I'd like to tell you that, rain or shine, I'm out in my vegetable garden hoeing and wheelbarrowing and tugging at weeds. But the truth is I've become a fair-weather gardener: if it's too hot or too cold, I'm going to wait until good working weather returns. I call it the Goldilocks approach to gardening. But, in all honesty, I've become a lazy gardener.
That's why I feel uniquely qualified to share what I consider my best vegetable gardening secrets — the things that keep my garden growing while I'm sipping lemonade on the patio.
So that you don't think I'm a complete sloth, do know that all of these are Master Gardener-approved strategies. Seriously, there's no reason to push science aside when it comes to minimizing your workload. You're busy, right? Here's how to reduce your chores while upping your harvest.
- Drip and spray. One of the most annoying things about growing edibles is having to constantly fuss with irrigation. You know the drill: you need sprayers for seeds and drip for plants that don't appreciate wet leaves. Since you shouldn't put the same plants in the same place every year, your irrigation needs to change. To combat this, I put adjustable micro sprayers around the perimeter of each bed. So for my 4-by-12-foot beds, I have three half-arc sprayers on each side. That way, I can sow seeds wherever I want and it's irrigation-ready. For tomatoes, I simply turn the sprayer to off and use a drip emitter instead. I use the micro sprayers for greens, berries, potatoes and asparagus. But I opt for single drip emitters for tomatoes, squash, eggplant and cucumbers.
- Cover crops. In the fall, I try to remember to toss in a handful of fava beans, vetch or other cover crop seeds. Why? Because as soon as you turn your back they're growing and feeding your soil, snuffing out weeds, attracting the good pollinators and keeping your plot looking decent through winter. A couple weeks before I'm ready to plant, I whack it all back to the ground. I used to chop it up and turn it under, but that started getting old. Now, I toss the clippings onto the compost pile.
- Rice straw. It's my favorite edibles mulch. Why? Because I can buy a bale for $10 and it's easy to transport and store. I break off a thick chunk when I need it and put it around my veggie sprouts. It creates a clean farm-like look. (Note: be sure you get rice straw. The last thing you need is a bale of something with a bunch of weed seeds in it.)
- Permanent vertical structures. Decide where you can grow your climbers and then install sturdy supports. I installed a wire fence around the perimeter of my garden and use it to grow climbers like peas and pole beans. I also invested in sturdy tomato cages and a ladder for squash.
- Raised beds. I'm a big fan. First, it's just more comfortable. Second, you can start with pristine soil. Third, you can wire in the bottom so that gophers and moles go elsewhere. Fourth, it just looks nice.
- Spacing. Don't create beds that create work. Beds shouldn't be wider than 4 feet because it gets hard to reach the middle. Keep your paths wide enough to accommodate you and your tools.
- Compost by the yard. If your idea of a good time is to schlep bags of compost from your car to your garden, then by all means go for it. But if you want a better product for less money, then buy by the yard. Here's the way the math works. Most bags of compost cost around $7 for 2.5 cubic feet. But I can buy a yard of compost — that's 27 cubic feet — for less than $20. A nice man in a truck dumps it at my house and I (and, okay, sometimes with helpers) wheel it where it needs to go. Remember, when it comes to growing edibles, compost is like love: it's all your really need and you can't have too much.
- Fertilizer. This one is easy. You don't need any. If you're adding compost to your soil you've given it all that it needs. If things aren't growing, get your soil tested to see if there's an oddball mineral missing and then amend as necessary. Sometimes, if I'm feeling really energetic, I'll use a seaweed foliar feeder. But I'm kind of tired of listening to my family complain about the smell so I've cut back. Seriously, compost is enough. But if that feels too easy, then you could always brew up a batch of compost tea.
- Planting calendar. This probably saves me more time than anything. One of the keys to success when growing edibles is planting at the right time. Put your tomatoes in the ground in March and they're going to sit there until it warms up. Same with zucchini, beans and other warm season crops. Plant your broccoli and cauliflower at the wrong time and they'll bolt for sure. Frustrating! Get a good planting calendar, like the one on the Master Gardener website at marinmg.org, and use it.
- Flowers. There's a lot of hype about which flowers to put next to which edibles. I've tried all sorts of combinations and you know what? Buying what's on sale works just fine to attract pollinators and to keep things attractive, as does sprinkling whichever seeds I happen to have on hand. Just be sure your seed mix doesn't contain weed seeds. The idea is to create less work, not more.