Creating a self sustaining garden is one of the most important and practical steps any homesteader or gardener can take if they truly care about minimizing work, creating healthy and enduring eco-systems, and maximizing long-term production from their garden.
This article will focus primarily on food production for the sustainable garden, with vegetables and fruit being the centerpiece of such a garden. Of course, introducing ducks, chickens or other poultry into a home garden environment can be really useful, providing they are utilized in a way that DOES help with pest control but doesn’t destroy your crops. A self-sustaining garden with fish can be an excellent alternative, with frogs and other pest hunting creatures living the same pond.
But, before I get too ahead of myself, let’s consider what a self-sustaining garden actually is. I’m not going to head on over to Wikipedia and hunt for some definition like almost every website does these days, but provide my own thoughts on this.
To me, the concept means creating a ‘self-maintaining garden’, a garden that requires less and less input from the gardener (that’d be you and me) as time goes on. A garden that is developed to work more like a natural forest than a high maintenance annual vegetable plot. Even with perennial planting using a raised vegetable garden box can work wonders to keep your garden tidy, but also to make management of it much simpler.
A garden where much of the food comes from perennial plants, not annuals that need to be replanted each year. Where pest control is carried out not by the gardener using external products and hard work, but by companion planting which attracts natural predators, by encouraging frogs, toads, and hoverflies to live in the garden. By using non-destructive birds like certain duck species to hunt the snails and slugs that are a thorn in the side of the food growing gardener. Essentially, a garden that looks after itself, becomes more abundant each year, provides all year round food, or at least for a much larger part of the year than the work-intensive vegetable and fruit garden does.
Creating a self-sustaining garden is not costly or that hard. If one is starting from scratch with a blank canvas, there is obviously a lot of work to do, but the initial workload will pay off massively over the following years when the ongoing costs and workload reduce, as the garden begins to take care of itself. It will keep you and your family in healthy, organically produced fresh fruit and vegetables all year round.
I’d just like to make the point that a sustainable garden, whichever method you choose to create it, is NOT only perennial. Everyone loves annual fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce, beans and brassicas. The idea is to create perennial plantings that will provide food year after year (think fruit trees and bushes, herbs, perennial tubers and salad leaves, edible flowers etc), but also minimize the work you need to do to grow your annual vegetables. Quality soil with good water retention properties, companion planting to create micro-climates and to encourage pest-controlling insects, choosing varieties of vegetables that are more pest resistant.
Phew, that was a long sentence, let’s look at some of the essential ideas that are necessary to make this system of gardening work, then we’ll consider some of the systems that you may choose to use as a framework. These can, of course, be integrated into a hybrid gardening system to meet your needs and desires.
Key Considerations For A Self Sustaining Garden Design
Whichever system you use, the key components that make a gardening system self-sustaining are similar.
Natural Soil Building
A long-term productive garden is always reliant on soil quality. Focus on building healthy soil that provides excellent nutrition for the plants, that retains just the right amount of water through the production and addition of organic matter. Organic matter will encourage worms to populate the soil in great numbers, adding organic matter and creating a maze of tunnels that allow the soil to drain and not become waterlogged.
The Wonder Of Compost
If there is one thing you really should focus on in your self-sustaining gardening year is compost making. Of course, buying it in is possible, but with any of these types of garden systems, trying to make your property into a closed system as much as is possible, should be the goal. A closed system essential functions in isolation, without external inputs from outside the system, and with as little leaving the system as possible. Think about composting your vegetable scraps, your grass cuttings, adding windfall leaves to your garden beds, chipping branches for mulch. Of course, some items will leave the system, but as time goes on, one can work to use as much of your ‘waste’ as possible.
Back to compost. There are many methods to create good quality compost. Some are more labor-intensive than others, but once you have a system down, it becomes really easy to create large amounts of compost, add it to your soil each year, and add some to each hole when you plant new plants. Compost will increase the organic matter in your soil greatly, giving is a much better water retention AND draining ability. Yes, organic matter helps with both. Your plants will also love the additional nutrients, as will the worm life in the garden.
