Learning to Garden

“I have not failed.  I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  ~ Thomas Edison

The school playground put a nice touch to the end of our summer today. A few other parents and their kids all met at the school playground for one last hoorah before school starts. Ginny and Angie were pumped to hang and play with their buddies, and moms and dads caught up for the first time since June.  I plugged the PTA (of course) and we all shared funny kid stories.

Pink Boots and Boy Cuts
Pink Boots and Boy Cuts

One dad remembered me from the kindergarten field trip and knew that I was a dirt-digger (a/k/a/ soil-tender, gardener, wacko).  He couldn’t wait to tell me about his veggie garden — a first for his family this summer.

We gardeners are a strange breed.  We seek the attention of other gardeners, and whether we’re successful with puttering or efforts end in abysmal failure instead, none of it really matters.  What we crave is a comrade-in-arms, another soul who understands and appreciates our weirdness, the ulterior motive being perhaps the score of some new growing tips. We are equal opportunity killers and growers.

This was apparently his first attempt at a veggie garden, and it produced less than expected results.  His wife told me — correcting him —  called it a downright disaster, even though he did everything right, as far as he could tell.

I high-fived him; he looked perplexed at my exuberance.

“That’s for your first attempt, which is the hardest.  You’re now hopelessly hooked, and now it’s all downhill from here.  Your ultimate success lies in the collective failures. This is just the first of many, and that’s okay.”

He was only somewhat encouraged.

I’ve failed a lot at gardening.  I like to think of myself as the Thomas Edison of the Dirt World, back when it was all chemicals and tilling, success hit-or-miss. Only one sweet, tasty veggie was all that was I needed to repeat the cycle again the next season. However small the success, growing my own was reward enough, no matter how big the failure.

But why fail over and over and over?  Nature surely hasn’t; She only makes things better it seems.

Recently, I’ve experimented with others’ successes, tweaking here and there to custom fit my situation.  It’s cause for celebration when something works out right, and this season, Mother Nature has given me good cause to celebrate.

What I’ve not been doing is weeding, spraying or watering.  It’s been hot. Insects are relentless. But it appears I now have the ecosystem in good balance, and balance reaps rewards.  The food coming from the yard for a full six months straight now has been delectable and the yields unprecedented, with little work on my part.

So what is this secret, this magical concoction of gardening methods? The answer is easy:  get out of the way of Mother Nature.

“Gardening is as nature does,” I told my friend, and I might have even said that in a Forest Gump-like fashion.  I could see that he didn’t understand what I was talking about, so it was time to get a little dirty. Sometimes with live, working soil at least, seeing is believing.

Diggin’ in the Mulch
Do you see how rich and alive it is?

Using my nails as a garden trowel, I dug down deep into the mulch. Nothing is done in the area where I stand save an added layer of mulch every year or so, you know, to keep the ground “soft and squishy” in case a child falls from the equipment.

“What you may see here is giant mulch pile, ” I said to him, continuing to dig deeper, “but what I see here is clean, alive, healthy earth.  Stuff can grow here without my help.”

As if on cue, an earthworm began wiggling his back end at me.  I pointed over at a lone sprig of Bermuda grass in the middle of an endless sea of mulch.  I hissed and booed at it as well, for dramatic effect.  (I’m not a fan of invasive Bermuda.)

“See?  When the right and organic materials are provided in an organized and ritual [seasonal] manner —  and we humans step out of the way — the underworld beings are allowed to do what they do best, what we consider to be the hard work.”

“Those are my people,” I finished, with a smile on my face.

Idea - Foster's Chill Head
(Photo credit: fostersartofchilling)

A light bulb popped up over his head.  I swear it was an Edison bulb and that it actually popped.

My current newest garden beds happened just two days before, fresh in my frontal cortex, ripe for the picking spewed forth easily with just the right audience.  Only an hour to build two brand new beds — expanding a garden by 32 sq ft of growing space — was all it took.  Of course, several more hours were spent collecting the material needed, but I would have done that anyway.  Instead of being bagged and put to the curb, however, a weed-free, chemical-free veggie garden was born instead.

Having run out of space in the original garden area — and with Bermuda grass now permanently calling it home — I plunked down a new garden in the middle of the openest, sunniest location of my yard, right on top of freshly mowed field grass (short roots, easily smothered).  Layered in usual fashion, in two 4×4 squares:

  • cardboard
  • (2) loads of shrub cuttings from 150 feet of pittosporum, holly, and ligustrum
  • (1) load of fresh compost (from my pile)
  • (1) load of grass clippings (caught with mower bag)
  • (2) loads of raked crepe myrtle leaves (they seem to think it’s fall)
  • foam puzzle mats (for sun block-out)
  • 10 bags of compost to weigh things down
New Lasgna Garden Beds, ready for planting.
The grass underneath will be dead in less than a month.

Some seeds (currently cantaloupe) were sown outdoors and will be transferred – with soil, roots undisturbed – to the new beds.  It’s called a lasagna bed because of its green-brown-compost-repeat layers.  A few other seeds will be sown directly on the compost layer as well.

Heavy wheel barrows…pssh.  Who’s for that? Leaves and clippings are lighter to haul than loads of dense soil, and they result in the same thing in the end.  I never put compostable items to the curb; they all get recycled right in my own yard.  It is nature’s way, with only a little “re-organizing” done by me.

For today, though, I entice one more discouraged gardener to give it another go.  This time, perhaps he won’t put too much into it.  Perhaps, he’ll get out of the way and adopt my way — the lazy way.

What’s your favorite “lazy” gardening technique?

How do you turn big chores into smaller ones?

45 thoughts on “Learning to Garden

  1. How great it is to read your garden philosophy Shannon. You’re a born garden proselytizer! I believe that your no-till methods are really effective and good for the soil, the vegetables and you. If I didn’t love garden work and micro-managing so much, I’d join you 🙂

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    1. Ha! A proselytizer. Never thought I’d be called that (I am religiously unattached). But yes, I think that must be what I do.

      As far as micro-managing, that is indeed half the fun! It’s just that most people in my position (kids, life, home, school) haven’t the time for it. My job is to let folks to know that it’s not NECESSARY. So easy to grow food with minimal work or $$.

      Always love having you here Dan. Thanks for your two cents!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s exactly right. Most people have such busy lives that a concept like this could be transforming for them. I remember how tough it is to fit everything in. Unfortunately, back when I was in that situation, I didn’t realize that lasagna gardening would be able to help win back time and grow better plants.

        Love your inspirational thoughts Shannon!

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    2. Incidentally, here is the follow-on (http://wp.me/p28k6D-D6) to that brand-new lasagna bed exercise. I was immediately a convert. In 2013, I let the bed go back to turf grass as we moved out of the house for 5 months for a remodel-from-hell, but it grew peas, beets, kohlrabi, squash, and greens for me in between!

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  2. I came across this as you reposted it recently but I couldn’t comment on it with your cover note there. It struck me that the reason you still get produce from your garden after two years of not ‘gardening with purpose’, as you state in your repost, is because of all the hard wrk you put into it beforehand. Gardening is a long game, and you are reaping the rewards of playing it well. 🙂

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    1. I think I may have had the commenting closed on the re-blog. Thanks for coming back by to interact. I must say I’ve missed you, much as I miss many of my other blogging mates who have fallen off WP for various reasons. “Gardening” is perhaps a lonelier topic here on DirtNKids than “Vegan.” (I merged my other blog back here.)

      I am inclined to agree with you on the long game. I think what helps the most is not wrecking the soil by over-managing a garden, which many people tend to do. There seems to be something to just doing the bare minimum and letting nature just do Her thing. Cheers, Rachael!

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  3. Oh my gosh. Can’t wait to see more! I’m not sure how much strength/patience I have left to do any more this fall. I was thinking a few more bulbs, but never the undertaking of your magnitude. Good luck!

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    1. Building beds? That’s the easy part! Planning for what to put IN them is the hard part (for me, anyway). Just yesterday, I removed the brightly colored mats, put another layer of cardboard, and am waiting for my tree guy to dump me some free mulch which I will lay down (to keep grass out). The grass underneath is sufficiently choked out! I also added to each bed one more layer: grass clippings, leaves, compost.

      Cooking nicely, and looking good!

      Now…what to plant there? Since it’s not officially dirt yet (it IS working on it!), I will buy 4″ pots and put them right into the planting medium. My more established garden beds are already hoppin’ with greenery – the edible kind. My favorite. 🙂

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  4. I’ve told you before how our yard is completely tree covered, shaded with no sunny area that’d be good for a vegetable garden. Well the more I read your posts, the more I want to rent a plot in one of our community gardens. And I have never, ever gardened as an adult…but I did grow up around my parents’ large garden. Something about that dirt looks appealing to me. 😉

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    1. This property sooo had me the first time I saw it. It’s what made us go through the hell we had to to acquire it. So worth it – even with the crap kitchen. 🙂

      If you have a sunny front porch, you can grow an entire veggie garden in containers. Wha?! Didn’t know that? I’ve seen better veggie gardeners than me with only an apartment balcony to work with!

      No excuses. If you want to do it, you’ll find a way. If you ever need uplifting inspiration, though, come to me. I’ll talk you up!

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  5. The “last harrah” before school starts is full of jump-in-with-both-feet fun and lots of memories.
    A dirt-digger gardner is a wonderful thing to be, plus you’re a wonderful writer!

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  6. My favourite lazy gardening technique is not doing an autumn tidy. Hey, the seadheads and dead leaves and stubby brown stalks are great for hibernating bugs and in the
    Spring the birds will use stuff for their nests etc etc. The fact that it saves me loads of work is entirely coincidental 😉

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    1. I love your style! I only tidy in the spring when first shoots of green start coming up. Everything’s good and brown and stick-y for a couple of seasons here too, just like I like it.

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  7. That first year is full of so much hope and (often) so much disappointment and frustration, isn’t it? Good on you for encouraging him to try and try again.

    My favorite lazy gardening method? Letting the volunteer squash survive to have fruit ripen in the spring before the on-purpose squash have even flowered. The volunteer squash don’t read about average frost dates and worry about lost seedlings. They just appear from the compost in the soil and give it a go.

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  8. This is great! The easiest garden is plopping a bag of garden soil on the deck, punching holes in it with a knife and sowing the seeds directly in the bag. Works with arugula! I’m planting some fall veggies tomorrow. My lone tomato plant never bore fruit and for some reason I can’t get basil to grow. Any tips for the basil?

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    1. Bag gardening is the absolute BEST. I tell apartment dwellers all the TIME to do this. I am amazed at some of the apartment balcony gardens I’ve seen.

      If we ever do make it back into an apartment, I will choose location based on southern exposure. I’d pay a premium for that.

      Tomato? I’ve never planted just one (usually 10-20). Calcium, if it never flowered. If the flowers fell off and fruit didn’t develop from them, well that’s another story – and I’m clueless. We were prolific in tomatoes this year, and I mean PROLIFIC. All the green tomatoes (http://wp.me/p28k6D-uo)? They eventually ripened up and were eaten raw from the countertop where they lived for nearly two months. Unbelievable. A first.

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      1. Going to hop in on the “flowered and never fruited” conundrum – heat. If the tomatoes are of a brandywine variety and you’re in a hot and humid climate, or even if they’re a usually-good-for-heat tomato, but it’s over 80 degrees at night or over 95 during the day, they’ll struggle to set fruit without a decent canopy to shade the earth and keep their feet cool enough to trick them into setting fruit.

        I killed all my potted basil plants I’ve ever tried. As soon as I started putting it in the ground, it did just fine.

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      2. Yes, I planted only one. In a pot. I have a limited amount of space. I’ve never had a garden before so I was just testing the waters. I failed on the tomatoes, but my radishes, beets, boston lettuce, and arugula flourished.

        I had fried green tomatoes the other day for dinner. Oh, yum.

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      3. I commend you for giving it go. Whatever you do, don’t give up! Tomatoes grow great in pots with the right conditions (soil, water, sun). Try a different variety, perhaps, and make sure your soil has lots of organic matter.

        Ah, fried is awesome, yes (you should try this also with eggplant!!). But green maters are incredibly delicious made into a fresh relish for sandwiches and such. (http://wp.me/p28k6D-uo) In the south, it’s called picalilli. Lots of recipes out there. We ditched the canning process and just used what we made within the week.

        Fresh is best. 🙂

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    1. People have no clue as to how much worms contribute to healthy soil! Not just their poop (castings), but they also aerate as they travel through poor soil, in search of rich food to eat, and help slowly till it all together. No need for machinery – worms do all the work.

      Lemons? Having no bad experience (the only lemon I ever had was a great producer, no thanks to me), I wouldn’t know where to start. What the heck is a yuzu tree? I’ll have to look that one up.

      As with any plant, I would try to figure out what they prefer as far as macro-nutrients first (nitrogen? phosphorus? potassium?) and then provide more of just that. If that still doesn’t work (it usually does), then go for the micros. Having a friend that’s also a master gardener usually helps (I have one or two).

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      1. Thanks for the advice.

