Here is the first part of a three-part series where we will look at ‘What exactly is a Smart Garden”. We will dig a little deeper into the aspects of Smart Garden design and creation and the key differences between a traditional outdoor garden into a Smart Garden food production system.
We call this the Technograrian approach as it combines traditional agrarian food production techniques with the latest advances and innovation in food production science and technology. While it can sound a bit overwhelming, it is all about making a home garden easier to maintain, much more reliable and far more bountiful.
So let’s get started with part one.
A Smart Garden, while conceptually being remarkably similar to a traditional home vegetable garden, has a few key differences that help future proof the whole homegrown food security idea. These differences are vital to making a Smart Garden easier to create and maintain, for increasing the volume of food you can produce and making the garden more reliable by not being as susceptible to the weather and pests.
In commercial agriculture, Protected Cropping or Controlled Environment Agriculture (it can have different names) is the latest innovation in commercial food production. You may have seen these super large Hitech greenhouse or glasshouse facilities in news stories or on the internet. They are highly automated, use the latest in science and technology, and produce a vast amount of produce quickly. Well, what we are attempting to create with our Smart Garden is a mini or domestic version of those facilities.
In the years we struggled with a traditional outdoor garden, the same issues kept cropping up. The main ones were the impact that extreme weather events were having on our garden. The fact that when vegetables flourished (through lots of hard work), every known animal and bird from a 5-mile radius around our farm decided our garden was the place to chow down on day and night. Another problem area was that several design aspects made it more physically and time demanding than it had to be.
So, let's look at this difference in a little more depth and explain why we have them and how they work.
In its simplest terms, the first one is the external structure of a Smart Garden. It can be a modified Greenhouse or a building with transparent panels on the exterior instead of the typical steel or timber panels you find on a house. You need to let all available sunlight in so it can be any exterior panelling that is clear. The main ones used are usually those clear corrugated panels you see or glass panels. Glass is perfect as it is the most environmentally sound. Still, it is costly, prone to damage and can be obviously dangerous. Avoid using coloured panels that affect the ultraviolet light spectrum your plants receive, as plants will not grow properly if you use those. So, avoid any panels that are tinted with a colour. They need to be a transparent panel.
Anyone who grew things outside and unprotected will know how variable our weather patterns can be. Farmers have struggled with 'good years' and 'bad years' for eternity, and recently, we have seen an exodus of farmers from the land because of the series of 'bad years' that seem to have plagued the industry. In Australia, we have just experienced a one in a thousand-year drought that has devastated much of rural Australia. Then, to add insult to injury, once the rains finally did come, they then had to deal with significant flooding. Then, once the floods subsided and things finally went into bloom, they had to deal with one of the worst mouse plagues in history!
What we do not want with our Smart Garden, as what we are trying to create is a 'reliable Homegrown food production system' is to suffer from all of these issues and problems, albeit on a smaller scale. So, the building or structure that contains our garden needs to mitigate and protect the garden from many of these weather and pest-based issues.
If you have a roof on your garden, then massive rain events will not flood and soak your garden. Vital nutrients will not be washed out of your soil, your vegetables won't get waterlogged and suffer root rot issues. Not only that, but you will be harvesting all that free water into a holding tank for use in your irrigation system. That will save you money and allow you to use that harvested water much more efficiently. A roof also means you can attach trellis points to it for climbing varieties and irrigation lines for watering systems. It also means that no matter how badly it is raining, you can go into your garden and work or harvest the night's dinner vegetables. It also acts as protection for your garden in Spring and Winter from damaging frost and snow and means you can grow more food all year round.
All this comes from just having a roof! Your garden is more protected, more reliable, more efficient, and more bountiful.
When we add solid walls to the structure, we can better control the ambient temperatures in the garden. As a result, mild days become warm days, and we can extend our growing seasons. We have found with our Smart Garden that before Spring, we can start planting summer vegetables six to eight weeks earlier than someone in our area who is growing outdoors. Walls also extend the end of the growing season by a similar time frame. This gives you a whole host of benefits, including longer ripening times, the ability to stagger plant and produce more harvests and, therefore, a greater volume of food.
What walls also give you is protection from damaging winds. Strong winds are particularly damaging for young seedlings. Studies have shown that seedlings that have to deal with adverse wind conditions can have their resultant yields reduced by up to 70%. On our farm, we get strong annual winds right at the beginning of Spring. When our garden was outdoors, we would watch our struggling seedlings being blown down to the ground for days on end. So protecting your garden from wind is a key benefit from walling your structure.
Also, if you have walls and a roof, you can stop many of the predators from having access to your garden at night when you are asleep. Things like possums, rats, cats and birds won't be able to find an entry point to your garden and go on their marauding ways. An aspect of Smart Garden design that moves it into the realm of protected garden space from a traditional greenhouse is to replace some of the panels with small steel mesh inserts. You need to place these in strategic places on the walls of your garden so you get a flow-through of air. This helps your plants remove toxins they emit from the surface of their leaves and keeps the air fresh and circulating inside. We have placed a smaller mesh insert on the prevailing wind side, and it's higher up on the wall near the roof, so it is not directly blowing on plants below, and we have then placed larger mesh inserts on the non-prevailing wall sides.
The physical size of the insert needs to be large enough to allow for airflow, but you don't want them too big, so you lose stored warmer air in the garden. Also, the size of the mesh itself should be of a large enough diameter to allow for pollinating insects, like bees, easy access to the garden but small enough to stop larger birds and rodents.
So that covers Part 1 of our 3 Part series on What exactly is a Smart Garden