Small changes in gardening practices can lead to a self-sustaining garden

A percentage here and a percentage there can add up to a garden that does much of the work itself

A percentage here and a percentage there can add up to a garden that does much of the work itself

We humans seem to have a tendency to look for the one simple solution to every problem, gardening or otherwise. It would be nice if nature could be manipulated that easily, but the reality is a bit more complicated. There is no one “right” fertilizer or “right” soil amendment, any more than there is one quick fix for aphids or anthills.

Flipping through Eliot Coleman’s useful reference The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener the other day, I was struck by his plea for the implementation of many small improvements in gardening practices, rather than a search for the one large and quick fix. These 1% solutions may seem insignificant but if you put enough of them together the problem tends to get solved.

When I was running the nursery as a retail operation, one of the most frequent questions was “What kind of fertilizer should I use?” People seemed frustrated that I wouldn’t – because I couldn’t – give them a straight answer. “It depends. What kind of soil do you have? Have you had a soil test done? What types of plants are you trying to grow?” We would end up in discussions of what the numbers on the bags meant and the virtues of water-soluble versus slow-release fertilizers when we really should have been talking about ways to build up the organic matter in the soil and encourage worms and other soil fauna. The conversation should have at least touched on crop rotations, green-manure crops, nitrogen-fixing legumes, no-till methods and mulching. All of which is too much information when someone wants an easy answer and a package of something.

These days I am gardening for my own pleasure, and contemplating an acre that has to be kept in shape while my free time shrinks and my back hurts just thinking about hauling wheelbarrow loads from one side of the property to the other. I am getting better at recognizing opportunities to implement a percentage here and a percentage there.

Mulch is still first and foremost on my list, but instead of hauling dead plant debris out of the garden and mulch back in, I am using my garden’s own crop of dead leaves and stems and stalks and flowerheads as mulch. I appreciate more than ever how much easier it is to pull dead material off perennials after the winter has made a good start on the work of decomposition. Fallen leaves and pruned twigs from the deciduous trees and shrubs, along with last year’s perennial debris, get raked around a bit but basically are left to compost where they lie. If composting in-situ is good enough for Mother Nature out in the woods, it is good enough for me. 

The transition in my garden isn’t happening overnight, or even over one year. It is taking time for the soil to build up populations of the various micro-organisms that eat all the assorted plant parts, but it is happening. While the iris leaves were being removed every year, there was no habitat or food source for whatever decomposers feed on those leaves and break them down, but now there is and it is coming into balance. Build the habitat, and they will come.

One small solution like this leads to several other small improvements in the soil and eventually in healthier plants. I have less work to do, ladybugs and other beneficial insects have a protective layer of leaf litter to overwinter in, and the garden takes one more small step toward being self-sustaining. 

Will the garden ever be totally self-sustaining? Probably not, any more than any garden is ever finished. I am never going to run out of new plants that I want or need, and in the garden, as in nature, there is a constant shift in what is doing well. The changes from season to season and year to year are fascinating to watch – and perhaps another one of those 1% solutions is the change in me, as I learn to see and appreciate the beauty that is already there instead of imposing my opinion on this small corner of nature.

Barbara Rayment gardens in Prince George, where she grows and experiments with a wide variety of hardy plants, when not writing. The 2nd edition of her book, From the Ground Up: A Horticultural Guide for Northern Gardeners, is now available.