The monks and nuns were farmers
Like with all things, I tend to instinctively imitate the Catholic tradition in farming. This was defined long-ago by the monasteries and convents. Grains are in wide, alternating fields (to prevent the dangers of mono-cultures), orchards and vineyards were planted on hilly terrain, bees provided honey, livestock mowed the lawn, berries grew in wooded areas, and everything else went into raised beds.
Most small-plot farmers don’t bother with raised beds (although this is changing rapidly) because it seems like a lot of work. It is a lot of work! We have four 4×8 foot beds, and we were practically bleeding sweat building them and putting them in, analyzing and correcting the dirt, and preparing them for planting. But now we hardly have to do anything except harvest the produce. The stuff grows so enormous that we give half of it away, can a fourth of it, and eat a fourth fresh. We’ve actually been steadily-increasing the diversity of our plantings, as we realize that a few of each plant is enough for our whole family.
Every season, we hoe out the old stuff (and compost it), fertilize, and replant. There’s little weeding or hoeing necessary, because we mulch around the plants. That also means that we only have to water them every few days, even at the peak of summer, as the mulch prevents the soil from drying out. Hoeing and weeding actually increases your overall work-load, by disturbing the soil-churning organisms and damaging the plant roots. We have so many of those, and other humus-makers, that turning the soil over is a total-gross out, with the whole plot a wriggling, squirming mess.
Another form of raised-gardening is planting in pots. We put tomatoes, eggplant, chilies, and the like into self-watering pots we’ve built (make sure to use a high-quality plastic or ceramic pot), and they grow enormous effortlessly, and give us plenty to preserve and give away.
In fact, the biggest problem with raised beds is that they give you so little to do! I walk around them, admiring them, and harvesting them every day, but I only work in them every few months. It’s always exciting for the children when they find a weed to pull. To keep us busy, we’re planning on doubling our beds in the fall.
Having studied the writing of St. Hildegard von Bingen concerning the healing powers of herbs, I naturally decided to plant an entire bed with herbs. We have sage, chamomile, and peppermint, which all have proven medicinal uses. We also have chives, rosemary, lemon balm, and parsley that we use to add essential vitamins, minerals, and flavor to our food. Each plant has a peak-season, and they alternate enough that we have fresh herbs nine months of the year, and frozen or dried herbs for the other three. We drink mostly herbal tea all year: cold in the summer, warm in the cooler months.
The herb garden is arguably the single most productive portion of ours, and I encourage everyone who has any space at all (even a sunny windowsill will do) to plant herbs. This is de rigueur in Germany, as the female elders teach us that herbs can be the difference between keeping and losing teeth, falling sick or staying healthy, in tough times.
In the picture above, you can see fruit trees espaliered into a hedge. It was common in medieval monasteries and convents to use fruit trees, bushes, and climbing vines to decorate the garden. Short, pruned fruit trees grow larger fruit that is easier to harvest. Grape, honeysuckle, or pea plants can be trained over a wooden frame, berry bushes planted in partial-shade (where grass won’t grow well), mulberry or chestnut trees used for shade, edible flowers (like nasturtium, tea roses, and chives) can decorate your borders, and short olive and almond trees can surround a patio.
Not only does this make your garden edible, it also makes it beautiful. In the spring, the flowers are overwhelming, in the summer and fall, the fruits decorate your fence-line, and in the winter the bare branches provide a poignant contrast to the snow. If you plant some witch-hazel, the blooms will appear after everything else is dying off. In truth, most purely-decorative gardens aren’t as nice as a well-planned edible garden.
The monks cared about the beauty of the garden because they were often quite isolated behind protective walls, and the garden was their main source of nature-exposure. Gardens became uglier and less-diverse as they grew in size. I’m trying to reverse that trend in my resident small-plot, with much success. It is beautiful, it is productive, it is low-maintenance, and you don’t have to mow it!
Here is a picture of our tomato pots. The plants are over 4ft high and bearing fruit already, even though it’s only the beginning of June. It’s been such a hot summer.
Here are our raised beds. Front to back: straw-mulched beans and peas (the peas are rogue returners from last year), arugula that’s going to seed and herbs, cucumbers which will soon start climbing up poles and a rogue zucchini, summer squash and parsley. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but the squash plants already have about 20 little baby squashes growing on them, and many more flowers.
Because it’s lightly-shaded by trees, the spring plants are doing well despite the heat. We don’t spray anything, so the bush bean leaves are a bit holey, but they still taste delicious and have lots of beans.
Our mulberry tree! Our favoritist tree of all. It grows outside of our fence-line (our house is to the right, to give you a sense of how big this fruit tree is), but it’s still on our property. We give my neighbor some free jars of mulberry jelly to make up for our trampling all over his yard at harvesting-time. The bottom branches get picked clean as soon as they ripen by small berry-thieves.
Our raspberry plants are underneath the tree, but they’re still small since they were planted two years ago and don’t seem to like the heat in that spot. I might move them to a more shady area later.