A big part of garden resilience is soil health. One potentially fun way to improve your garden’s soil health is to try chaos gardening. Chaos gardening takes elements from many other areas of gardening, frugality, and companion planting principles. The main thing it avoids is straight lines, and bare soil. At it’s heart, chaos gardening is seed based micro-permaculture.
There are many beneficial gardening techniques that get creative with garden layouts. You can use various methods simultaneously, just chose one to work with, or just see what fits where. One of the methods is known as inter-planting, where an early maturing crop is planted with a later maturing crop like lettuce paired with tomatoes and peppers.
You may consider chaos gardening as just another silly gardening trend. But elements of this technique can be found in many other accepted gardening tactics and methods. At minimum, it can be a fun way to find out if certain old seed packs will still germinate, though you can always germination test them too.
You may have heard of the three sister’s garden, where corn, beans, and pumpkins or squash are planted together. The corn supports the beans, the beans provide nitrogen to the corn and pumpkin or squash, and the squash smothers out weeds. Other groupings can also work, sunflowers can be included, and sometimes beneficial flowers can also be included to attract pollinators, or predatory insects.
A third method is known as companion planting, where you plant different plants together specifically for beneficial relationships. Marigolds and basil around tomatoes and peppers, the marigolds reduce root nematodes, and the basil scent somewhat deters and distracts tomato pests. Dill planted amid cabbage, kale, and other broccoli family plants helps reduce cabbage butterfly presence, as well as attracting predatory wasps that prey on caterpillars like the cabbage butterfly and the tomato horn worm.
Before You Start:
If you are contemplating chaos gardening there’s a few things you need to know before you begin. The first, is what the seed leaves and first leaves of your seeds and beneficial plants look like. Some weeding is required to keep chaos gardens thriving, and the gardener should either recognize weeds with good regularity, or recognize their desired plants.
Second, have a semi prepared area to start. You can chaos garden in a planter, in a raised garden bed, or in a newly broken piece of land. As long as you have preliminary preparations, even just broad forking over a new area or solarizing to kill weeds first, you can start.
Some seed companies sell kiddie seed packs that are a chaos garden in a pack, with many different types of seeds within the individual pack. If you’re new to gardening, a child’s seed pack with a mix of easy-grow vegetable and flower seeds can be an accessible way to trial a chaos garden in a small space.
The Basics of Chaos Gardening:
The main tenant of chaos gardening is to use up leftover seeds, partial seed packets, and even any seeds you’re holding onto that might have zero germination potential. An example is corn seed, corn seed has a germination life expectancy of 1 year. So if you have 5 year old corn seeds, these may be a good candidate for chaos gardening.
If you do cover crops, what you grow can be planted with chaos gardening principles. A cover crop, or green manure crop, is great to help improve soil health and reduce weed load and intensity. Many different cover crops can be sown together, to provide different but simultaneous benefits to the soil. A favorite is buckwheat and a cereal crop, or a cereal crop and vetch or other nitrogen fixer. Even corn and sunflowers, alongside nitrogen fixers can be employed as a cover crop. Learn more about green manure and cover crops here.
Personally, I’d pull out dry loving herb seeds like rosemary, lavender, thyme, and oregano and put them in a chaos planter. This will help them not drown if planted near water loving plants and herbs. I would also avoid including mint family plant seeds in a chaos vegetable garden. They can be included in green manure mixes, or in a chaos planter specifically for mint family plants.
Sort seed packs into large sized seeds and small sized seeds. Examples of large sized seed include sunflowers, pumpkins, squash, corn, and some beans and peas. Small sized seeds include onion, chive, lettuce, carrots, beets, radishes, calendula, marigold, and many other flower seeds as well. Make a separate mix of each of these seed sizes before you begin your chaos gardening endeavors.
Looking at chaos gardening from a permaculture perspective, it is a great opportunity to set aside a small plot of land for either experiments, or to see what annuals and biannuals will grow out, flower, and self-seed in your zone. I’ve done this a bit with lettuces and orach that I let self seed and grow freely in paths and the edges of garden beds.
Another variation of this is one built off of native plants with the purpose of re-wilding a space, or providing habitat to native species. While you can build a pollinator meadow with many different flowers, targeting native and non-invasive species in your seed mixes can be highly beneficial to native bees, and other species.
Step by Step Chaos Gardening:
Determine your area and how you’re going to prepare it. Tilling is not recommended for preparation in a chaos garden, because it will bring more weed seeds to the surface. A lasagna garden bed or mulch bed with clean compost on top may be your best bet to reduce weed load in a planned chaos garden.
Sort your seed packets by size, and somewhat by type. If you want more than one garden bed type, you can separate vegetable and flower seeds before creating your chaos seed mix. I’d recommend not chaos gardening peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes if you’re anywhere cooler than zone five. You could still toss them into seed starting mix with the same chaotic abandon and see what grows though.
Open up your packet of seed, or packets of seeds, and create your mixes. Optional, you can soak your seeds in a bowl of warm water for 12 hours before planting to increase germination chances. I prefer not soaking, as I don’t like the seeds sticking together when I’m trying to plant them.
