How to Grow More Food: Grow Fewer Plants, Do Less Stuff
Image credit: Sami Grover
The garden above looks pitiful, doesn't it? I'm a little embarrassed to confess that it is mine. When I wrote about the single most important tool in a square foot gardeners' potting shed, I noted that I was planning on taking a break from gardening, and then coming back with a much smaller, more intensive, and carefully planned for minimum maintenance garden. This is all part of the lazivore philosophy of gardening—less is often more, and unless you are shooting for total self sufficiency, you are better off limiting your ambitions and your input, and avoiding the risk of burning out.
Here's a little more on how I plan to grow more food by committing to growing fewer plants.I've written before about the lost eco-art of cutting yourself some slack, and nowhere is this more important than the garden. Much like strict, faddy weight-loss diets, an overly enthusiastic dive into self sufficiency and backyard food growing can, for many people, quickly become a burden and lead to burn out.
I learned this the hard way this year.
Having started out well with bumper crops of spinach, lettuce and my beautiful asparagus bed that had finally started producing, I got a little carried away with summer crops. Forgetting an earlier decision to take it easy this year (based on the pressures of work, parenthood and, well, a certain tendency to enjoy being lazy), I bought tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, peppers and more—and happily planted them in my over-sized garden. Then the weeding, watering, and swearing at disgustingly sticky North Carolina weather began. (Not to mention ticks.)
Soon I found myself avoiding the garden at all costs—surveying the ever creeping advance of the wire grass and other weeds, and shaking my head at the squirrel-chewed, drought-ridden, end-rot infested and poorly staked tomatoes. Having overreached with my ambition to grow too much food, I found plants under-performing due to lack of attention, and the crops that did grow sometimes went unpicked because the garden was the last place I wanted to be.
I decided it was time for a rethink. With another baby on the way and, quite frankly, a lack of enthusiasm for sweating my English arse off in the North Carolina August heat, I've come up with a strategy that, I hope, will rekindle my love of gardening. Here's what it looks like:
Take a Year Off
Next year I plan on growing absolutely nothing. I'll put the garden to bed this Fall, restructuring its design (see below), mulching heavily, and letting nature replenish the soil life. I'll continue to do any routine maintenance needed (weeding etc), and finish off any other preparation projects. And I'll harvest any yield from perennial crops like the asparagus, fig trees and blueberries. But I won't plant a single, edible annual until 2013.
Shrink the Garden
Much like a diners eyes can be too big for their stomach, a gardeners eyes can be too big for their time/skills/willingness to work. One of the most important planks in my new strategy is to shrink our garden from 8 raised beds and a number of peripheral annual herb and flower beds to just 4 annual beds and my asparagus patch.
Redesign the Garden for Minimum Input
The size is not the only thing I plan to change in the garden. From installing a nearby small storage unit for hand tools, to increasing the height of the raised beds, I plan on creating a space that is designed for easy access, and minimal labor input. The key is to make it easy to spend a few minutes here and there and to see real results—not making it feel like it needs hours of work to get anything done.
Other elements of this plan include removing the wood-mulched paths that are a haven for wire grass, and instead allowing the lawn to extend between the beds; finding a spot to store readily accessible mulch for easy weed suppression; and if I find time this Fall I am considering reconstructing the beds using hugelkultur methods that should create taller, easier to manage beds that need minimal watering and provide a steady release of nutrients over a number of years.
Choose Carefully What You Grow
Finally, when I do make a return to gardening, I plan to keep a careful eye on both what I choose to grow, and how I grow it. As I argued in my Lazivore's Manifesto, I see little value in battling with stink bugs for zucchini when the farmers' market is full of it, and peppers grow so much easier than tomatoes here, so we'll be shifting our focus to them. I also intend to cut back on summer crops because August is usually when I am either visiting family in cooler climes, or hiding inside from the heat. And I am exploring the idea of square foot gardening as a means to cram more plants into smaller spaces, and keep the need for watering and weeding down. I do find myself wondering about whether to mulch the garden with mushroom-inoculated wood chips this year, and grow king stropharia (aka "Garden Giant") mushrooms in the process—but I guess that would count as gardening...
Whether or not my plan for minimalist gardening really results in more food, or just less stress, remains to be seen. But once again I find myself reflecting on the notion that very few of us will ever be fully fledged members of the self-sufficient, super-human, survivalist neo-peasantry. (I suspect that not many of us would even want to be.) Instead, we do what we can, when we can—and then we sit back and enjoy the results.