We have the tendency to jump five steps ahead when we start working on the land, we immediately begin planning what vegetables and fruits we want to grow, calculating yields and zoning our land into production areas.
The trouble with this is that a few weeks or months down the line, once the beds are made and the fields prepared, we realise that there are certain things the soil and the plants need that are missing.
Soon we need organic matter for the soil, we need shade for the greens and the saplings we’ve planted out in the open, we need to protect our beds from strong drying winds, we need more diversity to encourage pollination and pest control, we need poles to support saplings and climbing plants.
So where do we get all of these? We order cow dung from nearby farms, try to buy straw and mulch from others, we buy poles at 50 bucks a piece, we spray our plants with neem spray to control the aphids, and we use shade net or construct fences to reduce the impact of wind.
This all ends up costing us money, time, effort and results in us running around fire fighting instead of enjoying ourselves.
Instead, we can anticipate all these needs and think right at the beginning about the support our productive plants will need and focus on laying the foundations of our farm before focussing on produce.
So what form does such a foundation take? It takes the form of plants, and lots of them.
Here are some examples:
Multifunctional living fences:
One of the best ways to ensure the wellbeing of your crops is by planting the edges of the land with multifunctional fencing. Usually living fences are hedges with the specific function of keeping things in, or keeping them out. They usually include thorny, dense or non browsable species. Besides simply being fences, however, they can do much more for the farm. Planned properly, they can give you your first yields - of mulch, shade, poles, cuttings, seeds, and food.
In addition to this, the trees themselves protect the soil, reduce erosion, provide habitat for birds and honey bees. In the beginning one can focus on stress tolerant pioneer species, with an emphasis on legumes such as Acacias and Sesbania grandiflora, which fix nitrogen in the soil throughout the root zone. Nitrogen that can be harvested as mulch in the form of dry leaves or leafy prunings. A living fence increases soil humus as its leaf litter and root hairs (which the plants shed to balance loss of top growth to pruning or browsing) break down.
Of course, the more diverse they are, the more you get in return. Multilayered, multifunctional planting like this provides edge habitat that supports ecological diversity. As more species (insects, spiders, toads, snakes, birds and mammals) find food and refuge in this habitat, natural balances emerge, yielding, for example, a reduction of rodents and crop-damaging insect populations.Windbreaks:
Windbreaks can be living fences and vice versa. Here we create a distinction as usually living fences are planted along the outer periphery of the land, while windbreaks can be planted internally as well. Windbreaks, i.e. a multilayered planting of trees and shrubs, are important to reduce evaporation - and therefore erosion - in the soil from drying winds, create moist microclimates, provide shade.
Our typical understanding of vegetable gardens and field crops does not include a lot of trees. In the tropics, however, trees are essential as, in these regions, most of the nutrients are stored in trees. The more trees we incorporate into our systems, the easier our work. Interior trees, those grown within vegetable gardens and fields, are also valuable as in addition to the many benefits trees provide listed above - shade, attracting birds and beneficial insects, acting as supports, and reducing evaporation - they also reduce stress on livestock and crop plants - it has been found that pulses grown in light shade contain more protein than those not.
Planting rows of trees along contours in your fields also reduces erosion from rainfall on slopes.
Vegetable gardens must also include trees, they can be used for chopping and dropping for mulch, they help with integrated pest management, they provide valuable shade in the summer (keep in mind that pruning must only be done when precipitation is higher than evaporation - in the summers, shade is more valuable than mulch).
Nurse plants, cover crops & living mulch:
Support doesn’t only come in large plantings, but in smaller ones too. For example, you need to support any tree saplings with other plants. We’ve gotten into the habit of planting our saplings far apart from one another, leaving them isolated and vulnerable. We can use nurse plants to give them company and to protect the sapling during its most vulnerable period of growth.
A nurse plant is a fast growing, hardy, usually leguminous (or nutrient accumulating) species which is planted along with any fruit sapling or tree sapling of your choice. Planted on the SW corner of the plant it will act as a windbreak, provide shade and nutrients.
And you don’t have to stop at one nurse plant, the more the better.
In addition to these larger saplings around your main one, you can sow cover crops of fast growing leguminous and nutrient accumulator species. These act as a living mulch and can be cut and incorporated into the soil before they go to seed. These, as well as herbaceous ground covers such as Sweet Potato, reduce weed growth by blocking the sunlight essential for seed germination, and allow us to improve soil structure and fertility over time without tilling (which damages the structure of the soil, kills soil life, including earthworms, and results in further erosion).
Using the edges of your vegetable beds
Keep an eye out for empty spaces where you can grow support planting directly around your veggie beds. The species you choose here will be fast growing and good for chop and drop, this can include edible species such as some of the larger edible perennials (check our previous journal post of the same name for a list).