Green Manure And Cover Crops
Composting is awesome, but often, it’s hard to create enough, especially if you have a large garden. The idea of using ‘green manures’ is an excellent one, especially on annual vegetable gardens which are clear of plants through the fall and into early spring. Planting annual crops like clover, alfalfa, annual rye etc, and then chopping and digging these into the soil brings huge amounts of organic matter into your garden, and it’s easy. Buying the seed is cheap too. These cover crops will also help control weeds, prevent soil erosion, and some will even help to fix nitrogen into the soils, which your annual plants will love!
Home Made Fertilizers And Sprays
When building a self-sustaining garden, with organic growing practices, over time, pests and disease will become less and less. The transition time varies, but it makes perfect sense that a garden where plants are vigorous and healthy is much less likely to succumb to predators and disease. Have you ever planted a number of the same plants, from the same batch, and notices that some thrive and others are eaten in no time at all? They may all be planted closely together, but some just seem oblivious to the pest menace that is devouring their brethren? I see it a lot, not so much in my garden, but even at the garden center. Some plants looking weak and forlorn, some doing great.
Natural fertilizers are a cheap and easy way to improve the health of your plants, and healthy plants need less protection from pests. Comfrey tea is a homemade product I have used much in the past, and it’s SO easy to make. Simpler gather some comfrey leaves, place in a net or old stocking and submerge in a barrel of water. Over time, the nutrients from the comfrey will leach out into the water. After a couple of weeks, you can remove the net and use the compost tea to water your plants. As an aside, comfrey is an excellent plant to just chop the leaves and use to mulch around fruit trees and berry bushes. It is also an incredible bee attractor.
Pests like aphids should become less and less as your organic gardening practices mature, but I use a homemade hot chili and garlic spray to keep those critters at bay. There are a couple of great recipes for pepper and garlic spray here.
We talked a little about closed systems earlier. Harvesting rainwater to use in your garden is not quite a closed system per se, the rain obviously comes from somewhere ‘off-site’ (the sky 🙂 ). But, rather than letting excess water leave your property via the guttering and drainage system, it pays to at least hold some of it on site for a while, to use when rain is scarce.
This may be no more than redirecting a gutter from a garage or outbuilding into a water butt or storage tank, then allowing overflow water to re-enter the main drainage system. You’re really just holding some of the surplus water to use before it leaves your property.
So many gardeners rely on mains water for irrigating their gardens and then panic when a hosepipe ban is implemented during a heatwave. Making your property more resilient to climatic highs and lows, and becoming less dependent on utility companies is essential to the gardener who embraces self-reliance.
Increase Your Perennial Planting
I mentioned this already, such is my habit of self-repetition, but planting as many perennial food plants as you can makes the whole process of a food producing garden much simpler. There are some great books on perennial food plants, but also, don’t neglect the annual self-seeders. Annual herbs and vegetables that drop their seeds are awesome, you’ll get new plants popping up each year without having to do a thing.
Sustainable Garden Systems
One area I would like to share with you is the concept of forest gardening, a concept that was developed by an Englishman called Robert Hart. Robert died a few years ago, but this book on Amazon by Martin Crawford is an incredible insight into how to build a forest garden. Highly recommended!
That just about sums up the main principles of growing vegetables and creating a self-sustaining food garden. Enjoy these videos, from people definitely worth listening to.
If you are serious about being more self-sufficient, the self-sustaining garden is a must-have. It takes some time to put the techniques into practice, and to learn some of the fundamentals, but over a few short years or making small changes, your garden, AND food volume and diversity will be transformed.
Good luck, and leave a comment if you have any views or experiences to share.
Check Out This Forest Gardening Video With Martin Crawfold
Permaculture is one of the most popular and effective ways to create a self-sustaining garden, regardless of climatic zone. It’s a garden design system developed by the late Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, designed to minimize work and maximize productive food gardens. The design process involves careful placement of ‘food zones’ to ensure that those that require the most human input are closest to the house, those requiring less work and oversight can be placed further away.
A permaculture garden can be created in any size property, from a large homestead to an apartment homestead garden. This video from a New Zealand permaculture garden provides some inspiring insights into what permaculture is, and how it is an excellent system for creating a self-sufficient garden layout.
Permaculture In New Zealand
This is a sustainable gardening system developed by John Jeavons, and has worked incredibly well for me
Bio-Intensive Gardening Concepts With John Jeavons