5 Ways To Save Time In The Garden

Ah the simple life. Sounds so placid, doesn’t it? All those simple pleasures: home-grown food, warm earth between our toes, the cluck and baa and buzz of backyard animals, the happy smells of a kitchen much used.

So why does this simple life seem so freaking complex sometimes, huh? That’s the part no one talks about. How to find the time to squeeze “simple life” into “modern life.”

I have been on an active mission to cut down the amount of time I feel I “have to” garden without sacrificing the quantity or quality of the crops I’m growing. (Gardening on my own schedule and for the joy of it is always welcome!)

Making an ever-larger garden take ever-less time requires an interesting combination of practical and psychological changes. Here are the five biggest time savers I’ve embraced in my take-less-time garden.

Less Time Garden

Mulch

Everywhere, always, and without exception: mulch. Mulch trees and shrubs. Mulch paths. Mulch ornamental beds and edible crops. Mulch potted plants and bare earth yet to be filled with life. Mulch raised garden beds full of annual crops and plantings that return perennially. Mulch your dog if they sit still for too long. A minute spent mulching pays hours of dividends in the maintenance you don’t have to do later.

Why mulch? It is a fact that in any area with even the tiniest sliver of fertility to build on, nature will cover bare dirt. If you don’t mulch bare earth, you are sending out a screaming invitation to Mother Nature to come in and cover the soil for you, and you probably won’t like the way she gets it done: weeds.

This reminds me of my kids cleaning their bedrooms. They can choose not to pick-up their stuff, but if I clean their room I do it with a trash bag. I’m very efficient – everything on the floor gets thrown away. Sometimes you don’t want mom – or mama nature – doing it for you. So mulch.

Arborists woodchips are my preferred mulch.

Arborists woodchips are my preferred mulch.

The primary time saving advantage of mulch is that it will stop a huge swath of weeds from germinating. That means hundreds – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of weeds you won’t have to deal with down the road.

Organic mulches (meaning, the kind that eventually rot, not necessarily certified organic) also offer great garden advantages beyond the time savings.

  • Feeds the soil from the top down, which is how nature does it.
  • Encourages a thriving and diverse population of soil biota.
  • Holds and moderates soil moisture and soil temperature.

Good choices for mulch include arborists wood chips, grass clippings, compost, straw, stable or coop bedding, leaves, shredded plain paper and plain cardboard. In the right setting, gravel or rocks can be a reasonable mulch choice, but because they are inorganic rocks don’t offer the same advantages as organic mulches.

Bad choices for mulch include anything made from plastic or ground up tires, anything described as a “nugget,” anything that includes some sort of herbicide along with the mulch, and anything died a weird spray-tan orange color. Do you really want your garden colored to look like it’s ready to step onstage at The Arnold?

98232d_e0a7120510fb9beef8a3cc5b20a62f24.jpg_srz_p_275_385_75_22_0.50_1.20_0

Your mulch does not need a spray tan.

Put Your Irrigation On Auto Pilot

Watering is a time killer, and if you are watering anything beyond a few pots by hand, chances are you aren’t watering very well. I know because sometimes I stand over a bed with a hose and wave my little watering sprayer back and forth for what feels like forever. And I see the soil and it’s all dark and damp and fresh looking, and I scrape back a quarter-inch and the soil is still bone dry.

You can use all kinds of tech-solutions to automate your irrigation. I snake soaker hoses up and down my garden beds and hold them in place with garden staples. The soaker hose runs to a valve, and the valve runs to an irrigation controller that automatically waters all the beds at the time and frequency I set.

There’s a lot of ways to go. I basically hate micro-drip irrigation for being too fussy, too expensive, and terrible at dealing with the frequent planting changes my beds go through, but if you love it or live in the desert, maybe it’s the right solution for you.

Whatever water delivery method you choose, get it automated. I use an older model of this controller to control delivery of water to my main garden area and it works great, but if you don’t have a large garden, a less expensive irrigation timer like this one works fine too.

