Time is a precious resource. And it’s why many people think they can’t grow food at home. But they can. It’s a matter of putting nature to work for you in ways that reduce your workload while allowing you to produce the freshest food possible
Start with the soil
Soil is the bedrock of your garden. Get it tested by a lab. These tests are simple and inexpensive. Search online for a local lab (preferable) or use the University of Massachusetts soil lab. Lab-based soil tests will tell you precisely what is in your soil, what is needed, and what may be present in excessive levels. Adding more fertilizer is not always the right choice.
Is your soil sandy, loamy, or clay? Plants have preferences. The more you know about your soil, the better equipped you will be to select the right plants for your low-maintenance garden.
Consider your climate
There’s no sense in creating extra work by installing plants unsuitable to your climate. A successful low-maintenance garden contains plants suited to your landscape’s temperatures, average annual rainfall, and frost dates. Identify your yard’s USDA Hardiness Zone and use that information to guide your plant choices.
Shop for strength
Learn about the pests and diseases most likely to cause problems in your neighborhood. You can get that information for free from your local County Extension Office. Once you know what your plants will be up against, invest in naturally resistant plants.
Put the sun to work
Plants need sunlight to produce food. And the type of sun exposure matters. Some plants prefer direct morning sunlight but need protection in the afternoon. Others thrive in all-day exposure. Seed packets and plant labels tell you about each plant’s sunlight needs. Use this information to make your life easier:
Some plants, such as artichokes and asparagus, can do well in partial shade or partial sun. But very few edible plants can thrive in full shade. And before you put any seeds in the ground, consider mature plant sizes. Sun-loving herbs will get too much shade hidden behind a wall of corn or sunflowers.
What about water?
Water is heavy. Hoses filled with water are heavy. You can reduce your workload by putting plants with similar water needs closer together. Hydrozoning prevents over- and under-watering while saving your back.
Provide for pollinators and other beneficial insects
We all know that bees pollinate the flowers that turn into fruits we love to eat. But other insects can lighten your workload by killing insect pests as you relax. All you need to do is provide pollen, nectar, and water. There is no need to buy these tiny workers. They will come.
Install insectary plants that flower sequentially and provide a variety of shapes, colors, and heights. Butterfly and pollinator gardens look pretty, and they provide for an army of tiny helpers. And sprinkle those old coffee grounds around the garden. Earthworms love their java as much as we do!
Make space for trees
Fruit and nut trees can produce a surprising amount of food with little effort on your part. The older they get, the more food they produce. Trees provide shade, increase property values, and improve biodiversity for many years. Imagine plucking a sun-warmed peach from your backyard tree or an abundance of avocados, free for the taking.
Good cultural practices
Good cultural practice in the garden can reduce or eliminate the need for many tasks, treatments, and tribulations. You do not need to fumigate, rototill, or become a slave to your landscape. If you do nothing else for yourself and your garden, do these:
Evolve your plan as plants grow
As your perennial plants grow, they will change shape and size. While they are small, surround them with sun-loving annuals. As they mature, change your plan to match the changing sun availability.
Herbs, edible perennials, and trees can fill your larder without eating into your leisure time. Sit back and relax while your private victory garden takes care of itself.
Starting fresh herbs, tomatoes, and melons from seed can be rewarding and delicious. But how many times have you found that you have leftover seeds? And what can you do with them while they are still viable? Host a seed swap!
Seed swaps are a great way to share with family, friends, and neighbors. Rather than allowing all that potential deliciousness to lie fallow in your seed box or junk drawer, a seed swap allows everyone to grow a wider variety of plants without spending more money. And it’s a great excuse to get together and talk plants!
Seeds grown and produced in your neighborhood have the added benefit of being better suited to your microclimate than commercial seeds.
How many seeds are in a packet?
Seeds are sold by weight. Larger seeds, such as squash or beans, are heavier and take up more space, so you may only get 20 in a packet. But packets of the same size may contain 400 carrot or 500 lettuce seeds! I’m sure that none of us has the space or desire to grow 500 lettuce plants, and that’s where seed swaps come in.
What is a seed swap?
Seed swaps are casual get-togethers where everyone brings their excess seeds and a dish or beverage to share. These events can be large or small, a handful of friends, or a community event. Community events need more tables and supplies, but the basic steps are the same.
Seeds brought to share can stay in their original packets, making it easy for guests to copy planting instructions onto their envelopes. Or, to make things look more festive, place seeds in jars or other containers and lay the original packet alongside.
If your seed swap is a big event, you may want to create stations where guests can sort through various plant families or categories. Otherwise, relax and enjoy finding and learning about some new plant varieties with your guests!
When creating your guest list, you can add non-gardening friends, too. Who knows, you may spark their interest! And you may want your experienced gardening friends to bring seedlings and succulents to share.
Seed swap activities
If your event would benefit from activities, you can add stations for these seed swap extras:
Most seeds are only viable for a couple of years. Beyond that, results can be iffy. Put all your seeds to good use with a seed swap.
It seems so harmless.
A bag of dried beans from the store costs much less than a packet of seeds. Those sprouting potatoes are simply begging for a soil blanket. You can start new celery and carrot plants from their ends, so why not?
You see countless suggestions about how to start a garden for free using grocery store produce. It sounds like a great idea. But it isn’t.
As appealing and economical as it may seem, using dried beans, sprouting potatoes, or rootbound basil from the grocery store to start your garden can create a mountain of headaches and spread diseases into new regions where plants cannot protect themselves.
In a word: don’t do it. If you must, put grocery store plants in containers and quarantine them as you would for any other new plant.
Defensive plants are not simpering wallflowers.
People have used defensive plants to protect their crops, livestock, and homes for thousands of years. Wicked thorns and dense thickets have deterred a variety of predators and thieves. And some defensive plants offer the bonus of an edible crop!
What looks like an easy back fence to hop becomes much more of a challenge when it supports thorny blackberries or a row of prickly pear cacti. Most thieves and troublemakers will look elsewhere for easier pickings. And if they decide to hop anyway, their howls of pain will give you plenty of time to call the police
The best places for defensive plants are along fences, under windows, and around sheds and other outbuildings. Keep mature plant sizes in mind when placing defensive plants, and ensure they will not block your escape should the need arise.
Before adding defensive plants to your landscape, use the information below to ensure they are suited to your Hardiness Zone and local microclimate. Most of these plants prefer full sun and well-draining soil unless noted otherwise. [Note: the abbreviation "spp." indicates several species.]
Add an extra layer of protection to your property with any of these plants.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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