Some thoughts on creating a food garden

The hardest part of making a garden is not the design (though ‘designers’ like to pretend that it is), the hard part is physically building it. The design is important to make sure you don’t make any major mistakes, but translating that into reality is the main part of the job. I think that most of the work of creating a garden should be done by its inhabitant, where at all practical, Ralph Waldo Emerson said “When I go into the garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands.”

Making the beds, improving soil, digging holes, building fences, planting, laying paths, hauling and applying mulch, and cutting trees, aren’t easy, in fact they are the activities that sort the women from the girls. Fortunately you don’t need to (and shouldn’t) create the whole garden at once. It’s easier and more enjoyable to work on one little section at a time, starting with the most important parts near the house and working your way out until the whole garden is filled up.

Creating a garden is not a single project, in the same way as building a house or writing a book, it is more like a long journey with a small stage completed every day and all eventually adding up to a major achievement. Building the garden simply becomes a part of everyday life and you go out and do something whenever the opportunity (and motivation) arises. My main guiding principle is to gradually increase the diversity and productivity of the garden. I keep on adding various parts (some are bigger than others) and each contributes a little more, but there is no end anywhere, I will be working on it for as long as I live here. Frederick Eden said “A garden is not made in a year; indeed it is never made in the sense of finality. It grows and with the labour of love should go on growing.”  

Generally the best place to start working on your garden is in the area around the back door. This isn’t because you are close to the kitchen for coffee breaks and snacks, but because it is the most important living area in the garden. Work on the things you need in this area until it is planted and functioning and then start on another area (maybe out of the front door). You then work on one area at a time until you fill up the whole garden. Alternatively you could start by doing the things that interest you the most, whether planting fruit trees, digging a pond or raising chickens (as well as planting the permanent food plants – the trees and shrubs). As I have said before you are supposed to enjoy yourself (most of the time).

I have found the most practical way to create a garden is to separate the work into several phases. In the pioneering first phase the priority is to get each area functioning, which means getting the permanent woody plants (fruit trees, vines and berry bushes) growing. You also create the basic garden framework (form beds, build fences, dig ponds and anything else required to get the area started). You then work on each of the other areas in turn until all are functioning and their main plants are growing. In the second phase you go back over each area and refine it further (add paving, irrigation, trellis, do more planting). When you have completed the second phase for all areas of the garden (obviously some areas need more work than others) it should all be functioning pretty well. You then enter the third phase which includes mulching, refining the irrigation, adding ornamentation, more planting and other fun stuff.

Some people prefer to work on one area at a time until it is finished right down to the placement of tables and placemats (they call it being thorough and can’t do it any other way). The problem with this is that you really can fit a lot into a small space and it’s easy to spend so much time on the first area that the rest of the garden doesn’t develop very quickly (whereas you want to get those trees and bushes growing everywhere).

Sometimes creating the garden can be a lot like doing a jigsaw puzzle. You start with the most obvious parts (corners, edges) and work out from there, filling in as you go. Often you don’t know what to do next until you finish one part and suddenly the next step becomes obvious. Sometimes you will be perplexed for a while, not knowing with an area, in which case just carry on around it until the answer comes along. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle you can take as long as you want.

Once all parts of the garden are fully functioning you change from builder to manager and your workload goes down considerably. The work also tends to become more interesting because it has more direct and productive purpose. You introduce new plants, remove unproductive things, add artwork, propagate plants and generally fine tune the garden to maximize productivity for the amount of work expended. No area is ever completely finished and you may decide to go back to the most unproductive areas (places where things didn’t work out as expected) and improve them with the benefit of greater experience and knowledge.

Your perspective on time changes as you gain more experience in the garden. When you first start out 5 years sounds like an awfully long time and you debate whether it is worth doing something that takes so long to come to fruition. Yet that 5 years will pass quickly enough and planting a tree today gives you something else to look forward to later. The growing plant is quickly forgotten and becomes just part of the scenery, until the day when it suddenly starts to produce fruit and takes center stage.

The biggest secret to creating a wonderful productive food garden is to simply keep at it. Over time the garden will inevitably improve, gradually becoming less work, more productive, more interesting, more diverse, more filled with wildlife and more beautiful. This is true even if you are a total incompetent and kill plants every year. So long as some of what you plant each year survives, the garden will eventually fill up with beautiful food. 

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