Go No Till

It’s pretty hard to till raised beds (although I did try once and four years later that bed still has more weed problems than any other) but I used to do an awful lot more manual soil turning than I do now.

Partially, this is because I really like doing in the garden, and “turning the soil” seems so totally useful, doesn’t it? It just screams effort and industriousness. When you’re stooped over for three days from digging a few beds, you know you’ve really done something.

The problem is, often what you’ve done doesn’t need doing in the first place, and by doing it, you’re just setting yourself up to do more.

Turning and tilling the soil:

  • Brings weed seeds to the surface which means – yup – more weeding for you later.
  • Increases the rate at which nitrogen is lost, which means more fertilizing for you later.
  • Screws with the natural capillary action of the soil, which hinders moisture movement up from deep moisture reservoirs and means more watering for you later.
  • Disturbs natural sub-soil/top-soil divisions which can actually lower soil tilth in the long-run which means more tilling for you later.
  • Makes a whole lot of soil-critters temporarily homeless by destroying the natural tunnels and micro-burrows those animals have created underground. This also lowers soil tilth in the long run which also means more turning and digging and fluffing and tilling for you.

There are legitimate reasons to go at your ground with a shovel and garden fork, particularly if you are just establishing a garden in an area of poor soil. But there are no garden situations I can think of where turning more than the top few inches of soil is truly necessary, and in almost all cases doing that work will make more work later on. So why not skip off that treadmill all together?

Ignore Little Rocks

Years ago, I used to have pea-gravel paths between my garden beds and a compulsion that rocks were for paths and soil was for garden beds. My daughter, a toddler at the time, did not share my anal-retentiveness and thought it was great fun to scoop up the gravel and dump it into the garden beds.

And so I spent hours picking pea gravel out of dirt.

Was I flipping nuts? Clearly.

When I see little rocks now, you know what I think? “Slow release mineral fertilizer.”

Those rocks aren't bothering anybody.

Those rocks aren’t bothering anybody.

Now, typically I only take out baseball-size or larger rocks that somehow work their way from the core of the earth up into my planting areas. I can use the big ones elsewhere in my garden to line paths and stuff, so they are worth grabbing.

Some reasonable quantities of rocks in with your garden soil assists with drainage and act as micro heat sinks, so unless you are truly a square-inch gardener and need to make sure every cubic centimeter of soil is available for roots, just relax about the rocks.

Practice Weed Triage

For weeks I’ve been staring down a rather unkempt and ugly perennial bed. My solution? A layer of cardboard covered in woodchips to smother out unwanted weeds.

You garden will get weeds. If you ignore my mulch advice, you’ll get a lot of them. It helps to not demand perfection and instead to ask why a weed is a problem. Is it invasive, will it harm your plants, is it noxious or ugly, or is it just unexpected?

I’ve started doing “weed triage” which makes it far easier to get a psychological handle on weeds.

Dig Out
Invasive, runner-rooted stuff has to be dealt with or it will outcompete everything. In my yard, bindweed is the worst offender. I just can’t let bindweed go or it will go, eventually smothering everything I want growing. Some of the grasses are also in this category. These I just pull, dig out, and try to keep up on. I comfort myself in the knowledge that even RoundUp or a similar herbicide wouldn’t actually do much against these type of weeds for long. There is no solution, really, just management.

Chop and Drop
Deep, tap-rooted stuff can be a pain in the ass to remove, so I’ve mostly stop trying. I just cut off the foliage before it can go to seed. Repeated cutting of foliage will weaken the plants root system eventually, and as it dies, it will rot in place, doing a heck of a job to loosen compacted soil. Dropping the tender leaves right on the ground allows them to compost-in-place. This technique is called “Chop and Drop” and is popular in permaculture circles.

Smother
Soft annual weeds are easy. My preferred method is to smother them in place. Lay out a nice thick layer of cardboard, get it wet so it conforms to the ground, and cover with as many woodchips as you can get your hands on. Just get to them before they seed. If annual weeds have flourished in an area where it will be difficult to smother-kill, I use my DIY Weedkiller.

