation before planting is one of the keys to success in organic gardening/farming. Mulching is part of this process but is also vital on an ongoing basis for successful organic gardening/farming. The benefits of mulching are:
- It encourages micro-organism numbers and diversity.
- It increases carbon content and allows carbon to be recycled.
- Grass, hay or weed cuttings add fertility to the soil.
- Mulch reduces evaporation, stores water for the crop to use because it absorbs water. Each organic cell can hold five times its weight in water.
- Reduces weed growth.
- It adds nutrients back into the soil.
By comparison, ploughing:
- Accelerates the rate of water evaporation
- Increases leaching
- Encourages weed growth
- Increases carbon and nitrogen to be turned into gas and released into the atmosphere, particularly when the soil is ploughed after it is wet.
We go through large quantities of mulch in our vegetable area and also when we are preparing soil for planting new fruit trees or to help in keeping weeds down around existing trees.
- Sources of good mulch are weeds. Weeds drag nutrients up from below and when they die or are removed the nutrients should be put back as mulch or compost into the topsoil to improve soil fertility.
- The same should happen to grass cuttings and the remnants of fruit and vegetables, such as the roots and stalks of broccoli and cauliflowers when you have picked the crop.
- Pruned leaves and branches are good sources of mulch. We also get loads of mulch from the local tip’s green waste area, where a contractor mulches up into woodchips all the branches and leaves taken to the tip. Woodchips take longer to breakdown than most other mulches but are good at keeping weeds down.
- Hay bales are excellent but hard to get in our area. We use a lot of sugar cane mulch.
We do not have or use a rotary hoe or plough. The topsoil is the environment’s recycling factory, alive with bacteria and worms that breakdown and recycle the residue of a previous crop or whatever other organic matter is there. “To plough up the soil is like putting a bulldozer through your factory. If instead you spread mulch on the soil, you are both protecting the factory and supplying it with more raw materials” (“Back from the brink” by Peter Andrews).
Ongoing maintenance of soil for effective organic gardening/farming.
Your biggest asset is the soil. The important part is only a foot deep, because that is where 98% of all soil organisms live and work. After mulching and composting to maintain the level of organic matter, two other key jobs in organic gardening/farming to maintain a balanced soil are fertilising and watering.
You need only five things to grow any crop:
- Organic matter
- A balanced soil.
The first three are usually free and nature provides two magical processes (photosynthesis and the nitrogen cycle) to make use of them and do much of the work. Your job in organic gardening/farming is to focus on providing organic matter and a balanced soil. This is an ongoing job because rainfall, irrigation and wind leach away nutrients and plants use them up.
Mounding your crops helps improve drainage. For trees mounding has several advantages. You need more soil depth for trees than for vegetables and mounding improves the soil depth. It also marks out the rows so that irrigation pipes can be run along the top of the row instead of having to be put underground. This makes irrigation maintenance much easier. Ideally the mounds should run along the contours. We also mound our vegetables to help delineate the different rows of crops and the area between rows provides space to walk without damaging the crops. Mounding reduces water run-off.
Composting: another key aspect of organic gardening/farming.
Composting is the process of allowing fresh organic matter to decompose into humus before adding to the soil. It can take from three to twelve months to be formed. Compost can be put out on the soil at any time without harming crops and is like instant plant food. A healthy soil is a living soil rich in microbial activity. To achieve a high density of microbes and bacteria in compost you need to aerate the compost by moving it regularly to add air to the mix.
You can now acquire compost bins that aerate the compost and reduce the period it takes to breakdown the compost to nine to twelve weeks. Sealed bins increase the temperature in the compost as well as protecting against birds and animals foraging. Some have a collection tray that keeps the liquids formed; these are invaluable and when mixed 50/50 with water provide one of the best fertilisers.
There are several types of compost:
- In bins or drums
- In rows 1 to 2 metres high and 1 to 2 metres wide
- Static or turned periodically to aerate. Ideally it should be turned every month or so.
- In pits in the ground.
You can add manures, grass cuttings and 10% clay. You can add a little more water when turning to help the microbial action.
Benefits of composting
- Increases organic matter in the soil
- Creates a faster rate of nutrient cycling
- Disposes of plant and manure residue
- Produces new compounds that improve plant growth
- Provides food for your microbial workforce
- Improves soil structure
Three other components of organic gardening are:
- Soil preparation click here to go to 2.1
- Weed control click here to go to 2.2
- Pest control click here to go to 2.3
For more information on growing and organic gardening/farming click here...