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Vegetable gardening can be time-intensive. Between planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting, a vegetable garden the size we have (about 1/8 acre) could be a full-time job. And keeping animals from eating the whole harvest is a full-time job in and of itself! But we are part-time homesteaders with "real" jobs so we simply can't dedicate that much time to making it work.
This year, as part our Homesteaders' Book Club, I read Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway. The book truly changed my entire perspective on how to organize our homestead (read my book review here).
The implications for vegetable gardening are many, but we chose to focus on three key strategies that we think will solve some of our challenges and make our vegetable garden easier to manage.
We're sharing these strategies in this three-part series, and article number one is all about living in harmony with the animals that vegetable gardeners often see as "the enemy."
Strategy Number One: From Fence to Food Hedge ("Fedge")
Ever since we moved into our property and decided where to place our garden, we have been fighting with the deer and rabbits who had already claimed that space as part of their territory. We installed a fence, then added fishing line up higher for the deer, then dug down deeper to keep rabbits and squirrels out, and we still couldn't keep them at bay.
After reading Gaia's Garden, I realized that we hadn't done our homework. We hadn't watched the property for long enough to realize we'd be building a garden right where the deer usually run from one patch of woods to another. It wasn't their fault they were running right through our garden, it was ours!
A "fedge" or food hedge, is permaculture's alternative strategy - turning the fight with native animals into an act of creating harmony. Rather than just trying to keep animals out of our garden, we are going to establish a border that meets their needs as well as ours - one that includes both plants that will satisfy their hunger and plants that will deter them from going further. Thus, they won't feel the need to jump the fence and eat our vegetables. That's the theory at least!
We're starting our fedge with a row of "sacrificial" elderberry trees - ones that we won't mind them nibbling on because the ones in the garden serve our needs. These were also an economical option because we are growing them with shoots from our existing elderberries (click here to learn how to propagate elderberries). Then, we're adding a few plants that will deter them from going further - like comfrey (they don't love the texture of the leaves), bee balm (they don't love the scent), and gooseberry (they don't love the spikes). We'll add garlic on a seasonal basis.
Each of these plants also align with the permaculture theory that every plant should serve more than one purpose. Comfrey has leaves that can be left in place to retain water in the soil, and can also be used in our natural balms (plus we already have some that we can transfer so its free).
Bee balm will serve our honey bees well and also looks nice as a flowering plant. The gooseberries, if there are any left after the turkeys get to them, will add to our berry harvest (this will also be our second gooseberry location, so we won't rely on them for our needs).
Garlic, which we'll add on a seasonal basis, should also be a good pest deterrent as well as another source of food for us (cause who doesn't want more garlic?)
All together, these plants should provide a bit more of a physical barrier that will steer animals around the garden instead of through it. They also look a lot nicer than an unending mess of man-made fences!
Want to learn more about Food Hedges?
There are many great resources out there on permaculture and food hedges specifically. I definitely recommend getting your hands on a copy of Gaia's Garden in which Hemenway described in detail how a fedge works, and the many varieties of plants you can combine to make one that works for you. You can also check out these online resources: