By popular demand, I decided to run the second part of this post right away. The suggestions are so valuable, and having gardened myself for 3 years now, I can definitely attest to the wisdom in these tips. I know that I've been encouraged and reminded of areas where I could improve my own gardening and make it easier for myself, so thanks Amber!
Guest Post by Amber
Continuing on from Part 1...
#1 Start Small
Yes, I know; do I have to spoil the fun? “Start small” is really hard to remember when you're pouring over seed catalogs in January! Those 400 feet of corn don't seem so long, and surely you'll need at least 5 zucchini plants, right? Perhaps if you lived away from all contact with civilization, or grew vegetables as a business, you could handle that garden you're dreaming of, but most of us have other things to do with our lives. We can't spend 4 hours a day on garden maintenance.
So be realistic. Of course, if you've never gardened before, it will be hard to judge what's realistic. For example, unless you've heard from gardening friends, you won't know any better than to plant those 5 zucchini plants to feed your family of 4. (You'll have zucchini coming out your ears!) I suggest finding some gardening friends. They'll warn you about those crops which are more difficult to grow, and give you a good idea of how much you'll need to plant. It's always better to get a pleasant experience this year, and increase your gardening next year, than to be overwhelmed this year and never garden again.
Container gardens are also a good way to get a taste of gardening. Go for a pot with a tomato plant in it (make sure it's deep enough!) or a rubber-maid tub full of dirt and a crop of bush beans. Here's my tub of butter crunch lettuce – it fed us April-June of this year:
There's nothing like going out and picking your salad five minutes before you eat it!
#2 Go Organic
Let me contradict one very important myth; that organic gardening is the hardest kind to try. Nothing could be further from the truth. Organic gardening is a lot like eating healthy. It may require a little more work in the beginning, but in the end it will save you hours and hours of time in the doctor's office or on the sidelines when you could be living a more vibrant life. Organic gardening takes a little more “oomph” when you're starting out, but eventually it will save you endless work and frustration.
The trick to organic, labor-reduced gardening is letting God's nature do more and more work for you. You will waste hours and hours of work trying to go against what God built into a plant naturally
“Feed your soil, and your soil will feed the plants, and your plants will feed you.”
You thought I was going to say something about taking care of the plants, didn't you? Really, God made the soil to naturally take care of the plants. Good soil makes plants resistant to disease, bugs, and drought. If you have good soil, basically all you'll have to take care of is pruning, tying, and picking, with a little weeding and watering here and there.
This concept is probably the most important thing my Dad has taught me about gardening. Pouring chemicals onto plants will give you sick soil, and eventually make you more work, but using organic methods to build up the soil will give you better and better plants each year. When you can get your brain geared into thinking about soil care instead of plant care, your work load will decrease like bathtub water going down the drain. It's so simple it's almost funny!
Good soil isn't common in my part of the country. We have red clay here! But you'd never know it, looking at the “brownie mix” in our beds. That soil was built up over a 20-year period. Surprisingly, though, most of the change has happened in the last couple years, as Dad has started focusing more and more on soil improvement instead of plant care. You can improve your soil too, and you may start seeing results in as little as one year. There's hope for any soil!
Don't just avoid harmful sprays – learn to feed your soil beneficial things. Get into the mindset of thinking of your soil as living. It
should be living; it should be packed with beneficial organisms that break down organic matter and help plants absorb nutrients. That topic is much too vast to get into in this post, but if you'll take the time to research how to feed your soil, you'll have a garden that practically takes care of most problems for you.
#3 Use Cover Crops
For this tip, I'd love to use neon lights and make a big flashing sign that says “TIMESAVER!” This is the secret to almost eliminating the hours you spend weeding.
Cover crops are plants you sow “underneath” your main crop, to add nutrients to the soil, and to cover up bare soil. Bare soil is
against nature! Have you ever noticed how weeds love to grow in bare spots? If you leave the space underneath and between your plants empty, guess what's going to fill in those bare space? That's right: weeds.
You don't want that – weeds steal nutrients and look awful. But don't try to maintain that bare soil; you'll be fighting against the whole of nature, and will waste a lot of time. Instead, plant something beneficial there. Crops such as clover, buckwheat, winter rye, and alfalfa all add nutrients to the soil, and prevent the weeds from taking over.
Right now we have a lovely thick carpet of clover about a foot high growing under our tomato plants. It's soft and pretty, and I can count on one hand the number of weeds I've had to pull from those beds this year. When the growing season is over, we'll till the clover into the soil, and let it compost there.
