Wild Gardens for Busy Parents: Find the Spot

Future wild garden

It’s time to think about seeds and seedlings. Too busy to think about a garden plan? When you feel guilty that you don’t plant your dream garden or a fully sustainable one-acre farm year after year, scale down your plan. I declare this the year of wild gardens for busy parents.

Every year Naturemom and I get ambitious about planting gardens, hers in south central Ontario and mine in the U.S. mountain west. Every year we plant something, but no year—not one year since we starting writing about it—have we met our ambitious goals. When we talked about what kind of garden posts you might want to read this year, we decided that you might be like we are: too busy to keep up with your big plans.

Somewhere in that gap between the dream self-sufficient garden and going outside once a week for 5 minutes to stare at a patch of brown is the disappointment. Every year I plant something, but I worry and feel a little guilty that it isn’t as much as I had hoped. My garden is wild, going where it wants to go and growing what it wants to grow.

There is too much worry and guilt already, so I propose that we all revise our goals to fit our busy lifestyles. I’m closing that gap by bringing my expectations closer to my capacity.

Wild Gardens for Busy Parents

Once a month I am going to check in with you and suggest actions that will take no more than 30 minutes that will get you closer to that garden you aren’t quite ready to plant.

Here are some simple rules:

  • Start small
  • Share planning
  • Have a goal in mind

Start small. If you have tried and not quite reached your gardening goals in the past, I want you to have a guaranteed win this year. So, start with a commitment no bigger than you can keep. I really do want to be an urban farmer, but I have to be honest about the time I’m willing and able to spend. I stare out the window at my garden a lot (since I can see it from my work space), but I don’t actually go out and get dirty very often. Trying to be realistic about how I don’t tend my garden, I think 30 minutes a month is realistic—yes, probably pathetic, but realistic.
Goal: 30 minutes a month

Share your plan. I want you to share not just in the sense of telling others about your plans but in sharing responsibility for the plans and the planning. When I plan a garden alone then just tell my husband what to do on the weekends, he isn’t quite motivated. You can see the problem: he doesn’t share my vision for a lush paradise. Make sure that you share not just the to-do list but the decisions about what you will do. Share with husband, kids, or neighbor. Just find someone who also cares about your micro garden patch and stay accountable to them.
Goal: share your garden

Have a goal in mind. Don’t go shopping for seeds or digging in the dirt until you know your intentions. My 30-minute plan doesn’t have room for a dozen types of seedlings in multiple raised beds. I figure I can plant one new plant a year and keep it alive along with previous years’ plants. Since I’m keeping my goal very small, I want a plant that is an investment.
Goal: add one new plant

This is what I did.

I’m starting small. I have one bare spot where I recently started (but didn’t quite finish) ripping out an ugly bush next to my front door. This leaves the entrance to my house less than inviting. It was easy to decide where to focus.

I shared the planning. I told my husband I was finally tired of the bare patch, and he said he might have an idea. He has been brewing his own beer, and he is interested in growing his own hops as well. His brew store sent him an offer on hops the very week I mentioned the bare ground. In busy gardener style, we stared at the bare spot together and decided hops could climb up the wire ladder we made for our grapes. We’re taking advantage of our simple infrastructure.

We have a goal in mind. We specifically did not want plants that need a lot of tending, but I suspect my husband will be a doting farmer. He wants to brew these hops, so he’s invested in helping them survive—and thrive.

Total time so far, maybe 1 minute deciding on the spot, 2 minutes talking about it, and another 2 minutes ordering the hops plants at the beer store. Five minutes. That leaves about 25 minutes to finish clearing out the bush, dig in compost, and still keep it all under 30 minutes for the month.

Total cost so far: $18 for 3 hops plants to arrive next month.

Hops join the plants I’ve managed to keep alive from previous years: grapes, blackberries, fennel, a volunteer pumpkin, and a thriving bed of mint. That’s not so bad. That sounds almost like a garden.

Your March List: Find the Spot

You can do it! Spend 30 minutes on your garden in March.

  • Find your spot (2 minutes)
  • Plan planting (3 minutes)
  • Prepare the ground (15 minutes)
  • Start the plants (order the seeds or whatever it takes to put planting in motion) (10 minutes)

If you are already doing better than I am, planting a lush, diverse garden every year, I’m truly happy for you. I hope to get there soon, but I’m not there yet. This is where I will start, and maybe hearing about your garden will inspire me to up my game to 60 minutes a month or even commit to a tomato.

