Save Time and Energy in the Garden

You'll always be able to satisfy your green thumb if you follow these simple tips to save time and energy in the garden.

Edible Gardening Cover

"Any Size, Anywhere Edible Gardening" teaches beginning gardeners how to grow vegetables and fruits in any setting and save time and energy while doing it. 

Cover Courtesy Cool Springs Press

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In his book, Any Size, Anywhere Edible Gardening, author William Moss takes a beginning gardener through all the steps needed to grow vegetables and fruits in any setting, regardless of the available (or desired) size. This book covers container gardening, vertical gardening, raised-bed gardening and traditional methods to help gardeners everywhere bring a taste of homegrown freshness to their gardening experience. In the following excerpt from Chapter 3, "Time-Saving Tips," Moss gives the time-crunched gardener simple ways to save time and energy in the garden.  

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Any Size, Anywhere Edible Gardening. 

Time-crunched has become a common description of modern life. Our days are filled with activities, commitments, necessities, and distractions in a way that was unimaginable a couple generations ago. Everyone from toddlers to seniors has their schedules packed with events and tasks that in the moment seem absolutely crucial to their existence. Small pieces of plastic and metal interrupt our routines and summon us to work, chat, watch, and tweet at all hours of the day and night. The peaceful evenings and weekend mornings spent lounging on the porch with family and neighbors are as endangered as sea turtles. We feel compelled to stay busy. The time-crunched want to garden, but it has to fit within their hectic lives.

Downsizers are typically older gardeners who no longer have the inclination, time, or energy to tend large spaces. They may have tended a large backyard veggie patch in the past, but now they prefer a raised bed by the side door. They don’t want to give up gardening. They are just done working a large space. I’ve watched this time and time again. 

At 79 my grandfather parked his tractor for the last time. At 88 my great aunt stopped her decades-long fight against the honeysuckle vine that threatened her fig tree and veggie patch. At 84 my friend Tom gave up his community plot. They still wanted to garden, but the rigors were just too much.

In small spaces you can grow veggies without much time or effort. It takes planning, organization, and an acceptance of the limitations. If you garden in a raised bed two hours a week, you are not going to harvest as many tomatoes as the guy down the street who works in his backyard garden two hours a day. But that’s okay; you may not need or want that many tomatoes. In the following paragraphs are some tips to save time and energy while gardening.

Use Mulch

Whether you are growing kale or pecan trees, nothing is as beneficial as proper mulching. You won’t need to water or weed as often. Using rich compost as mulch reduces time spent fertilizing too.

Amend Soil with Organic Matter

Another tip to reduce watering time is to amend with organic matter. Compost, worm castings, rotted manures, and so forth build the water-holding capacity of the soil while maintaining good drainage.

Install Irrigation Systems

Watering the garden is the most frequent and time-consuming task. Let technology do it. Install a timer on your spigot and use a drip line, soaker hose, or sprinkler.

Drip lines work in the ground and in containers. Holes in the line leak water precisely where you want it. Soaker hoses are more general and not suited for containers. Place soaker hoses under mulch, while drip irrigation lies on top.

Sprinklers are common; however, overhead watering may invite fungal diseases. Also, most oscillating sprinklers were made for large yards and can be awkward or impractical to use in a small space. When I use the oscillating sprinkler at the community plot, my neighbors’ gardens get as much water as mine.

Whichever you choose, put the system on a timer and watering takes care of itself. Set it for one hour or more every two or three days, depending on your climate. You want to soak really deep into the root zone. Program it to finish as you are leaving in the morning so you can check to see if the plants received the right amount of moisture. If you are in a rainy or dry spell, adjust the timer accordingly.

Make Your Own Self-Watering Pot

Containers can dry out fast. In the height of summer, you may need to spend an hour a day watering a container garden. Changing the drainage helps reduce watering. Look for containers that do not have predrilled drainage holes. Instead of putting holes in the bottom, make them on the sides of the pot.

You will need a drill, a 1/4-inch bit (or smaller) to start the hole, and a 5/8-inch bit (or larger) for the final hole. Big pots need six holes all around at about 3 inches up from the bottom. For smaller pots, four holes placed 2 inches up will do. With the holes on the side, water can sit in the bottom. This acts like a reservoir that the roots can access when they need it.

The holes allow excess water to drain out and air to come in. The containers are more drought resistant and you can gain one to two days between watering with these drainage holes. On my rooftop container garden where I have more than 150 containers, this reduced watering from a seven-plus-hours-a-week task down to three hours. (Yet somehow I get no more rest than before. But I appreciate another way to spend less time holding a water hose.)

