Toward a Do-nothing Gardening, pt. 1: Soil Fertility (Lazy Gardening)

Toward a Do-nothing Gardening, pt. 1: Soil Fertility (Lazy Gardening)

“How about not doing this? How about not doing that?” Masanobu Fukuoka, author of “The One Straw Revolution”, asked himself this question when developing his do-nothing method of farming. And I’ve asked myself the same question over the years as we’ve simplified our approach by gradually eliminating a number of gardening products and practices. But what about our remaining gardening practices? Can we simplify them further and get closer to Fukuoka’s do-nothing ideal while still getting great results? Today I’ll take a look at our gardening practices that maintain soil fertility. I’ll talk about how we’ve simplified them so far, and consider if any of them can be simplified further, or even eliminated, in the future. Making enough compost for our garden could be very time consuming and back breaking work, especially if we turned the compost frequently in order to make it as fast as possible. So, early on I asked the question “how about not turning compost often?” The approach we settled on is to have multiple piles that are started at different times for an ongoing supply of compost. Some are dedicated to slow composting and some to fast composting. The slow piles typically have a higher carbon to nitrogen ratio than the hot piles and don’t contain any food scraps. They don’t heat up very much and break down more slowly. They contain plenty of course brown material, which helps keep air in the pile, and we never turn them. We would turn them if they became anaerobic and smelled bad, but it’s never happened. So, the slow piles don’t require any work other than adding the organic matter and removing the compost. We also turn the hot piles as little as possible. Our rule of thumb is to turn them only when the center reaches 150 F or 66 C. This ensures that the pile doesn’t get too hot, but minimizes turning. Typically, we turn a hot pile only once or twice. Using temperature as a guide also tells us if we need to add more green ingredients to heat the pile up, or more browns to cool it down. Our fall/winter compost piles, which may not reach 150 F because of the cold are turned only once in early spring. Another technique we use to minimize turning is to punch holes in the compost with rebar. This gets oxygen into the pile and also allows us to add water. If needed, more green ingredients, like coffee grounds, can be added to heat up the pile as well. Minimizing turning helps us get a little closer to a do-nothing garden, but after years of applying compost to the garden, it’s possible that we can get even closer. In the spring, we’re going to have our soil tested. If the test shows large nutrient surpluses, we’ll significantly cut back our compost production. Though we’ll continue to compost organic matter generated on site, we’ll stop collecting additional resources like used coffee grounds and our neighbor’s leaves, at least until the nutrient levels are no longer in large surplus. For the most part, keeping composting worms to process food scraps doesn’t require much effort, but harvesting castings can, especially if you manually separate the castings from the worms. To keep the work to a minimum, we use flow through worm bins. As food is added to the top of the bin, the worms naturally migrate to the top where the fresh food is, leaving their castings below. Castings are then harvested from the bottom. Though some worms remain at the bottom, we don’t worry about separating them from the castings. Instead, we just add them, along with their castings, to the garden. Because we mulch our garden beds, the worms have enough food to survive in the garden. As with compost, if our soil test shows a large surplus of nutrients, we’ll scale back on our vermicomposting operation, and possibly find a new home for some of our worms, taking us another step closer to a do-nothing garden. When Fukuoka asked – “how about not doing this, how about not doing that” – he actually decided not to make compost. Instead, he returned organic matter back to the soil as mulch. As we go forward, though we’ll continue to make compost, I expect our emphasis will shift from compost toward mulch, especially if the soil test shows nutrient surpluses. Mulching is considerably less work than composting and releases nutrients into the soil more slowly. This shift in emphasis will definitely be a step toward a do-nothing garden. Fukuoka also used nitrogen fixing cover crops, and so do we. It couldn’t be easier to plant our fall cover crops mix, which includes a variety of legumes and oats. The legumes need at least a couple months to fix nitrogen, so we plant them a couple months before the first frost, and they die back in the winter, so we don’t even have to chop and drop them. Nature ends up doing almost all of the work for us by fixing nitrogen and killing the crops before spring planting. This is a perfect example of a do-nothing gardening method! We’ve been using compost, worm castings, mulch, and actively aerated compost tea for years with the intention of building a healthy soil food web, but I’d think after all this time the soil would be well inoculated with beneficial microbes, and a simpler maintenance regime might be in order. The only way to find out is to do less and see what happens. So, when I ask “how about not doing this, how about not doing that”, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we stopped using compost tea. Would we notice a difference in the garden? Wouldn’t the compost, worm castings, and mulch be sufficient to maintain a healthy soil food web? So, this year I plan to conduct a compost tea field trial. I’ll set up two identical garden beds and plant the same crops in each bed. One bed will receive compost tea applications, the other won’t, and I’ll compare the results in some detail. I also plan to stop using compost tea in the rest of the garden and make informal observations about this year’s crops compared to those from previous years. Over the next several weeks, I’ll share more of the details about the field trial in videos and in the Home Garden Field Trials g+ community. If you’d like to participate in the trial, help develop a standard compost tea recipe for the trial, or provide input on the field trial guidelines, please join the Home Garden Field Trials Community. There’s a link to the community in the description below. I do think it’s possible to get closer to Fukuoka’s do-nothing ideal while continuing to get great results. If our soil test in the spring shows nutrient surpluses, we’ll cut back on our production of compost and worm castings. And if we don’t observe benefits from compost tea in the field trial, we’ll stop making compost tea, significantly decreasing our labor and increasing our leisure time in the garden. Well, that’s all for now. Thank you very much for watching and until next time remember you can change the world one yard at a time.

99 thoughts on “Toward a Do-nothing Gardening, pt. 1: Soil Fertility (Lazy Gardening)

  1. It may be (Lazy Gardening) but it'd be wonderful to be able to have a productive garden and time to spend with family. Win Win in my book.

  2. I highly recommend the book " No-Work Garden Book " by Ruth Stout .  She was decades before Fukuoka and any of the other well-known permaculturists.  She composted right there in her garden beds and naturally had worm castings due to  the garden teeming with earthworms .

  3. I'm all about doing as little as possible. I've been deep mulching my beds and have been composting and vermicomposting for my containers with great success. I encourage everyone to do less so you can do more. What that means is less work, more planting. 🙂

  4. I like the idea of a "do nothing" garden, but personally I love doing things in my garden. I feel that its benefits can be more than just food if I am able to weed, compost, make compost tea, prune, mulch, and all the stuff that comes with maintaining a garden. Maybe that is just me, but I really would hate to not be able to do those things.  

  5. Patrick, can your garden have too many nutrients? If so, is that actually harmful? I could never give up collecting free resources to make compost. By now I'm rather addicted to the whole process. Besides, it really helps one of the older neighbors when I pick up his grass clippings all summer, and all of his leaves in the fall. It saves him a lot of work, and he's happy to have a few of my tomatoes too.

  6. I love Fukuoka's work. I am in the lucky position of having more land than I have time to maintain with standard gardening methods. My soil is slowly getting better but it has a way to go. I use lots of mulch and plant lots of seeds. It's coming a long and I get a decent harvest for the time and money I invest. I'm looking forward to seeing your experiences without applying tea. Thanks

  7. But Patrick…. I never turn my compost.  When the bins get near to full, I use my lawn clippings for mulch and save the bins for food scraps. I just throw my worm tea into the compost tea bin which is right beside it.  Once a week, I'll fill a couple of watering cans with the compost tea and fertilise the entire yard.  Then I turn on the rain watering system to dillute it.  With raised beds,we seldom weed, and even then just throw it back on top for mulch.  Admittedly you leave me in your dust for productivity, but I suspect I could teach you a thing about being lazy!  LOL.  

  8. Looking forward to seeing the results of the field trial @Patrick Dolan, very cool! Really like where you're headed, and support you fully. 🙂

  9. Masanobu Fukuoka Rocks! My kind of gardening. Thanks Patrick for sharing another great video! 

  10. Even though I really enjoyed "One Straw Revolution" and agree on many philosophical statments made by Fukuoka I find myself drawned more and more to biointensive agriculture rather than do-nothing farming. At first I was driven to no-dig and no transplanting, but now I find the narrative of biointensive methost doing the exact opposite- double dig, transplant even grains, water work for me better. Some people will preffer Fukuokas- "No science. No thank you" narrative (ant that is fully understandable and good) but I as a biotechnologist find the narrative of "Produce more nutrition per unit of water, per unit of space, per unit of water" work more. For instance one thing- if you want to mulch your beds- can you produce enough materials on your garden to fully mulch the beds, all year round? With small gardens that is not a issue- as you proven there is a lot of free materials. But if you are a small farmer- finding enough mulch even for 1 hectare for a whole year can be a problem. And I think a farm should be able to provide for itself on site. As for the compost tea I am really intresed in the results. I am hoping for the compost tea to be shown beneficial, but I don't know… somwhere inside I am a bit sceptical. 

