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Gardening Methods: Work Smarter, not Harder!

Since getting serious about gardening four years ago, I have read a lot about the craft.  The Vegetable Gardener's Bible, Square Foot Gardening, Carrots Love Tomatoes, How to Grow More Vegetables (the Grow Biointensive book)... I've read them.  I've read online about sustainable practices, cover crops, composting, companion planting.  I've read it all (not really, but it feels like it...).
I plan to do a lot more of this and a lot less work this year.

I put in a lot of work last year.  I'm really glad I did, because a lot of what I did last year is making life a lot easier this year.  But I could have let last year's hard work start a momentum where I feel the need to do that much work EVERY year.  It's just not necessary.

What's that?

Nope, most of the back breaking work I did last year wasn't necessary.

That's an oversimplification, though.  Yes, for me to have a garden that big that soon and with no chickens yet to help me (I had chickens, but they were too small and too few to be of much help) most of the work was necessary.  But had I been more patient I could have saved some work and some money.  I'm still glad I did it, because I felt stifled by the tiny garden I had before, but if you are looking to increase the size of your garden or even start gardening for the first time, I am here to tell you that it doesn't have to break your back OR your bank account.

You don't have to break sod, first of all.  You can, and I was able to find a gas powered sod cutter for rent for $80 that made the work easier (easier, not easy), and it is a way to speed things up, but it isn't necessary.  And you don't need a tractor or rototiller.  In fact, large machinery like tractors compact the soil and rototillers only loosen a few inches while actually compacting the layer below, so you're better off avoiding them.  A large garden can be had without them, I promise (I have one!).  You can solarize with black plastic, use a large piece of discarded carpet, or create a bag garden (this cost a little to start, but it will kill the grass so you won't have to spend as much next year!).

For future garden expansions, though, I plan to put my chickens to work.  Harvey Ussery, the author of my favorite chicken book The Small Scale Poultry Flock, uses a combination of cover crops and chickens to break new ground.  He starts by essentially overgrazing the chickens for a few weeks on the piece he plans to garden, confining them using electronet.  He then moves the chickens elsewhere and plants the denuded soil with a soil building cover crop.  After several weeks of growth he brings the chickens back to demolish and scratch in the cover crop.  Here's an article that explains this process.

Here are some other ways I plan to save time/money/my back while making my garden even bigger and more productive:

