Farming is an area that can have either the most detrimental environmental effects on the environment, or otherwise some of the most positive effects. With the rising concerns around climate change, global warming, and several other concerns surrounding environmental harm, we need to start changing the ways in which we grow our own food. Sustainable farming techniques can help us store carbon in the soil and remove it from the atmosphere, improve biodiversity, improve food security, and if you are growing it yourself you are reducing food miles and packaging. These are just a few of the many benefits of growing your own food and doing so sustainably.
What does this mean to grow sustainably? It typically means not using any harmful, chemical pesticides, fungicides, weed killers, fertilizers. Additionally, its not just about the harm you take away, but about what you give back to the land. That’s where these different methods of farming come into place. Whilst these methods can be altered to be scaled onto large farms, which we will discuss in a later post, we will start with how we can start growing more sustainably in our own backyards.
No-dig farming is one of the best things you can do both for your soil, and for your back….because, you know, there’s no digging? You are continuously building the soil with organic matter, which in turn leaves the soil itself undisturbed, feeds the life within the soil with the organic matter you adding to it, which mimics nature, and maintains drainage and aeration. This method can be done in any type of soil. The most important thing is that you are either able to source large amounts of compost locally, or even better, be able to set up your own area for composting and utilizing the resources that you have in your own garden.
One of the best resources we have found for adding organic matter to the soil is mushroom compost. The mushroom industry has a lot of waste as they cannot reuse the compost that they grow the mushrooms in and need to rid it quickly so that they can make room to start growing the next lot of mushrooms. We like this resource as it is utilizing a resource locally that would have been otherwise wasted. However, we also use compost from our own animals, which we will discuss further on in this article, and compost raw materials such as the cut offs from veggies that we harvest. Everything in the garden can be used!
Utilizing this method means that you cut down almost entirely on weeding since they are suppressed by the organic matter that you have added. Additionally, it helps retain moisture, which means you won’t need to water as often. Your crops will flourish as the soil will be so abundant in nutrition, and due to the lack of competition for nutrients since there is a lack of weeds.
If this is the method you are interested in, which I would highly suggest as your starting point if you are interested in growing more sustainably, then I would highly suggest looking into the work of Charles Dowding, who has pioneered this method into the mainstream since the 80s’.
A cover crop is a crop that you grow for the purpose of improving soil health and fertility. Whilst you may be able to harvest and sell this crop, it is typically not going to be your staple cash crop, but instead utilized to be able to improve your cash crop. Often times, depending on what your seasons are like where you are in the world, this crop will be grown in the winter season, or what you would classify as your ‘off season’.
The main aim of a cover crop, as you may guess, is for the crop to cover the soil. This is to mitigate soil erosion, increase soil fertility by adding in certain nutrients that may have been utilized from your cash crop. For example, legumes are often used as a cover crop for their nitrogen fixing properties. Cover cropping can also contribute to improving pest control, increasing biodiversity, keeping weeds under control, improving drainage and water retention of the soil, and overall improving soil structure by adding organic matter. Additionally, but not having the land barren, you are providing another opportunity for your land to sequester carbon through the cover crop.
As mentioned before, legumes are often used as a cover crop, which is known as a ‘green manure’. This may include legumes, peas, alfalfa, or beans, these act as a natural fertilizer for the land. However, there are several other cover crops you may want to consider, which each have their own benefits, such as: vetch (nitrogen fixer), mustard (biofumigant), rye (soil drainage/nitrogen fixer), clover (nitrogen fixer), buckwheat (attracts beneficials/phosphorus scavenger), radish (soil aeration/water quality), cowpeas (nitrogen fixer), and sudan grass (soil compaction/multiple harvests).
Companion planting is where you use certain crops to be able to aid your main crop. Certain crops can repel unwanted pests, attract beneficials, provide shelter/structure, provide nutrition to the soil. There are several benefits to adding companion planting into your gardening repetoir. This is an area we have already addressed in depth and you can read more about here, or watch on youtube if you prefer video.
Crop rotations are very simply when you rotate what type of crop you have within a certain area. Different crop families require certain nutrients, and also give certain nutrients. You don’t want to continuously grow the same crop in the same area, otherwise the soil will become void of that nutrient and unable to successfully continue to grow that crop. You will want to add a crop next that adds that nutrient back to the soil and/or requires different nutrients to grow. For example, corn is a nitrogen hungry crop, so you may wish to grow some form of beans or legumes after your corn crop to replenish this nutrient in the soil. Crop rotations can be very simple, or they can be very complex depending on your crop and soil needs. You may just have two crops that you rotate back and forth, or you may have a dozen crops that you rotate. Keep it simple to start out with, but dont be afraid to play around with different rotations!
Animal Integrated Grazing
Animal grazing contributes several benefits to your garden. Most probably, in the case of a backyard garden, you would be grazing chickens, and either free ranging if you can safely do so in your area (risk of wild animals, or the chickens eating your crops if you cannot separate them), or most probably, in a chicken tractor. You can find out more about chicken tractors and building your own if this is of interest to you here.
Animal grazing first of all means you get more bang for your buck, and through diversifying your resources you also mitigate the risk of relying solely on your crops for your food and/or income. If you are raising chickens you can opt either for meat or egg laying chickens. Through grazing chickens you are able to use them as your own little composters. So you are not only improving soil health by having the chickens fertilize the soil for you, but you also cut down on animal feed and expenses by allowing them to graze and eat the weeds, grasses, and veggie trimmings. With that said, of course this also means they help in keeping your garden weed free, doing an extra job for you 🙂 This manure adds organic matter to the soil which helps increase soil microbial density, and also creating another opportunity for carbon sequestration since this will aid in reducing the amount of digging needed in the garden to grow your food. Therefore, this method goes hand in hand with no-dig gardening.
Agroforestry is quite simply the integration of trees and shrubs with your crops. This is something we do not have as much experience with but will be focusing on in the seasons to come as there are several benefits to this system. This is also something that may come later down the line in your garden once you have things more established, and a better understanding of things such as your soil, climate, where the water flows, water quality, etc, before establishing more permanent roots. However, this is a great way to diversify your crops, and create further opportunities for risk mitigation, improving soil health, sequestering carbon, increasing biodiversity, and improving the health of your crops.
I hope that this was a useful starting point for you to start considering growing your own food, and doing it in a sustainable way. Hopefully these have inspired you and provided enough information to know which method is best for you to dive deeper into!