  11. I really enjoy your videos and realistic approach, Patrick, and just last month finally moved into a home(in the Chicago burbs) that will give me room for my first garden bed. I don't even know the condition of the soil, other than its never been used for a garden before and only have maybe a 10x4ft space to work with. I've already begun collecting food scraps in a bucket for compost once I can cut my grass, and would like to try to grow several varieties of tomatoes, sweet peppers, peas, and jalapeños to start with. Knowing that nearly everything is unknown at this point, do you have any videos or resources that you can recommend to help me get started while I build up the soil and can build a raised bed for 2016? Thank you!

  12. Ruth Stout did those exact things in her garden back in the 1950's, and she gardened until she was 96 years old. She wrote three gardening books, and it was the most sold book in history at the time. There is a video of her on Youtube made when she was in her 90's and she shows you how to plant things in it. Check it out. She put all of her food scraps right in the garden and gave up on compost too, never hoed, tilled, or watered either. She is amazing too. Two of her really good books are  1.) The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book: Secrets of the Famous Year-Round Mulch Method, the updated one, and 2.) Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy & the Indolent. 3.)  How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back: A New Method of Mulch Gardening. Mulching was insane back then, and until people did it and grew huge gardens, it was said to be crazy, then her book took off to become the most famous book written back then. She is a really unusual lady, and you would love her and her ideas. She was a firm believer in testing and doing as you are, to see how things work out.
    I can't wait to see how your testing turns out. This is what I love about trial and error, you never know until you try something. Fantastic! Ruth's video   
    Blessings, Sheila  

  13. Yay! New video!
    I really need this cold weather to go away, but your and other gardeners' videos have kept me far!

  14. Excellent video Patrick it is always a pleasure to minimize work and try and keep yields high. I can't wait for the other parts of this series. Thanks for sharing and promoting such a wonderful message!

  15. Good information. I have either two or three compost bins going at any given time so I don't feel the need to "rush" things (the ending times are staggered).

  16. I'm looking forward to the compost tea test. I've been tempted but never adopted the approach as I haven't seen anything that convinces me that its worth the efforts. Thanks for all the great videos and rational approach to alternative method.

  17. My kind of gardening! 😀 Although I think I will always make compost as it is a great way to divert organic matter from the land field or even the city composting site…compost makes a great mulch and I use it as such.

  18. Last year I made about 10 swales which I filled up with tree trimmings and other clearing activities I had to do. As stuff breaks down I can keep adding material to build great soil in place.

  19. Another great video, Patrick. Your soil looks amazing. Love the idea of a low maintenance garden. I've been working on that goal here, too. 

  20. I'm sure your plants will be just as healthy w/o any additions because you have been feeding your soil so well for some time. 

  21. I use the mulching method and let the pill bugs, millipedes, suriname roaches, and worms break it down natural. I also collect the top layer of fungus and organics from the forest floor to use a mulch.

  22. Another great video, well produced and packed with information. Thanks!
    Have you read Lee Reich's book Weedless Gardening? I picked it up last spring and used some of his ideas in an effort to move Do Nothing Gardening. We've gone to no-till in four of our raised beds as tests and found we had to do less work with Lee's ideas. Your suggestions will be part of our garden plans this year as well. 

  23. Yes, I certainly agree it's less work; the piles of composting leaves (lots of white webbing) have continually supplied the raised beds. We gather the composted soil from under the piles.
    We notice this appears to improve the plant health and disease resistance…and we find we are using less water.
    Your chop-and-drop practice has been successful and we plan to continue this in order to build the soil.
    We stopped the compost tea but still use diluted fish emulsion and seaweed concentrates in the sprayers…goes a long way.
    The added "kitchen organics" (coffee grounds, egg shells, fruit, cardboard, etc) keep the earthworms happy.
    We think we will continue neem, biologics and organic soaps to help with the pest control…on the weekends we handpick the bugs (which gives us a chance to closely monitor and nip-things-in-the-bud 🙂
    Thank you once again for helping to make gardening sustainable, responsible and so much fun!

  24. So have you sent off your soil samples yet?  I am very interested to hear the results.  I'd also love to hear about how you selected the lab you chose and the $$$ it required.

  25. wow this sounds really good, I am brand new to gardening, and have just subscribed to your channel, love the idea of doing less and keeping things simple, especially when I have 5 kids and want lots of veggies to grow, different varieties etc… I have tons of seeds ready and have started my peppers and tomatoes indoors, looking forward to our huge backyard tilled, and I wonder if it would need much since it looks super healthy already, apple trees growing nearby and many trees surrounding us… looking forward also to seeing your test results 🙂

  26. i want to sheet mulch with cardboard, as thick a layer as possibl, if you have made videos on that i would like to watch them. towards a do-nothing garden is a most attractive idea. what perennial vegetables can be grown in a colder climate? how do you use good king Henry? i thought it was another name for comfrey.