  • By being resourceful.  I was going to make my seedling pots out of toilet paper rolls, but I still had enough of those expandable seed pods left from last year, so I used those up instead.  But I had been saving toilet paper rolls since the end of last summer, and I plan to do this next year!  I'm also using the carpet I removed from the living room to kill a patch of grass I would like to eventually garden with, and later will be cutting the carpet into strips to put under the garden fence so grass and weeds don't grow along it (because my husband has already let me know he will NOT be weed wacking the garden fence, and every time I use the weed wacker I break it!).  And I will be lining my garden paths with cardboard, as we STILL have tons of boxes from our move and from various packages we have received over the past year.
  • By not buying fertilizer!  No more purchased fertilizer, anyway.  It took this long to get to a point where I have enough of my own compost and leaf mold to feed my garden, though. While it was a little work, I also built new compost bins (and by new I mean my first bins- my original was a pile behind the lilac bushes) right next to the garden, instead of 50 yards away.  If it's closer, I use more compost.  A friend of mine got a bunch of free pallets and built herself a three compartment bin and gave me the leftovers.  I sat and looked at them for a few weeks- I didn't know where to get more pallets, and I only had four, so I didn't think I would be able to make a multi-compartment bin.  Then it finally hit me- use the garden fence I just put up as the back of the bin, and just use the pallets for the sides!  That even left me an extra pallet as a front- I could have used it to make a third compartment (and I still could...) but I felt that two was plenty for me... and I got tired of digging post holes:)  The posts were leftover from building the fence, and other than that I used 2.5 inch screws.  The whole thing took me about an hour, not including moving the compost from the old pile (which took me about an hour as well, but there is still more finished compost in the old pile.  I'm moving that directly to the garden as needed).
My two compartment compost bin, made out of leftover and recycled materials.  No cost and about 1 hour to build.
  •  By growing my own mulch.  Again, not everyone will have the means to do this, but we have an almost 3 acre yard.  Now I love straw- I love the way it looks and smells, and the way it feels under my bare feet, especially when it's warm.  But around here it's rare to find straw for less than $4 a bale, and with the size of my garden I would need $150+ in straw.  Last year, after searching for a better price for weeks, I finally broke down and drove ALL THE WAY to my in-laws and got straw from them.  She wouldn't let me pay her for it, but I figured I paid about $150 in gas to get it!  Now, if I got the straw on a trip I was making anyway that would be worthwhile, but since I don't have any plans to go back home this summer until later (far past prime mulching time) that isn't an option.  Even last fall this was bothering me, then it hit me (I get hit a lot... by my ideas anyway).  Why not treat my lawn like a crop, and instead of mowing (or hubby mowing- I don't mow) every week, let the grass get a little height before mowing.  Then I (really I this time, he wouldn't be okay with this plan otherwise) sweep it up with the lawn sweeper and use it as mulch.  Lawn clippings, when used consistently as mulch, provide almost all the nutrients growing plants need as they break down into the soil, so it will not only help me block out weeds and conserve moisture, it will help improve the fertility of my soil!
  • By starting some of my own seedlings... but not too many.  Last year I went a little overboard and wasn't able to properly care for the seedlings, which resulted in poor germination, weak plants, and a lot of dampening off and transplant shock (resulting in death in many cases).  I also jumped the gun and planted many things indoors too soon.  This year I cut way back.  I've planted about half the tomatoes I plan to plant (plus a few extra, in case some die), most of the peppers, and about a dozen early broccoli (I only planted these because they were a free packet I got with a seed order).  Later I will start my basil, lavender, and a few other herbs inside.  My cukes and squash I will all direct seed- I had the most issues with those seedlings last year, and ended up re-planting most of them via direct seed anyway.
Cold frame built from part of an old door (free!) and about $15 in cedar decking.  Started seedlings will go in here soon, and it will be used for winter gardening.
  • By choosing even organic pest control wisely.  Last year I was a bit out of my depth in the pest control area, at least when it came to potato bugs.  I spent several weeks hand picking them (lots and lots of them...) before I finally ordered some Spinosad from Gardens Alive.  It worked wonders, so this year I bought a few bottles so I will be ready.  But other pest controls that I DID buy last year in preparation for the gardening season turned out to be unnecessary, because besides potato bugs and a few slugs in my lettuce (which can be handled easily with household products) I don't have many garden pests... of the bug variety.  I will be cracking down on the bunnies this year though.  There has been talk of snares around our house lately...  
  • By getting some help with my pest control as well.  In an attempt at true integrated pest management, I'm going to buy a few guineas this year.  No fowl that I am aware of will actually eat adult potato bugs, but supposedly ducks and guineas will eat the larval stage and guineas will kill the adults (but not consume them- I can't say I blame them).  And my mother in law (a source of quite a bit of my gardening info) reports that her sister uses them for this purpose with much success.  My plan is to keep them over the summer and process some or all in the fall, then repeat next year if successful, but we'll see- first, my potato patch is close to my neighbor's house, and I've heard guineas are LOUD.  Or I may like them too much to process them.  I tend to take these things as they come and adjust accordingly:)  But my goal is to do little/no handpicking this year... BECAUSE I HATE IT!  Potato bugs are ewey:)
  • By growing vegetables with more value.  This sounds technical, but it's actually very emotional as well.  I started thinking about it when reading "How To Grow More Vegetables" because they preach planting 60% of your garden to high calorie/high carbon grains, 30% to high calorie root vegetables, and only %10 to other vegetables.  This would be a fantastic way to garden IF you wanted/needed to produce all of your food yourself, but I believe it is too difficult for most of us, and I don't believe there is enough gratification in growing grains and potatoes... plus it is completely impractical for those of us who aren't vegetarians and who eat a low grain/starch diet.  But great information nonetheless, and it got my wheels turning.  THEN I read an article somewhere on the web (that I can no longer find) about the value of garden crops based on their cost in the store and their output per square foot.  Very intersting- herbs and leafy vegetables were the highest value.  But equally as important I considered the gratification I get from the vegetable vs. the amount of stress it causes me, because some, despite being valued lower according to the other two criteria (calories and monetary value) are family favorites, and some just plain make me happy to grow and harvest.  After weighing all of these factors there was at least one startling casualty- cabbage.  Cabbage is a low value crop, costing almost as much to grow as to buy, it is readily avialable for me to buy at the farmer's market, and besides potatoes is the only thing I have pest issues with- which is even more annoying because I can't pinpoint exactly what pest I have, and nothing I try to combat it works.  The only gratifying part of growing cabbage is when I shred it to make sauerkraut, and that experience is equally fulfilling when done to someone else's cabbage.  (PS, if anyone happens to know the article I'm talking about, could you share the link?)  Potatoes, on the other hand, do cause me stress (due to the bugs), but there is nothing more gratifying than eating organic potatoes grown from your own garden ALL WINTER (I still have half a bag left- I would plant them, but they were scabby as well).
The chickens on their way to the old compost heap.
  •  By putting the chickens to work some more.  I also allow the chickens to turn my compost, because otherwise I would never do it!  Added bonus- besides extra food for the chickens, they benefit from the various microorganisms they consume AND keep the bug population down. 
  • By using crops to help loosen the soil and create even more mulch (and eventually compost!).  Loosening up the soil by hand has it's time and place, but you can cut back on how often you need to do it not only by digging in compost, but by planting crops that both loosen the soil and add organic matter.  I'm planting turnips in a few of the particularly packed beds (which we will eat and share with the chickens- if you have bigger livestock this is even better because turnips, both the tops and the root, make good forage).  In the tomato beds I planted a combination of oats, clover, and hairy vetch that will fix nitrogen, loosen the soil, and that I will either cut or lay over as mulch when tomato planting time comes.  And in the 3 sisters beds (corn, beans, squash... btw it's my first year using this combo, which should make life easier as well) I am going to plant winter peas to fix nitrogen and then feed to my chickens (the greens- the peas likely won't grow before I have to cut them).
  • By seed saving.  This won't pay off until next year, but I spend quite a bit on seeds so it should make a big difference, and it is more sustainable.
But on a few areas I am working hard and in some cases spending a little more, both because I actually enjoy a little (a little...) hard work and because they have big payoff:
  • Digging down my pathways/building up garden beds.  I'm really glad I didn't end up adding large amounts of garden soil last year, like I had originally intended.  What a waste of money that would have been!  I had perfectly respectable crops with just the broken down sod and a little leaves dug in, and now that I've killed the grass in the pathways (which I didn't do anything to but cover with either cardboard or landscape fabric and some mulch last summer) I'm digging a few inches of dirt (and broken down grass!) and moving it to the garden beds.  This is relatively easy work here, as our soil is loose and sandy, but I could see forgoing this or doing it VERY gradually if you have more clay.
The garden fence... and some of last year's mess I still need to clean up:)

