Spoiler Alert: This gardening thing is about to get a whole lot easier.
People who garden, myself included, tend to have really strong convictions about how to garden. For the sake of Mother Nature, I’m beginning to let go of all my opinions. I’ll always have certain gardening “camps” I identify with: the Permaculturists, the No-Tillers, and the Soil Food Webbies, but there’s a whole heck of a lot I’ve changed my mind about along the way.
I say with one hand over my heart: I’ve gardened in enough places with diverse soils and bugs and crops across the Midwestern board and guess what: Mother Nature doesn’t give one damn about our gardening convictions.
(Please note this post contains affiliate links, which means if you click on a link and buy something I’ll get like 4 cents for it. No extra cost to you – all product recommendations are humbly my own.)
Myth #1: “I Have to Build Raised Beds Because they Increase Production and Drainage”
Newsflash: Raised bed gardens do not grow any better than in-ground gardens (assuming all other variables are equal). Raised beds actually have very little to do with how well your garden grows, so no worries about having to spend all your money on the materials and equipment to build them (whew!)
I’ll tell you what will significantly improve the production and drainage of your garden: Your Healthy SOIL.
Raised beds, be they cedar, stone, cinderblocks or old bath tubs, can certainly lend an attractive architectural element to your yard. Raised beds are also great for gardeners who can’t bend over for long periods of time (the garden below was built for a client with back problems and I had the pleasure of growing it last summer):
I have grown around 75 raised bed gardens (ballparking here, but it’s close to that number). I’ve also grown in about the same amount of in-ground gardens, including larger urban farms. And I confidently tout, one more time: Raised beds are not necessary to grow a beautiful, productive, healthy edible garden.
Assuming you have adequate sunlight (tutorial on that here), and you planted everything on time, the biodiversity of your soil is what will make your garden healthy (less bugs and diseases), it will produce more food, and the food will be much more nutrient-dense.
I have a 2-part blog series on soil building techniques here: Increasing the Biodiversity of Your Soil Food Web: Part 1 and Part 2. If you really want to learn what it takes to build healthy soil and increase productivity in your garden (without raised beds!) I suggest bookmarking these articles and start implementing the practices in stages.
Myth #2: “All the Bugs Need to Die”
This one requires a mind shift. All bugs, good and “bad,” serve a purpose in our ecosystem. Those aphids? Food for the beneficial ladybugs. The slugs? They secrete slime that creates amazing soil structure in your garden. All the spiders and centipedes? They cause zero harm to your plants and actually eat the ones that do.
We’ve been taught from a young age that bugs should be squished. Meanwhile, our modern American agricultural system attacks the “bad” farm bugs with toxic concoctions of chemicals that completely kill them, but at a very sad price: All the good bugs, honeybees and other pollinators, trillions of soil microbes, and even animals, are all killed in the process. This bug genocide seriously effects the ecosystem as a whole.
I scoff at the many blog posts I see on Pinterest titled, “10 organic ways to kill bugs” and “THE ONE THING IN YOUR FRIDGE that will kill all the pests in your garden”…
What we need to realize is that we don’t actually need to interfere with the bugs at all. When our gardens are healthy, the bugs balance themselves out by eating each other. Really! Our homemade “organic” remedies aren’t even necessary. Masanobu Fukuoka, one of the beings I have been most inspired by so far in my life, founded the idea of “do-nothing” farming. More and more I am adopting his do-nothing attitude, not only for my soil building practices, but for the bugs, too.
I’m going as far to challenge you to build an insect habitat (picture below). This way, your ladybugs have somewhere to live over the winter. Believe it or not, ladybugs live for years at a time! You are now a bug mama (or papa). Bet you never thought it would come to this!
Myth #3: “I Need to Buy All These Fertilizers”
The fertilizer companies would love you to keep on believing this. The truth is, plants don’t actually grow from fertilizer. Plants grow from nutrients provided by trillions of visible and invisibile creatures living in the soil.
Another mind shift (you’re doing great): We don’t feed our plants by throwing handfuls of fertilizer on them. We feed the soil a diverse diet of organic matter that is eaten and broken down by the plethora of earthworms, beneficial bacteria, protozoa, fungi and other microbes that naturally live in the Earth’s crust.
The microbes synthesize this organic matter into usable nutrients for the plants. The most fascinating part is, the plants and the microbes develop intricate relationships, so the microbes know exactly what the plants need.
Totally Related: 4 Steps to Cover Cropping Your Backyard Garden
This is called the Soil Food Web and is life on earth at its most basic! If this is really peaking your interest, I suggest reading Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to The Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis – a fascinating, easy to read book that will change the way you garden forever.
Let me compare our gardens to our bodies. Some people think that as long as they take daily vitamin pills, they can keep on eating a junky diet largely devoid of nutrition and the vitamins will keep them healthy. Then there’s other people who eat mostly healthy, plant-based diets with occasional grass fed organic meat, yet they don’t need vitamins because their bodies are already nourished from their food. There are very basic similarities in this mindset of fertilizing our bodies with vitamins and fertilizing our plants with junk we buy at Home Depot. Just as most commercially-available vitamins lack in nutrient delivery for our bodies, fertilizers lack nutrient delivery for our plants.
The #1, absolute best “fertilizer” for your plants is your own homemade compost + compost tea made from it. Making your own compost is not only free, but it can be as easy as throwing all your food scraps in a pile and forgetting about it.
If you want to get serious about composting, I suggest checking out my tutorial here: How to Compost Kitchen & Garden Scraps to Increase Soil Biodiversity in Your Garden.
In gardens that do not have a robust microbial ecosystem (new gardens and container gardens), I will add small amounts of Kelp Meal and Alfalfa Meal during soil prep. Sometimes fertilizers are necessary, and it’s okay to use the sustainble, organically-derived ones. Just make sure you know why you’re using your fertilizers. Don’t mindlessly use them just because the labeling on the package told you so.
Myth #4: “I’ll Spend All My Time Weeding, and I Hate Weeding!”
Weeds get no love! Yet they are simply incredible. The above photo looks like a mess to most people, but I spy a delicious smorgasbord of white clover, plantain and nettles.
Totally Related: Edible Medicinal Plants for Your Yard + How to Grow and Use Them
The beautiful thing about weeds is – most of them are edible. And they are highly nutritious. Dandelion? Natural diuretic, prebiotic, and gut healer. Lamb’s Quarters? More Vitamin K than spinach. Plantain? Wound healer. Chickweed? It’s the new Superfood. Wood Sorrel? Tart and to die for. Purslane? The reason I fell for all the others.
Once we stop thinking of weeds as “weeds,” the whole weeding chore becomes manageable. You don’t have to do it as much. Start by identifying which “weeds” you have growing in your garden, and decide which ones get to stay and go. Midwest Foraging by Lisa Rose is the perfect book for this and includes 115 plants. You’ll be AMAZED how many weeds growing in the cracks in the sidewalks you can EAT or infuse in oils to make natural body products.