  27. what was the name of the worm bins? how much do they cost or can i make them myself? is there a problem with swamp flies using them? can they be used outside?

  28. I have simplified my compost even further after reading the Humanure Handbook. Although I don't use Humanure, I use his composting procedures. Basically, I have a large three bin compost. I compost on the two outside bins and in the middle bin, I store the browns and use it to cover greens when added to the bin. I use one side for a whole year and switch to the other side on the first day of summer. The compost sits in the bin through the summer until the following spring. In the spring, it's emptied into my beds. It's completely composted with no turning.

  29. hey brother i got som good news !! I have one asparagus spear up !! and a few shallots!! some bby red onions are sprouting!!
    I m so glad i found all the lovely gardeners here at your channel peace!!

  30. Fukuoka lives on through us, keep it up Natural Gardener! Thank you for all your videos, your work is important for us all!

  31. I only recommend doing that hard work to start a garden to get it going good then just chill, gardening suppose to be easy n enjoyable. i just throw scraps on ground and when the pile gets big enough i cover with lil soil and leaves then start a new pile, let the worms and bugs do the work. also eat plant based, use a composting toilet (u can build one or use bucket lol) and use that compost on trees.

  32. Awesome as always Patrick. The attention to clear documentation you clearly have makes a big difference whether I will watch something on youtube, or not, and I know I'm not on my own with that mindset. The small size of the garden (I farm on 250 acres) is part of the reason I love this channel so much. I will continue to share these.

  33. How about not composting at all? Leaves do not spontaneously collect themselves into large piles and flip themselves over every 3 months. They simply fall to the ground and are degraded by microrganisms. To me, it seems like a lot of work for what it's worth. Think of how ridiculous it sounds. You have organic matter on or in your soil. You collect it, hack it to bits, put it in a huge pile, break it down, turn it, massage it, labour labour labour over it, then RETURN IT TO THE SOIL!!! But if all that composting material was used as mulch instead, you'd be supressing weeds, insulating the soil, increasing soil biodiversity and gradually turning it into plant nutrients.

  34. I started an area where I directly bury my scraps from the kitchen and then when I need soil I pull it from that area.

  35. Agree with your thoughts on gradual migration to do nothing concept. Def for that method of gardening. I know many like to use and advocate the use of compost tea spray on leaves, but I don't support this idea, as nature does not normally rain down compost tea lol. However, in cases where u need immediate nutrient, i believe a very diluted mixture, near clear mix is all that's really needed.

  36. Thank you for making these videos! I appreciate how straight to the point and scientific your videos are. Very informative, without rambling on.
    Have you ever seen the Back to Eden film? If you haven't, you should check it out, and if you like it, share it with your viewers. I found it very inspiring and exciting. It is certainly the closest thing to a do-nothing garden method I have come across. It really makes a lot of sense. Here is the link: Hope you find it helpful, I know I did.
    Blessings, Janelle

  37. I'm new to gardening but I have a apartment with a herb and food gardern. How do I compost there in a small place. Thanks Vic

  38. VERY ambitious agenda — especially for a man who's always trying to do less work.
    I very much like your scientific approach to gardening. You're probably the only gardener on YouTube who measures anything. There's no disputing your claim, for example, that your compost piles reach high temperatures when the viewer can see the thermometer reading 145 F when it's inserted into the pile.

  39. You can use the hot compost to heat your house or get warm water. Watch for compost heater. so you will have an extra use from your garden 4-3!

  40. Love your channel very informative. We have sandy soil with no nutrition in it, so started making compost in large scale. I heard you say that you should turn your compost when it reaches 66 C. What happens if you don't.

  41. With a sufficiently large PVC hoop house, could you have a compost pile in there to keep things warm(er) over the winter and to keep the compost pile active?

  42. Oh WoW! Where do I start? I am just starting out looking at organic gardening more closely. What would be the first thing I should do? I have never used chemical sprays etc on my garden for weed or pest control but occasionally have used phostergen plant food which is similar to miracle grow. My garden has some persistent weeds eg cleavers, buttercup, brambles, nettles and celandines.

  43. Dude, great channel. I'd like to ask a question.
    I've been looking through youtube and have found several videos from gardening channels saying " "actively airated" compost tea/compost tea doesn't work", or "kelp doesn't work" and making similar claims. They then go on to say things like "there are no scientific studies" or "no university studies" that prove this or that.

    First, I'm wondering what is their end goal; what are they using/wanting to use? Just nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium? They aren't doing scientific studies either though; they simply use tea (for example) on one plant and not on another, then in a few weeks they look at the plants and say something like "see, it's not bigger". As if size is even an indicator of any difference or benefit – let alone the main indicator. I don't understand.

