If you’re a gardening enthusiast you may know about some of the old methods of gardening. I’ve used some of these methods, but once I started researching permaculture I was amazed at how much more information I discovered on methods I had never tried.
So this year at my new farm I’m starting out right (or at least what I think is right). I’m employing permaculture methods along with using some of the old ways.
The Three Sisters
One of the best known methods of farming comes from the Native Americans. They used a method called The Three Sisters. It involves planting three types of plants together, usually corn (maize), beans and squash. The corn provides a support for the beans to run up on, the beans provide much needed nitrogen for the soil, and the squash leaves shade the soil, reducing moisture loss. The leaves and vines of the squash have prickly hairs on them that help keep the bugs away. Depending on the area, dead fish were placed in the hole made for planting to improve the nutrient content in the soil.
Hills, not rows
Planting in hills rather than rows goes back to neolithic times, perhaps further. The idea of hills is that plants can be planted together and there is more air circulation around the plants.
This is helpful for plants like tomatoes, which are susceptible to disease if planted too close together. And plants like squash can get powdery mildew, a fungus made worse by over crowding. It’s also easier to keep track of sprawling plants like squash and cucumbers if they are in hills.
Hugelkultur is a centuries-old method of gardening. It involves digging out a trench, filling it with wood, covering it with soil and waiting. Once the wood starts to decompose, it retains moisture and nutrients. It’s often referred to as a “no till” method since all you need to do once it’s established is plant and harvest. You may need to water in the beginning, but after a while it becomes unnecessary. You can read more about hugelkultur here.
Permaculture is a combinations of two terms: permanent agriculture. Some aspects of permaculture are simple. Plant perennial food-bearing plants for use in the coming years. Raspberries, blackberries and apple trees are common examples.
But more than that is living in harmony with nature. Use what you have and disturb little. This year I’m not plowing my herb bed. I’m simply digging holes where the herbs are going, and leaving the rest. But what about the weeds, you say? They are allowed to stay, though they’ll be cut to a manageable level. The reason for this is that tilling can break up the biological balance in the soil. Also, soil that is tilled is more likely to run off, be eroded or flooded. Leave the weeds and the wind can’t blow the soil away, the soil can’t be eroded by heavy rains, and flooding is less likely due to roots soaking up the water. There’s much more to permaculture than this, but it’s a start.
Like hydroponics, aquaponics relies on water for the growing medium. Chemical fertilizers aren’t necessary because the water used comes from tanks or ponds where fish are living. The fish produce waste which contains vital plant nutrients. The plants use it and clean water is returned to the fish, providing aeration.
Plants grown in aquaponics grow twice as fast, sometimes even faster. The plants are usually smaller sized, but provide a large amount of leaves or fruit. Lettuce, tomatoes and even beets can be grown this way.
I tried this method with a very simple 10 gallon fish tank with a piece of foam floating in the top. I used discarded plastic cups from my single cup coffee maker (although any plastic cup can be used) with holes cut or drilled into the bottom and sides. I stuffed them with cotton fiberfill from a craft store. I then drilled holes in the foam that were a bit smaller than the top of the cups. Cups were placed in the holes and wet the fiberfill well. I added a few lettuce seeds to each one and secured a light above. In a few days the lettuce was sprouting and salads were possible within a few weeks.
Most of us aren’t cursed with large tracts of water that cover the land we want to grow things on. This provides a unique challenge. During ancient times, a solution was found that allowed planting on the sides of waterways and even on top of the water itself. Chinampas are floating mats of dense vegetation, sometimes bamboo poles bound together. The mat is then covered with mud. They are planted with seeds right on top of the mud and moved from area to area. This allows farming to happen even in the rainy season or in areas with more water than land.
Of course, I have to mention biochar. It’s been used for centuries and evidence of it used thousands of years ago still exists today. Biochar involves charring and smoldering wood, but not burning it completely. When charred, it form millions of tiny holes that bacteria and nutrients can reside in. It also sequesters carbon in the soil and holds it for a very long time.
When using biochar, you’ll need to develop a culture in it, such as bacteria from compost. It’s as easy as that – adding compost to a bucket of biochar and leaving it with moisture for a week or so. Once the biochar is inoculated, it’s ready to use. Add it to your soil when planting and you’ll notice that you have to use much less fertilizer. I don’t use any commercial fertilizers, I just use compost and compost tea. This, along with biochar, provides what my plants need to thrive. You can read more about biochar here.
Have you used an old method of gardening? Tell us about it!