Mulch made from grass clippings or leaves also works on the same principle as cover crops. An added benefit of these is that they are feeding the soil as they slowly decompose. It's a steady feeding that – unlike powdered fertilizers – won't be washed away deep into the soil where plants can't reach it.
#4 Choose Your Plants Wisely
Some plants are just easier to maintain than others. Lettuce is super easy – just plant it and pick it. Bush beans require little or no maintenance when they're growing, but they do take a lot of time to pick. Cucumbers are easy to pick, but they produce best if they're up on a trellis, and that takes a little time to put together. Tomatoes are the most popular plant among American home gardeners, and are known for being heavy yielders, but you'll have to spend some time tying them to poles, or making cages for them. That can get time-consuming, especially if you have 8+foot-plants like ours! But to us it's worth it because of the tremendous yield (and the dropped jaws of folks who see our plants).
Sit down and figure out just how much effort you're willing to spend on your garden, and be sure to match plants accordingly. Looking through a few gardening books (look for “organic” and “intensive planting” gardening books) should give you an idea of how much time you'll have to spend on each kind of plant. Don't plant potatoes if you don't have time to hill them up, or asparagus if you can't pick it quickly enough to keep it from going to seed!
#5 Schedule Time
Don't just hope you'll get around to gardening when you have a free moment. Free moments don't happen very often – certainly not often enough to upkeep a garden! Having a garden is a little bit like buying a dog; don't just “get” one, then stick it in the backyard kennel all day. Schedule times to work in the garden, just like walking the dog or making dinner. Habit makes everything go smoother.
If you let your garden go for two weeks, and then try to do all that work in one day, you will have more than you can handle. You'll become frustrated and wonder why you ever planted a single seed. If you set aside just thirty minutes – or even ten minutes – every day, that's probably all the time you'll need to spend out there, except for when you're planting seeds or picking produce. Garden maintenance shouldn't have to take up all your time.
I like just about everything about gardening but, like most of you, I don't have all day to spend in the garden – even though I'd enjoy it. I find that I usually get out there to work every other day, for 20-40 minutes. That's all. It's enough time to turn the compost, pull a handful of weeds, prune and tie the tomato plants, check to see what needs to be picked, and do some watering. Some days I don't even do all that.
Of course, our garden is a fair size (not in mere physical size, but in the amount of vegetation contained in it). Many of you could start on a much smaller scale and only spend 10 minutes a day on upkeep. Gardening in containers is even simpler. Having easy access to your plants will encourage you to be consistent in taking care of them. Keep that in mind if you're selecting a garden space.
#6 Get the Whole Family Involved
I feel like snickering as I write this. I could say this is the whole secret to our beautiful garden – not cover crops, or raised beds, or plant selection, but family involvement! If I was the only one gardening, that place would not look the way it does now. Many hands truly makes lighter work.
Dad is definitely the garden manager, and we wouldn't get far without him. But he has to go to work every morning and, even with all the free time he spends in the garden, I know the help the rest of us give is important too. I have a mother and five siblings, and we all help in the garden in some sort of way. We all spend different amounts of time out there, because some of us are more passionate about gardening than others, but everybody does something.
Our garden is a family thing. Our garden is a relaxed thing – we're not stressed about everything being perfect. We want it to be nice, but not at the expense of stressful relationships. Gardening should be a beautiful thing. I find that being among plants makes me feel extremely close to the Lord. His hand print is everywhere.
I think everyone should have the opportunity to garden; it does something for your soul. If you've taken the first steps, or have been gardening a long time, I commend you. If you want to garden, but are nervous about starting, let me encourage you. Get out there and try it! The world isn't going to fall apart if you fail. And nothing is really a failure – you're working with living things, and everything that happens to them will teach you a lesson.
So give it a try! But be warned...
...You may fall in love with it.
Which tip most resounds with you? Do any experienced gardeners out there want to second any of Amber's suggestions?
Amber is the second oldest in a family with six children, and is serving the Lord at home through various ministries and entrepreneurial adventures. Besides gardening, she also enjoys writing, sewing, cooking, baking, music, and reading, and blogs about using skills for the Lord at www.fruit-of-her-hands.blogspot.com.
Other Related Posts You May Enjoy
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- How to Plan Your Garden part one and part two
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- Getting Organized in the Garden: Seed Starting and Planting Schedule
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- 5 Steps to Being a Lazy Gardener
- Gardening in Less-than-Ideal Spaces
- 7 Gardening Lessons from a Novice Gardener
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