This how-to guide gives instructions and a photojournal for beginning a self-fertilizing garden. In order to understand how self-fertilizing gardens work, and how to maintain them, it’s also necessary to read the article self-fertilizing gardens: background, principles and maintenance.
The first step involves planning the position and layout of the garden. This includes the plans for the first year, and any additions foreseen in future years. We plan the position of the beds, the pathways, the outer edge, the water points, and the trees and other perennials.
Usually, we make the beds about 3-4 feet wide (1 - 1.2 m), so that our arm can reach the middle of the bed. It’s important that we can easily reach all areas of the bed, as we should never put our feet or our knees on the bed since this compacts the soil. Between the beds, we leave a pathway that is at least one foot wide. You may prefer pathways that are two feet wide if you garden with children or if you’d like more room to maneuver. Around the outside of the garden, you’ll need to plan a 4 foot (1.2 m) edge to inhibit unwanted plants from creeping in.
Preparing the ground
If you are starting a self-fertilizing garden in an area where you previously had a vegetable garden (i.e. exposed soil, no grass) you can skip ahead to the step creating the beds.
If you’d like to add a self-fertilizing garden in an area where you currently have a lawn, there are two ways you could start: the patient approach, where we let the lawn decompose for several months under a layer of mulch; or a faster approach, where we remove the lawn with tools.
Option 1) Mulching to prepare the ground: On the chosen piece of land, we start by cutting down the existing plants, or we simply walk on the plants to flatten them. If the ground is extremely dry we can add water. We cover the ground with two layers of cardboard and put a thick layer of organic material on top of it (like chipped branch wood, grass cuttings, straw, old hay, leaves). Then, we wait until the following year. This will suppress the weeds, keep the soil moist, create good conditions for worms and micro-organisms, lighten the soil, protect from erosion and bring nutrients to the soil. We have to be patient and let nature do the work. Nevertheless, even this first year can be productive. If prepared in the spring, little holes can be made through the cardboard and some plants can be grown (potatoes are especially easy, planted directly on the lawn under the cardboard; or, we can add transplants like cabbage and cucumbers). The following year, we can create the beds for the self-fertilizing garden.
Option 2) Removing the lawn with tools: If we are in a hurry, it’s possible to prepare the soil and shape the beds the first year by using a rototiller or a shovel to remove the lawn. But we must be careful to remove all perennial roots (i.e. couch grass, dandelion, thistle…) when shaping and moving the soil, otherwise they will grow again. Ideally any organic material that you remove from the lawn should be left to decompose on your land so the nutrients aren’t lost (i.e. the removed lawn can be placed underneath bushes or trees).
Creating the beds
With the help of stakes and string, mark the position of the beds and the pathways. Initially, mark the pathways as being 2 feet wide, as they often end up shrinking as we shape the beds.
In this picture, the grass is being removed with shovels to create the beds the same day.
Take the dirt from the pathways and add it to the center of the beds, making sure to remove all roots from perennial plants (couch grass, dandelion, thistle, milkweed...). This is the only time we will dig the soil: these are permanent beds that never need to be altered in subsequent years. If you have very poor soil, you can add in compost at this stage to improve your soil quality.
With the help of a rake, gently drag thin layers of soil from the center of the bed, and do this successively until a flat surface is attained for the bed. For each layer of soil, we rake the entire bed; then for the next layer of soil, we rake the entire bed again, and so on, until a uniform bed is formed. Between each passage of the rake, remove any rocks or roots from perennial plants. At the end of this process, the sides of the beds are inclined and form slopes. This is the ideal form—flat beds with slopes on each side—since rainwater won’t run off too quickly, and the slopes provide an extra surface to plant on. The height of the bed should be at least a few inches high, with pathways in between that are at least 1 foot wide. It’s important that we keep our feet and knees on the paths at all times and never walk in the growing area: this will keep the soil light for years to come.
(Optional) Add two irrigation lines on the bed. In this picture, these are carlon polyethylene pipes in which holes were added every 30cm.
Installing the vertical plane
Two pieces of rebar are curved and crossed in the center of the bed (be careful when bending rebar, as it can dangerously bounce back if you accidentally let it go while it’s bent). Rebar is an excellent material for creating a permanent vertical plane. Though, in the absence of rebar, other options exist for creating a vertical plane. See if you can find resistant materials that can be reclaimed from the waste stream, or simply use strong branches and bamboo for a less-permanent vertical plane.
A wire winds around the rebar stakes, from which we can hang strings for climbing plants.
Edge and pathways
Around the outside of the beds, an edge is added to impede undesirable plants from making their way to the garden. Cardboard is added 4 feet wide to create the edge.
The cardboard edge is covered in mulch. In this case, we used Chipped Branch Wood, which is ideal, though many other types of mulch are possible, including leaves.
Mulching the beds
On the beds, we add a mulch (chipped branch wood, old hay, straw, decomposing leaves, weeds that haven’t gone to seed, etc.).
If it’s windy, watering the beds helps keep the mulch in place.
Sowing seeds and transplants
Climbing plants at the base of the stake (in this case, peas).
Root vegetables in rectangles (in this case, carrots).
Add transplants through the mulch (in this case, a decorative cabbage).
Adding a water point
A water point is essential to the ecological balance of the garden. It attracts and shelters natural predators and other wildlife. Water points can be created by using kiddie pools or other basins.
The finished garden
Here is the completed garden in the springtime:
A full season: before and after
Here are photos from another self-fertilizing garden in Quebec, showing its progression throughout the season:
Creation in the spring:
Planting in the spring: