Unconventional Gardening Methods: Pros and Cons

With this breakdown of the pros and cons of aquaculture, straw bale gardening, hugelkultur, lasagna gardening, biodynamic gardening, and hydroponics, you can reimagine your backyard space.

Unconventional Gardening Methods 1

In this take on container gardening, you plant directly into the straw bale and add fertilizer regularly.

Photo by Flickr/coconinoco

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Novel gardening methods go through phases of prominence on the gardening scene. Perhaps made popular by a new book or a reinvigoration of an old method, there’s always some “hot” technique, product, or way to garden. But what’s just hype, and what really works? Which gardening methods have noted advantages? And which methods make sense for small-scale backyard gardeners versus serious homesteaders or market gardeners? Let’s dig into the benefits and potential hang-ups of six gardening styles you’ve likely heard about lately.

About Lasagna Gardening

This method cleverly transfers the layering concept of lasagna to gardening — but instead of cheese and marinara, we’re talking about plant debris and all things compostable. The idea is to create thick, diverse layers of organic materials that will act as a mulch and break down into rich layers of humus over time. Your layers might include straw, compost (including kitchen scraps), manure, fallen leaves, plant debris, wood chips, bark dust, coir, newspaper, cardboard, and grass clippings. Ideally, you’ll have a good mix of materials, both nitrogen-rich (“greens”) and carbon-rich (“browns”).

Pros. Lasagna gardening is a particularly great no-till method for creating a new garden bed where you currently have sod; you can layer materials right in that spot to kill the sod and start building fertility. This method makes effective use of “waste” around your home and yard and helps suppress weeds, thus saving you time in the garden. This is a practical, low-tech, and effective method for small to medium plots and also builds rich, active soil.

Cons. For a larger garden, you’ll have to devote more time to finding enough organic debris to make the method possible, and you’ll need to dedicate more time to hauling and spreading it over the garden. If you use plant debris as part of the layering, you’ll run the risk of introducing or providing a host for certain kinds of pests and diseases. If the materials haven’t broken down enough, they may not be a good medium for planting, as there won’t be good soil contact with plants’ roots.

Hugelkultur

Used for centuries in Germany and other countries in eastern Europe, hugelkultur (which loosely translates to “mound culture”) involves building large planting mounds filled with wood debris, such as cut-up sections of tree limbs. Like lasagna gardening, this technique’s central concept involves the breakdown of plentiful organic matter. But while lasagna gardening calls for adding a diversity of relatively quick-to-break-down matter, this method plays the long game — relying on the slow decomposition of wood to boost the soil food web over time.

To build a hugelkultur mound, lay down a layer of thick branches or logs in roughly the shape you want your bed (see photos on Page 15). A common mound size is about 3 feet by 6 feet. Next, layer on medium-sized branch pieces, followed by smaller twigs and sticks. Then, stuff any open spaces with organic materials, such as compost, leaves, and grass clippings. Add about 2 inches of soil over the whole mound. Finally, plant into the mound right away, or, for best results, let it “cure” for at least a few months, and then plant.

Pros. Wood does incredible things for soil. As it decomposes, it adds carbon and increases a network of beneficial organisms called mycorrhizal fungi, which work in combination with plants’ roots to help crops uptake essential nutrients. The mounds retain moisture well, improve drainage, and may even provide additional heat inside the decomposing mound, allowing you to extend your season. This method offers an excellent way to put wood debris to use if you have a lot of it on your property. After the mounds are built, they’re relatively easy to plant into (especially because they’re elevated like a raised bed).

Cons. If you’re growing a large garden with multiple mounds, this method is going to take a hefty amount of wood debris. If you don’t have a woodlot or easy access to downed tree limbs or small logs on your property, you’ll have to haul the wood in from someplace else. This approach is also more time-consuming to set up than many other systems, requiring some wood chopping and hauling. You may notice less-than-stellar results your first time planting into a new hugelkultur bed. Wood breaks down slowly, so you’re likely to notice improved results in subsequent seasons.

Pros and Cons of Aquaculture

This method, also known as aquaponics, yields two “crops” at once: fresh produce and homegrown fish. The plants and fish are raised in separate areas but are part of the same system, with water cycling between them, usually through a system of pumps and pipes (pictured at left).

Pros. If you’re interested in waste diversion and closed-loop systems, this model has a lot to offer. The fish waste feeds the plants, and the plants naturally cleanse the water before it cycles back to the fish. It’s an increasingly popular method for farmers, even among urban farmers in cities such as Detroit. The double-duty approach could mean more income for growers and less money spent on outside fertilizer.

Cons. Setting up an aquaculture system requires quite a big investment of space, time, and money. You’ll have to purchase all the components of the system, such as fish tanks and a pump to cycle the water, and commit to monitoring not only the health of your vegetables, but also the health and needs of the fish. Aquaculture may make the most sense for market gardeners or people gardening as a group, such as a highly participatory school garden or community garden. Check your local regulations — selling fish comes with its own set of legal guidelines.

Pros and Cons of Hydroponics

Hydroponics is frequently confused with aquaculture, though there are many fundamental differences between the two. While aquaculture is a closed-loop system of fish wastewater being recycled to feed plants, hydroponics instead relies on a store-bought nutrient solution to feed crops.

Pros. If a gardener lacks growing space, small-scale hydroponic setups could offer a way to still plant vegetables. The soilless system can decrease water use compared with conventional systems. One hydroponic lettuce grower in Washington state reports that in his operation he uses about a tenth of the water that he would if he were growing in soil. With hydroponics, you can also closely control the nutrient and growing environments, and you won’t have to weed.

Cons. Hydroponic setups aren’t cheap — even small, simple hydroponic kits for the home grower can cost up to $200, plus the ongoing cost of nutrient solution. Certain diseases could spread quickly through the system. Furthermore, some see hydroponics as a way to skirt the very real problems we’ve created with soil fertility and soil erosion in industrialized agriculture systems. Instead of addressing these problems head-on and working to regenerate our land and food system, this technique switches to growing crops indoors (even in skyscrapers, as some have proposed) using artificial lights and a nutrient solution.

About Straw Bale Gardening

This technique is a type of container gardening, in which a straw bale is your planter (pictured opposite). You plant directly into a bale turned on its side. First, “condition” a fresh bale of straw (don’t use hay) by watering it daily for a few days, adding some fertilizer to speed up decomposition for the next few days (this will heat up the bale). Keep it watered for about 10 days more, until the internal temperature has dropped back down to ambient temperature. Finally, dig a planting hole, add some potting mix, and plant as you would in the ground.

Pros. Proponents say this is an inexpensive, compact method that you can do anywhere — even if you don’t have soil. The straw acts as both container and mulch. It gives you a raised garden area, which is helpful if you have trouble bending to reach the ground, and you’re also not likely to have to spend time weeding or doing other physically demanding garden work.

Cons. The process can be a bit temperamental, and newly conditioning a bale will require attention and time. Also, because crops won’t get the same nutrition from the decomposing bale as they would from soil, you’ll have to add fertilizer regularly throughout the growing season. This means that if you won’t be able to make effective homemade fertilizer, then you’ll have to rely on purchased fertilizer.

About Biodynamic Gardening

Unique among the other methods discussed here, biodynamic growing is as much a philosophy as it is a growing style. According to the Biodynamic Association, this methodology was developed in the 1920s and is based on the principles of Dr. Rudolf Steiner, a scientist and philosopher who perceived a farm as a single, self-sustaining organism that thrives through biodiversity. This growing style eschews pesticides, integrates crops and livestock, and embraces a closed-loop system in which the farm meets its needs from the living dynamics of the farm itself.

Pros. Biodynamic growing works with nature instead of against it. The principles go beyond organic, considering the health of nearby forests, ecosystems, streams, and all plant and animal life. The idea is to limit or eliminate outside inputs, such as fossil fuels, and instead use animals to help with tillage and fertility. Biodynamic growers also seek to grow a diversity of flowering plants to attract beneficial insects to aid in pest control. This method is environmentally sustainable and is meant to be economically sustainable, requiring little need for purchasing outside inputs because the compost, manure fertilizer, and even pest-control strategies are produced right on the farm. Biodynamic growing can be rewarding and full of learning opportunities for the engaged grower.

Cons. If you’d like to sell some of your fruits and vegetables as “biodynamic,” you’ll have to pay a $300 annual fee to become Certified Biodynamic — but the certification should allow you to achieve a higher price point for your produce, and the cost could be shared between members of a local growing co-op.

To fully embrace the method, you’ll be taking on the commitment of raising at least a small number of poultry or livestock to produce manure onsite.

Some growers may find the concepts of biodynamics a little “out there.” Steiner believed in a strong connection between the spiritual and scientific, and he developed certain herbal preparations to feed the “vital forces” of a farm. That said, modern-day biodynamic standards focus mostly on the aspects of sustainability and biodiversity.

All of these unconventional methods invite experimentation, and you can choose which you want to try in your own garden to suit your needs — perhaps even mixing and matching techniques. For instance, you might work within a biodynamic framework to try constructing and planting into a hugelkultur mound. Or, you might try a lasagna garden bed alongside a straw-bale garden bed to compare and contrast the outcome.

If you’d like to report your results, send a note to Letters@MotherEarthNews.com, and we might pass along your findings in a future issue. When it comes to growing food, we can all find common ground and help in each other’s success.


Shelley Stonebrook is a market farmer based in Oregon and a contributing editor to MOTHER EARTH NEWS. She crafts soaps infused with garden-grown botanicals, which she sells through her shop.