5 Ancient Gardening Methods That Work in the Modern Garden

From passive clay pot irrigation to clever combinations of plants, we can leverage natural ancient gardening methods by using our local resources to create more ecological modern gardens. Former organic farmer Logan Hailey digs into five ancient methods for nourishing your soil and improving crop yields without fancy technology.

Hugelkultur is one of the popular ancient gardening methods. The Hugelkultur method is a gardening technique characterized by its raised beds built from mounds of decaying organic matter, such as logs, branches, leaves, and other plant materials. The gardener's hands in yellow gloves add branches to the garden bed.


Modern paradigms have convinced many people that “new is better” and “old is outdated or inefficient.” In the world of agriculture, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Ancient gardening methods tend to be more sustainable, less energy-intensive, and far healthier for the soil and ecosystems. Long before synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and agricultural plastics, our ancestors used extremely clever techniques for cultivating plants in harmony with nature. 

Call me old school, but I’ve always been far more fascinated by the ancient world than the modern one. Ancient gardening offers a wealth of opportunities to connect more closely with the land and grow food in a way that enhances the soil rather than degrades it. 

While many modern food-growing practices rely on continuous consumption and re-purchasing of inputs, ancient growing methods made the most of local resources to create a self-sustaining system. As a result, many of these methods are easier on your pocketbook while reducing your carbon footprint.

Let’s dig into five clever ancient gardening methods to use in modern landscapes!

5 Ancient Gardening Methods for Healthy Soil and High Yields

Many traditional farming techniques were intricately intertwined with the local terrain, cultural practices, and spiritual beliefs of the community. As you peruse this sampling of five ancient techniques from different parts of the world, consider which methods are most relevant to your landscape and lifestyle. 

Choose Gardening Methods Based on Local Resources

Close-up of a gardener digging soil with a shovel in a spring garden. The gardener is wearing blue jeans and brown boots. The sunny garden has a green lawn and areas of beds with fresh, loose black-brown soil.
Adapt gardening practices to local conditions for sustainable food cultivation.

One of the biggest mistakes of modern agriculture is the attempt to copy and paste the same infrastructure and systems all over the world. For example, if you mimic the tillage-intensive, heavy-spray techniques of Midwestern row cropping on a hillside in the mountains, you may face intense erosion and land degradation. Similarly, if you apply tropical gardening concepts to your drought-prone desert landscape, your plants and soil will likely suffer.

Ignoring regional differences creates a forceful interaction with the land rather than a symbiotic one. Instead of melding our gardens to fit the image of someone else’s landscape, consider the resources available to you and the types of plants that naturally grow in your region. Why import compost from far away when you can use the leaves and kitchen scraps available on your property?

This localized approach to food cultivation is exactly how our ancestors fed entire civilizations without any modern technology. Unfortunately, excessive plowing and over-exploitation of resources also contributed to the demise of many agricultural civilizations. The repercussions may not be as intense in your backyard garden (surely your neighborhood won’t collapse if your crops fail!), but there are many valuable lessons embedded in garden history. 

The most important thing to learn from ancient agriculture is: value your soil health above all else! These ancient methods offer soil-nurturing, low-tech, and low-maintenance solutions to many garden problems:

Olla Irrigation

Olla Irrigation method. The Olla irrigation method is characterized by the use of an unglazed, porous clay pot buried in the soil with its neck exposed. This pot is filled with water. The exposed necks of the pots allow for easy filling, while the porous clay material slowly releases water into the surrounding soil, delivering a consistent and efficient irrigation system for plants.
Ancient clay pot irrigation conserves water and delivers it directly to roots.

An olla or oya watering pot is an ancient clay pot irrigation method used in China and North Africa over 4,000 years ago! The olla is buried in a garden bed or container with the open top above the soil so it can easily be filled with water. Pronounced “oh-ya,” this unglazed clay irrigation pot conserves water and slowly releases it into the soil through its porous walls. 

Ollas are particularly useful in arid desert areas where water is scarce. They are also highly functional in raised beds and container gardens. Indigenous people in the Southwest and Mexico used clay pots to deeply water plants below the surface in areas where the top inches of soil quickly dry out in summer heat.

With this brilliantly simple irrigation system, water is delivered directly to the plant roots because the clay pot is buried in the soil. This passive ancient technology is remarkably simple, sustainable, and almost maintenance-free. The only thing you need to do is periodically refill your olla by leaving the top of the pot accessible from the soil surface.

The benefits of irrigating with an olla include:

  • Plastic-free: Ollas are made of earthen, unglazed clay, so you don’t have to use plastic in your garden.
  • Low maintenance: This method only requires occasional refilling. You don’t need to turn on irrigation timers or constantly monitor your beds.
  • Less risk of overwatering: Ollas work due to suction and soil moisture tension around the pot, which means the olla only releases moisture when the soil is dry.
  • Reduced risk of foliar disease: Many garden diseases are caused by moisture on the leaf surfaces. Ollas deliver water straight to the root zone, so you don’t have to use sprinklers or a hose.
  • Adaptability: These clay irrigation pots come in several different sizes for any size of in-ground bed, raised bed, or container.
  • Moderation of moisture: Plants experience reduced water stress because they won’t go through drastic cycles of wet and dry soil. The olla moderates the soil moisture to protect your plants during drought.
  • Less fruit splitting: Crops like tomatoes and melons are prone to splitting open when they are under water stress. Ollas prevent this from happening by evening out the moisture levels and even re-absorbing excess water if the soil is too wet.
  • Water saving: In drought-prone arid climates, ollas save up to 70% more water compared to other types of irrigation. The clay pot reduces evaporation, so your limited water resources don’t go to waste.

How Ollas Work

The most intriguing thing about ollas is the way they moderate soil moisture. The porous clay walls of an olla use a phenomenon called soil-moisture tension to absorb and “wick away” moisture.

In other words, the clay pot releases water into the soil when it is dry and stops releasing moisture when it is wet. Your plants only pull moisture from the olla whenever they need it. If you are a gardener who struggles with overwatering or underwatering, this ancient irrigation method can make a huge difference!

Most ollas have tapered necks to reduce evaporation from the top. This means more moisture stays in the wide bottom of the olla so it can filter into the soil over several weeks. 

To use an olla:

  1. Choose the right size Oya for your garden (we offer small, medium, and large).
  2. Dig a hole large enough to bury the olla.
  3. Ensure an inch or two of the neck and the lid are exposed above the soil line.
  4. Plant your seeds or seedlings within 18” of the olla pot.
  5. Fill the olla with water and put the lid on.
  6. Check your ollas once or twice a week, depending on the temperature and rainfall.
  7. Remove your olla from the garden in the winter so frosts don’t crack the clay.

Learn more in this epic olla video: 

YouTube video

Hugelkultur Beds

Close-up of a gardener making a Hugelkultur bed in a sunny garden. The Hugelkultur bed is constructed from layers of organic materials such as logs, branches, leaves, and compost. The gardener covers the layer of logs with a layer of wood and leaf shavings using a garden rake.
Also called lasagna gardening, this method builds mounds with layers of organic matter.

Hugelkultur (hoo-gul-culture) is a centuries-old German gardening method that uses many layers of organic matter (like logs, twigs, straw, and manure) to form mounds or hills of rich soil for cultivating vegetables and trees. 

Also known as lasagna gardening, this ancient technique has gained tremendous popularity in the world of no-dig, no-till, and permaculture gardening. The term hugelkultur literally translates to “mound culture” or “hill culture,” referring to the way the planting bed is raised up above the original soil level.

The concept behind hugelkultur is very simple, yet offers profound benefits such as:

Improved drainage

Raising the bed up above the ground level facilitates water drainage.

Improved soil fertility

As organic materials break down, the soil is enriched with nutrients and beneficial microorganisms.

Water conservation

Hugelkultur beds are drought-resistant and retain moisture without becoming soggy or waterlogged.

Use of local materials

You can create hugelkultur beds with the organic waste already on your land.

Reduced tillage

You don’t have to plow into the soil beneath. Instead, you can build soil from the surface downward.

Financial savings

Instead of importing expensive topsoil or compost to fill garden beds, you can passively improve the soil without spending much money.