  • Building the garden fence.  Last summer I didn't free range until mid/late summer, and my chickens didn't discover the garden until it was pretty much done (I did fence off the winter garden, which was only two beds, with some chicken wire).  Now not only am I free ranging, but I am EXCLUSIVELY free ranging until I get some more growth in the chicken run, so fencing the garden was a must before I could plant ANYTHING.  I was apprehensive about digging postholes by hand, since last year we used a walk behind bobcat to dig the holes for the run, but it was easier than I thought and it only took me about a week to fence my entire 50 x 60 garden (only working on it a few hours a day, I probably could have done it in 2-3 days had I worked 8 hours or in one day with my husband's help).  My husband, btw, tried to talk me into using garden fence and t-posts, but I'm glad I didn't listen to him.  It cost a little more, but I'm glad I used welded wire and wooden posts.  It looks nicer, it will last longer, and I will be able to use it to contain chickens if needed (which I plan to do in the fall, so they can help clean up).
This post is shared on Homestead Revival's Barn Hop and Frugally Sustainable's Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways- Check it out for more great posts!

1 comment:

Tales from a Misfit Housewife said...

As someone who is really new to gardening, I appreciate this info tremendously! I am building compost bins similar to yours and we are just finishing up our raised beds so I can begin planting. I am eager and scared all at the same time!

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