How to Turn Your Patch of Earth From Barren to Bountiful

For a healthier backyard garden, you need to invite nature in. Try a few strategies featured in the documentary "The Biggest Little Farm."

Photos courtesy Apricot Lane Farms

Growing your own juicy tomatoes or crisp peppers sounds idyllic. But in practice, backyard farming can be daunting. Many gardeners dealing with pests, weeds, and unpredictable weather quickly find themselves questioning whether they are working with nature or against it.

Just ask John and Molly Chester, who bought a sandy, barren plot of land in Southern California eight years ago in the hopes of starting the farm of their dreams. New to farming, the couple relied on holistic, regenerative practices (and a lot of trial and error) to revive Apricot Lane Farms. Through their hard work, the 214 acres are now a lush, largely regenerating ecosystem with fertile soil, diverse animal life, and an abundant orchard with well over 75 varieties of fruit trees. Better yet: The farm never uses toxic, synthetically derived pesticides, which can kill soil microorganisms, harm pollinators and other wildlife, pollute waterways, and make us sick.

John and Molly Chester

Yvette Roman

The Chesters’ story, recounted in the documentary The Biggest Little Farm, is a testament to the wisdom of nature’s own fine-tuned systems—and the remarkable rewards that gardeners will reap if they follow its lead. Here’s how to cultivate a bit of Apricot Lane Farms’ success in your own backyard.

Feed your soil.

When the Chesters arrived at Apricot Lane Farms, the ground was dry, hard, and mostly devoid of life. They knew they’d need to convert dead dirt back into soil before they could grow any crops. “When it’s biologically diverse, soil is like this alchemizer of death into life, but you have to feed it,” John says. Feeding the soil means building its biota—its below-the-surface ecosystem of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi, which break down decaying organic matter and infuse the soil with nutrients for the next cycle of plant life.

If you find yourself with similarly unhealthy soil, the Chesters recommend worm compost tea: worm waste steeped in water to make a liquid fertilizer teeming with beneficial microorganisms. At Apricot Lane Farms, the couple built an entire vermicomposting (worm composting) facility, but you can make do at home. Just put some worm castings, i.e. the black earthy-looking particles in your compost bin (you can also purchase a bag of castings) into a bag made from old panty hose, cheesecloth, or a porous T-shirt. Add the tea bag to a pitcher or bucket of water. “Brew” your tea by adding a sugar supply like molasses for the bacteria (which will feed and multiply) and a small aerator (like a bubbler you’d add to a fish aquarium), which will concentrate the beneficial aerobic microorganisms. Let it bubble for one to two days, stirring occasionally, until a layer of foam develops—a good sign of active microorganisms. Apply to your soil within 48 hours. (If you’d like more information before brewing your own, step-by-step recipes and video tutorials on making worm tea abound.)

Plant cover crops.

Cultivating native grasses, or simply refraining from ripping out last year’s garden plants, will help you maximize the number of living roots in the ground, which offers many benefits to your soil. But by far the best means of nourishing and building up your soil is by planting cover crops. Farmers often plant them after the primary crop has been harvested or in areas that would otherwise be bare. And as John and Molly can attest, they’re a critical component of any holistic farming practice. Not only do they protect exposed soil from the baking sun, which can kill critical fungal communities and other important microorganisms, but they also prevent erosion, naturally suppress weeds, improve soil quality, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and minimize flooding.

Cover crops can also enrich your backyard garden. Many gardeners plant them in the fall, in order to protect the soil through the winter and into the spring. Cover crops can also carry nitrogen from the air down into the soil, eventually making it available for the roots of other plants. Come spring, you can then turn these plants into “green manure” by mixing them into the soil and letting them decompose, which releases beneficial nutrients. “Cover crops are protecting this complex universe beneath the ground,” John says. “They’re also creating soil structure with their roots and increasing oxygen so that you get healthy, aerated soil that is filled with aerobic bacteria instead of anaerobic.” At Apricot Lane Farms, cover crops include a “cocktail of grasses and legumes,” though the best species for your backyard will depend on climate and your garden’s specific needs, be it weed resistance or soil regeneration.

A few common cover crop varieties to investigate:

  • Hairy vetch: This legume is hearty, resilient, and a powerful nitrogen fixer. Its long roots also help break up soil.
  • Buckwheat: Known as a “smotherer,” this cover crop will naturally help keep weeds at bay while attracting pollinators. It can then easily be tilled into the soil.
  • Clover: The many species of this legume are known to be versatile and powerful nitrogen fixers.
  • Alfalfa: This crop’s long roots help aerate and bring up nutrients deep within the soil.
  • Peas: These legumes taste good, yes, but they also fix nitrogen and crowd out weeds, too.
  • Marigold: Well known for its vibrant flowers, this plant also naturally controls pests like insects, frogs, fungi, and weeds.

Maintain habitats for pollinators and other native wildlife.

Biodiversity rules at Apricot Lane Farms. By planting hundreds of plant species with a wide variety of roles, the Chesters have invited in diverse animal life. “Think about an ecosystem as the planet’s immune system,” John says. “You’re trying to imitate that biodiversity.” In other words, a diverse ecosystem has better odds of being able to heal itself. Keeping as many pieces as possible of that ecosystem intact provides a natural check on any one plant, animal, or disease running amok.

Here are some biodiversity boosters for your own backyard:

  • Introduce native flowering species that provide food for visiting pollinators.
  • Hang a bee nesting box somewhere it can get sunlight and warmth.
  • Provide green, leafy plants for caterpillars to eat, such as milkweed for the monarch butterfly.
  • Set up a small wood pile, using brush or old logs, as shelter for lizards, fungi, and snakes (the latter can eat other pests, like slugs or rodents).
  • Plant trees or shrubs that provide plenty of nesting and cover for birds, or set up a bird house.
  • Add a barn owl box or just a simple roosting perch to a pole. Owls and hawks help with rabbits and gophers.
  • If you have the space, create a reliable water source in the form of a pond or container garden, which will make your yard more attractive to birds, frogs, and dragonflies. Stem the problem of mosquitoes by including goldfish or guppies, which eat the bugs.
  • Plant a diversity of cover crops. Instead of just using clover, for instance, mix your clover seeds with some hairy vetch, legumes, and more to help your soil reap a diversity of benefits.

To manage pests, play detective, then look to nature to help crack the case.

Over the years, the Chesters have dealt with everything from snail infestations in the orchard to hungry coyotes picking off their chickens. But the challenges have only made them better problem solvers, says John. He suggests that every gardener facing an intrusion—whether by pest, predator, or disease—ask a few questions before attempting to control it, especially through artificial means like pesticides or other harsh chemicals.

For starters, understand the source of the problem and what might be fueling it, he says. Then look at what its food is, and in turn what eats it. Finally, ask what conditions it does not like and what conditions benefit its predators.

With those answers, you may find a nature-friendly solution. Take slugs, the bane of many a gardener. If they’re chomping down on too many of your leafy plants, think first of what could provide a natural check. Toads and beetles will snack on the slugs if given the proper habitat themselves, potentially ridding you of your problem without requiring use of chemical pesticides. You can also address what snails don’t like—sharp, rough ground—and put a layer of crushed eggshell around your plants, which act as a natural deterrent.

“You start to frame the complexity and context of the things you’re trying to coexist with,” John says. “It’s not harmony you want,” he adds, but a “comfortable level of disharmony.”

Looking to take the next step? Consider connecting with a master gardener program in your home state. These programs will not only help you hone your own green thumb but also set you up to train others in your community who want to make a difference in their backyard or garden plot.

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