    I do understand your end goal though, as you state it in this video – so thank you for that, and I love the idea "KISS" – keep it simple stupid, or just less work or whatever. But people aren't suggesting alternative, for one thing. They just think "I'm gonna 'debunk' compost tea" or whatever.
    Like.. what do you suggest for seed starting or helping propogation or rooting then? Not kelp – do you suggest a bottled product that uses several hormones and similar compounds that actually come from kelp instead – I don't get it. These things are proven to work and/or be beneficial in a number of ways through decades and decades if not much longer of use by gardeners and farmers, haven't they? Is it not good enough "proof" until a guy wearing a white lab coat with graphics popping up on the screen, who works for a "nutrient company" you "trust" (lol) comes out and says hey we did it in a lab so NOW it's good to use?

    Sorry if I sound rude, I guess I'm surprised is all. It's like saying "the vitamins and minerals and bacteria and fungi and allllll of the nutrients and enzymes that plant need and use and have been using and have evolved using and living on…don't work" — end of video. It doesn't make sense to me, at all.

  44. 6:17 wooo! look at that kale!! Is that kale??
    Thanks for making these videos… love your Lazy Gardening tagline…
    I'm about to plant a huge garden full of perennials…. I've grown a lot of stuff in the past, just by totally randomly doing it… not knowing anything about it really at all, other then I love plants… and somehow it's always worked out 🙂 lol… but this time I'd like to do it and have a clear understanding of what I'm doing, and how to make it better.

    Glad I found your channel. Thanks!

  45. I grow mostly tropical fruit trees along with blueberries and herbs. I am very close to a "Do Nothing Garden". I do mulch and water but not much.

  46. Heyy man, why do you do Composting and Vermicomposting at the same time? Isn't any one practice enough? Which has more nutrients value among the two, from your experience??

  47. How do you handle fruit flies and other worm bin pests?
    We had to move ours outside a few years ago. Thankfully we only had one year that got too cold all the worms died.
    I'd love to have it inside if it weren't too buggy…

  48. Your videos are just superb. Very educative. Thank you so much. We too are trying permaculture in our forest farm – [ ] but still a long way to go.

  49. Dude, you're doing it wrong. You're still clinging to Western Superiority "Man Can Do Better Than Nature", you don't add Compost Tea or Organize Your Plots. Bugs are your gardeners, and Random is the mode of planting.

  50. Don't cut back on the composting…. turn it into a CASH CROP!!!

    What is the estimated return on investment on cover crops? Seed is getting EXPENSIVE. Do they provide enough benefit?

  51. patrick, I love your ideas, many I use some you take a step further…. I prefer the work that matters….

  52. This may be a remedial question, but how do you measure the temperature of the compost pile?
    Also, I would like to thank you because I've been having trouble with the progression of my compost bins and I believe this clarifies a lot.

  53. I tried worms but see no point to it. Saw food scraps as being better used in the outside bin. I don't see the big point to castings. I'd rather work on earthworms outside that actually do far more. Yep – just don't get the attraction.

  54. Thank you for mentioning the "The One Straw 12evolution" what interesting ideas. I'm really enjoying this book.

  55. I'm growing tomatoes directly in a raised bed of leaves. I wasn't sure how well it'd work, so I only transplanted one, then when it did well, another, then later another. They're doing great, growing big and have flowers and everything. I was concerned they wouldn't get enough nutrients in non-composted leaves, but doesn't seem to be an issue. The leaves are breaking down beneath the top layer. What's more, the leaves act as great mulch, so I don't water nearly as much as elsewhere, and I didn't have transplant shock or anything. It was like they'd been there from the start instead of re-planted.

  56. The simplest you can make a food garden is to get a stick, poke a hole in the ground at the right time of the year, drop in seed, cover, and wait. You can't get any simpler than that. Well, maybe if the soil is loose enough to use your finger, but that's unlikely. Poke dirt, drop in seed, cover, wait.

  57. If you make Legumes, make sure you pressure cook them as they have some of the highest content of Lectins and Lectins are a plants defense against predators and they attach to your stomach lining and cause inflammation which can lead to auto-immune disease if you are already under stress. Peanuts have the worst lectins of all.

  58. I literally just throw seeds into my yard and grow what grows. So far kale and marigold is this winter seasons winner. I just pitched carrot seeds and mixed bird seed outside today for spring.

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  60. Since google+ has been shut down, is there a new place that people can coordinate information about field trials? I have conducted many on my own and would love to share information.

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