Building a hugelkultur doesn’t require any intensive machinery or hard work. If you have a wheelbarrow, rake, and shovel, you can form one of these beds in a couple of hours. The key to success is layering your materials based on their hardness and length of time to break down. 

A Layered Cake or Lasagna Bed

Close-up of a wooden raised bed made using the Lasagna method. Lasagna beds, also known as sheet mulch gardens, have a distinctive appearance characterized by their layered composition of organic materials. The top layer is covered with green grass. A gardener in brown boots, gray shorts and a green T-shirt is building a raised bed in the background.
Hugelkultur mimics layered cakes, placing wood, organic materials, and topsoil strategically.

Hugelkultur beds are often compared to layered cakes or lasagna because they use several alternating layers of different ingredients. I like to imagine a mounded bed like a cake with a crunchy crust and a fluffy frosting. 

In other words, the woodiest materials (i.e., thicker logs and branches) should be on the bottom. Medium-density materials like smaller twigs, leaves, and straw should go in the middle. Lighter materials like manure, grass clippings, and unfinished compost can go near the top.

The final “frosting” layer should be quality topsoil or fine aged compost. This top layer only needs to be a few inches thick, as it is where you will sow seeds or transplant seedlings.

Here’s the simplest way to create a lasagna garden bed:

  1. Determine the size of the bed: Are you filling a tall raised bed or starting a new 3’ x 6’ bed on the ground? Optionally, mark out your bed with stakes and twine.
  2. Assess the available materials: Rake up leaves, gather prunings and twigs, empty your lawnmower, and collect kitchen scraps. Ask local ranchers for manure or inquire with arborists for wood chips. Prioritize what is on-site, free, and nearby.
  3. Form the base layer: Lay down the hardest, woodiest materials first, such as large-diameter branches and sticks.
  4. Add the next layer: Add 4-8” of twigs, prunings, and finer woody materials like wood chips.
  5. Switch to finer, nutrient-dense materials: The third layer is composed of organic matter that can break down more quickly, such as straw, manure, leaves, and grass clippings. Spread these in layers 3-6” deep.
  6. Finish with topsoil or compost: The top layer should be the finest, highest-quality compost or topsoil you can find. Aim for at least 4-6” deep and rake smooth.
  7. Maintain the sides: If forming a bed on the ground, use a rake to ensure your mound stays contained in the desired space. You may need to hill it up once or twice per season.
  8. Water the bed: If your materials are dry, add some moisture to each layer as you build it. Do not oversaturate the bed.
  9. Plant or cover: If your topsoil layer is at least 4” deep, you can plant vegetables directly into the bed. Alternatively, build your hugelkultur in the fall, then cover it with a tarp and allow it to mature over winter so it is ready to plant in the spring.

The reason hugelkultur works so well is because it builds soil from the top down. You can build this mounded bed on the worst soil in the world, and slowly, over time, microorganisms will break down the materials so they can improve the ground beneath. Rather than digging into the native soil, you are building a bed above it.

You can also use the hugelkultur “lasagna” layering concept in raised beds, as Epic Gardening founder Kevin Espiritu demonstrates in this video:

YouTube video

Biological Pest Control

Close-up of a ladybug eating aphids on a plant stem, against a blurred green background. Ladybug is a small colored beetle with a rounded, dome-shaped body and vibrant coloration. It has bright red elytra adorned with black spots. Aphids are small, soft-bodied insects with a distinct appearance characterized by their pear-shaped bodies and long, slender antennae.
Biocontrol deploys natural predators against pests, bypassing chemical pesticides.

For thousands of years before modern chemical pesticides, farmers and gardeners relied on nature’s built-in pest control: predators! As early as 3000 BC, Chinese farmers domesticated cats to control rodent pests in their grain storage. A few thousand years later, they used ants to control citrus pests. In the modern day, we see the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) widely used by organic farmers to control caterpillar pests. 

Biocontrol is a form of pest management that involves introducing or promoting natural predators of an insect pest. Instead of using pesticides and sprays, biocontrol leverages natural ecosystem dynamics. 

Nature’s Balancing System

Close-up of a parasitic wasp on a white flower against a blurred green background. The parasitic wasp Ichneumon xanthorius is characterized by its elongated, slender body and intricate patterning. This species has a predominantly black body with yellow markings, including bands or spots on its abdomen and segments of its legs.
Biocontrol maintains balance, like nature’s predators regulating prey populations in ecosystems.

