by Barbara Pleasant
Organic gardening experts share strategies for growing a great garden and having a life, too.
The arrival of planting season has a stunning effect on veggie gardeners. We talk to our seedlings as if they were children, and don’t mind working until dark if that’s what it takes to get the fingerling potatoes in the ground. Then, complications like crabgrass and cabbageworms appear, and keeping up with all the details feels impossible. We can lighten looming chores by using these time-saving tips, which will reduce later workloads when storms and the hot summer sun threaten to squelch the magic.
Mulch to reduce watering and prevent weeds. “You can cut your watering time in half by mulching crops with a three-to-four-inch layer of straw or shredded leaves,” says Niki Jabbour, award-winning author of The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener and Groundbreaking Food Gardens: 73 Plans That Will Change the Way You Grow Your Garden. “Crops like tomatoes, potatoes, kale, broccoli, cucumbers and squash all benefit from a deep mulch, which reduces the need to water and also prevents weeds, saving even more time.”
Grow herbs in convenient containers. Family cooks will harvest kitchen herbs every day, in all kinds of weather, so don’t waste footsteps. Grow some parsley, basil and other herbs in large containers near the kitchen door. Try promising perennials. Plant them once, and vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb come back year after year in cold winter climates like the Midwest and Northeast. Where winters are mild, artichokes or chayote (pear squash) are long-lived and productive. Many resilient herbs will return each spring, too, including sage, mints, thyme and oregano. Tarragon and marjoram make trusty perennial herbs in the Sun Belt.
Stock up on organic seeds. “As a year-round vegetable gardener, I try to come up with a list of all the seeds I’ll need for every season when I place annual seed orders,” Jabbour says. “That way, I will place fewer orders and have everything on hand at the proper planting time, saving both time and money.” Organic seeds in consumer seed catalogs and retail racks won’t be genetically modified or treated with pesticides.
Be generous with organic compost. With each planting, mix in organic compost along with a balanced organic fertilizer. Food crops grown in organically enriched soil are better able to resist challenges from pests and diseases, which simplifies summer tasks.
Grow flowers to attract beneficial insects. Reducing or eliminating pesticides and increasing plantings of flowers can radically improve the balance between helpful and harmful insects in a garden. Horticulturist Jessica Walliser, co-host of Pittsburgh’s The Organic Gardeners KDKA radio show and author of Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden, recommends starting with sweet alyssum, an easy-to- grow annual that can be tucked into the edges of beds or added to mixed containers.
“The tiny blossoms of sweet alyssum are adept at supporting several species of the non-stinging parasitic wasps that help keep aphids and other common pests in check,” Walliser says. In warm climates where they are widely grown, crape myrtles have been found to serve as nurseries for lady beetles, lacewings and other beneficial insects.
Protect plants with fabric barriers. Pest insects seeking host plants won’t find cabbage or kale if they’re hidden beneath hoops covered with fine-mesh fabric like wedding net (tulle) or garden fabric row cover. “Cover the plants the day they are transplanted into the garden,” advises Walliser. As long as the edges are securely tucked in, row covers will also protect plants from wind, hail, rabbits and deer.
Hoe briefly each day. Commit 10 minutes a day to hoeing. While slicing down young weeds, hill up soil over potatoes or clean up beds ready to be replanted. Look out for small problems to correct before they become big ones.
No more misplaced tools. Time is often wasted searching for lost weeders, pruning shears and other hand tools, which are easier to keep track of when painted in bright colors or marked with colored tape. Jabbour uses a tool stash basket placed at the garden entrance.
Stop to smell the flowers. Use moments saved to sit quietly, relax and soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the garden. Pausing to listen to the birds or watch a honeybee work a flower is part of the earned reward of any healthy garden that can’t be measured by the pound.
Barbara Pleasant, the author of numerous green thumb books, including Starter Vegetable Gardens: 24 No-Fail Plans for Small Organic Gardens, grows vegetables, herbs and fruits in Floyd, Va. Connect at BarbaraPleasant.com.