        Yuzu is an east Asia citrus fruit that has a very distinct flavour, and it’s juice and zest find their way into a lot of Japanese dishes. In Korea, they make a sweet tea with the zest. It really changes the character of any dish it finds it’s way into – well worth experimenting with if you ever find any.

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  9. We’ve been doing well with container gardening, peppers, tomatoes, and this year we tried okra. It did ok. We only had a handful. But we’re willing to do it again next year. We feel like we get our money’s worth out of tomatoes and peppers as long as we can keep them from the deer!

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    1. Deer are extraordinary garden-destroyers, aren’t they?

      I’ve heard success with high and NARROW fencing. Deer will not jump a fence unless there is a clearing on the other side for them to land. If there’s only a few feet between the fencing, they won’t attempt. Of course, I have no hands-on experience with this…

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  10. Love the pink boots!

    I would love to garden, but every time I start, I soon remember how much attention you have to give to it. With the Texas heat, missing a few waterings usually does me in.

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    1. We did have some regular rains. But even if we didn’t I mulch HEAVILY. Not wimpy, silly straw, but 6″ of shredded tree mulch. Aside from getting the seedlings going (for the first two weeks), my prolific garden got NO WATER from me – only from Nature.

      It CAN be done. It just can’t be done in a drought. Last year, record heat and no rain for more than 11 months. My garden shrunk, but what came up still grew and produced without my help, right near the compost – where it’s heavily mulched and rich in nutrients! Nature is amazing.

      I give my garden very little attention, aside from walking around in the morning waking up with my coffee and declaring, to the plants, “Thanks for the fruit. Now, you guys go ahead and grow. I’ll be back again tomorrow morning.”

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  11. Love the photo–and those boots!

    You are a gardening genius. Who taught you all of this? I’m curious. I love the idea of getting out of the way and letting nature take its course. Lazy gardening? where do I sign up?

    When Jim started his little garden a few years ago, it failed big time. Too many bugs. But every year he kept trying. This year we finally had a good garden, tons of huge zucchinis (so many we had to give them away to our neighbors) We decided to go with a small garden, it’s probably 4 feet by 4 feet, but we managed to cram tomatoes, cukes, zucchini, strawberries, onions in there. We don’t do much, just water it when it’s super dry (as it has been this summer). No weeding (yay!)

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    1. If copying what others have done is genius, then I’m all that!! I just took what the compost does already (naturally) and eliminated the need to “move” it to my garden. I’m just making compost on sight. Plants love it.

      Keeping it small is a good idea, or one can get overwhelmed. Just a few pickings is all that’s needed to keep it going again next season.

      Keep it up, Darla!!

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  12. Yay! We caught another nascent gardener. Good work. I wish I could have beds right on the ground. I need the extra growing time the raised beds give me. But now that I think of it, this technique would be perfect for the flower beds. Your soil looks awesome. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm.

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    1. I feel like a new parent talking about my children’s accomplishments. We are fortunate to be in a good spot for gardening. I continue to be surprised and how few actually do (here, in paradise).

      Yes, for flower beds – it is perfect. And easy. Enthusiasm for dirt is what I’ve always had. I keep hoping that one day it won’t be considered “weird” anymore. 🙂

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    1. A pink tutu would have tied the package together, I think. Angie loved those boots. Now Ginny’s wearing them out.

      I’m glad to hear that you’ll continue! Seriously, try this method. You won’t be disappointed. Patricia Lanza wrote a book about it – Lasagna Gardening. It’s well worth the read. I love it because it’s strong on recycling (using what you already have) versus buying stuff (peat, vermiculite). Since I already make my own compost, the bacteria, fungi and worms are free! They’re like the “starter kit” for the beds.

      So very easy.

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    1. My creativity stops only in the supplies used – I don’t know of another person who uses foam mats to smother grass! But the real creativity goes to gardeners before me who put the pieces together and had the aha-moment that put it into action.

      I’m a hopeless copier, I’m afraid. But I like to copy what works!

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      1. Well, hey, I may become a copier. That foam mat idea to smother grass really sounds like a winner. I may put it to use in my own back yard. We can’t water our yards here any more, so I need to think new ideas.

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      2. We’ve carried those mats with us for 10 years. They’ve been repurposed more times than I can count – pathway for bare feet, forts, fire-fanning devices, pool floaties – so this is just one more thing. They’re 2×2 ft, which is just the right size for a walkway around and between 4×4 ft garden beds, and they “puzzle fit” together nicely (to block out sunshine). Grass simply doesn’t have a chance.

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