Just smother and call it good.

Just smother and call it good.

Ignore
Assuming they aren’t noxious, this is a legitimate method of dealing with weeds. Does your entire yard need to be weed-free? Nope. Would it actually benefit your overall garden ecosystem to have a little weedy wildflower patch in the back, out of sight? Probably. Sometimes you can reduce your workload a ton simply by shifting your perspective.

What time-saving techniques do you use in the garden?

Comments

  1. I use my new water-as-I-go method to save time….that is, I dig my hole for the tomato or whatever, use the spray hose to water then cover the plant back up with dirt. No more guess work on how much water to use because it’s measured exactly. I don’t particularly like standing over my garden for an hour when done planting mindlessly spraying the hose. Boy- have I saved a TON of time using this method.

    Then we installed a dripworks irriation system with a water timer for the rest of the summer. Easy Peasy.

    Both save us a ton of time……unless…..we DON’T want to save time because we’d rather putter about in our garden =)

  2. I love the no-till method. I recently transformed 20ft of space along my garden fence from a weedy mess to a lovely flower bed. All I did was put down large pieces of cardboard and newspaper over it. A couple of weeks later I came back and spread an organic compost over the top of the whole thing and voila! Beautiful. I felt like I was cheating!
    QUESTION; I like using newspaper too, but I’m hesitant to use it for edible beds because of the ink. Can you say anything about this?

    • Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I have heard that today’s newspaper inks (I’m talking about black ink only here) are all soy-based, so are non-toxic and fine to use in your veggie garden. So as long as you only use the black and white pages (harder than it sounds, sometimes), newspaper is great!

  3. I used to be way too anal about weeds. With five acres, I realized I’d never eat or sleep.

    Now I just let some areas go. This is an important Permaculture practice so that the untouched, wild areas near or in one’s garden can be habitat for beneficial insects and predators, and can also be an observation area. I can “read the weeds” to see what they’re doing, and hopefully figure out what my soil or microclimate needs depending on what I see.

    Great tips in here. Thanks for sharing.

    • I am also leaving some wild areas on my 3/4 acre plot, the beneficials are always around and ready to help and in addition to reading the weeds, these are so often either edible or medicinal or both that I can consider them production and feel extremely satisfied with my own “laziness”!
      Thanks so much for sharing the tips!!

  4. I thought your list covered all the things I’ve learned on nearly five acres where I used to have a weed-nervous breakdown every June because I just couldn’t keep up with it all. Then I thought of a few more. 1) Don’t create more beds than you really want to maintain, which includes not just weeding, watering and planting, but edging, too, 2) I grow veggies (mostly) in raised beds, originally filled with not so-great-soil which I would add better stuff to and till it every year. Now, instead of cleaning out the whole bed to replant each season, I just work on a section or corner at a time, especially since I have things like parsley and kale growing everywhere year-round. 3) I leave some plants of parsley, kale, fennel, and chard to go to seed and that does the planting for me whenever they feel like it, as long as I don’t care about neat rows. I haven’t planted seeds of any of these in the 13 years we’ve lived here, and they feed the birds too. Mostly it’s my inability to harvest and eat things when ready, so even some lettuce is going to seed and I’ll use those little tufts already in the beds to sprinkle around for another planting this season. No running to find my seed stash, 4) Feed the chickens from the garden and enjoy the serendipity. I just harvested the biggest and best kale and broccoli of my gardening career, but I didn’t plant either one. Both were volunteers in the used chicken straw I’d placed around the marion berries! (hmm, maybe I’d better add some better nutrients to my raised beds while I’m at it…), 5) Plant things in different micro-climates in the yard, rather than successive sow. This is my lazy way to plant peas once, for the early spring harvest in the greenhouse and the summer harvest in part shade under some trees. 6) I try to get to weeds before they seed, but it’s completely impossible, so now I practice saying, “Oh well, maybe next year.”

