There is no two ways about it: growing your own food, even just a small percentage of it, takes a lot of work. On top of that, every year, it seems that I encounter a new challenge that throws me for a loop.
Whether we’re talking about vegetable gardening or growing fruit trees, producing food for yourself is neither for the lazy, nor for the faint of heart!
That said, there are things you can do to make the process easier. You can reduce your gardening work when you put certain strategies into place.
What follow are five of the most important strategies you could implement into your gardening journey, as they will save you time, effort, and even money.
Strategy #1: Garden near your watering source.
If you’re going to grow your own food in a suburban backyard, this will be easy. By default, your garden will be located close enough to your house that it will be a cinch to connect a hose to the outside water faucet and pull it to your veggie patch. Ah, I remember those days well!
They must have spoiled me, because when we moved to our five acres in the country, I didn’t do such a great job planning out the whole watering issue.
Could have something to do with the fact that I’d read up on the Ruth Stout method. All you had to do was pile up enough hay around your crops, and you wouldn’t have to water, not even during a drought!
For the sake of brevity I’ll skip the story of how this just didn’t work out for me (probably because I didn’t follow Stout’s rules to the letter), and I ended up being miserable with my vegetable garden for a couple of years because I had to drag water into the garden, two gallons at a time, to give everybody a drink when they needed it.
Let me put it another way: I was watering over 1200 square feet of garden with gallon jugs. Sometimes more than twice a week!
We are off the grid with water, and by the third year we’d acquired and filled (rather, nature had filled) enough water storage tanks so that I felt comfortable using that collected rain water for watering the garden.
At that point, I said to my husband, “Couldn’t you dig a hole under the garden fence, stick a PVC pipe through it, and then whenever I wanted to water I could hook the hose up to the rain tank and run it under the fence and into the garden?”
Truth be told, the actual detailed plan came out of my husband’s brain. But I provoked him to come up with it by asking him to come up with a way to put a hole in the garden fence (because the door was on a different side of the garden from where I wanted the hose to come in) so I could heretofore water with the hose.
Can I tell you that my vegetable gardening life has become much more enjoyable?
Locate your garden as close to a water source as you can.
Strategy #2: Don’t till the soil.
That’s right. You heard me. If you want growing your own food to be easier, stop tilling your garden.
Tilling compacts the soil much more than it loosens it. It kills earthworms. It disturbs the the micro-organisms in the soil that are critical to the success of your vegetable garden. It also turns up weed seeds that are embedded deep in the earth, meaning that to till means to give yourself more weeding work in the not-too-distant future.
How can you possibly work the soil unless you till it? Just so happens I’ve written a detailed post on the no-till method of gardening.
The long and the short of it is, you grow in beds that are only thirty to forty-eight inches wide, and you amend the soil six months to a year before you’re going to plant anything in it by piling up organic material in those beds.
This will produce soil that’s much easier to work with than many gardeners’ native dirt. It will also reduce pest and disease problems by encouraging the proliferation of beneficial critters underneath the surface, who in turn help the roots of your plants to be as healthy as possible.
Strategy #3: Mulch.
To mulch is to cover bare soil with organic matter. Most gardeners mulch with things like wood chips, bark, and/or dried leaves.
Some will use living mulches, such as clover.
Covering the soil reduces the need for watering, discourages weed growth, cools the soil surface during the hot summer, and adds nutrients to the soil as it slowly decomposes.
Most gardening experts will tell you to use two to three inches of wood chips or bark mulch. However, when you triple or quadruple that, three things happen. First, existing weed seeds in the soil can’t grow because they can’t find light, even if they do germinate. As well, the mulch decomposes more quickly. Decomposing matter releases moisture, so having six to eight inches of it piled up drastically reduces the amount of supplemental watering you need to do.
Finally, again because of the decomposition, you probably won’t need to fertilize your crops if you have this much mulch.
If you mulch with straw, you’ll need at least a foot of it to get similar effects. If you want to use dried leaves, they need to be chopped up with a lawn mower or chipper-shredder and piled at least a foot deep. Heads up: If you live in an area with a lot of slugs and snails, leaf mulch is not a good idea.
Strategy #4: Companion planting.
If you want to have the greatest success possible when you grow your own food, forget the old monocropping in a row method. Instead, intersperse herbs and flowers among your food crops. Why?
First of all, many herbs and flowers repel pests. And even if they don’t, all those different scents can cover up the aroma of your vegetable crops, making it hard for pests to find the delicacies they’re looking for.
Certain vegetable crops, when grown next to each other, can be mutually helpful. Or, the help might go one way; for example, when you grow a carrot next to a tomato, the carrot root won’t grow as big as it might otherwise, but it will help the tomato to grow better and stay healthier.
Finally, when you have low-growing herbs and flowers – thyme, certain varieties of oregano, alyssum – planting among your vegetables, weeds don’t have any room to grow.
Strategy #5: Keep a garden journal.
At first glance, writing in a journal doesn’t sound like it would do anything to facilitate your gardening endeavors. But if you want to really and truly succeed at growing your own food, you need to keep track of your successes and failures.
If you planted out your tomatoes and peppers right after your area’s last average spring frost date, then lost them all in a freeze two days later, wouldn’t you want to remember that?
How about which variety of cucumber didn’t get powdery mildew, or which variety of tomato grew the most ripe fruit without cracks?
Using a garden journal to record the results of starting something from seed, when a certain pest showed up, and which variety of a certain type of vegetable produced the best (whatever “best” means to you) means that the next year, you will do an overall better job in growing a garden because you won’t have to do the same experiments over again.
My challenge to you
If you’re not incorporating any of the above ideas on how to make growing your own food easier, pick one right now and run with it. If you’re already using some of those idea, try adding another one.
Next growing season, try another one. You may not need to incorporate all five into your garden, but the more you do, the more fun gardening will become.
Best of all, your vegetables and garden soil will thank you.