Six Alternative Gardening Methods: Higher Yields & Healthier Crops | 2020


No Dig Gardening

No Dig Alternative Gardening

Interested in developing a more self-sufficient food supply? Take a look at our Ultimate Guide on the subject and brush up those horticultural survival skills.


Do you want more time, less back pain and the same productive vegetable garden? If so, then no-dig gardening is for you. 

We’ve used this alternative gardening method at home since encountering Charles Dowding’s books and have great success.

Sure it takes a little getting used to the new habits involved, but the 50% reduction in weeding and bigger, healthier crops we’ve seen since making the change (along with my back feeling about 10 years younger!) have made it more than worthwhile. 

Easy to get started, with a ton of benefits for both the gardener and his/her prized growing space. Certainly a method worth trying if you’re yet to do so.


How To


  • Lay a base layer of cardboard down over the area which you are planning to use next season. Be sure to remove all plastic tape before doing so, and if possible lay this down a month or two before your planting season begins. 
  • Once you have your base, simply build your soil up on top. You can use whatever mixture of compost, top soil, vermiculite etc that you see fit in doing so. This will be your planting substrate.
  • You’re now ready to plant up! Water your no-dig beds thoroughly before planting our your chosen seedlings.
  • At the end of your planting season, simply top up these same areas with another layer of substrate, ready to go again.

Benefits


  • Massive reduction in the hard-work required in preparing your planting area. No more digging over old beds every year (Pop the champagne people!).
  • Weeds are greatly suppressed. The initial layer of cardboard breaks the back of this, killing the existing base of vegetation, with the ever-increasing layers of substrate helping to smother any that pop up through the season.
  • Soil is naturally aerated, creating an ideal environment for healthy root growth. This also leads to better drainage. 
  • Beneficial life in soil is allowed to establish and flourish over the seasons, without being disturbed year after year. This allows beneficial life such as earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi to create a nutrient rich soil in which plants are far more likely to flourish. 


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Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur Permaculture approach

Hugelkultur, what a lovely word to say, just try it. Hugelkultur. Maybe it’s just me. 

Derived from the German term for ‘Hilled Culture’, Hugelkultur is a unique form of raised-bed with a whole load of upsides to consider.

A Hugelkultur raised-bed is in essence a small hill or mound, generally built in rows similar to a traditional planting setup. 

A base of wood is laid down as the base layer, with growing medium built up around this base to create your planting area. The wood slowly decomposes over months and years, providing heat, nutrients & aeration to the soil above.

This means that a Hugelkultur bed (when set up correctly) can be self-sustaining for many years, requiring very little in the way of additional soil-enhancements. 

 We’ve used them extensively here in our little setup, and have found plant-health and yield to be markedly improved when compared to the standard planting rows used to begin with.

Of course it’s all subjective, but the proven benefits of this alternative gardening method speak for themselves:


How To


  • Lay down a base of wood covering the area you plan on using as your planting area. We generally aim for our woody layer to be around 2ft deep. It helps to compact this layer before piling on your compostable material to give the Hugelkultur a solid base. No need to be too technical here, stepping on it works just fine.
  • Next you want to pile on some compostable material. Woodchips, leaves, grass-sod, whatever you have handy will work just fine. Your aim here is to build up a layer of decomposing organic material to feed the hugelkultur going forward, an build a base-layer of growing medium. 
  • Lastly, build on your layer of topsoil and get to planting! 

Benefits


  • Depending on how you choose to orient your beds, different microclimates can be created. For example, one side of the mound can be fully sun-facing with the other shaded, with any number of variations in between. 
  • The woody base layer acts as a sponge, retaining moisture to a far greater degree than your standard raised bed. This is particularly useful in summer growing or in climates where water might be a bit more scarce. 
  • As the various later decompose, heat is radiated throughout the hugelkultur mound. This means you can begin your growing season earlier than otherwise, and push it further into the autumn/winter months. 
  • As we mentioned earlier, a hugelkultur is largely self-sustaining in terms of nutrients once set up. Our oldest are going on for three years old at this point and are showing no signs of letting up. 
  • The surface area of each mound is larger than the area taken to construct them, giving you more room to work with. 

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Core Gardening

Alternative Gardening - Core Gardening

If you were to smash together the No Dig & Hugelkultur approaches, you’d end up with something like this.

Originally developed in the sub-saharan region of Africa, Core Gardening is a wonderful way to achieve great results while limiting your water usage. A fascinating alternative gardening approach.

This method utilises a porous core – such as straw, for example – buried within layers of soil, within a raised bed. The core essentially acts as a sponge, which you ‘charge’ at the beginning of the season (water profusely) and allow to slowly hydrate the area around it over the coming weeks.

It’s a great way for the water-conscious among us to reduce their usage, and very simple to set up once you understand the fundamentals.

An innovative alternative gardening method, designed for areas where water is particularly scarce. With climate change looming over all of us, Core gardening could well be a valuable tool to have in your horticulture locker going forward.


How To


  • Construct a raised bed, as deep or as shallow as you like. Deep is better when it comes to this method, as it allows you more room to work with when sandwiching your Core between the surrounding layers of soil. 
  • If building on grass, lay down some cardboard at the base of your raised bed to smother any existing vegetation. 
  • Lay a thin layer of soil as your base on top of the cardboard. Around ¼ of the way up your raised bed is a good level to aim for here.
  • Now add your Core. Aim for around 3-5inches deep here if possible (of course this isn’t an exact science!), with any organic material doing the job. Straw is best if available, however grass-clipping or leaves will work just as well. Your aim is to build a layer deep enough to retain and release its moisture throughout the whole season, while leaving enough room on top to build up a healthy layer of soil which you will plant directly into. 
  • Next add your growing medium. Top-soil, compost, whatever you prefer using, just ensure that it is deep enough that your plants will not be directly rooting into the core itself. Again, 3-5 inches should suffice as a rough guide. 
  • Lastly you want to ‘Charge’ your Core, watering it heavily in order to completely saturate your Core layer. Don’t be shy here, you want to make absolutely sure that the bed is soaked through. It’ll pay dividends in the weeks and months to come. 
  • And you’re ready to plant!

Benefits


  • Retains and slowly releases moisture throughout the growing season, meaning less water-usage and less labour in having to consistently water through dry periods. 
  • Builds rich soil through the gradual breakdown of organic material, feeding the surrounding area. 

Straw Bale Gardening

Alternative Gardening - straw bale

Like all the best things when it comes to gardening, the straw-bale method is as easy to follow as it is effective.

A great alternative gardening approach to adopt if you’re not looking to use an area for years at a time, the straw bales themselves can be placed in rows, together into a large growing area or dotted around the garden as you see fit.

The world is your straw-filled-oyster.

Ideal for the prospective gardener who either doesn’t have access to, or doesn’t want to dedicate space as a permanent growing area.

We use straw-bale growing dotted around the patio as an additional growing space to absorb our army of seedlings, and find they work very well indeed.


Once you’re done with your straw-bale garden, why not build yourself a Straw Bale Home?

Easy, Cheap, Toasty warm? What’s not to love.



How To


  • Make sure to use straw-bales rather than hay, as the seeds present in hay can become a bit of a weedy-timebomb. 
  • Once your bales are in place, water heavily. You want the bales to be thoroughly soaked prior to planting up your desired crops. 
  • Apply an even coating of your chosen fertiliser. You don’t need to be too picky here, any powder / granulated nitrogen-based fertiliser will do the trick. Water once this is complete.
  • Fertilise and water the bales on a set schedule for the next two weeks, generally every two or three days depending on how nutrient intensive your chosen crops are likely to be. 
  • Plant out your chosen seedlings, taking note of the required spacings.

Benefits


  • Far less labour required in setting up your growing area. 
  • No weeding required.
  • Once correctly prepared, straw-bales provide a superior growing medium to most unamended soils.
  • Provides good drainage in areas with higher than average rainfall. 
  • Temporary & easily moved around the garden. No need to dedicate a particular area to growing alone. 

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Vertical Gardening

Vertical Gardening - An alternative gardening approach

Whether looking to produce in a very small space or simply trying to maximise yields from an existing garden, sprinkling in a little ‘Vertical Gardening’  can help any gardener step up their horticultural game.

The principle is simple – Utilise the vertical space available to you, as-well as the horizontal. Makes perfect sense right? In practice this can be achieved a million different ways.

We personally like to build stepped planting tables from old pallet boards. Storing our seedling trays this way has doubled the space available to us, which when you’re as deep into the green-fingered addiction as we are, is a very valuable thing.

Alternatively, vertical planting systems are commonly used in flats & apartments to bring the growing space indoors, without any of the fuss.

There’s a huge variety of vertical systems available these days which can be pieced together in a doddle, leaving you to decide whether Basil or Mint deserves that top-pot-spot more. A valuable alternative gardening approach to consider for the space-savy gardener.


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Equipment



Windowsill Gardening

Windowsill Planters

Another great option to consider when maximising your growing space, especially for those living in flats & apartments. Windowsill gardening has long been utilised across the world, especially in historically built-up towns and cities. 

Take a stroll around any Italian village and you’ll see the hanging baskets, the colourful planters and the mid-air vegetable boxes. You’d be surprised just how space two or three window-boxes adds upto.

An alternative gardening method which is worth a shot for anybody who wants to add a touch more beauty to their home and potentially, food to their pantries. 


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Equipment



And there we have it – Our six alternative gardening methods to bring healthier plants and bigger yields to your garden this year, with half the work!

I hope you’ve found this guide useful. As always, if you’d like to be kept up to date with whatever comes next from the EcoGeeks, please feel free to subscribe to our newsletter just below.

Thanks very much, and happy planting!

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