Gardeners often love to pore over seed catalogs, dreaming about which new varieties to try this year, planning their gardens in meticulous detail, and then put their planning into practice. Much time can be spent in tending and loving on their plants while watching for the fruit of their labor to produce, well, fruit.
But what about those gardeners that don’t have a lot of time on their hands? These days, many people are working more than they ever have before in the effort to make ends meet, and they have less time than ever to spend out in the garden.
What are some ways we can save time in the garden and still have it be productive? How can we supplement our meals from what we grow or even grow enough to store and eat through the year and not give up a lot of time that we need to be doing other things? Here are a few tips that can help.
Narrow Your Focus
In order to focus on getting as much food from your garden with as little time in the garden as possible, it may be necessary for you to narrow your plant choices. You may need to rethink your choices as you plan and decide what to grow. Those new plants you’ve never tried before may need to go by the wayside as you go for the tried-and-true varieties. When time is short, you may not have time to experiment. This is a sad thing for those with a green thumb, but making this sacrifice should give you more time to put into the crops that will fill your storage bins and your bellies.
One resource that may be helpful as you think about what you need to grow to survive and where you might want to set your focus is The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times by Carol Deppe. Deppe covers the five crops that she believes you should grow in order to “survive and thrive”– those crops being potatoes, corn, beans, squash, and eggs. (This book is especially helpful for any of you who are looking for ways to prep gluten-free, as she does not include gluten-containing crops in this book.) Eggs aren’t something you grow in the ground, of course, but they can greatly supplement your diet, and once you have a couple chickens or ducks and their protective shelter established, they take little time and care.
Whatever crops you choose, be mindful of your family’s dietary needs and preferences and how well you can provide for those needs with what you grow. You may choose different crops than someone else might choose or recommend. Have a precise plan for everything that you grow so that your time is not wasted.
Smaller as in intensive gardening, that is. Square foot gardening is one way to not have to tend to a sprawling garden. The closeness of the plants helps to shade the soil, cutting down on watering and also the germination and growth of weeds. In addition, you don’t have to cover as much ground as you otherwise might with the classic garden, you don’t have to turn as much soil, and you can quickly see what needs care and what can wait. Mel Bartholomew’s All New Square Foot Gardening book is an excellent resource with lots of how-to information on how to make square foot gardening work for you. Check it out!
Minimize Your Need To Water And Weed
While square foot gardening is one way to garden that happens to help save on water and weeding, there are other ways to intentionally lower the need for these two tasks in most any garden.
Mulching is a simple way to minimize both your need to water and to weed. Put a thick layer of mulch down after a thorough watering, and the mulch will help to hold the moisture in the soil, as well as blocking the light to keep unwanted plants (weeds) from germinating and taking over your garden.
Whether you use grass clippings, leaves, compost, newspaper, coconut fiber, or some other medium to place on the top of the soil, it is important to lay it on thickly when you are using it for this purpose. Laid on thin, it will still add beneficial nutrients to your soil, but it will not help much with the water preservation and weed control. Be sure to layer it on thick enough that the sunlight will not reach the ground.
Jugs and bottles can be mostly buried upside down next to your water-demanding plants’ roots in order to collect and somewhat slowly dispense the water directly to where it is needed: in the soil near your plants’ roots. This can be very helpful, especially in dry areas with soil that causes rapid runoff and water loss through evaporation or simply running to where it is not actually needed. These jugs, with bottoms cut off and facing up, can catch rain or water from your hose or watering can and help get it where it belongs.
Once your seedlings have had the chance to sprout and grow big enough to have a sturdy stem and a few sets of leaves, some strategically placed soaker hoses can do the trick to water your garden while you are away doing something else for awhile. Situate your hoses around your plants, turn the faucet on just so the water oozes out rather than sprays out in streams, and you’ve bought your plants a few hours of unattended slow, deep watering time. (Just make sure you remember to turn them off after a few hours—if you don’t, you might walk outside to a flooded yard, like I did once!) Timers can be helpful if you will be away a while or are prone to forgetfulness.