Imagine biocontrol as nature’s system of “checks and balances.” Garden biocontrol operates similarly to a wild ecosystem of mountain lions and rabbits. When rabbit populations get out of hand, mountain lions can easily hunt more food, so they grow healthier and birth offspring. If rabbit populations shrink, fewer mountain lions are born because there is less food. 

Understanding the Predator-Prey Balance

If you remove the mountain lions from the equation completely, rabbit populations can quickly skyrocket, especially if there aren’t any other predators like bears or wolves.

This is especially obvious in suburban areas where there are millions of rabbits with very few predators (aside from the occasional outdoor cat). This metaphor is a great way to imagine the interactions between aphids and ladybugs in your kale bed.

Simply put, here is what each animal symbolizes in the garden:

  • Rabbits symbolize the insects that eat our crops, like aphids, spider mites, hornworms, and flea beetles.
  • Mountain lions symbolize the predators (sometimes called “biocontrol agents” or “beneficial predators”) that naturally eat the pests to keep their populations under control. Common predators include spiders, ladybugs, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps.

These predator-prey dynamics unfold at every scale in natural ecosystems, from the tiniest microscopic bacteria to the little bugs on your squash to the biggest whales in the sea. The web of life always includes one species eating something else. 

In an undisrupted setting, the predators and prey naturally balance out each other’s populations. Neither one can become overpopulated because their numbers balance out. However, in a garden or agricultural setting, many prey (pest) populations get out of hand because natural predators are not present. This is what leads to infestations of pests like aphids, hornworms, or squash bugs.

Achieving Balance in Your Garden

Some of the most well-known and widely available beneficial biocontrol predators include:

  • Ladybugs (lady beetles)
  • Spiders
  • Lacewings
  • Big-eyed bugs
  • Syrphid flies (hoverflies)
  • Braconid wasps
  • Parasitic wasps
  • Dragonflies
  • Bats
  • Birds

While you can purchase biocontrol agents, the most sustainable and economical thing to do is to naturally attract them to your garden. You don’t need to introduce predators from a far-away place to control your local pests.

Some gardeners release thousands of store-bought ladybugs in their garden, only to find that the ladybugs quickly fly away. If you want long-term, self-sufficient pest control, you must plant resources that will invite the local native predators in to stay for generations to come.

Here are some of the best species to plant a bio-controlled garden:

  • White alyssum
  • Flowering dill
  • Yarrow
  • Coreopsis
  • Asters
  • Chives
  • Echinacea
  • Chamomile
  • Feverfew
  • Flowering cilantro
  • Sunflowers
  • Daisies
  • Goldenrod
  • Native wildflower blends

Using this ancient pest control technique ensures healthier, happier crops and a more diverse, beautiful garden. 

Companion Planting

Close-up of a bed of growing cabbages and flowering marigolds in a garden. Cabbages are characterized by their dense, round-shaped heads composed of tightly packed leaves. These leaves are smooth and broad, bright green in color. Marigolds produce dense clusters of small, daisy-like flowers in varying shades of yellow, orange, and red. These flowers feature multiple layers of petals radiating from a central disc, creating a pom-pom-like appearance.
Emulate nature with companion planting, blending diverse plants for garden harmony.

Nature rarely grows monocultures (i.e., hundreds of acres of one thing). Wild forests, grasslands, and even deserts are naturally a combination of many types of plants working in harmony. This concept can be replicated in our gardens using companion planting.

We’ve all heard of the three sisters planting of corn, beans, and squash. The Mayan “milpa” is one of the oldest forms of ancient farming, but the simple concept of polyculture (planting lots of different plants together) has existed in hundreds of different forms in ancient cultures across the world.

Like the three sisters, many modern garden companions include annual plants, but the concepts can be applied to orchards and perennial plantings as well. Some notable examples of companion planting with perennial plants include:

  • Indigenous orchard-like forest gardens along the Salish Coast of modern-day Canada
  • Ancient Aztec chinampas that integrated agriculture with aquaculture (fish farming)
  • Moroccan tropical food forests of understory fruit shrubs beneath towering date palms

The key to successful companion planting is choosing plant species that naturally complement each other. If one plant is vulnerable to certain pests, its companion should deter those pests or attract natural predators. A companion for a plant with deep roots may have a shallow root system. If one plant prefers a certain type of soil or moisture level, it should be grown with a species that enjoys similar conditions.

