How I Created A Self-Sustaining Garden

May 24, 2018

Recently, I attended a conference where Jean-Martin Fortier and Joel Salatin spoke. It was a great experience meeting people interested in the same things as me. Of course, the main topic of the convention was growing plants and animals to sell at a market (market gardening/farming), but almost everyone there was an avid gardener as well. As I visited with other gardeners and farmers throughout my state, I became aware that I had something different in my garden.

While almost everyone around me was struggling with weeds (sometimes having to weed as much as 3 times a week!) my garden stayed weed-free for weeks at a time. I never water my garden (except for once or twice in the summer drought), and my plants always seem to grow twice as tall as their estimated height. I used to put it off, making excuses such as “I guess my soil is good,” or, “I’ve just been lucky,” when really, it was a combination of right practices and plant placement.

Last weekend was just the icing on the cake when the large group of people at the convention were amazed at my garden and wondered “what kind of magic” I had up my sleeve. This made me seriously think – why was my garden performing so well?

My Garden 5-24-18

After a little thought, I jotted down a list. After reading over my list, I realized that my garden was centered around nature, not around a set standard that I held it to. Calling it ‘self-sustaining,’ ‘permaculturesque’ (here I go making up words…), or just simply ‘naturalistic,’ would describe it best in a nutshell.

Today I will share some of those key practices that contributed to my garden’s success.

1. Let the leaves fall.

Once the first frosts arrive, browning all of the foliage and causing the plants to go dormant, I rarely remove the stems and leaves from my garden. Instead, I let them stand all winter, decaying in my garden and providing habitat for overwintering wildlife. Once spring arrives, I remove all woody stems and other slow-decaying items, but leave small stems, leaves, old flowerheads, and last fall’s mulch to decay and build up the soil. This creates a rich layer of soil and debris that harbors beneficial microbes and fungi, while retaining water and cooling the soil.

2. Ignore spacing recommendations.

When most people visit my garden, they are stunned at how closely spaced everything is. “You will get more pests and diseases that way,” a university extension agent once told me, but my research has proven otherwise. As long as you have a healthy soil structure high in beneficial fungi, microbes, and organic matter (achieved by mulching and no-till practices), close spacing has the opposite result.

The plants will be taller, water will be lost more slowly, and wildlife will be more present than in a conventionally planted garden. One way I determine how closely to space plants is to observe how large they get with no close neighbors, and then plant them in the garden in a space slightly smaller than their maximum size.

3. Let plants achieve their natural shape.

I know, sometimes plants get leggy or their flowers are too tall to “properly” enjoy, but a garden is not the place for perfection. I’ve noticed that when plants are allowed to reach their full stature without interruption, they tend to become more vigorous every year, almost as if it’s challenging itself to beat least year’s stats. Natural processes work best with as little human interference as possible.

4. Don’t supplement with any type of fertilizer (even natural!).

Fertilizer encourages beautiful, lush growth, right? What many people don’t know is that by using any type of added fertilizer, they are creating more work for themselves. In order to support the extra large leaves and flowers that fertilizer produces, plants demand more water and a sustained level of nutrients to perform well.

As soon as the fertilizer wears off, the plant can’t support the large amount of foliage and flower it had produced and starts having nutrient deficiencies. The only way to prevent this, of course, is by adding more fertilizer and watering more regularly, and no one wants that, right? Especially if the plants would have been more than happy anyway.

5. Mulch every fall.

I’ve already mentioned this, but I mulch once a year, usually in November (although that time varies depending on where you live). By using leaves and needles from nearby trees, the fungi and microbes in the soil are already adapted to break down the particular type of leaves that you add. This means quicker decomposition, and richer soil.

6. Encourage Fungi.

This is one of the most important practices I do. Without fungi, my garden would not be the same. Leaves would decompose slower, diseases would be more prevalent, and nutrient absorption would be more uneven. If you omit fungicides and follow the other points on this list (assuming you’re an organic gardener), fungi should naturally make their appearance.

7. Water only when absolutely necessary.

By watering only when your plants start to wilt, you encourage a strong and durable root system. This in turn, allows plants to search farther and deeper for nutrients, creating a more stable garden ecosystem.

8. Have variation in plant selection.

The more of one species you plant, the more likely that plant is to get a disease or pest. By planting in smaller groups, you discourage pests and allow even the most delicate plants to perform to their best ability.

9. Keep an open mind.

Since everyone has a different climate and unique challenges, there should be no standardized way of gardening that applies to the entire world. If a plant performs well in a certain spot, even if it was accidentally planted there, maybe you’ve discovered its ideal growing conditions.

10. Natives are always an asset.

Since a native plant is fully acclimated to your climate, they will almost always thrive. They even create some of the best ornamental and wildlife friendly additions to your garden. Try some and see! They will quickly become long-standing favorites.


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  1. Dirk says:

    Nice post. You have given me some food for thought.

  2. Estyn says:

    I’ve been leaving my garden alone in the fall and enjoying watching the birds eat the seed heads throughout the winter. And I’m getting more “free “ self-sown plants by not cleaning up too early in the spring too. Thanks for sharing your methods!


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