Lately I've been busy fixing water drainage problems in my backyard. It’s one of those annoying jobs where you can’t see the immediate benefits. Compared to growing tomatoes or herbs where you can see the results very quickly.
But I think of water management as a natural asset which pays back many times over in the long term. In this case, the pay back will come in two ways:
- My garage won't flood every time we get heavy rain.
- Less time watering my fruit trees, because water will be diverted to where it's needed, rather than going to waste down the drain.
Natural assets are the secret to a productive, low maintenance garden
Just like a financial asset, a natural asset will pay you back year after year with little to no effort involved.
Except rather than money, these natural assets pay you back with something you literally can’t buy these days - clean and nutritious food.
Food that's grown or produced naturally and eaten straight away, making it way more tasty and full of extra vitamins and minerals, minus the toxic chemicals.
Fast food gardening
The thing is, most people don't take this approach to gardening. It's certainly not how I started out. It was only after a lot of trial and error that I realised most of my mistakes came from a focus on quick wins.
That’s because human beings are terrible at visualising the future. We are impatient and it's boring to wait a year or even a decade to get something back.
Which is why most gardeners spend a lot of time and money on bags of potting mix, fertiliser, soil supplements and seedlings. It’s the 'convenient' fast food approach to gardening. It's convenient because:
- You don’t need to know anything about soil health or growing seedlings
- It provides an instant garden. Put the potting mix in the pot. Put the seedling in the pot. And you're done.
While it's actually a good way to start out, it doesn't stack up in the long term. Here are 3 reasons why:
1. It ends up being more work
Ironically, a focus on convenience and quick results ends up being more work in the long term. That's because external inputs such as potting mix and fertiliser need to be regularly replaced and plants need regular repotting.
2. It's more expensive
Gardening products are big business, with a 2018 National Gardening Survey reporting that American gardeners spent a record $47.8 billion on lawn and garden retail sales. The costs add up quickly.
3. It’s not sustainable
Transporting or shipping plastic bags full of soil over long distances, can't be a sustainable solution in the long term. I can't find any data on this, but it would be interesting to compare the environmental impact of transporting potting mix (which is heavy and bulky), to transporting fruit and vegetables.
On top of the transport impact, lots of potting mixes use peat moss which is incredibly destructive to the environment. As this article says:
"Mining of peat moss is an incredibly destructive industry that is harming not only sensitive habitat but some of our largest carbon stores on the planet"
Growing your Natural Wealth
The alternative to fast food gardening is to take a longer term approach by building your natural assets. bit by bit. Day after day. Here are some examples of natural assets and the advantages that come with it:
Once established, fruit trees provide fruit year after year, in return for a bit of water and pruning.
The extreme example of fruit trees are olive trees. An olive tree takes a lot of patience, because it takes 3-12 years to start producing fruit (depending on the cultivar).
And when the olives are ready to pick, you can't eat them straight away because they contain glucosides which make the olives bitter. To extract the glucosides they are often fermented, which can take an additional 6-12 months.
But once olive trees gets going, the pay-off is big, with a lifespan of up to 2,000 years. And over time olive trees get more productive. For example five year old trees produce about 30kgs, ten year old trees 80kgs and fourteen year old trees 130kgs.
An olive tree that Plato taught his students under 2,400 years ago was still standing in Greece until recently and still producing fruit. That was before a bus ran into it in 1976. The remaining lower part of the trunk (estimated to be over 1,000 pounds) and its gigantic roots vanished in 2013. How does a 1000 pound tree just go missing?
Backyard chickens are a great example of a natural asset. They take a bit of effort to setup and you need to invest some time learning about them so you know what you're doing. But once setup, chickens provide eggs almost every day and spread manure around the garden for you.
And backyard chickens are a natural asset that can't easily be replaced. Organic or even pastured eggs are nowhere near the quality or nutritional value of backyard eggs. A commercial operation that gives chickens access to a bit of grass each day can't compete with the diverse free range diet of insects and greens that chickens get in a well-managed backyard. It's not something that scales at a commercial level.
Healthy soil is full of organic matter and full of life. It’s built up over time from recycled garden waste (compost), manure and food waste (worm farms). It’s literally teeming with life. Here is what a handful of healthy soil contains:
- up to 50 billion bacteria
- up to 100 million fungal cells connected together by filaments called hyphae. Fungus is important for decomposing, holding soil together and for uptake of nutrients by plants
- nematodes which eat bacteria, fungi, small insects other Nematodes
- up to 1,000 Arthropods (Bugs), most which can only barely be seen by the human eye
In comparison, commercially produced soil or potting mix is basically dead and sterile dirt that acts as a growing medium.
Are you an olive farmer or fast food gardener?
Are you approaching your food garden like an olive farmer or fast food gardener?
It's really difficult to think like an olive farmer, but there's significant advantages for those willing to take a longer term approach.