Why I'm not planning my garden
And probably never will again
I didn't decide to forgo a garden this year, I'm just not planning it out. Like many gardeners, I used to greatly enjoy making garden maps in the cold months before the real work began. I drew everything out by hand in those days, and organized my papers in a three ring binder. There's a definite advantage to going in with a plan and knowing you have room, at least theoretically, for each fruit or veg you wish to grow. But I got busy, and wanted to pare down the time spent on the garden without reducing the level of food production.
Having a record of plants grown each year and how they fared is valuable for long term planning, but as long as I keep a list of varieties I can make notes later in the season. The actual layout of the garden has become less important each year. A major reason for this is that I don't rotate crops with any seriousness, so I don't need to know plant locations from previous years in order to keep to the program.
Crop rotations are used in an attempt to avoid depleting certain nutrients and to halt the buildup of pathogens, but in the same way that you can't step into the same river twice, I never plant into the same bed twice. This is because each year I build up beds by adding compost, leaves, and the decomposed wood chips that I mine from paths. This continual addition of new material replaces nutrients used by last year's plants, and keeps the soil healthy by providing a continuous supply of fresh organic matter to be consumed by microbes and invertebrates.
Soil is often viewed as a relatively inert substance, despite the widening understanding of it as a living system of staggering complexity. The fact that growing mixes available for purchase are referred to as soils exacerbates the problem. These would more accurately be called “growing media” and can be mixtures of many things including peat, composted manures and wood products, vermiculite, worm castings, and coconut coir (the shredded outer husk of the coconut.) Such mixes are useful, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with using them as long as ingredients are sustainably sourced and you can afford them, but they aren't by strict definition soil.
My inner science nerd rebels against using soil to refer to bagged or bulk planting mixes because the word has a specific definition: a mixture of mineral particles categorized by size, water, air, living creatures, and organic matter in varying states of decay. This hodgepodge is in a constant state of flux as organic and inorganic components break down, and living ones respond to changes in their environment. Commercial growing mixes differ from soil because they rarely have mineral components (sand, silt, and clay), and they contain mixtures that wouldn't occur in nature. More important than what they are however, is where they are.
Building a bed raised above the soil or separated by a barrier is like strangers from far away buying a house in a place where everyone knows everyone else. Neighborhood inhabitants are knit together with bonds of culture and shared and evolving history except for the new neighbors, who never visit or get to know anyone.
The growing mix in the bed could strictly speaking be considered alive — as can the recent arrivals in their new house — but neither are participating in life outside their boundaries. My in-ground beds are delineated by logs, boards and stones, but aren’t otherwise separated from the rest of the neighborhood. There is cultural exchange happening above and below the soil surface. The birds, bees, and myriad insects visiting above ground are matched by teeming life underground. Above and below, it has more species than a extraterrestrial bar in sci-fi movie.
Not only are all parts of the garden connected to each other, the potager is integrated into the larger district including pasture and riparian zone. Inside the garden fence it's slightly more upscale than the surroundings due to the inputs lavished upon it, but the adjacent neighborhoods benefit also. The land slopes downward into permanent pasture on three sides where any excess nutrients are utilized by pasture grasses. Any of the good stuff that escapes the pasture is available to the trees and other vegetation that line the river bank.
Growing in soil that is living and changing has given me the confidence to stop planning. Rather than worrying about nutrient deficiency and pathogen buildup myself, I've outsourced these headaches to the soil itself. I still have pest infestations and occasional unexplained crop failures. It's unrealistic to expect the eradication of such problems, and it's not the goal. The aim is to minimize work and maximize food production while establishing a thriving and connected ecosystem within the larger setting of pasture and woods.
You’ve probably noticed from the photographs I've included that there is something I like to plan: perennial and annual ornamental eye candy for human visitors. Such plantings are spread throughout the garden, along with herbs and perennial and woody food plants, with space for annual food crops in between. Expending no time on annual food crop planning beyond spur of the moment decisions leaves me more mental energy to do what I love. I hope you've enjoyed the results. Spring is imminent here in southeast Ohio so expect many more photos as the show begins.