Food has become the front line of the battle for sustainable living. Yet while I appreciate the proliferation of blog posts, videos, and books about locavore diets and backyard farming they have, I fear, created a certain ethic around self-sufficiency and the idea of returning to the hard, honest task of working the soil. In principle, I have no problem with that ... except that I don't really like hard, honest work.
It's time that the lazy gardeners among us rise up and take an explicit stand. So, for all the folks who find weeding a chore, who would rather be reading TreeHugger than thinning their lettuce, and who never really understood the point in double digging anyway, I offer you a manifesto for lazy gardening. Read on, if you have the energy.
Even a Small Harvest is a Step Forward
There is, of course, little doubt that growing a significant proportion of your own food is a great way to reduce your environmental footprint. But it is going to take time, effort, and skill. By starting small, and by picking your battles, even the most inexperienced and/or simply lazy gardener can enjoy a harvest without breaking their backs.
From easy methods for growing potatoes to three easy vegetables, TreeHugger's own Colleen Vanderlinden has already done an awesome job of making gardening both unintimidating and accessible. It's my sincere hope that by adopting the principles laid out below, or at least starting the discussion, the lazy gardeners and foodies among us can take both our philosophy and our practice to the next level. It may even make us better gardeners in the process.
Ditch the Work Ethic
When I first started gardening on an allotment community garden in the UK, I was struck by the good-old-boy culture of digging, weeding, hoeing, watering, carrying, building, planting, pruning and generally trying to look as busy as possible. It seemed to me that, much like conventional agriculture, these guys saw themselves as soldiers in a war with nature—industriously trying to squeeze out every last ounce of harvest from their little plots, and to squash any bug or weed that dare get in their way.
Then I met Mike Feingold, whose awesome video tour of a permaculture allotment proved a hit here on TreeHugger. He introduced me to a different approach to gardening—tolerating weeds until they became a problem (and encouraging them if they are edible or otherwise useful), avoiding digging at all costs (see also Warren's post on how to build a no-dig garden), and generally letting nature take its course. Mike's gardens might be some of the messiest I've seen, but boy does he get a lot of food out of them—and he usually has time to kick back, relax and enjoy the view too.
If You Fail, Give Up And Try Something Easier
Perseverance can be a wonderful thing, and humans have an almost limitless capacity to overcome unimaginable obstacles. But we can also be astoundingly stubborn. For the lazy gardeners among us, or those limited by time, budget or skill, we would do well to reflect on our threshold for admitting defeat—and perhaps lower it a notch or two.
For a couple of years now, I've tried my hardest to grow both zucchini and squash here in North Carolina, only to watch it decimated by stink bugs. I asked everywhere for organic solutions for tackling these little buggers, until I had what I regard as a revelation—zucchini and squash are plentiful at the farmers market and in the grocery store. If I'm struggling to grow them, rather than fight through and obtain a mediocre harvest, why not give up and plant twice as many peppers or garlic instead? (Both are plants that seems to thrive here.)
Be Imprecise. (Nature Can Deal With It.)
Another habit of old school gardeners that I fell into in early days was plant spacing. Or more precisely, regimented plant spacing. Reading the back of seed packets, it's all too easy to start worrying whether the seed should be 1/2 and inch or a full inch below the soil surface. Whether rows should be spaced 10'' or 12'' apart. Whether you should stagger your plantings etc etc. Some days I felt almost paralized with indecision as to just what the right spacing was for my salad mix.
In my experience, however, it's never turned out to matter that much. Sure, I take spacing as a general guide—and try not to overcrowd plants. But I'm done trying to get it exactly right. In fact, sometimes I don't even try at all—lettuce, spinach and arugula are all broadcast in beds with barely a care to spacing—seeds are cheap, and there is only so much lettuce a guy can eat anyway. So rather than worrying about it, I would rather scatter my seed broadly, so to speak, and reap what I sow. Thinning then just becomes a case of picking a salad.
Plants Like Tough Love
Another big revelation, for me, was that it was OK to neglect plants a little. Sure, you don't want to let new seedlings wilt in the hot sun, but equally mollycoddling your plants with too much water, or tons of manure, will create weak, vulnerable specimens that will keel over at the first sign of drought. So next time your significant other finds you kicking back with a beer instead of watering those radishes, explain to them that it is all part of your strategy. Your plants are busy developing deep, resilient root systems. And you are busy quenching your thirst in empathy for their plight.
Choose Plants that Fend for Themselves
There is a debate going on in sustainable agriculture circles about moving away from annual crops and toward perennials. On the farm scale, this is about conserving soils and using less fossil fuels. On the garden scale, where oil is usually replaced by human labor, this is all about being lazy. (In the best sense of the word.)
Most vegetable gardening books I see will warn you that growing asparagus takes up too much space for a small garden. But it's important to weigh up space versus time and effort—and asparagus beds will produce for twenty years or more with little labor needed except for weeding, mulching and the occasional feeding.
Similarly, fruit trees and bushes, herbs, perennial vegetables, shiitake mushroom logs and self-seeding annuals are all a great way to get ongoing crops for minimum effort. Sure, some may take a little work to get established in the first place, but the true lazivore knows that sometimes even we have to break into a mild sweat if we want to enjoy the good life later. (We just make sure we have some iced tea on hand to relax with later.)
Self Sufficiency Shouldn't Cause Self Hate
Lastly, becoming a productive, lazy gardener is all about attitude adjustment. While I admire the 100-mile dieters and small-scale grain growers as much as the next hippy, I had to come to terms with the idea that this was not me. At least not yet.
I have jobs. I have a daughter. And I have a real penchant for sitting in the woods by a creek and watching the world go by. Instead of beating myself up for not growing everything I could grow, I now choose to applaud myself for everything I do grow. It's just another aspect of the lost eco-art of cutting yourself some slack.
Patrick Whitefield, a leading permaculture expert and author of The Earth Care Manual, once told me that we should never, ever forget that every time a seed grows, it is a miracle. So who cares if it is just a radish? Stand back, enjoy your miracle, and then go take a nap.
Maybe once you wake up you'll be ready to plant something else.