Invest a minimum of time and money and still bring in the harvest with these tips for garden layouts, ground preparation and planting crops
I've come to the smug conclusion that many home gardeners
(I have in mind those folks who spend as many as 100 hours
of labor to grow $100 worth of produce) are somewhat akin
to masochists. And I'm convinced that most people
would — if they were to keep complete records of the
total time and expense their gardens require — be
amazed at how much those homegrown vegetables actually
I, on the other hand, can afford to be smug because, after many years of planning, I've gradually whittled my garden work routine down to a pleasurable size. I put in no more than eight hours of toil, and spend less than $25, over an entire season! Here's how I do it.
First, I got rid of my rototiller. For my purposes the tool cost too much money (you should be sure to include the price of such a machine, and its upkeep, in any gardening expense records), was excessively noisy, jerked my arms off, burned expensive gasoline, made my plant rows too wide (forcing me to work a larger-than-necessary plot) and, when used for weeding, sometimes actually damaged roots and slowed down the plants' growth. My tools now consist of an old stone rake and a hoe. That's it!
My second step was to cut my plot to a manageable 18-by-38-foot size, which — I've found — is plenty large enough to supply my family's needs if it's planned and planted properly.
Here in Virginia, I can begin gardening during the last week of April. (I could start earlier, but most of the seeds would just lie in the ground, waiting for more warmth, anyway!) At that point, I call a neighbor's son who has a rototiller, and in about an hour the lad can work my plot twice in opposite directions, turning under all the ashes and manure I've thrown on top of the soil during the winter. For his efforts, he receives $10 — after which I don't see him or the tiller for another year. Then, starting at one end of my garden (I alternate each year), I begin to form the first bed across the 18-foot dimension. By putting in rows in this direction, I'm able to stand along the garden's 38-foot edge and use the rake to reach out to the middle of the plot, leveling the earth and drawing the clods and stones toward me (I ignore anything less than the size of a marble). I rake about a 3-foot swath at a time from one side, and then repeat the process from the other completing one 3-by-18-foot area. This way, all the larger lumps end up along the plot's length, where they're left.
I prepare a very rough seed-bed in this manner for each vegetable. Then I merely hold the rake upside down and drag the handle's rounded end through the dirt to lay out my first row. (The depth of the trench will, of course, depend on the amount of downward pressure exerted on the handle as I walk across the plot.) Next, with my size-nine shoe, I measure over one foot and draw another furrow — or two, depending on how many rows are desired for that particular crop.
It's not necessary to slow things down by marking prospective rows with string. Straight lines please gardeners, not plants! Besides, with 18-foot rows running only a foot or two apart, it's pretty easy to keep them parallel.
After dropping the seeds into the trenches, I reverse my rake — so its head is on the soil with the points facing up — and use the flat back to pull a small amount of earth over them. Finally, I just walk heel-to-toe down the furrows to pack the seeds in.
My first three rows are usually made up of spring onions, which I plant two inches apart. Later, when I start to use a few each day for salads, I simply pull every other one, leaving an additional space for the remaining plants to mature. Then, as the season progresses, fewer onions are needed daily because the bulbs get progressively larger.
I follow the same simple process for sowing beans and beets. When starting the tomatoes and peppers, though, I don't even bother with raking, since the transplants don't seem to mind a clod here and there. I just use the hoe to make holes and set them in . . . and it doesn't take more than 10 minutes to plant the lot. It takes me another 20 minutes (at the most) to rake a bed for the corn, drag the handle across the plot five times, drop the seeds in every four inches, and cover them over.
At that point I'll have planted everything but my squash, cucumbers and pumpkins. Again, I don't bother to rake out rows for these. I just walk across the garden and drop the seeds about every 12 inches, right on the top of the soil, then stand off to see whether they're approximately where I want them and return to push each one into the earth with my index finger.
With that, the garden is planted. The entire job doesn't take more than two hours, and can be accomplished easily in an evening after work.
Now, let's see just what that couple of hours of labor has accomplished. Besides my 300 onions, I plant about 200 beet, 200 bean and 250 corn seeds . . . plus 18 tomato, six pepper and a total of 36 pumpkin, squash, and cucumber plants. (Different vegetables could be substituted, but my family likes these and I've come to rely on specific varieties that grow well in our area.)
During the late winter my wife usually starts some punch-and-grow marigolds, which — come spring — are transplanted into the finished garden's borders. Besides helping to keep the insects in check, they provide color clear into November.
After my crops are sown, I drive a 7-foot piece of pipe into the middle of the plot, tie my water sprinkler to its top and connect the hose. This setup allows the waterer to cover all the rows from its central location, clearing the corn (which, last year, reached 9 feet and 6 inches) later in the season. As soon as the sprinkler's in place, I give the garden a good initial soak to set the seeds to germinating.
For the next 30 days or so, I don't do anything to the plot except turn on the water when it's needed (an inexpensive plastic rain gauge helps me make sure that the crops get at least half an inch to one inch of water each week) and watch the garden grow. Then, around the first of June, I weed the whole thing and — in the process — remove one of every two cornstalks and two of every three cucumbers, pumpkins, and squash. I always save the ones that appear to be the hardiest.
Once that hoeing is finished, I mulch the tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and pumpkins with hay. Next, I gather up some old ladders (picked up at the local dump) to which I've attached legs and place them horizontally over the tomatoes. I've never found anything less expensive or easier to use to support these plants, and it takes about five minutes to put the ladders out each spring and the same to pick them up in November (they store very nicely against a tree all winter, too).
My next step is to place some blood meal (it's available at any garden shop) every two feet or so along the edges of the garden, by tying two or three spoonfuls into each of a number of small cloth bags and fastening these to the V-shaped wire wickets that I use to designate the rows. (Such wickets are an improvement over wooden stakes, as they push into the ground more easily, don't deteriorate, and can be hung over a nail — inside or outside — for winter storage.)
Despite the fact that I live within 100 feet of a large wooded area teeming with wildlife, I've never had any critter-caused crop damage since I began using blood meal in this manner. Often, at night, we actually see deer grazing in the yard, and raccoons and skunks also show up regularly . . . but the animals never enter the unfenced garden. I replace the natural deterrent monthly, and sprinkle the old meal from the wicket bags over those plants (young corn, for instance) that are most susceptible to attack by wild nibblers.
Within 45 to 60 days after planting, most of my beans and beets will already have been eaten, canned or frozen. In their place I put in a row of winter squash. Again, I do this just pushing the seeds into the soil with my index finger.
I've found that onions will tolerate a few weeds in their rows, but my tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, pumpkins, and squash don't have to face such intrusions because they're mulched. So hoeing takes up only about 15 minutes every two weeks . . . usually just before dark to avoid both bugs and heat. Other than that — and, of course, the pleasant task of picking the fruits of my labor — my garden chores are over after the first of June!
My records indicate that I invested $24.75 and seven and one-half hours of work in my garden last year. And by planting close, mulching, and sticking to vegetables that are sure producers, I harvest as much from my compact eight-hour garden as some folks get from plots twice the size.