Self-fertilizing gardens

Background, principles and maintenance

Quick intro

Self-fertilizing gardens are a way of growing fruits and vegetables through creating diverse ecosystems that rely mainly on natural processes. These gardens have permanent raised beds, with water points and trees, to create a system that largely self-regulates. Self-fertilizing gardens (SFG) are part of the wider world of permaculture, since this method of gardening minimizes human actions and management, and allows nature to play its role. 

The self-fertilizing approach is based on the synergistic garden approach from Emilia Hazelip of France, and was further developed by Rejean Roy of Quebec (learn more here). Emilia’s focus was adapting permaculture and Fukuoka’s natural farming to temperate climates, and her first inspiration was nature itself, based on how undisturbed ecosystems would work.

The self-fertilizing garden approach has been taught for years in Quebec. This article focuses on sharing the principles, techniques and influences so that others can try the same method, in complement with the instructional article How to Make a Self-Fertilizing Garden.

The basics - Do’s and don’ts

In self-fertilizing gardens, the soil is seen as a living organism that needs air, water and nourishment in order to thrive. The priority is to protect and care for the soil and the surrounding ecosystem, while also reducing the amount of time and hard work spent in the garden. Self-fertilizing gardens include:

  • Permanent raised beds
  • Permanent soil cover
  • Surface compost
  • Diversity of plants and families in each bed
  • The presence of living roots at all times in the beds (e.g. perennials plants, overlapping crops)
  • The use of the vertical plane (e.g. climbing plants in the centre of the beds)
  • Biodiversity settings (e.g. ponds, hedges, trees)

Self-fertilizing gardens work directly with natural processes to maintain fertility and equilibrium, so no inputs are used in the gardens, and we avoid interference with the natural cycles of the soil and the plants:

  • No chemicals (pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones)
  • No tilling
  • No digging (aside from the first year)
  • No bare soil
  • No monoculture
  • No compaction
  • No added compost (with the possible exception of demanding transplants)
  • No treating plants (i.e. for insects, illness, etc).
  • No pulling out plants (except for root vegetables)

Interrelated elements: beds, water points, trees

The three main elements that we find in self-fertilizing gardens are the beds, the water points and the trees.

The beds are the places for plants to grow. In each bed, we find annual and perennial plants from different families with different shapes and needs. Between them, paths allow us to walk and reach the middle of the beds without compacting the growing area.

The water points attract, retain and protect a diversity of animals, including natural predators. An irregular shape increases the pond’s perimeter, creating a more productive environment from a similar area. The depth should also be irregular, offering a larger range of habitat. These small ponds (from a few centimetres deep to many meters deep) can have many positive effects:
- Store water
- Control competing species
- Habitat for wildlife
- Heat accumulator
- Grey water treatment system
- Reflect light for house and greenhouse
- Can serve as a pool

Trees are another essential part in the design because of their multiple functions, not only as food, fuel and wood producers, but also for a wide range of other beneficial impacts. Here are a few of their functions:

- Bring up nutrients from deep down
- Fertilize soil by providing organic material: leaves, branches, bark, wood and root exudates
- Encourage soil activity (micro-organisms, myccorhizal fungi)
- Prevent soil erosion by keeping the soil together
- Take in carbon dioxide (CO2) and give oxygen
- Absorb atmospheric pollutants
- Accumulate carbon
- Host natural predators and attract natural pollinators
- Create shade
- Beautify the landscape
- Act as a wind break (reduce soil erosion, reduce heat costs, allow snow accumulation to protect soil)
- Provides food, medicinal compounds, building materials, energy, fertilizers

The interaction between these three elements (beds, water points and trees) produces a whole that is bigger than the sum of each separate part.

Creating a self-fertilizing garden

To create a self-fertilizing garden, we make permanent raised-beds and permanent pathways, as well as installing water points and planting supporting perennial plants. Check out the article Creating a self-fertilizing garden for detailed instructions with photos.

Nature’s principles

According to practitioners of self-fertilizing gardens, certain principles need to be respected, in terms of soil, plants, landscape and biodiversity settings, and avoiding harm. If we have difficulties with diseases or insects, we should revisit these ideas and ask ourselves if certain principles have been neglected.

Soil principles

The soil is the most important aspect. All plants and animals originate from it. And like us, the soil breathes, drinks and eats.

Always keep the soil covered with organic material: this prevents the sun, the water and the wind from touching the ground. It prevents erosion, keeps moisture in, brings nourishment for the soil life and, as a side effect, brings nutrients to the plants.

How to keep the soil covered:
- Living mulch, ground cover plants (i.e. strawberries, clover)
- Mulch with dead plants (i.e. grass or meadow clippings, leaves, straw, hay)
- The mulch needs to be produced in the surroundings of the garden.

The sun mustn’t touch the ground: otherwise, it raises the soil temperature, which increases evaporation and hardens the soil. This creates an environment less favourable for life.
- To be useful, the sun’s light must touch the plants. Plants use the sun’s energy to create new plant material and sugars through photosynthesis.. Sunlight that touches the ground is lost.

