This year more than any other year, we’re going to approach our garden with the following three goals in mind: low maintenance, time efficiency and high yield. Sounds pretty sweet, right?
The reason why is obviously the fact that we’re now a family with a soon-to-be one-year-old, and time has all of a sudden turned into something we need to manage wisely. We thought we were the masters of time efficiency and productivity before, but it turns out we were dilly dallying quite a lot. And in order for life to be perhaps not all but at least a lot fun and play and not too much work and stress, we’ve complied a list of the tools we’ll turn to in order to keep our garden as low maintenance as possible, while still making sure it yields a lot.
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Hey, what’s up with the first tip sounding like a lot of work?! Relax. The beauty of mulching is that in return for a little bit (think a pinch) of extra work, you’ll be rewarded a thousandfold. Not only are you doing your garden, your soil and basically our whole planet a service when you mulch, you’ll also be creating a self-propelled garden needing way less upkeep – and doesn’t that sound great? Let’s break it down. Mulching means that you cover the surface of the soil around the plants you’re growing with so called “green waste”. This “green waste” could be for example grass clippings, weeds, rhubarb leaves, ferns, leaves or hay (really anything that has grown out of the ground), and you mulch by placing this material on top of the soil, around your plants. Shoot for a rather thick layer – at least 10 cm – and start already when the plants are young, refilling once or twice throughout the season. Why is this so good? Well, green waste is like superfood for the worms and microorganisms living in the soil, making sure it stays airy and rich in nutrients. You’ll need to fertilize less and there’s less carbon escaping the ground. In addition – and this is where the low maintenance aspect comes in – mulching means that you won’t have to weed or water nearly as much or as often as you would have if not. Weeds won’t be able to grow because the layer is so thick there won’t be enough light, and there will be minimal water evaporation, meaning soil stays moist.
Here we’ve used hay as mulching around a few rows of chard.
2. Direct sowing vs starting seeds inside
If you’re after a time efficient and smooth start to your garden, direct sowing is the way to go. Here on the border between zone 3 and 4, we can get away with direct sowing some crops but definitely need to start a whole lot indoors. In the past, we might have gone a little overboard with starting seeds inside, leaving us with an overwhelming amount of small pots with absolutely no where to go. Part of the solution was to get organized and create a system (read more about that in this guide on how to set up grow lights), but part of it will be truly scrutinizing what deserves a spot inside vs can survive okey outside. We can direct sow all peas and beans, for example, if we just wait another week or two from when we’d start the seeds inside – so that’s what we’ll do. The eagerness to get early harvests is great, but zooming out and making sure you have some things to harvest as opposed to all things is a wise decision. In other words: direct sow what can be direct sowed and select more varieties that can.
Peas and beans are some of our favorites to direct sow. Sugar snap peas are shown here.
Think about what needs to be done with your harvest once it’s been brought inside. Summer squash you can rinse off in the quickest of ways, but crates worth of spinach will take a long time to get clean. This year, we’re shooting for more pak choi and less spinach for that reason alone – we use them similarly in cooking and love them equally, but pak choi takes no time to wash off and is much easier to handle – one cut and you’ll have a whole dinner in your hand, as opposed to picking off individual leaves.
4. Raised beds over patches
Well, it’s not as easy as that – patches have benefits to them as well. But for what we’re focusing on here – the low maintenance and high yield garden – raised beds win. You can generally plant things closer together in raised beds, which obviously increases the yield, and ergonomically, there’s a whole lot less huffing and puffing bending down to harvest from a raised bed than ground level. You can also start earlier in the season, again boosting the yield, and you might be spared major problems with slugs and other plant predators. The downside is that you’ll need to water more frequently, but that’s solved if you just make sure to mulch. Oh, and if you’ve covered the bottom of your beds/boxes with newspaper or cardboard, you’ll see a whole lot less weeding.
Our original raised bed garden.