Modern science has proven the effectiveness of companion planting.

The benefits of combining mutually symbiotic plants include:

  • Attracting beneficial insects (hello, biocontrol!)
  • Increasing biodiversity
  • Deterring damaging pets
  • Improving soil nutrients (i.e., leguminous plants like peas and beans)
  • Preventing diseases
  • Improving soil conditions
  • Providing shade (to reduce bolting)
  • Providing a natural trellis
  • Improving crop vigor and yields

Some of the best companion plants include:

  • Marigolds
  • Sweet alyssum
  • Legumes
  • Onions
  • Basil
  • Rosemary
  • Sunflowers
  • Yarrow
  • Mint

Remember to research specific plant combos before you start companion planting. Ensure you provide sufficient space between your crops and their neighbors. Overcrowding is one of the main companion planting mistakes made by beginner gardeners.

In general, I like to leave at least 6-12” of space between a crop and its neighboring companion. This depends heavily on the mature size of the plant and any pruning you plan to do.

Manure Power

Close-up of manure compost poop on a heap in a tall wooden box. Manure is mixed with dry straw. There is a compost heap under sunlight.
Ancient farming cultures valued manure, a vital soil-enriching resource.

In Franklin H. King’s groundbreaking book Farmers of Forty Centuries, he documents an in-depth look into the ancient farming and gardening systems of China, Korea, and Japan. What did the food-growing methods of these waste-free, long-lasting civilizations have in common? They all harnessed the power of poop! 

In areas where the soil has been sustainably cultivated for thousands of years, researchers found that “Manure of all kinds, human and animal, is religiously saved and applied to the fields in a manner which secures an efficiency far above our own practices.”

Yep, poop is the humble secret ingredient! Livestock manure, green manure (cover crops), and even human manure were used by ancient farmers and gardeners to enrich the soil. Human manure is a topic best left to the experts in modern times, but animal manure is still a gold-quality input for our gardens.

The power of manure is one of the most simple and underrated ancient gardening methods. It is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus and dramatically improves the soil microbiome by feeding beneficial microorganisms that help our crops. Manure is an extremely valuable source of organic matter and natural fertilizer. Best of all, it is free.

A lot of people avoid using manure for two reasons:

  • They think it’s gross, and they’re afraid of getting sick from handling it (Pro Tip: Wear gloves and compost it!)
  • They think it will “burn” their plants with harsh nutrients. (Pro Tip: Compost it first with a higher ratio of carbon-rich materials)

Composting solves most of the problems we associate with using manure in the garden. The high temperatures of a compost pile naturally kill off any harmful bacteria like E. coli. Researchers at Cornell University have demonstrated that compost piles heated to 130-140°F (54-60°C) effectively remove potential pathogens. 

To avoid issues with contamination or nitrogen burn, never apply raw manure to your garden. Compost it or age it (leave it in a pile for a few months) before use.

Final Thoughts

You could spend thousands of dollars and hours installing fancy modern technology in your landscape, but ancient gardening methods could provide just as many benefits without all the bells and whistles. Our ancestors successfully grew food for thousands of years without fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, or Bluetooth monitors. How else would we be here!? 

From passive clay pot irrigation to clever combinations of plants, we can leverage natural ancient gardening methods by using our local resources to create more ecological modern gardens. 

drip irrigation schedule. Close-up of young garlic plants growing in a garden with drip irrigation. The garlic plant displays a distinctive appearance characterized by its upright, slender stalks and elongated, linear leaves. Growing from a bulb buried in the soil, the plant's leaves are a rich green color and have a slightly flattened, strap-like shape. Drip irrigation is a water-efficient system characterized by a network of tubing and emitters that deliver water directly to the base of plants.


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Best wood raised beds. Close-up of two raised beds in a sunny garden. Raised beds are made of wooden, smooth planks in a light shade. Cucumber and radish plants grow in the garden bed.

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