How can I make a difference? That’s a great question!

Are you a dirtperson? Do you feel … smell … enjoy … feel amazed by the soil? Then you can make a difference whether you only have a couple pots on your patio or a bigger space called a garden.

Ever heard of hugelkultur? How about forest gardening? No-till, or lasagna gardening? Let me explain.


The name Hugelkultur refers to a mound of decaying wood and debris, cardboard and newspaper, and any other compostable biomass, piled together, then covered with a layer of soil. Plant veggies directly into this mass and watch them thrive! It’s a slow natural breakdown of carbon-based matter that feeds the soil and plants, helps with water retention and temperature regulation, and plants do great in this environment. I’m sure it’s because the fungi thrive and all things are optimal.

This can be done anywhere you can make a pile of branches and twigs; anywhere you could compost; anywhere you want to make a veggie garden but don’t have the time, energy, strength to do all it takes. Look it up! You’ll see it follows Nature’s guidelines toward making life!

A food forest

A food forest is a bit more labor intensive than Hugelkultur, no digging and plowing though. Pick a spot where you could grow veggies anytime, a spot with lots of sun and great drainage. A food forest is an area where you plant many levels of plants — all edible. A regular food forest is seven layers, but you don’t have to have that many.

Go with me here. Tall trees – this would be the canopy — made up of fruit trees such as apple, pear, or nuts. Next is low trees. This could be peach and almonds, depending on where you live. Also dwarf trees work here. Plant shrubs like blueberries, hazelnuts and other berry fruits below the tree level. Next will be herbs – mint, sage, dill, parsley. Groundcover could be strawberries. You can use other species that work in your area. Vines – maybe grapes, kiwi, melons, cukes, and pumpkins — work as well. Root crops include garlic, shallots, and potatoes, for example.

It’s not necessary that all these levels exist in your garden, and the choices are up to you. The main thing is to keep the ground covered and thriving. The biggest difference between a garden and a food forest is that a garden has distinct borders or rows. Plants are regimented and weeding is a constant issue.

The biggest thing with a food forest is the planning process. Keep in mind that this isn’t for a season. It’s permanent. You’ll add seasonal plants but for the most part it’s just there. Each season you’ll add back things like leaves and yard waste. Every bit of that will rot and give back.

Lasagna gardening

Lasagne gardening is a no-dig, no-till method which yields fluffy rich soil. The work is on the front end and it’s minimal afterward. I start with cardboard and newspaper but I use junk mail and any paper trash I have, laying it on the ground. I don’t do anything to the turf or ground underneath. Afterward you simply build layers of anything carbon-based: leaves, manure, yard clippings, straw, food waste, garden trimmings, fish offing’s, coffee and tea grounds. You choose! This method is best started in the fall so it has time to “work” over winter.

If any of these methods sound do-able to you, but you’re too late, you can always start by covering the space with black plastic and weighting it down. The solar action will start the process for you by killing the turf and all seeds as well. Then, when spring gets here, you can start with the newspaper and mulch, and then continue on until you’ve built the whole bed.

There’s no rush. Do it at your pace, no matter which method you choose. As long as humans are on this planet, you’ll have time to try a new, old gardening method.

What if all you can do are pots? Then do it! What veggies do you enjoy? What will you use? Grow those in your pots but be sure they’re in full sun and they have great drainage. There are several cultivars of patio veggies now. Start your quest! I want you to enjoy and ingest what you grow. When you get a chance, put back into the earth what you can.

My hope is that I can inspire just one person to try something new that benefits the planet we all live on. If I have, thank you for helping me live another day! I’m doing the same for your family, every chance I get.

Sherrie “The Dirt Girl” Ottinger is a dedicated ecologist, speaker, writer and lifetime Tennessean. All comments and questions should be emailed to

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