Weeding is done manually
- In a non-compacted soil, weeds are easier to pull out

Plant principles

A diversity of plants is essential to keep the soil alive. Each species has a different root system; each one needs and produces different compounds; and each one attracts different insects and micro-organisms.

Polyculture
- as opposed to monoculture, polyculture means there are a diversity of plants grown together, with no sizeable areas with only one type of crop.
- Association (mixed cropping) with a minimum of three families of plants per bed, the best being seven per bed.
- Density should be as dense as possible

Succession
- In a succession, we just avoid planting the same kind of plant in the same place the following year, though there is no formal multi-year crop rotation.
- Plan the succession for each bed (yearly), as well as ensuring there are plants growing everywhere throughout the seasons (spring, summer, autumn).
- Think in three dimensions (including the vertical plane).
Ex. A row of climbing beans in the middle of the bed, with cabbage on one side and carrots on the other, and courgettes on each end.

Keep roots permanently in the soil
- The roots is the location in the soil where there is the most intense activity.
- Never pull them out, apart from root crops like carrots or beetroot.

Never take the plants out of the growing area (i.e. to make compost)
- Removing plants is time consuming
- Taking them out means that the nutrients contained in the roots, leaves and stems are removed from the gardens
- The micro-organisms are taken away
- Composting these plants is less efficient and brings losses (i.e. heat, leakage).
- To finish a crop, just cut the plants at their base and let them compost directly on the beds.

Varied types of roots
Ensure that plants with different types of root systems are planted in the same bed. In particular, do not plant several root vegetables side by side, as there will no longer be living plants in the soil when they’re all pulled out. Plant a mixture of root systems together: nitrogen-fixers next to perennials next to root vegetables, etc.

- Pulled out (i.e. radish, carrot, potato, parsnip, beetroot)
- Dead and kept in place (i.e. tomato, sunflower, broccoli, lettuce)
- Nitrogen fixing plants = legume (i.e. pea, bean, lupine, alder)
- Roots that survive through winter = perennial or biannual (i.e. trees, rhubarb, gooseberry, forget-me-not)
- Roots of the onion family protect other crops (i.e. onion, garlic, chive, leek)

PNG - 232.1 kb
Exemple a bed design

Introducing plants with complementary functions
(mainly on the sides, ends and outline of the bed)
- Flowers
- Sweet smelling plants (herbs)
- Medicinal plants
- Climbing plants

Let plants finish their cycle
- This also allows you to get seeds.

Introduce as many perennial plants as possible
- They host wildlife, start earlier in the spring, and save time not having to restart them from seeds every year.

Permanent landscape

Start small: also keep in mind the development for the coming years.

Fill the beds with plants: these permanent beds are the space reserved for plants.

Keep pathways between the beds: these permanent pathways are the space reserved for humans.

Permanent watering systems: it’s recommended to install drip systems under the mulch.

Develop a vertical plane: install permanent props and stakes.

Recreate natural landscapes: lets nature do the work.
- water ponds: 10% of the area
- trees: 10% of the area
- habitat for allies (beneficial insects and others): piles of stones, heaps of old wood, perches for birds, sacred sites for humans.

Avoid harmful action in the garden

Let the organisms do the work for which they exist.

Care for the soil
- No compaction
- No tilling, never work the soil
- Don’t bury plant residues: leave them on the surface

Don’t rest the soil (no fallow)
- Without roots, the bacteria and micro-organisms will die
- Without micro-organisms, the soil is dead
- Only a dead, forced-fed and unbalanced soil needs rest
- On the contrary, we must keep the soil active, like us!

No external inputs
- No pesticides
- No fertilizer (chemical, mineral, animal, compost, lime, basalt)
- No inputs of mulch or leaves from outside the garden area (initially you can use local sources of leaves and mulch if needed, but make sure you plant perennials by the garden that will later provide mulch from your own land)
- No wood ashes
- No compost (except in the transplantation hole for demanding plants)
- No purposeful additions of allies (i.e. natural predators)

Never regulate a deficiency
- By correcting it, we create a new one

Use plants that are indicators
- For acid soil, use for example mustard and buckwheat (cut it without burying it)

Accept intruders and some loss of plants
- Accept certain plant losses without treating with organic pesticides, as this will help a more complex biodiversity become reinstated
- Only treat with organic pesticides when you consider the losses significant or interruptive (e.g. when at least 10% of the crops are affected)

No sprinkled water
- The plants should be watered with a drip-irrigation system, or by using a hose to water at the base of the plants. If we sprinkle water on the leaves and stems, this can lead to fungal growth.

Avoid buying any unnecessary materials

Source your plants and seeds
- No use of hybrids (if you want to keep seeds)
- No use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)

A few words about compost

Compost is not a direct part of the fertility in this growing system, other than the plants which decompose straight in the garden as they would in nature. But for sustainability, having a compost pile is still an important action for the environment for any organic waste you have at home. Two different types of compost could be done.

