“Patience may well be a virtue for the general populace, but for a gardener, it is essential.” David King, Gardenmaster
I have been a successful organic gardener in Southern California for the last twenty five years with a good deal of dirt under my nails on the mid-West plains before that. I have evolved a style of gardening that works well in Southern California and is 100% wholly organic and sustainable, as “sustainable” as a person can be in a land where water is shipped in from thousands of miles away. There are no books written for our climate that are truly organic or sustainable.
The principles that I use to guide my gardening are quite simple.
- Very little fertilizer. In fact, the fewer things you buy for your garden, the better off you will usually be. It is the task of advertising, with which we are constantly bombarded, to create the desire for a thing. I want to tell you that a few packets of seed, a couple of really well made tools and patience are all you need to grow good, nutritious, uncontaminated food. The scientific community, as far back as 1936 was aware that fertilizers, organic and chemical, were harmful to soil biota, the organisms living in the soil that make soil truly fertile. This understanding was deliberately not popularized because you won't buy something if you've already got it. No, you don't need fertilizer – you do need compost and lots of it, but you don't need fertilizer.
- No pesticides. In many ways, chemical pesticides are better for the world than organic ones because the chemical pesticides at least target the species that we wish to deal with while most organic pesticides kill everything they come in contact with while they are active. The key to a healthy, pest free garden is not through war, but through cooperation with nature. The entire key is to be attracting more insects to your garden – not less.
- Continuous cropping. Our gardens are small and the idea of crop rotation can be a little ludicrous. We need to have as much diversity in our gardens as we possibly can have – this means interplanting species and using legumes and other plants to keep the soil fertile for this constant cropping.
- Composting. Compost everything that can be composted. Everything ends up somewhere, if it will break down, compost it. If you lack space, vermicompost, but keep this valuable 'waste' out of the landfill!
- Mulch. Three inches in planting season, twice a year. This is the key to the soil's fertility and vitality. I use unfinished compost on top of my soil, in Fall and in Spring. Three inches!
- Insure the survival of pollinators. In this world of uncertainty, the roll played by pollinators has become more and more critical – plant your garden to provide for their well-being. And provide a source of water.
- Diversity in your garden. No matter how small your garden, you have room to plant a variety of species and should take advantage of that. Interplant everything to the degree you can (corn and garlic should have their own space, but for different reasons).
- Grow your own plants from seeds. Don't buy transplants from the nursery. Buy seeds and plant them yourself – there are good reasons to do this and the fact that it saves you money is just one.
- Saving seed to plant next year. And that means allowing some of your harvest to go to 'waste' in that some of your cabbages will flower, some of your lettuce will bolt and some of your cucumbers will stay on the vine well past the edible stage. These are investments in your future. This also means you will need to leave behind hybrid plants.
- Preserve and share your harvest - help someone else grow . Nature is lusciously abundant, emulate Her! Learn how to dry, pickle, can and freeze the food that is overwhelming you – if you can't do that, share it with your neighbor and make new friends. Teach a child the importance of gardening and how food really tastes.
- Don't stop learning. Go buy my book. Better yet, write your own book: keep your own garden journal and learn from your mistakes. Join a club, find a website or two, subscribe to a magazine. Garden in a community garden.
- Garden for yourself. Plant the foods you will eat or the foods you eat that are expensive or unobtainable in the market. Do not plant what the books tell you to plant if you don't like it, except you really should have some kind of legume – for you and for the soil. Above all, put a chair in your garden so you can sit with a cup of tea, coffee, a beer or a jug of water (is that really water?), and just hang out in your garden. You can use it to rest when you over-do it, or you can make it a place where you read a book. I love to have a bottle of sparkling water or a cup of coffee (depending on the time of day and the season), with my radio tuned to the Dodger station and my notebook in hand. Some of the finest moments of my life have been spent this way – certainly, some of the most peaceful! Make your garden a part of your life, just like your living room is! Ditch the TV, watch insects fight for their lives in your garden, butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and other critters doing their daily chores in your garden. It is peaceful and oh so refreshing.
And take care of yourself while you garden. Drink plenty of water (that's the best), protect your skin from the sun with long sleeved shirts and a hat. Stop to catch your breath and look around, your garden will soon team with life so get to know it and don't fear it.
As a society, we have left so much of this behind. Don't get so caught up in 'working' on your garden, that you miss the peace and wonderment of watching Nature do her thing right in front of you. Allow the garden to be so much more than just a place to 'make food.' A garden can heal. Let it happen for you!