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Companion Planting, Water Harvesting and Soil Building: Sustainable Agriculture at GVSU

youssef at the GVSU green houseLocated on approximately 2 acres of former cropland, GVSU’s Sustainable Agricultural Project (SAP) is a student led initiative for exploring the principles and practices of sustainable agriculture. Through hands on activities, the  SAP provides a place where plants, people, knowledge and relationships can grow. Current President of the GVSU Farm Club, member of the SAP farm crew and student of permaculture, Youssef Darwich shares some of what he’s learned.

Project Overview

Given our available resources, production of high value annual vegetables has been, and continues to be, the primary focus of the SAP. Our plot of land is small, with compacted clay soil low in fertility. Volunteer labor is abundant but sporadic.

The original intention was to be a community garden. However, issues with sporadic labor and funds led to an evolution in management toward a market style garden with an educational emphasis. Vegetable production allows for a quick turnaround on labor inputs and is relatively simple for new volunteers to understand. As we become more established this core can be built upon to enhance the diversity and resiliency of the SAP.

gvsu hoophouseWhile production is the most physically demanding aspect, marketing and selling the product remains a challenge. Our main avenue of sale is through the GVSU farmer’s market. The market allows us to have personal interactions and build relationships with members of our community.

Because our market has only been once a week, we are often left with excess produce that goes unharvested or becomes compost. To create more yields from this abundance, we now offer CSA (Community supported agriculture) shares. Members pay a flat amount in the beginning of the season, in exchange for a share of the harvest each week.

marketThe relationships we build through the farmer’s market are integral for creating the CSA member base. In turn, the CSA gives us a stable source of revenue and allows our members to share in the abundance of the harvest throughout the season. We are continuing to explore new avenues to move product including selling to campus dining, an on-campus delivery service, and donating to the food pantry.

While economic viability is one of our goals, we realize that this cannot be accomplished without first regenerating the integrity of the land. The former conventional farm practices have lead to a severely compacted clay soil, low in organic matter, and abundant with standing water. Along with techniques for water management and soil building to improve growing conditions and yields, we incorporate ecological principles in our production areas.

Water Management

Standing water, which can drown roots and negatively affect plant growth,  is an issue in our compacted soil. We attempt to alleviate the issues with standing water by building a healthy soil to soak up the water.

We also mound beds in our production fields. Mounding the beds increases the distance from the water table (gives more room for roots to respire), as well as increasing surface area and creating easier harvesting conditions. To mound beds, we dig soil out of the walkways and pile it onto the beds, as well using Sepp Holzer’s hugelkultur techniques (burying logs and nutrient sources) in the bed interiors.

MoundBedChannelWe can use the channels between the mounded beds to harvest and distribute it evenly throughout the field. However this technique currently not perfected, as standing water is abundant, which is a haven for mosquito breeding. As we continue to develop this system, we will optimize the channels to both maximize our water resources and decrease mosquito habitat in work areas.

Soil Building

A fertile clay soil is like a sponge, abundant in its water and nutrient holding capacities. To move toward this ideal condition, compaction is dealt with using soil building techniques, including cover crops, double digging, shallow cultivation/no-till, mulching, and composting.

Leaving soil bare is rarely a good idea. Bare soil leads to erosion, leaching of nutrients, and enables undesirable “weeds” to colonize the site. We use cover crops, such as winter wheat, to protect the soil, hold on to nutrients, minimize weed growth, and generate organic matter.

CoverCropDouble digging is a biodynamic concept aimed to loosen compacted soils. A section of the topsoil layer  is removed, exposing the hardpan, which is then broken up using digging forks (or pickaxes in extreme cases), to break up aggregates and create pore spaces in the subsoil. Adjacent topsoil is moved over to the loosened section and the process repeats throughout the bed. Organic matter, such as grass clippings or cover crops, can be added in the soil before being covered with soil.

Tilling can be a very destructive process, especially in clay soils. Tilling destroys aggregates within the soil, which are vital for water storage and biological activity. However, unless one applies herbicides, cultivation may be the best option to ensure minimal weed competition and a healthy crop.

To minimize damage to soil structure, we use tools such as a stirrup hoe to cultivate just below the soil surface, minimizing disturbance while killing weeds.

Mulching is another strategy used to build soil, retain water and prevent weed growth. It is best suited when seedlings are transplanted or after seeds have germinated and established themselves. Mulching is not ideal for direct seeding because it has a cooling effect on the soil (contrary to ideal germinating conditions) and the debris makes it difficult to use seeding tools.

compostingComposting is yet another technique used to build soil fertility. We source organic matter from both on site and GVSU’s grounds crew to mix them into large piles (windrows), accelerating decomposition.  The finished product is then applied to our growing beds to add organic matter and supply nutrients for healthy crops.


Ecological Principles

Utilizing ecological principles, such as succession and intercropping or companion planting, is large component of our production. For management at a market garden level, planting complexity needs to be balanced with ease of harvest, weeding tools and background knowledge of incoming volunteers. Planting succession, especially with aid of hoop houses, makes it possible to yield multiple crops from the same bed in a season.

Combining permaculture principles with an understanding of the growth, harvest, and death patterns of a particular crop enables one to maximize time of production and minimize duration where soil is left bare (bare soil = erosion and weed seed colonization).

Here are some of the companion plantings we use in our production beds:

Companion planting spinach and tomatoesSpinach to tomatoes: spinach thrives in cold temperature but “bolts” or begins to go to seed once temperatures reach a certain point. In our hoop house we had spinach, planted in September, thriving at the beginning of April – the same time tomatoes are ready to go in the ground. Instead of ripping out all of the spinach, we simply ripped out the middle row in each bed and planted tomato seedlings in between.

Once the spinach began to bolt we removed about 95% of the plants, only leaving spinach with desirable traits to save seed from. In hindsight we would make this selection as soon as the plants begin to bolt, as we learned large spinach plants will compete with tomato seedlings for nutrients.


LettucePepperLettuce is another crop which is useful in succession planting. When the lettuce is ready to harvest, we strategically cut the heads where another crop, such as peppers, can be transplanted. Adding an additional crop lets us make better use of the soil space while the lettuce is still developing. This technique can be used for several crops, including peppers shown below. We have also had success with summer squash and zucchini.


PepperGarlicPepper and garlic: Garlic is a crop that overwinters and can be harvested at any point of its growth cycle. We harvested the interior of the bed while the garlic was young, planting peppers in the harvested area. Because these crops have different growth forms, there is minimal competition for light or soil soil resources, and the garlic releases odors deterring pests.


SquashCosmoZucchini and cosmos: This combination has proved to be a success. Anyone who has ever harvested zucchini knows how sharp the leaves can be. The cosmos have soft, feathery leaves, which makes reaching in to harvest the zukes a more pleasant experience. Further, the cosmos bring aesthetic beauty to the garden, fill space between zucchini, support pollinators, and provide cut flowers to bring to market




Basil and eggplant: These two appear to have positive effects on one another. The basil doesn’t out compete the eggplant for soil resources or light; the eggplant provides light shade for the basil, which slows the basil from going to seed.




Kale and onion: These two crops work well together. Similar to garlic, onions also excrete odors into the environment which deter pests. However, to get a healthy onion crop, harvest the kale heavily to ensure enough light reaches the onions.




The most important organism on the farm is the people, as a farm is nothing without the people to support it. Education is at the heart of our community and teaching the principles and practices of sustainable agriculture is a primary goal for the SAP. Within this platform for education emerges innovative, creative ideas.

WorkshopWe are unlike most small farms because the university offers a unique buffer to mitigate the risks of exploring new techniques. Grand Valley also provides a source of start up funds for projects that can generate useful data for the outside world.

Ultimately, the SAP is envisioned as a hub to increase awareness and opportunity in sustainable agriculture, as well as stimulate innovative entrepreneurial activity, suiting West Michigan’s economy, environment and culture. Recent additions include a tree nursery, vermicomposting, and an apiary. In the future we will continue to pursue commercially viable and ecologically functional agricultural systems and practices.

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