Food & Water featured

Garden Advice

September 20, 2023

My post on the hygge garden sort of tipped over into esoterica before I could talk about an actual garden. In my defense, I was very tired. I was also writing in WordPress which tends to get very buggy and slow at about 1000 words. It’s hard to complete any thoughts when the text you are typing is several dozen characters behind your fingers.

In any case, this is something I’ve talked around in many posts though I’ve never given any direct guidelines. This is largely because I don’t have direct guidelines. I can’t say what will fill your garden because I don’t know you or your place. But I also am just not that interested in reading the plant lists of others, so I’m certainly not going to willingly dish out that kind of thing. There is also something lost in the ideas behind the garden when the garden is reduced to particular plants. The garden is not a curated collection of plants. The garden is an entity comprised of many beings working together for a common goal — and that goal is not necessarily yours. Fortunately, if a community is working together, there is less work for you. A mature functional garden tends to itself, feeding you and all its other parts with little effort from any given part.

So that would be my first garden tip: always keep in mind that you are part of a community. Consider yourself a forager in a natural food-web. Your garden is not yours, but an organism with you as an organ. Perhaps a very important organ, something more like a heart than a spleen, but still just one part. Gardeners used to know this, but for many reasons we’ve all forgotten how to be in partnership with place in order to produce a garden. The key is to think in community. The community of other humans around you. The community of the specific land and homestead you inhabit. And the community of the surrounding and connecting systems that feed into and take from the garden.

Other humans are part of your garden because it is very likely that you will not build and maintain your garden without the help of others. There will be seed stock and rootstocks and plants that have to come from somewhere at least initially. You’ll also need tools and so on. You’ll of course need access to land that is capable of growing things. You probably won’t be able to absorb your entire harvest either, so you’ll need to share in one way or another. On the other hand, you also probably won’t be able to meet all your needs out of the garden and will rely on others to fill in the holes. And finally, other humans living around your garden will need to deal with your ideas and whatever flows are coming from your place — from shade that may be cast on their own places to ideas of aesthetics. For example, I don’t tend to allow grass to flourish in my gardens. This tends to annoy some types of people, and I have to work with them to ameliorate that situation — or be a bad neighbor. And bad neighbors are not thinking in community.

It may seem obvious that the gardener is in community with the garden itself. But when we define the garden in our minds it is usually just the plants. Perhaps just the visible parts of most of the plants. But there are far more necessary beings in the garden than the green things you put there. You and the plants are in partnership with the soil, with insects good and bad, with the existing plant life, with birds and rodents and turtles and toads (if you are lucky!). The sustainable garden is a community of all these beings working together to meet all their needs. The garden is also in partnership with the built human environment, though this partnership is usually rather fraught because we don’t typically build with community in mind.

The garden is also in partnership with the systems around it, the flows in and out. The garden is, of course, dependent on sunlight. There is water flowing into the garden from many sources and water flowing out. The garden takes in various gases and sends out others to the atmosphere. Your tomatoes may contain carbon from the shells of long-dead sea creatures that once formed the crustal layers of eroding mountains. The garden breathes out the oxygen that anchors your blood cells. There are also more tangible flows. The plants and seeds that come in and the harvest that goes out. In a less community oriented garden, there may also be wastes and chemicals flowing out of the garden, finding their way to other bodies.

The garden is a community that is part of a community. Knowing this is key to knowing what to do with a garden. Can you see why I’m not especially interested in plant lists? I do have some guidelines though. Broad strokes to help you get your bearings.

First, plant nuts and fruits. These long-lived trees, shrubs and vines are the backbone of the community. Nut and mast trees will produce abundant harvests for many beings for many decades, if not centuries. They will also reproduce themselves, quite abundantly. Same for most fruits, though some of the more cultivated varieties are no longer very good at reproduction and need assistance from humans. No matter where you garden, there are fruit and nut trees that will flourish within that community, with little effort from you save to gather the harvest. And the wonderful thing about planting woody perennials is that there is no annual disruption to the community. No breaking apart soil structure. No pouring on extra water in spring. No change to the harvest save perhaps some years of greater or lesser abundance. Fruit and nut trees are dependable, perennial food for humans and many other creatures.

Second, plant native and naturalized plants. These are the matrix of the sustainable garden because these are the plants that native creatures depend upon. Learn your part of the world. Notice what grows in the margins. Make space in the garden throughout the garden for these plants, even in the veg patch. Maybe especially in the veg patch, since you will need the assistance of native insects in your veg patch in order to produce any veg.

Third, plant herbs. These also attract a large number of helpful community members, while providing humans with medicine, flavorings, tonics and healthy body aids, and craft supplies from dye and fiber to scented oils. Most also repel unwanted creatures. Southernwood and sagebrush and santolina all make good barriers to fleas and ticks. Most insects and rodents hate most of the mints. Rosemary and thyme ward off fungi. Alliums and chile offend nearly everything with a nose. Calendula, marigolds and nasturtiums keep your other plants happy by being revolting to many plant predators. Most herbs are also perennial or self-seeding annuals. Like trees, they provide an annual harvest with little community disruption.

Still, you will likely be growing some annual food plants in your garden. Of all the produce available to your place, grow foods that are easily stored with minimal energy use in your part of the world. This might mean that you need to learn how to store foods safely, from root storage and fermenting cabbage to making fruit leathers and nut butters. You may also need to modify your living space so that you have a space that can store food with low energy needs. You should do all that before you plant a garden, or the harvest is wasted. Part of learning how to store the harvest is also learning how to plant successively, so that there is almost always a harvest of something to eat fresh, without storage.

Most gardeners will also have some special desires that aren’t met otherwise. As this is your community, you can certainly expect to get what you want out of it — as long as you keep it to a small part of the garden. I plant chiles pretty much just for myself. Nobody else gets much out of the chile bed, though I suppose the pollinators like the flowers. Still, my chile plants are a bit of self-indulgence.

Finally, remember that your garden is just one part of the local human community. It is unlikely that you will feed yourself out of it, never mind meet all your other needs. So part of growing that nourishing garden community is supporting other producers. Buy from farmers and market gardeners and crafts people in your community. Work to meet all your needs locally, and your locality will flourish — as will your garden within it.

Now, here is what not to grow: Avoid anything invasive and most aggressive things. Don’t create monocultures. Refrain from growing and building things that only meet one need or only human needs. This means minimizing the purely ornamentals in the garden. There are plenty of beautiful plants that can nourish more than the aesthetics of humans. But remember that beauty is a need. A garden is beautiful because all of its parts evolved to attract each other. Let the community show you what is truly attractive in the garden. You’ll find that you don’t need a plant list to make beauty.

So that’s my garden advice. It is a framework. You fill in the details — those plant lists and design ideas — based on your place, your needs, your community. There is more homework with this kind of advice. However, the hardest work will come before you plant anything. Once the garden is growing, there will be much less work to sustain it. The result is a garden community that provides and thrives, a garden with you woven into the middle of it.

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: building resilient food systems, gardening, Placemaking