By Chef Centehua
Much time, energy and money can go into growing food. However, there are also many ways to make the process affordable, sustainable and less demanding. Growing a garden does not mean spending hours hunched over, pulling weeds. It also doesn’t require buying a bunch of starts or fertilizers. Growing food means you are building soil. By this, I mean building soil biology.
You want soil rich in microorganisms, worms and plant matter. For this, you’ll need compost, which is often free at local farms. We get organic mushroom compost for free at a local mushroom farm. We just pull our truck right up and load it with beautiful, smelly compost — food for our garden. Perhaps you already are working on a compost bin at home, a great way to build soil. We avoid synthetic fertilizers like the plague, so we use a blend of horse manure from our friends’ horses, mushroom compost and kelp. I live on the coast in southern California, so it’s easy for me to harvest kelp that is lying on the beach and bring it home for our garden.
There are some organic products online that use kelp as the main nutrient for fertilizing; however, in order to avoid the cost and excess packaging, it’s easy (and fun) to make your own. Building healthy soil requires organic matter to promote biodiversity. For example, urine is a great fertilizer and nitrogen fixer. Perhaps it’s not the most commonly used, but it’s highly effective — and free! Simply mix urine and water, and pour onto the soil. Your trees will love the blend. Stinging nettle makes for another great fertilizer, and nettle grows all over the world. To make the fertilizer tea, simply take a bunch of nettle, place it in a jar or bucket and cover with water. Let it stand for a week or so until the nettle is pretty much disintegrating into a slimy, watery tea. That murky nettle water is amazing.
Cardboard is great for building soil and reducing water usage. This technique is called sheet mulching. When preparing your garden, line your beds or the garden area with flattened cardboard, paper bags, newspaper, leaves, grass — any excessive growth and cuttings, etc. There is plenty of free and available mulching material right there in your environment. Once you’ve laid it all out, hose down the mulch material. The water will promote its decomposition and help it to settle in. Then cover it with your compost/soil. You are ready to plant. Using hay around your newly planted crops protects your plants from the environment, heat and cold, and also acts as a sponge to hold moisture in; so you water less and your weeds will be taken care of, too. Simply chop any weeds that do come up and drop them right there to continue the mulching and feeding of soil. Mulching is brilliant! It saves money, resources and time.
Speaking of resources, collecting rainwater is a great way to save money and our most precious resource. Rain water is not treated with chlorine or toxic chemicals that inhibit plant growth and destroy the soil’s biology. And did I mention that it’s free?
Taking cuttings and saving the seeds allows for abundance with little cost. There are great online videos and resources that will help you understand how to propagate and grow food from seed. This is a great opportunity to share the cycle of life with your kids. Everybody gets to plant the seeds that turn into little sprouts and then into plants that will bear fruit. Feeling this connection to our food has been one of the most important experiences of our lives as individuals and as family.
I also recommend planting medicinal herbs and flowers like calendula, poppies, sunflowers, marigolds, etc. They encourage bees and other pollinators. Bees are of vital importance to every garden because they ensure our food supply. The best way to help them is to stop using the chemicals and synthetic fertilizers that kill them. Bees also love long grass and weeds, and that is just fine with me because I love my garden looking wild. I never really liked mowing the lawn anyway.
Great garden resources: