If you’ve ever wandered any of the Rodale Institute’s 333 acres, chances are one of the first places you discovered was the area in which we nurture our demonstration gardens. There is the organic garden, which was started in the 1970s, and adjacent is the Shumei Natural Agriculture garden. The Natural Agriculture garden showcases a one acre homestead designed to feed a family of four with fresh, nutritious produce most of the year.
The preeminent principle of Natural Agriculture is an overriding respect for nature. Natural Agriculture is both a philosophical and spiritual approach to gardening and farming developed by Mokichi Okada in Japan in the 1930s that eschews fertilizers, animal manures, and all chemical and botanical products. There is a commonality between organic agriculture and Natural Agriculture. Both agree that human health and the environment should be regarded with reverence by avoiding the use of toxic chemicals and fertilizers, they both stress the importance of eating locally grown food, and they both believe sustainability is paramount.
How does Natural Agriculture differ from organic farming?
Natural Agriculture is a way of life that encourages the practitioner to develop an intuitive relationship with the soil, the crops and the environment. The synergy of the soil, the gardener or farmer, and the consumer is important to the success of the food system. In Natural Agriculture, all become partners.
Since Natural Agriculture philosophy advocates respect for all living organisms, insects and animals are recognized as having a role in the relationship with the crops. Harmful pests are usually a sign there is an imbalance within the garden environment that needs to be addressed.
According to Natural Agriculture, nature has everything it needs in the soil. It does not require fertilizers, nitrogen, lime, bone meal, manure or insect and disease controls. Practitioners do not use any outside inputs, whether synthetic or organic.
Basic principles of Natural Agriculture
Respect and patience for nature is a central tenant of Natural Agriculture. By letting nature take its course, and listening to and learning from it, the gardener or farmer works with the natural system instead of battling against it.
Compost is used to keep the soil warm, to improve the water holding capacity and prevent soil compaction, not as a fertilizer. Natural Agriculture compost is comprised of garden plants, garden weeds and leaves from trees around the garden area. Unless they have been organically grown, no orange peels, coffee grounds etc. are used in the mix.
Continuous cropping is the practice of growing the same crop in the same space year after year. According to Natural Agriculture principles and philosophy, the soil has the inherent ability to evolve and adapt to growing certain crops. Thus the crops have the potential to adapt to the soil and the soil to the plants, helping to increase productivity and minimize insect problems.
Seed saving is fundamental to long-term sustainability. Natural Agriculture farmers are encouraged to save seeds from the plants they nurture. Seed saving helps the crop adapt to the soil, environment and the climate, thus increasing the vigor of the seed. Due to the fact that we are losing our gene pool of many old varieties to genetically engineered seeds, saving seed may become a priority for many gardeners. Seed saving is a sustainable way to protect our environment and ensures a safe food chain.
Raising seedlings in unadulterated pure soil medium from your garden is very important to starting healthy plants. Soil amendments such as perlite, vermiculite and peat are not used in the soil mix.
Art and beauty are very important components of Natural Agriculture gardening. Designing a garden with beautiful elements is very uplifting to the gardener and the visitor on many levels. Mokichi Okada was an art connoisseur and taught that art has the ability to transform the human being and elevate human consciousness.
Witnessing Natural Agriculture
When visitors come to Rodale Institute, they can observe and experience the beauty and art form of the Natural Agriculture garden from the very beginning. The entrance and bamboo fence capture the serenity of the east, which transitions into a traditional American design. The Three Sisters Native American theme in the children’s garden demonstrates the synergy of corn, beans and squash.
The vegetable garden is approaching its third season of productivity. Outdoor beds are raised to deal with the low lying wet area. Most garden crops have been very productive with a minimal amount of insect and disease problems. Planting a diversity of garden crops such as flowers and herbs near the vegetables in addition to planting small patches of buckwheat worked well as a preventive measure to manage insects. These non-vegetable crops provide shelter and food for beneficial insects, creating balance within the garden system.
The vegetable and ornamental gardens are surrounded by a landscape that is rich and alive with plant diversity consisting of trees, shrubs, fruit trees, berries, and wildlife. Structures within the garden include an energy efficient geodesic dome greenhouse for year-round growing, a green-roofed building used to store saved seed and wash vegetables, and a hilled root cellar that sits half above ground and half below.
Benefits of Natural Agriculture
Natural Agriculture is simple, affordable and sustainable. Fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are never purchased and most if not all seeds are saved from year to year. But the greater benefit of Natural Agriculture is working with and supporting the relationship between the farmer or gardener, the consumer and the natural forces of nature. The synergy of the environment, the plants and the gardener comprise an idyllic growing space for crops that provides sustenance to the whole being. The inspiring philosophy of the garden introduces and demonstrates a new and simple approach to sustainable growing drawing from techniques and designs of both past and present to produce wholesome food while nourishing the spirit. Natural Agriculture has the potential to restore the sacred connection between mankind and the environment.
Eileen Weinsteiger is the Rodale Institute garden manager. She designs, cultivates and maintains our gorgeous display gardens, and has been creator and caretaker of the organic Demonstration Garden since she started at the Institute in 1973. She was instrumental in developing our Shumei Natural Agriculture Garden.