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.

| February/March 2017

  • In this take on container gardening, you plant directly into the straw bale and add fertilizer regularly.
    Photo by Flickr/coconinoco
  • A hugelkultur mound requires loads of wood but can slowly improve soil as the wood breaks down.
    Photo by Washington State University Extension
  • A hugelkultur bed is a large planting mound filled with wood debris.
    Photo by Washington State University Extension
  • In aquaculture, fish waste feeds plants, while plants cleanse the water that returns to the fish.
    Photo by Growing Power
  • Hydroponic setups allow more control over growing conditions but depend on a nutrient solution.
    Photo by Flickr/Kathy Kimpel
  • Hydroponic setups can save space.
    Photo by Dreamstime/studio2013
  • Tomatoes thrive in this straw bale, which takes time to set up but will provide its own mulch.
    Photo by Flickr/Laura Hamilton

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.






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