Grow Low-Maintenance Crops

If your goal is to save time and energy, don’t grow crops that require tending or harvesting every day. Indeterminate tomatoes need continual staking, pinching, and cleaning. Okra, lettuce, green beans, and zucchini need frequent harvesting to produce at their peak. At some point during their growth cycle, these veggies are going to demand some time.

Conversely, potatoes, onions, peppers, and sweet potatoes can take care of themselves. Put these root crops in the right conditions and they’ll grow. Occasional weeding, watering, and fertilizing are all they ask. 

There is no urgency to harvest. The crop will be waiting on you when you have time to stop by.

Grow in Raised Beds

Gardening is easier in raised beds. You add good soil mix, so there is no tilling or double digging. A layer of landscape fabric underneath stops weeds from growing through. Any weeds that blow in are easy to remove in the loose soil. Because the area is raised, working in the bed is kinder on the joints and tendons. At harvest time the veggies are easier to see and reach.

You don’t have to be a carpenter to build raised beds. There are kits available that you can assemble in less than 30 minutes. Some of them are modular, so you can expand upward and outward if you choose. This could have kept my grandfather growing beans and peppers for a few more years.

Grow Resistant Crops

Fighting diseases takes up a lot of time and resources. If the disease kills the veggie, then all the time spent planting and tending it will have been wasted. (Or more positively, deposited in the experience bank. How’s that for cognitive dissidence?)

Do yourself a favor and select resistant varieties of veggies. This doesn’t mean you won’t have diseases, but it gives you the best chance to avoid common problems. Disease-resistant varieties are usually highly productive too.

Pick Prolific Plants

As well as growing resistant crops, if you have a limited amount of time, select plants that will give you the most reward. There are a few things more frustrating than tending a non-productive veggie. Growing
‘Mr. Stripey’ tomatoes is a good example. This sweet beefsteak tomato has orange and red skin with orange and red flesh. ‘Mr. Stripey’ is a joy for the eyes and the taste buds. However, it is not that prolific, and it ripens very late. Despite growing them in rich soil in raised beds, my sister Teresa, who lives in South Carolina, only got two tomatoes off her two plants. I was fortunate to harvest five from my container-grown ‘Mr. Stripey’. Teresa works twelve-hour shifts and struggles to squeeze in gardening here and there under the merciless southern sun. She vowed to never again grow ‘Mr. Stripey’. She says her efforts are better spent on ‘Sunset’s Red Horizon’, ‘Mortgage Lifter’, and the prolific ‘Gardener’s Delight’. 

For the time-crunched, planting veggies that are disease resistant and productive are your best bets.

Save Time, Water And Effort

Once I had over fifty pots on my rooftop garden, I knew normal watering wasn’t going to cut it anymore. I watched in anguish as water that I had carried upstairs in 5-gallon buckets (heavy water) leaked out the bottoms of the pots and down the drain. Sometimes when potting mix in containers is dry, it becomes what’s called “hydrophobic” and repels moisture. The water will run down the cracked soil along the sides and right out the drainage holes. It was a waste of effort, water, and time, all of which are resources too precious to squander.

My other problem with watering was that I was often gone filming television shows for Discovery or HGTV. While two-week shoots in summer might be fun for me, they were rough on my container plants. Lots of veggies and flowers died while many of the survivors were so dry, the potting mix became hydrophobic and required extra watering just to get wet. I spent hours upon my return watering, just trying to save a few tomatoes and asters.

Large saucers to hold water under the containers did not help. During the heat of summer, the water quickly evaporated from the saucers. Very large and deep saucers did hold water longer, but that led to stinky, stagnant water, which bred mosquitoes. I tried water bags, which are canvas bags full of water with tiny holes on the bottom. But the size of the bag needed for an extended stay would have taken up all the space in the containers. Wine bottles did not offer a solution either. (This seems counterintuitive, because wine inside a bottle is often a solution to many problems.) I had plenty of wine bottles to fill with water and place into the pots, but the science is tricky. You need the mix to clog the opening and keep the water inside the bottle when you turn it upside down in the container. But if the soil is packed too loosely, the water runs out too fast. If the soil is too compact, water won’t leak out at all. There had to be a better way.

The solution? When I made my own self-watering containers, things got easier. Now, during regular watering and especially before long trips, I saturate the containers. With a supply of water at the bottom of the pot, plants can better survive long absences. The mix retains more moisture and is less likely to become hydrophobic. Watering is easier and more efficient. Using this tip to make your own self-watering pot saves water, effort, and time. Plus, you’ll get to use power tools.  

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Any Size, Anywhere Edible Gardening, published by Cool Springs Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Any Size, Anywhere Edible Gardening: The No Yard, No Time, No Problem Way To Grow Your Own Food.