    • Carolyne Thrasher says:

      Love the list Erika! Good additions Janet. I’m trying the letting it go to seed method with kale right now. Also plant as many perennial veg and fruit as possible. Less planting, more harvesting.

  5. cptacek says:

    My new rule this year was “you have to mulch what you just put in before you can plant anything else.” That went very well…then I broke the rule with my tomatoes. EEK! Pigweed, amazing pigweed growing so fast and intermittent rain that didn’t allow me to till between the rows like I was planning, to catch me back up. So, now, I am hand weeding a 18 x 20 ft area, finishing with a hoe scraping, and mulching.

    *kicks myself* Why didn’t I listen to myself? Rules are rules, cptacek!

  6. Mary Hall says:

    I’m subscribing to the “eh, weeds, whatever” method this year. Last year, we had a horrible heat wave (in Central Pennsylvania) that came through mid-June or so and hung around for awhile. I could barely do the minimum (mow the remaining yard, pick whatever was ripening) for so long, the weeds go out of control. Quite honestly, I just gave up. However, I later came across stuff that I’d planted and thought was dead (before the heatwave/weed invasion), but had blossomed and gone nuts. This year, I’m not as freaked out over the weeds. I pull what I can and give the the chicks (new addition this year–didn’t have them last year) and the rest? I’m not stressing out over it, because I know things will grow regardless.

  7. What about slugs with the mulch? We’ve got eight damp acres with a lot of woods and LOTS of slugs. Even with ducks, lots of slugs. I’m concerned we’d just be making the garden more of a slug heaven than it already is (we can’t let the ducks IN the garden until late in the season when all the plants are big enough to be non-stompable).

    • After going on a headlamp slug killing spree last night this is my worry too. The most (naturally) mulched areas had the most/biggest slugs.

    • Sluggo will take care of them in a day or two and I think it might still be considered organic. You will not win on your own. Don’t waste your time with beer traps or whatever else people talk about. Way too much work for a large area.

      • Sluggo is wonderful! I put a Sluggo “fence” around the garden every spring, so keep my seedlings from being eaten. I can’t keep applying it though. My soil is already high in iron, for one thing. For another, the garden is 5000 sq ft and it gets expensive! But the weeds this year are just insane and I wish I could do some mulching. Bleah!

  8. The spray tan mulch comment and picture made my day. I find that stuff so unsightly, too.

    I think I learned about cardboard under mulch from you and I could thank you one hundred times. We’re into our fourth year here and the weeds are down dramatically…*almost* manageable! If I could have automatic irrigation I’d be set. (Still debating about whether or not I can count on rain today.)

  9. Tom Innes says:

    Great post thanks Erica. We pretty much do what you are suggesting here. We have gone to wood chips and have found it so good we are actually retiring our irrigation system. It was always fiddly to maintain and with a really good layer of mulch we don’t even need it where we are. We have a few areas that will get grey-water (from the washing machine and bathroom), but that’s about all we will do I think. We are also experimenting with direct sowing some crops (like onions) that we normally seed raise. Success has been mixed so far but we have lots of space so a lower yield / meter over a larger area can still be good. Another time saver is the permaculture idea of “systems.” One example: Throwing everything into the chickens (food, weeds, wood ash, small prunings…) for them to make into compost takes all the work out of it. If you still have compost heaps (which we do for our humanure and for animal manures from neighbours) then don’t turn them. That is a waste of time if ever there was one. Maybe the most important thing you point out is to be always thinking about what you are doing and how to do the same with less effort and time. Cheers from the Canterbury foothills, New Zealand.

  10. I gratefully use my wonderful, excellent gardener.

  11. Glyphosate (roundup) is extremely effective against bindweed because it kills the roots, which will just continue sprouting if you don’t kill them.

    In the paths and perimeter of our garden, we use very targeted applications of glyphosate against bindweed specifically. We buy the concentrated stuff and apply it to a few leaves with a cotton swab. It works well. In the beds, we deal with it using hoes, but it’s not nearly as effective.

    Once you rid an area of bindweed, and create a perimeter around your garden, it’s much easier to control. The seeds are heavy and won’t blow in on the wind.

    Great blog by the way.

  12. I am a big fan of “no till” and “smother the weeds”. Back in my old garden, I also had a policy of “if it’s edible and/or pretty, it can stay”. I got a giant evening primrose that way, plus a grape vine and a lot of wild mustard greens. I also had a tonne of quack grass – which sucked – but for the most part, planting everything thickly seems to have kept my (postage stamp) garden fertile and happy for the better part of four years. Hurrah.

  13. I neglected to mulch my tomatoes after planting and ended up with the dreaded septoria leaf spot. Thinking all was lost, I decided to go ahead and remove and dispose of the offending leaves and mulch with pine straw. It was incredible. Happy to report that I have healthy plants and picking plenty of tomatoes. Mulch those tomato plants! Great post.

  14. We do all this, and I thoroughly support all your suggestions.
    Unfortunately, we’ve had some crab grass (or equally noxious weed grass – it’s actually pretty difficult to tell which it is) get completely out of control in a couple areas. So now we tell each other will alarming frequency:”we really need some freaking goats”…

  15. Solid Gold Points. Mulch works so well. Cardboard does as well. Best if used together. I have indeed wasted some time with rocks. now i wont worry.

  16. I’m trying out the cardboard method this year after a bad two years in one of my beds with some weedy grass. So far, no grass, and I have corn and beans growing through the holes in the cardboard. The corn seemed a lot less happy this way, but I’m not sure why yet. The beans don’t mind.

    I only have 3 beds that are 8′x4′, plus a handful of pots. I’ve had luck with thin mulch and fill a jug of water from my rain barrel and flood irrigate. (I only water if it hasn’t rained in a while). The downside, as you mentioned is sometimes the days get away from me, and I forget to water, so an automated system always sounds like a good upgrade that I never seem to get around to doing.

    • Best bet? The high carbon content of the cardboard is tying up nitrogen in the soil at the mulch-soil interface. The beans can make nitrogen DIY so they’re cool but the corn needs to access a lot of nitrogen in the soil to be happy. Just hit your corn with some blood meal or dilute fresh urine and it should perk up.

      • Interesting…. I’ll give that a try. I’ll have to look into more of why the carbon heavy cardboard at the top would be interfering with the nitrogen.

        I read some neat stuff about some people in Marryland and Maine playing around with radishes to use their taproot to pull up nitrogen from 5ft + deep, and then mulch the radish via winterkill rather than harvesting in order to cycle nutrients and improve the topsoil.

  17. I am all for going the “no till route”. I am also learning to embrace certain weeds and not care. I am still baffled how clover is a weed when I personally enjoy it more than grass, plus it feeds the bees! Then again, if I could have my way, I would have more flowers and hardscaping than grass so my opinion is biased.
    I decided to plant a cutting garden instead of a full flown vegetable garden this year. Well, I added my compost to the soil , so there was minor tilling which may have been my downfall and I used seeds. This means I cannot distinguish between the flowers and the weeds just yet, except for the insane amount of purslane which showed up randomly last year and is now EVERYWHERE, and I figure, “Eh, I will wait til it all grows then pull what I don’t want.” I did plant mint awhile ago so I have to reel that in, but I don’t mind and it is easier to distinguish that from anything else that is aggressive. :)

  18. Every morning I take the dog out and try to give her a little extra time out in the yard. For those 10 or so minutes I walk through the garden, pull whatever weeds have come up, encourage my climbing vegetable to go up the trellises, maybe do a little watering. It’s amazing how those 10 minutes every morning really keep the work load down for the week.

  19. Perfect timing! I’ve just received a scary amount of mulch from an arborist friend, and my husband is seriously questioning my sanity! We’re going to try using the cardboard/mulch technique to reduce lawn space/increase planting areas. Now I’m just going to point him in the direction of this blog post!

  20. Frances says:

    This is so helpful! It inspired me to get some drip irrigation. I have a question about mulch though. I bought a bale of straw (boy does a bale expand when you undo the string!!! I have enough for years) and started to mulch everything. I mulched my strawberry bed that I just started this year. Now that I’m looking at it, I wondering if the straw will inhibit the runners from rooting. I want them to spread to fill out the bed over the next few years. Also, I started reading about mulching with straw and I found a few contradicting things saying that it may leach nitrogen from the soil. Any thoughts or info about this? Thanks so much!!

    • We mulched our strawberry bed with straw and the runners are finding space no problem. I did pull the straw away from the plants a bit because I was concerned about slugs. But it seems the straw is breaking down elsewhere and the runners are settling in nicely. I read that any kind of mulch should not be dug in as that is when it ties up the nitrogen. Also adding manure and compost on top every year seems to be the way to go as the added nitrogen helps break down the mulch and keep things in balance.

  21. Can I ask- how do you mulch your vegetable beds? Arborist chips? Has that been successful? Any issues or tips? Depths?

  22. Great post, Erica. I’m looking forward to your duck slug-squad :) I have fought the ‘best’ of weeds for years… bindweed, quack grass, false bamboo, horsetail, and ivy (which smells delightful when I’m wrestling with it)! I have barely stayed on top by mulching with cardboard; the WSJ’s and landscapers’ grassclippings from work ;); moved many mountains of arbor chips (wheelbarrowing UP a driveway and around the house), many cans of leaves (which blow away too readily), and now am exploring dozens of free burlap sacks…. hmmm.

    I’ve found that I really have to nip the ‘noses’ in the bud as they inevitably come through the barriers, or the weeds benefit from the mulches as much as the ‘desirables’. BTW, Stephen, bless you for encouragement for bindweed!! I’ll be out soon very strategically massaging their leaves with RU. (Also, I’ve found that lifting a piece of woven bl plastic which has been in situ for a year or two, reveals a lovely ‘nest’ of naked bindweed or quack roots, very vulnerable to removal, or application of any ‘deterrent’ you apply… return plastic, to enhance the direct absorption.

    Speaking of another non-organic tactic, I am going to use woven black plastic (some surplus I got for free from a building site… years ago :) and actually spend $$ for woven landscape fabric from Costco!!! This will be lightly topped with org mat’l for visual appeal, and used for path areas, under shrubs, at property edges, etc., (i.e., rarely disturbed or replanted) where I need to, at least, force the grass, bindweed, etc. to the edges where I can much more easily find and ‘handle’ them. (Crawling around in the shrubs, berries, etc., it is so hard to tell a bindweed stem from all the other stems! wish they were a distinctive color ;)

    Here’s a discussion of using plastic mulch in an organic permaculture orchard that has absolved me from my ‘organic guilt’….. (even though Paul Wheaton, our favorite purist, still abhors it ;)
    http://www.permies.com/t/36586/forest-garden/Permie-Orchard-talk-plastic-mulch

    I expect that having this in my arsenal will greatly reduce my panic over runaway (golden elixir works!) invaders/spreaders… and my increasing age ;)

  23. Thanks for helping to justify a number of principles I’m applying to my back yard. The previous owners had rock mulch installed over the whole thing. I’m raking up what I can and making a big pile, but the rest is just getting turned into the soil. Now that I’ve started to get a bit more relaxed about it, it is a bit less overwhelming! I’m also using green manure/covercrops in these areas while I figure out exactly what I want to do to them–mulch is difficult to get and expensive where I am, so I’m hoping this will do the trick of keeping the bed in a good state while I figure that out.

  24. I am little late here, but great tips. As a landscaper, I often find myself marveling (occasionally laughing) at the amount of time and effort gardeners spend in their plots. A little efficiency never hurt anyone!

    It’s interesting that a number of your time saving tips also save water. That’s a win-win.

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