Got Money? Think About Drip Irrigation
Drip irrigation systems, once installed, have the benefit of a consistent level of moisture for your plants. You don’t have to worry about them drying out on a hot day and how in the world you are going to water them if you are gone for a week. Your problem might actually be how to get someone to come over and pick your produce for that week as your plants faithfully produce even when you are gone.
Drip irrigation systems can be fairly expensive to initially install, depending, of course, on how much area you want to irrigate. Once installed, though, they can be very beneficial, especially for hot and dry climates. There are some people who dislike drip irrigation systems because they do take time to set up each year after you have your plants in, and they need to be taken down in the fall before you work the soil. You do have to work around them, such as when you are hoeing, and the plastic lines do tend to be fragile and not resistant to rodents chewing on them. They are also not an excellent choice to use for vining plants, as the drip lines only drip in the areas you set them up at, and not necessarily where your vines have reached.
There are definitely different camps when it comes to drip irrigation. While it does have its drawbacks, it also has many proponents. Just be sure to take time to learn as much about it and how it might work in your region and your garden’s setup before you invest the money and time into a drip irrigation system.
Deal With Weeding Differently
Weeding the garden doesn’t always have to involve hand-pulling every weed you see or using a hoe. Many times, for low-growing weeds, you can use a shovel to cut the soil and weeds just under the surface of the soil and flip the contents of the shovel over and back onto the ground. The weeds that you have just cut off at the ground should be completely covered by the dirt. Being robbed of the light, they should die and return to the soil as they decompose. This method won’t work with every low-growing weed, but it is worth a try to start with.
Consider Container Gardening
For some crops, you have the ability to get a good amount of produce when you grow the plant in a container. Use good light soil, situate the container near a water source for ease of watering and in a place with enough sun and you will be set.
Potatoes are a good example. To grow a container of potatoes, you need some good potting soil or compost and some potato starts. Make sure your container has good drainage, then pour in a good layer of dirt and plant a layer of potatoes. Wait until these sprout and then add another layer of dirt. Wait until the sprouts come up above the dirt and add more dirt. Repeat until the container is almost full and allow the potato plants to grow through the summer season. At the end of the season, you can tip the container over and dump it out and harvest all of your potatoes. You should have larger ones near the bottom and new potatoes towards the top of the container.
Consider Community Gardening
Community gardens can be of benefit for the gardener short on time. Generally, you sign up with a group of people to tend to a garden in your neighborhood, and then you go in on certain days of the week to work on it. This may or not work for you, but it can give you more variety of produce for the amount of work you put into it. This will vary from place to place and with each particular garden, of course.
The other option would be to host a community garden on your own property. Since you are the host, you may be able to get off with most of the others who sign up doing the majority of the work and still have something to show for it at the end of the season.
Laundry Baskets – Not Just For Laundry
Come harvest time, a laundry basket can be used to help you to minimize the amount of washing you need to do, especially for root vegetables. Simply harvest your vegetables, placing them into your laundry basket. Then, simply use your garden hose and spray the vegetables clean. Most of the dirt and water will come off of your veggies and run out of the basket to drain.
To Save Time Next Year…
We are too late to use this tip this year, but there is a fairly simple way to save time next year in putting your garden in: do most of the work in the fall. Once you have gotten all of your crop harvested, cut your plants off at the ground. Though this does cut back on some of your natural organic matter that you could be putting in the garden, doing this helps to minimize the amount of pests that may overwinter in your garden and that may become an issue in the following seasons. Once you have removed the debris, go ahead and test your soil and have lime added at this time if needed. Then, work compost into your soil and then cover the entire garden with a thick layer of mulch to keep the winter weeds from germinating. Now you have prepped your garden for spring and all you should really have to do is pull away the mulch and plant your seeds or starts into the soil.
There are many ways to save time in the garden. Hopefully these tips will help to make your gardening time enjoyable and productive this coming year! Be sure to share these tips with your friends. You might discover they have some additional timesaving tips. Share them here!