Kitchen waste compost

To avoid filling the landfill and losing these precious nutrients, keep all your kitchen waste (i.e. peelings, rotting vegetables, leftovers) and make a compost heap. Attention should be given to having one part of green (nitrogen rich, soft or slimy) for about two parts of brown (carbon rich, dry and fibrous). Straw, leaf mould and dried grass clippings are particularly good when added to kitchen waste. Mix it well and let it compost. Cover the heap with plastic or a roof to prevent nutrient lost and water clogging.

The resulting compost is perfect to start seedlings. Potting mix can be made by mixing one part compost, one part soil and one part leaf mould. Also, for highly demanding plants (i.e. brassica), a handful of this compost can be added in the hole when transplanting.

Humanure compost

In order to close the cycle of nutrients, ideally human wastes should also be composted and returned to the soil. While this may seem unappealing at first, in our current system we defecate in our drinking water supply, which brings a heavy environmental toll for the resulting sewage treatment. In home gardening, composted humanure doesn’t need to be used in the vegetable gardens: it can be used on surrounding trees and shrubs, eventually bringing nutrients back to the gardens through the leaves. To learn about the options available for composting humanure, check out the Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins free online. Note that humanure must be composted using specific techniques in order to be safe, so proper research must be done ahead of time.

History and influences

At the Veganic Agriculture Network, we originally learned about self-fertilizing gardens through workshops being offered in Quebec by Rejean Roy. He was influenced by the work of Emilia Hazelip, who came to Quebec in the late 90’s to teach her method called synergistic gardens, before she passed away in 2003. Emilia’s work was inspired by permaculture principles and by Masanobu Fukuoka’s natural farming, and she aimed to adapt these ideas to temperate climates. From Emilia and Rejean’s teachings, hundreds of people have taken classes in self-fertilizing techniques, mostly in Quebec and France.

While the ideas of self-fertilizing gardens may at first seem radical, their origins are numerous and many people directly or indirectly influenced them. To give an idea of this interconnected web of knowledge and experience, here are a few of the people that stand out:

Hans Peter Rusch (Switzerland) developed a method to evaluate the soil fecundity (productivity and fertility). He found similarities between the way the soil and the human body work. He described the two main zones that we find in the soil (the decomposition area = the litter; and the assimilation zone = the rhizosphere). He also observed and introduced the idea of the cycle of living compounds (plants don’t build themselves only with mineral elements, but also with macromolecules and virus-like compounds). So he stressed the importance of doing surface compost to feed the soil and prevent soil disturbance.

Masanobu Fukuoka (Japan) developed the natural farming approach with the four do-nothing principles: no chemicals, no treatments, no compost and no till. He brought forward the importance of observing Nature.

David Holmgren and Bill Mollison (Australia) first introduced the concept of permaculture. This holistic approach for designing an integrated and sustainable environment rests on three core ethics: earthcare, peoplecare and fairshare.

John Jeavons (United States) stated the importance of a light, uncompacted and deep soil (he was using double digging) to produce more vegetables on a smaller area. He experimented with high density cropping with companion planting to increase productivity while creating a micro-climate.

Ruth Stout (United States) proved the feasibility of permanent mulches for vegetable growing and showed the efficiency in reducing time and hard work in the garden. Already in 1930, she was gardening stockfree (veganically).

Gilles Lemieux (Canada) did research on the importance of Chipped Branch Wood as a way of sustaining life in the soil, reversing the process of soil degradation (called aggradation) and ensuring long term fertility. All of our good quality soils comes first from forest land, and we can recreate this when fungus (basidiomycetes) transform this woody material into stable humus.

Robert Hart (England) presented forest gardening with the seven different layers of vegetation (canopy trees, dwarf trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, root plants, ground cover plants, climbers).

Robert Kourik (United States) has been designing diversified landscapes that can be both aesthetic and edible, with an emphasis on the importance of varied root systems.

Allan Smith (Australia) explained the existence and the importance of the ethylene cycle and the way it works. The natural cycling between oxygen and ethylene gases in untilled soils leads to increased mobilisation of nutrients and resistance to plant pathogens. It takes three years to come back after we stop disturbing the soil.

And even if none of these people were specifically focused on veganic techniques, these are great pieces of information from here and there that fit together into the larger picture of self-fertilizing gardens.

Recommended links

Végéculture www.vegeculture.net
- French veganic website with information and photos about self-fertilizing gardens
- Photojournal of creating a self-fertilizing garden with instructor Rejean Roy, Quebec 2005
- Photojournal of a self-fertilizing garden for a full season, Victoriaville Quebec 2005
- Photojournal of creating a self-fertilizing garden, Isle-aux-Coudres, spring 2005
- Information in French about self-fertilizing gardens

Synergistic Garden
- Film with Emilia Hazelip (English version) about the synergistic gardening technique (this technique was the forerunner of self-fertilizing gardens; there are only minor differences between the two techniques).

- Plants for a future, www.pfaf.org (database of all useful plants)

- Soil food web, learn more about the ecosystem within the soil


23 January 2012
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