Start by scattering your larger seeded mix over your clean seed bed, or clean bed of compost. Add another half inch of compost over top of your seeds to settle the large ones in. Then scatter your smaller seeds over that space and lightly touch rake them in. At this point, you can add a very light layer of mulch, about 1/4 inch or less to help retain moisture while the seeds are germinating.
Treat the chaos seed bed as you would any ordinary seed bed and water it at regular intervals. Depending on your climate, your chaos garden may need to be watered on a regular basis.
Personally, I would do a bit of maintenance weeding in the chaos and pull any identifiable or usable weeds as they grow. There are annoying spiky weeds that I hate with a passion and will always hunt down in any garden bed.
For cooler climates, try making a chaos mix of frost hardy plants for an initial early spring planting, instead of using all seeds available.
Benefits of Chaos Gardening:
You can get many of the same benefits of chaos gardening through inter-planting and companion planting. The biggest benefit is the diversity of plant variety and type. This decreases pest loads, and increases available pollinator attractants, habitat, and diversity. It also increases predatory insect species that prey on your pest insects.
The chaos garden can be a good medium for low risk experimentation, especially if you’re on a new piece of land or recently moved to a new growing zone. It gives an opportunity to observe plant types and species, see what seems to thrive and what doesn’t, and to make observations about your growing location, with less stress and investment. It is also suitable to use with various no-till garden methods.
You don’t have to worry about germination rates, and any empty spaces can be filled with additional seeds at random, or at whim. You can also semi plan out empty spaces through harvesting quick growing crops like lettuces, and dropping a few carrot seeds or other small seeds into the emptied space.
Keep in mind where some of your biannual plants like parsley and carrots end up. If you don’t harvest them, the second year plant makes great habitat for swallow tail butterflies. And the second year sacrificial plants can keep your first year to-harvest plants safe while encouraging the wildlife lifecycle too.
Chaos gardening doesn’t remove your chance to transplant plant starts. You can chaos garden your early spring and frost hardy plants like lettuce and peas, and transplant in the summer crops like cucumbers, tomatoes, and other veggies. Figure out what works for you.
The Will It Grow? Method
This is more of a permaculture method of chaotic gardening. It’s taking seeds sourced from less likely sources and seeing what you can get to grow from it. It includes things like growing out apple seeds, trying to germinate kiwi seeds, or even growing dragon fruit cactus indoors for fun. With this method, you can take soup beans or a soup bean mix, as long as it’s dry beans, and plant it out chaotically to see how the different varieties do in your zone. Find one that flourishes? Save seeds from it for next year. Find one that does crappy? Oh well, you know which one does well.
This method also takes seeds found in your local ecosystems, like winter spent rose hips, and tries to germinate and grow them. Same with various tree nuts and even sometimes pine.
Many of these plants, grown in this method, are specifically for creating a permaculture ecosystem. Others, like the beans, are for improving soil microbes and soil quality.
No Bare Ground:
At it’s heart, no-dig and no-till gardening, permaculture gardening, and chaos gardening, have one major thing in common. Don’t let the ground be bare. If you don’t want to commit to a full chaos garden, try something smaller and less chaotic. Smaller crops like salad greens can be mixed together as a mesculin mix. Use a salad green mix like this to seed small bare patches in your garden, especially in spring and fall, and harvest plentiful salad greens, while keeping the ground producing and covered with living plants.
Alternatively, to keep ground from becoming bare and exposed to the elements, you can also use a cover crop mix like rye and buckwheat, or rye and vetch. Just make sure to research cover crop termination methods, so you don’t end up with having to weed out cover crops instead of weeds.
Keeping the ground covered with growing things helps provide shelter to your beneficial insects and critters like frogs and toads. It also keeps roots in the ground to prevent erosion and soil compaction from rain and sprinkler systems. While you can just use excessive amounts of mulch, a good cover crop or salad crop rotation into those bare spots, can also be very useful. Even if it can appear chaotic.
Want to Keep the Chaos Indoors?
Have a HOA or no space to garden outdoors? Keep the chaos indoors with indoor microgreen and micro herb growing. You can grow a large salad bowl full of greens every week, no matter the weather or temperature, and try all kinds of delicious greens. This course includes three different growing methods, which will each give you a slightly different result. So there’s plenty of opportunity to try new plants, new varieties, and new flavors from the comfort of your kitchen table or counter, and no need to brave the weather, or mud, to get your nightly salad!
Check out the Fill Your Salad Bowl workshop and learn how to use 3 different growing methods, at home, so you can fill your salad bowl with super food, nutrient dense, greens every single day. These are greens you can use in your salad bowl, greens you can add to soups, stews, and pasta dishes, and even greens you can use in a stir fry.
In this mini workshop you will learn how to fill a salad bowl every day with food you grow yourself.
- Even if you don’t have any land.
- Even if there is 3 feet of snow covering your garden
- Even if you’ve killed house plants in the past.
- Even if you think you have a black thumb.
Have a look at what’s covered in this workshop and see if its a good fit for you, by clicking/tapping the blue button below.