Instead of going through the hassle of blanching exactly everything before we put it in the freezer, we’ve realized you can freeze tons of produce as is. The only things that would perhaps make sense to blanch would be kale and chard – not because it’s completely necessary, but because you could fill up the freezer in no time without the shrinking that blanching leads to. We freeze beans and peas (such as green beans and snow peas) after just pulling off the string and brushing off any debris. Peppers and tomatoes we just chop up in semi-large bits and freeze as is. Zucchini is excellent to grate and freeze, if you don’t have the time to make fritters and freeze those, of course.
Staggering will prevent overflow at certain times, which can be very helpful. Instead of sowing all your bean, pea, lettuce, dill and radish seeds (for example) at once, try popping down a bunch every week. Think about the vegetables that will go past ripeness quickly (bean pods are nice when tender and not too tough, lettuce heads can turn bitter when growing too big), vegetables you wouldn’t know what to do with besides eating them fresh and vegetables that you like to keep a steady flow of when you plan which ones to stagger. Parsnips, for example, doesn’t really make sense to stagger – you sow the seeds in spring and harvest during fall and winter, and the roots are perfectly fine in the soil for months on end.
To those not fans of lists, perhaps look away – but to all others, listen up. We love our garden and find it an amazing creative outlet, but it wouldn’t be half as much fun if we didn’t have an outline for it before the season starts. This way, we know how many seeds to sow, where all the plants will go and what needs to be done when, which gives us an immense sense of calm and order. This also means we can get multiple harvests out of the same space – so called succession planting – which we know wouldn’t have been possible with a proper plan. You don’t need to set aside hours and hours to design your garden (well, unless it’s giant) but a simple drawing and list will do. Our list is broken down into weeks, and each one has information on what needs to be sowed and how many seeds, what needs to be replanted and how many plants we ultimately need and any extra maintenance that shouldn’t be forgotten about (such as turning of the compost, digging down bokashi or a new round of mulching). Our drawings have clear instructions and arrows telling us what goes where and when, meaning the succession is already planned and figured out. Classic combinations of early and late harvests in our garden include spinach + corn, radishes + squash, lettuce and dill + tomatoes, early potatoes + kale for the winter and pak choi + summer kale. If you’re interested in learning more about the specifics of our 2021 garden edition, please check out our Garden plan and sowing schedule.
An illustrated plan for a portion of our 2021 garden.
8. Share the responsibility
Involve your partner, kids, neighbors and/or friends in your growing endeavors! A giant perk of having a plan written down is that you can easily tell someone else what they can help out with without having to scratch your head too hard. In our family, I, Sophia, am definitely the garden manager on site, but because we draw up the plan together and have it up on the fridge, it’s super easy for Mike to follow along and check so we’re not falling behind. If someone outside of the family is helping out, the best way to repay them is obviously by sharing the harvest with them.
9. Skip the hard stuff and go with the safe bets
Unless you’re in it for the challenge, we’d like to encourage you to choose the vegetables you know will yield a lot and be easy to maintain. You can also choose to opt out on certain things because they take a long time to develop and require lots of love and care throughout the early spring. Parsnips can be direct sowed and need nothing but regular watering and a splash of liquid fertilizer once or twice throughout the season (they’d also love some mulching), whereas celery root (celeriac) needs to be sowed indoors in January-February and kept inside until late spring. Ultimately, they’re both delicious root vegetables – unless you want both, one is clearly easier than the other. Summer squash is a blast to have in your garden as it provides endless fruits, and it needs no more than a month inside in April before it can go outside in May, post any night frost risks. Perhaps this is the one to choose over eggplant, which instead requires the early February start inside? (Now, we’re growing both celery root and eggplant because we can’t resist, but you get the point.)
10. Have fun!
It might not improve the yield or decrease the workload, but it’s the most important advice anyway. Having fun and not letting mishaps and bad luck get to you will be key to a joyful experience you’ll want to return to, season after season. The world needs more micro farmers – come join forces!
We hope you found some tips and tools of value here, and wish you a wonderfully fruitful and green summer ahead!
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– Sophia & Michael