My gardening style is hardly simple. Because I love it and love to do it all myself, it is totally worth all the effort, but simple it is not. But, recently a friend posed this question to me, “What are the top ten ways to simplify your garden?” Here are some ways.
The first way to make gardening simple is not to garden. Seriously, I am not kidding. Yes, I am a gardening teacher and yes, I would love to teach you how, but like any hobby—life-giving or not—one must consider the time, skills, costs, resources and water, that go into gardening.
Gardening can help take you out of an industrialized food system; it can get you out into nature more; it just might address pressing personal and global shifts, but consider if it is the right fit for you and your time and resources because, honestly, it may not be worth doing. I worked as the school gardener a couple of years back and I had a co-worker who told me a great story.
She rode her bike to work, shopped locally, and did all she could to reduce her carbon footprint and contribute to her community. One summer she decided to add growing her own food to her good green efforts. She built a raised bed, bought fancy soil, invested in little plants from the greenhouse and watered like crazy. She worked hard that summer and got very little return so that she ended up losing money and time, but she did gain the realization of how much effort it really took to grow her own food. She concluded her tale with,” After all that, now I happily shop at the Farmer’s Market and I will never scoff at a $3 bunch of carrots again. Those farmers know what they are doing, have the appropriate resources to grow beautiful food, and man, they earn every penny!!”
Did you know that one of the biggest problems with Farmer’s Markets is that the farmers can’t sell all their beautiful food!! So much effort, water, land, money, and highly precious resources go to waste. So, if you can, just buy your food from the local pros and save your water bill and spare time for something else. Gift your local farmers with the value and respect you give any professional.
Now if you are continuing to read this, it is probably because you love to garden, can’t afford market or have some other very good reason you are set on growing, or like me, you simply must, so my dear gardeners, here are a few more tips for you.
If simple is what you are truly looking for, the first advice I would give would be: don’t make your own flats, soil or even grow your own starts. Though a wonderful and pleasurable task, it is not simple and not always easy to do. Buy your starts from your local nursery or Farmer’s Market.
2. CHOOSE YOUR CROPS WISELY
Grow only what you eat constantly, what costs a lot and doesn’t travel well—like greens, salad, or herbs. Make good friends with Swiss chard as it can be eaten raw or cooked, grows almost year round, bugs don’t like it, and it is truly a loyal pal. Dark leafy greens like Swiss chard and kale are always giving and require very little attention and really you can’t eat enough of them!
Start with potted herbs that come inside in the winter. This way you always have them on hand and will really save money because those darn plastic containers of herbs in the supermarket are expensive.
Grow crops that will supply for your needs all year. Garlic is super easy, low maintenance and you can grow a whole year’s worth in your backyard.
Skip field crops. If you have a small yard and are trying to grow some of your own food, skip crops like onions, winter squash, corn, and potatoes unless of course you have really great success with them. You can buy all those in bulk locally and cheaply from farmers at market and store them all winter long. There is no way I could produce all that I consume, so I save my garden space for things I consume daily.
3. SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL: CONSOLIDATE RESOURCES
Plant intensively one area; don’t spread your gardening all over the yard. Choose a small area and really love it up, water it well, spoil it with compost and mulch and wind protection. Even use containers on your porch that have great soil and are convenient to water, but make sure this precious area is well cared for.
Your work is a resource too, so make sure you are using your time and energy as wisely and as well as you are your water and nutrients. A small intensive area that is well cared for will sing, rather than over doing it and spreading you and your garden too thin.
4. MULCH LIKE CRAZY AND STOP WEEDING!
Mulch (straw) suppresses weeds so you don’t have to worry about them. It keeps in moisture so you water much less and it builds up organic material in your soil. If you do have weeds, let them be if they aren’t encroaching on precious vegetables. Just change how you see them: call them cover crops, call them water catchment, call them green in the desert. If they are getting in your veggies way, pull them up and lay them down right where they are and call them mulch. They will just dry up and look like straw anyway!
5. PLAN WELL
I have found good gardening really is about good planning. Sow succession crops so as you harvest you are continually adding more seeds. This makes it so you are always harvesting and always planting something, so no time, water or space is wasted. If you need help knowing when to plant what, here is my handy planting calendar to help guide your way.
6. LOW TILL TO NO TILL
Build up the soil with constant additions of organic material. You are building up an ecology that does not need to be disturbed every season. Once you dig deep for the first couple of seasons, a light fluffing of the topsoil should do the trick for sowing seeds and transplanting.
7. CHICKEN TRACTORS
Have you ever had chickens loose in your yard? Then you have seen them scratch, pick and rake your garden to a nice fine tilth. Build a little cage that fits over your beds and put the chickens in there before you sow. They will do the work for you in a day and will also eat bugs and weeds along the way. No chickens? I guarantee you have a friend who will lend you a few for a day— you don’t need to be the only one out there working!
8. SWAP AND SHARE
Your friends have chickens and you have chard, just trade—we don’t all need to do it all the time! Things are only worth the value we put on them. Create your own little underground swapper market.
You can plant your whole yard in edible berries, trees, herbs and shrubs and have a lot less work to do weekly. You may have bumper crops one year creating a lot of work at one time, but I am sure you will have tons of friends all of a sudden who want to come over and help pick.
“Perrenialize” annuals too. Let things go to seed and they will be sure to sprout up in odd places the next year. The old timers call these plants “volunteers.” You can wild harvest out of your own yard if you let things naturalize and learn to eat your weeds!
10. ONLY GARDEN IF YOU LOVE IT
Forgive yourself if you don’t love gardening and use your precious time and energy on some other righteous, earth healing, soul nourishing endeavor, I am sure you can think of one that is calling to you right now!
From early experiences Erin O’Neill learned that feeding your family and teaching your children are most worthy and sustainable goals. Erin has lived on a small plot in Northern New Mexico, that she and her family help nurture and bloom, for 13 years. She has focused her career on educational gardens at the Santa Fe Children’s Museum, Monte Del Sol Charter School and now at the Santa Fe Community College. Her love of gardening is her most cherished gift and she always delights in sharing it. Enjoy more of Erin’s writing and photography at Seeds & Stones.