BE THE CHANGE: Low-tech gardening and farming techniques for sustainabilityI have great respect for people who spend their lives working for laws, policy changes and new technologies that will protect the environment. Sometimes their work gives me hope. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the obstacles they face. At this time in my life I’m not able to put most of my energy into this large-scale work without succumbing to self-righteousness or despair. Instead I try to live each day as I would hope to live in a more sustainable society.

Twelve years ago I opted out of college and moved with my family to a community that sought to live a sustainable and spirit-led alternative to consumer culture. Since then my main work has been growing food to eat and share. Our farming hasn’t expanded much in scope since our second or third year. Instead of focusing on producing more, we’re focusing on producing more sustainably, purchasing fewer inputs and reducing waste. We’re learning to farm in a way that mirrors the natural world, in which nothing is wasted. This approach saves us money and allows us to damage the world less through our daily consumption. It also demonstrates that people can begin to live sustainably now, without having to wait for better government regulation or new technological breakthroughs.

The garden is the heart of our system. It’s only 50′ by 250′, but it provides plenty of fresh vegetables for us to eat during the summer and enough tomatoes, beans, garlic, onions, carrots, potatoes and peas to preserve and eat through the winter and early spring. We’re also able to give produce away to a local soup kitchen and to neighbours and guests. We don’t use commercial fertilizers on our garden. We focus on building good soil through composting, cover cropping and no-till culture.

When we first moved to the farm, the garden had been ploughed up by a tractor, resulting in about eight inches of loose soil above a hard-packed layer of dirt. We established permanent beds and walkways and I began turning the beds with a digging fork. This reduced compaction, but it was hard on my back. A few years later we read Lee Reich’s book Weed-Free Gardening, which claimed that we didn’t have to till the soil at all and that by leaving it undisturbed we could create a more favourable environment for earthworms, symbiotic fungi and other beneficial organisms in the soil. I was skeptical but decided to give it a try. Though our garden is still far from weed-free, I like the results as our earthworm population is growing, our vegetables continue to thrive, and my back hurts less now that we just add compost to the top of the soil and let the earthworms work it in.

Some articles make composting sound like a difficult and exacting science, but I haven’t found it so. We layer weeds, manure and kitchen scraps in bins built from recycled pallets, water them occasionally in dry summers, and flip each pile into an adjacent bin every week or two to discourage rodents from moving in and to add oxygen to heat the pile. In good weather a pile may go from raw ingredients to cool, clean-smelling finished compost in about 3 months now that our piles are well-established. It took much longer when we started a pile on new ground where natural decomposers hadn’t moved in, adding a few shovelfuls of finished compost from an established pile would probably have helped. During the winter we processed some of our compost in a worm bin, a large wooden box with drainage holes in the bottom, populated with red wigglers brought in from the outdoor compost pile and bedded in peat moss from the store and wood shavings from my brother’s sawmill. The resulting compost, full of worm castings, is very nutrient-rich; we save it for spring seedlings and plants grown through the winter in containers under glass.

Cover cropping is an even easier way of adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil. Whenever we harvest the vegetable crop from a bed we plant a cover crop in its place. This means that there are always roots growing, dying and decomposing in the soil to provide shelter and nourishment for beneficial soil organisms. We choose cover crops for specific benefits they offer: legumes like clover, vetch and alfalfa fix nitrogen in the soil; buckwheat grows thick and fast enough to (mostly) keep out aggressive weeds like quackgrass; annual ryegrass releases chemicals which make the soil less hospitable to the fungus that causes scab in potatoes. Sometimes a cover crop can be grown along with a vegetable crop, like clover sown under well-established asparagus or broccoli plants to fix nitrogen and keep weeds down. When cover cropping isn’t feasible we put down mulch to hold in soil moisture and add nutrients. I just read this winter that the leaves of comfrey and burdock, some of our most persistent weeds, are nutrient-rich and make an excellent mulch or compost booster. Knowing this, I can stop wasting time and energy on trying to pull or dig their impressive taproots; instead I can keep cutting the plant tops off before they go to seed and being grateful for what they add to my garden.

The garden works even more efficiently when it’s combined with other self-sufficiency projects. We started raising pastured goats, pigs and chickens so we’d have milk, meat and eggs, but they also offer other benefits. The manure of the goats and chickens makes our compost piles quicker-acting and more fertile. We don’t compost pig manure because pigs can share parasites with humans. Instead, we keep moving the pigs onto fresh ground so that their manure replenishes nutrients in their pasture rather than accumulating to toxic levels.

Nothing goes to waste. All our animals eat spoiled produce, spent plants and seeding weeds that we’d be reluctant to put straight into the compost. The goats also eat, enjoy and benefit from the highly invasive multiflora roses that we’ve been unsuccessfully attempting to beat back from our orchard and hayfields. One part goat milk in nine parts of water makes an effective anti-fungal spray for our squash and tomato plants.

The orchard and the woods also form part of the pattern. We use branches pruned from the apple orchard as trellises for our pea vines. My brother cuts firewood and lumber from our wooded land, mostly taking dead or dying trees or cutting in a way that thins overstocked stands and allows the remaining trees to grow larger. Sawdust from his mill, aged for a year to neutralize its nitrogen-robbing properties and mixed with coffee grounds from a nearby homeless shelter, makes mineral-rich mulch that can help garden plants resist soil-borne fungal infections.

This growing system produces enough for subsistence and for sharing without depleting limited resources or producing toxic wastes. It is also simple and inexpensive enough that anyone with access to a little bit of land can practice it. We’ve had people of all ages, classes and levels of ability come to help us with our work, learn how it’s done, and take home seeds and cuttings of perennial plants so they can start gardens of their own.


by Joanna Hoyt