Prepare Your Compost Pile for Winter

Yellow Leaves on Grass

It already feels a bit nippy in the mornings, and it’s time to pay attention to the garden. Even when I don’t manage to grow much food in my garden, I still keep feeding my compost pile because I feel better knowing I’m reusing kitchen waste. I am ambitious about my garden, but I just get busy. Maybe you are the same way. Even if all you are going to do is ignore your compost all winter (my personal method), just take some time, maybe 30 minutes, to tend to your bin before you lose it under a layer of snow.

Spread it around. If you worked your compost enough during the year that it is dark brown and earthy smelling, spread it on the garden. You will dig it in come Spring. If you do spread your compost, start a new pile.

Turn the pile. You probably add more kitchen waste (nitrogen rich green material) for a while then more sticks, leaves, and paper (carbon rich brown material) for a while. Turning the pile evens out the mix.

Give it a sniff. Does it smell earthy or is it more like ammonia? If you smell ammonia, you probably have an abundance of green, kitchen waste. You need more brown material, like dried leaves. Fortunately (or unfortunately), you probably have an abundance of leaves right now. Layer the leaves and other materials keep a good mix. You need more brown than green material, probably 2/3 brown to 1/3 green, but this really depends on the specific ingredients in your compost pile. If you add too much brown material, your compost will take longer to break down. It will still break down, just more slowly. Understanding the right balance between green and brown is one of those skills you will develop over time.

Spread it, turn it, sniff it. Done. You are ready for winter. My lazy method of composting fits even the busiest schedule.

Need more help?

If you are up for the challenge of composting all winter, check out the Compost Guy’s Winter Composting information. He’s in southern Ontario, but he gives tips for keeping your compost active further north as well.

If you need Composting Basics for the Beginner Gardener, read our earlier post.

Image © Ben Goode | Dreamstime.com.

Visualize Your Overwhelming Harvest

Bottled tomatoes

Sure, you are just planning your garden or maybe planting seeds now, but you can also visualize and prepare for the results of your gardening. What are you going to do when you are overwhelmed with your harvest?

Most of my recent abundance has come in the form of mint. I have chocolate mint, lemon mint, peppermint, and nice, plain mint. Every year it gets stronger and pushes out the other herbs. Every year I get more mint than the last—more mint of a kind of peppery, chocolaty, lemon flavor. We put mint in salads, in salsa, in meals, in tea. We can’t even come close to eating all of the mint. So, we preserve it. Like my mother, I reach for mint at the first suggestion of stomach upsets, so a lot of our mint becomes tea. Knowing we will use it for tea, we dry our mint. We have enough mint tea for a year or more packed into big, beautiful mason jars.

If you are fortunate, your harvest will be plentiful. Prepare now so that good food does not go to waste.

Eat it

Pick food as it ripens, and eat it as you go.

Prepare: You don’t really need to plan for eating as you go other than choosing your crops carefully. Make sure you like them. The year I planted row after row of arugula, I was very sad. I had a refrigerator full of greens that smelled like stinky feet, and I could not force myself to eat them.

Serve it

Throw a harvest party. Sure, that’s what Thanksgiving is, but most of our food ripens long before Thanksgiving. Throw a party with fresh raspberries in late June, fresh corn in July, and fresh everything in August.

Prepare: Don’t plan your family vacation during the prime two weeks for harvesting fresh food. Block out the best party times now and talk them up with friends and family. Ask now if they want to come stay for the weekend in late summer so they will definitely be available.

Give it away

Where I grew up, the harvest season joke was playing ding-dong-ditch and leaving giant zucchini on neighbors’ doorsteps. No one I knew ever managed to eat all of their zucchini as they picked it, and no one ever visited my mother in the summer without taking away a few vegetables. I think that sharing food is one of the best parts of harvest.

Prepare: Ask your friends and neighbors what they are planting. Plant something different. Anticipate the trade or giveaway. If you don’t know your neighbors, you have relationships to cultivate.

Preserve it

If you garden, chances are you will end up with more of some food than you can handle while fresh. Dry it, freeze it, pickle it, ferment it, bottle it, or turn it into jelly. The best ways to preserve food depend on what you plant and how you eat.

Prepare: Now is the time to learn to preserve food when the only other thing you have to do is watch your seedlings grow. Once you are faced with a bushel of tomatoes, it’s too late to do more than fumble around with a how-to book. If you want to eat from the bountiful harvest of your own garden year round, you need to understand how you want to use it. Do you want to freeze tomato soup that is ready to heat and eat? Do you want to make salsa with your tomatoes, onions, and peppers, ready to pour out of the jar? Do you want homemade ketchup? How about sun-dried tomatoes? Do you want to put whole tomatoes in jars so you can decide later how best to use them? Let your future use of the food determine how you preserve it. Then, start asking around. Can your mother or grandmother teach you to preserve food? Is there a class at the local college or agricultural university extension? Maybe you can even learn from a book if you give yourself enough time. Choose a method, and set out to become competent.

