One of the 12 design principles described by David Holmgren is use small and slow solutions. It’s a concept we could easily forget in a fast-paced world, where energy-dense fuel and ready streams of credit promise us that we can get anywhere or anything right now. Thankfully, gardening is an activity that can help us return to a more sane and measured pace of living. The stately procession of the seasons and the processes of germination and growth remind us to have patience, to be still and observe, and to time our interventions appropriately so that they don’t need to be excessive.
So I am reminded today, as I lop much of this summer’s growth and a few older branches off our very vigorous and beautiful nectarine tree, to keep garden projects and ambitions to a scale that I can manage – today, next season and next year. Bringing this tree back to two-thirds of its height and half its volume means that (1) it still has enough time this summer to put on new growth that can fruit next summer; (2) next year’s fruit will be within picking reach; (3) the tree will be small enough to net against birds when the fruit is ripening next summer; and (4) I can continue shaping the tree to provide shady sitting spaces under its canopy, easy access points and a strong framework of main branches to climb when picking.
Similarly, when setting out a new garden bed I want it to be large enough to be worthwhile, but small enough to be practical too:
- low enough (if it’s a raised bed) that it doesn’t require too much soil to fill
- narrow enough that I can reach easily to the centre without compacting the soil by treading on it
- a suitable shape to cover easily with shadecloth during germination periods and heatwaves
- small enough that I can keep up with planting, weeding, thinning, feeding etc. while still managing the rest of the garden.
The “small and slow” approach works well with large garden tasks. Some jobs are just too tiring or overwhelming to try to accomplish in one hit. It makes sense to break them down into smaller, more manageable steps and plan to do one step at a time, whether it be over the course of a day, a week or a season.
And it works as well for plants as it does for the gardener. Most plants respond much better to frequent feeds of dilute natural fertilisers than to occasional megadoses of nutrients. When they are supported to gain slow and steady growth, they are in turn more pest- and disease-resistant than they would be if covered in a flush of tender new growth after over-fertilising with nitrogen-rich fertilisers – this would create a haven for bugs which attack the vulnerable, soft new foliage.
I’m sure you can think of countless other examples in the garden where “small and slow” is the most effective way to go… and I’d love to hear your favourites.