Food production from sustainable agriculture

marker Publication Date: 2020-06-20
One of the first objective which is often defined when a new ecovillage is put in place in communities is food production, and particularly market gardening.
Indeed, developing a vegetable garden is usually one of the easiest group tasks which can be done by all ecovillagers. It is also a good way to start to create communal areas in the community, enabling to all ecovillage inhabitants to gather around a concrete activity and to start developing an autonomous food system in the community to be more resilient.

Fruits and vegetables production must be done while preserving nature as well as possible, to do so several techniques that respect the environment are implemented. This article will present the main principles and some of the techniques that can be carried out in community vegetable gardens. These techniques can also be implemented in your vegetable gardens or on your balconies, for those who do not have access to a land at home.

Permaculture? Agroecology?

First, let's start with a quick update about two frequently used terms, sometimes wrongly, when we talk about ecological gardening: permaculture and agroecology!


It is not unusual that permaculture is associated to vegetable garden: although permaculture can be implemented in the vegetable garden, it is not only reserved to vegetable gardens and is definitely not a gardening technique!
Permaculture is actually a philosophy and a method covering a much wider field than fruits and vegetables cultivation. It is based on 3 fundamental ethics:
  • take care of the earth
  • take care of the human
  • share fairly

Based on these 3 ethics and on 12 principles which will not be detailed here, it is possible to design, implement, manage and improve all kinds of individual or collective initiatives for a more sustainable future: permaculture can therefore be used to design a more sustainable home, or even to make life changes more in tune with oneself and nature. It is therefore not a theme reserved to agriculture!

If you want to know more about permaculture, weekends of initiation to permaculture are offered by many structures. For two days, you will have the opportunity to discover the general principles of permaculture and illustrate them with concrete examples. If you want to go further and if you have two weeks available, I recommend that you follow the so-called PDC training, for Permaculture Design Course: you will then have access to much more detailed information and will be able to start working on the design of your project, with the trainer. It is also a great experience of collective life, the trained group generally living in the same place during all the training.


Agroecology is the study of the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment within agricultural production systems. It is not limited to a set of agricultural techniques but is a real science which integrates more broadly ecological, economic, social and philosophical components: its field of application is therefore broad and covers many fields.

Market gardening techniques

In practice, to grow fruits and vegetables in a sustainable way, we have many different alternatives available.
Some of the techniques, derived from agroecology, are widely used and have for example been gathered and synthesized under the name "No till gardening". No till gardening is a set of techniques which aim to put soil and all its living components back at the heart of cropping systems.

Limitation of soil tilling

A teaspoon of healthy soil can contain more than a million organisms belonging to several thousand different species (earthworms, termites, ants, insect larvae, mites, bacteria, fungi, etc). All these organisms play a specific role in the functions and properties of the soil. The great diversity and the relationships that they establish with each other are at the origin of complex biological processes ensuring a balance which guarantees the good functioning of the soil.

When we till a soil, we disturb this balance: turning over a soil, when using a spade for example, will bury surface microorganisms that need a lot of oxygen and will cause them suffocation. On the contrary, microorganisms that live deeper in the soil will be placed on the surface, in direct contact with UV rays and oxygen, for which they are not made for.

Amendments with of organic matter

The addition of organic matter to the soil is one of the three points of attention in the "no till gardening" practices.
Various types of organic material can be used: BRF (Ramial chipped wood, which is woodchips made solely from small to medium-sized branches), compost, green manures (set of plants sown with the aim of improving and protecting the soil , and not for the purpose of being harvested and used), hay or straw, manure...

Each type of organic matter evolves differently and will decompose more or less quickly in the soil. By slowly degrading in the soil, organic matter will gradually diffuse nutrients: the humus produced will be more stable. On the other hand, an organic matter degrading quickly will be a able to quickly supply nutrients to the soil but will have to be renewed regularly.

Compost is particularly important in the garden because it represents an acceleration and an improvement of the process of natural degradation of organic matter. Indeed, when it occurs naturally, this degradation is slow and many nutrients are diffused and therefore lost during decomposition. On the contrary, in a compost, by controlling the humidity and aeration of decomposing materials, the nutrients are better degraded, which increases their concentration. In addition, in a compost, the phase of decomposition of organic matter is followed by a phase of development of carbon chains which is structured in lumps (often called couscous): this compost will bring to the soil a high quality humus.

Green manures also have an undeniable interest. Indeed, they fulfil several functions:
  • they make it possible to produce organic matter directly on site. The cover is crushed or flattened and the organic matter is immediately returned to the ground
  • while they are growing, green manures provide soil cover. Once the commercial crop is started, the crushed or flattened manure still covers the soil, until the crop grows.
  • the roots of green manure aerate the soil. In addition, when the green manures are destroyed, their roots degrade in the soil which allows to integrate organic matter directly deep into the soil
  • in the event of a significant demand for organic matter, the production of organic matter on site makes it possible to reduce dependence on external supply chains.

Several types of green manure exist and are often combined: cereals can break up the in-depth soil thanks to their roots, leguminous plants allow a significant and rapid supply of nitrogen and plants with high biomass help to nourish the soil.

Permanent ground cover

The role of soil covers is to protect the soil surface from sun, wind and rain, to conserve soil moisture, to reduce weed growth and to house the many organisms necessary for good growth of plants. The ground cover can be dead (straw, cardboard, plastic tarpaulin...) or alive (green manure). It is also possible to couple soil cover and organic matter supply with many types of organic matter: straw, green manure, BRF, ...

These three techniques are the basic techniques of market gardening living soil, they are supplemented by many other techniques which benefit cultivated plants and soil life: we can indeed name the use of trees in the vegetable garden, use of liquid manure, crop rotation, diversity of planted species ...

Diversité plantes
Diversity of plants
Baches noires
Black tarpaulins as soil cover
Couvre-sol paille
Soil coverage with straw
Buttes permanentes
Permanents mounds
Préparation sol
Soil preparation
Goutte à goutte arrosage
Drip watering system