Even gardening pros like Matthew Evans struggle with soil health every now and then. Healthy soil yields healthy crops, which, as any good home gardener knows, can be the difference between an outstanding meal or just an okay one. But juggling rainwater management, climate and garden maintenance with the overarching goal of living and farming more sustainably can present challenges for all types of gardeners, urban or rural – even at Fat Pig Farm in Tasmania’s Huon Valley.
Hannah Moloney, co-founder of Hobart-based Good Life Permaculture and former Gardening Australia host, is chock full of simple, DIY techniques for home veggie growers looking to optimise the quality of garden soil, particularly through slowing, spreading and sinking nutrient-dense rainwater.
Moloney has coached Evans through the benefits of digging off-contour swales (like mini trenches) and planting trees as a regenerative water management technique. These simple gutters are used to trap rainwater and allow it to recharge into subsoil to restore overall health. They’re also easy for you to implement yourself at home.
“Water and nutrients are critical to a healthy landscape,” Moloney tells SBS. “Strategic earthworks like off-contour swales can accelerate landscape health and productivity. Off-swales work particularly well in cool, temperate climates because they slow and sink water into the soil – instead of it quickly running off the landscape – and catch and store nutrients in that area like leaf litter, animal manures, any organic matter.
“This organic matter can be caught in the swale’s shape and break down in place, providing food for soil biology to cycle throughout the landscape.”
Off-contour swales work especially well on Fat Pig Farm as it’s positioned on a sloped site . Swales dug into one side of the gully can harness rainfall and enrich the whole hillside with water and nutrients. But that’s not to say the technique can’t work just as well in your back yard.
“In our garden at home, we’ve shaped some of our pathways to be off-contour swales, where they can catch and store rainfall and organic matter and sink it into the landscape,” says Moloney. Digging swales in your garden is a low-tech, easily achievable way of harvesting nitrogen from rainwater, making home-grown veggie patches sing.
And that’s not the only permaculture hack hiding up Moloney’s sleeve. Here are four more tips for getting the most out of your veggie patch, whether it’s a tiny inner-city plot or part of a sprawling acreage.
Plan, plan, and plan some more
“If you’re starting from scratch, take some time to do a design for your garden,” Moloney says. “This will help create space that meets all your needs, and is more likely to avoid mistakes which can cost you time and money.”
Do research on sites like Good Life Permaculture, and perhaps even consult an expert for preliminary information and ideas.
Watch your waste
“Compost everything,” says Moloney. “Seriously. There should be nothing organic going into your bin. Compost everything and cycle those nutrients back into your productive garden to feed the soil and plants.
Thankfully, there’s no shortage of resources on composting – even if you’re a complete novice. Read our ‘how to’ guide here.
Mix it up
“Diversity of plants is key to a healthy garden. Grow a range of herbs, salads, vegetables and fruits strategically. This diversity will help prevent pest invasions and provide a broad yield across all seasons,” Moloney says.
“Start small and then gradually increase your garden’s size as you have the time and capacity to maintain the garden,” Moloney advises. “Sometimes people struggle to maintain large gardens as they’re busy with work or family. Just have a small garden if this is the case, and make it a really intensive one that produces well.”
Matthew Evans is back in his brand-new series of Gourmet Farmer, 8pm Thursday nights from August 1 on SBS and SBS On Demand. Visit the Gourmet Farmer website for recipes, the episode guide and more.