And, visualize your future abundance as you watch your seedlings grow.

Image © Plus69 | Dreamstime.com

Square Foot Gardening Gives an Easy Start for Anyone

Urban Square Foot Garden

Are you ready to jump in and plant a garden in your backyard? If you have the space to move beyond an indoor garden or an outside vertical garden, a square foot garden is an ideal way for a beginning gardener to get started on the gardening adventure.

A square foot garden divides a small space into one foot squares with only one type of plant in each square. Larger plants, like tomatoes, are planted just one to a square, while smaller plants, like carrots, are planted with many (16) to a square. The method is very efficient in use of seeds, use of space, and use of water. Because it is so easy to understand and so encouraging, this method works well for gardeners who are intimidated or overwhelmed by the idea of growing their own food.

The space needed can be quite small, but the method is scalable by just repeating the 3′ x 3′ or 4′ x 4′ squares separated by spaces big enough to walk through and to stand while you tend your garden. Your squares can be dug into the ground or planted in a raised bed frame. (The official guidelines put the garden in a frame, but you can adapt the method.) The grid lines between each square foot section can be made with string or something more permanent, like strips from old blinds. You have a lot of choices within the basic guidelines for square foot gardening.

Best of all, you can start today. Draw a 3×3 grid, add dots to represent your crops (1, 4, 9, or 16, depending on plant size), then start building the frame. You can begin in any season.

Square Foot Gardening Resources

  • All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholemew. This is the square foot gardening bible.
  • Square Foot Gardening Foundation. This foundation, started by the Square Foot Gardening author, aims “to end world hunger by reaching out to families and teaching them how to grow healthy food for their daily meals.”
  • “How to Build a Square Foot Garden,” Frugal Dad. Using the method outlined by Mel Bartholemew, this gardener added a drip irrigation system. Photos and detailed descriptions.
  • My Square Foot Garden. If you are wondering how to garden for your climate, look for planting plans from many different gardeners. The plans are so simple to create and so inspiring to look at.

Image © Claus Mikosch | Dreamstime.com

Small Gardens for Bees—and Hummingbirds

Bees on a sunflower

As you are planning your garden, think about not just food for humans but food for all of the creatures that you want to spend time in your garden. Even a small container garden on your porch can include a few flowering plants that will attract bees or even hummingbirds.

Focus on native plants. Local plants will be more attractive to your local bees. Look at this list of California bee-friendly plants by season for suggestions, but be sure to check with local gardeners or garden centers for the plants that will work best in your area.

Plant a variety. Gardens with a diversity of flowers are more attractive to bees. Be sure that your garden flowers throughout the season.

Think beyond flowers. The plants we think of as flowers aren’t the only plants the produce flowers. Many herbs have bee-friendly flowers. Even dandelions produce flowers that some bees like. You can let the bees have the flowers then get rid of the weeds before they go to seed.

Provide a drinking foundation. Bees are small, so you don’t need to provide more than just a jar lid of water for them. If you have a bird bath, they’ll stop by.

Go mulch-less. Mulch keeps moisture in the soil, but some bees nest in the ground. Too much mulch means no access to the soil. You don’t need to go completely mulch-less. Just keep in mind that it’s OK to let some of the soil go naked.

Or, create a bee nest. Find out about the bees in your area. Are they ground-nesting? If so, clear the ground. Are they cavity-nesting or wood-nesting? If so, add a small log or some other piece of wood with 1/4″ wide, 4″ long holes. The Xerces Society has more information on creating bee nests.

And, a bee shelter. Bees will stay in your garden if they can shelter from the weather. Shelter can be as simple as a densely planted area.

While you are creating a garden friendly for tiny creatures, consider planting for hummingbirds as well. There are only a few types of hummingbirds in Canada, but we might as well welcome them. Both bees and hummingbirds look for nectar plants, and wild plants produce more nectar than hybrids. Yet again, choosing native trees, vines, or flowers will work better than exotic species in the long run as you create a bee-friendly and hummingbird-friendly garden.

With the vanishing of the bees, every bee-friendly garden helps.

Image © Anthony Aneese Totah Jr | Dreamstime.com