Wild Gardens for Busy Parents: Winter Sleep

I trimmed back my wild garden

Think you don’t have time for a garden? You and other busy parents have time for a wild, unruly garden. See how my garden grew from March through December in the progress photos at the bottom of this post.

I am no gardener. If I can do it, you can, too.

December Harvest

Last week, we finally made our now-ripened green tomatoes into a lovely putanesca sauce. Out of frame, we also had a stray pumpkin grow where we carved the pumpkin last year, so we had pumpkin soup from our garden for U.S. Thanksgiving this week. My husband has also been drinking the beer he brewed from our own hops. This morning I chewed on mint and fennel that is still growing. We did have a December harvest.

As we trimmed back the vines, we found a lone hop cone that had escaped harvest. Remember the hops? My brilliant plan was to plant something my husband really cared about so that he would do the gardening. It worked! He definitely cared about the garden, and he certainly did most of the work.

Lone Hop Cone

Total Cost for the Year

Total for November – $0
Total for October – $0
Total for September – $3.00 (stakes)
Total for August – $0 (nada!)
Total for July – $3.00 (supports)
Total for June – $16.50 (plants)
Total for May – $34.00 (manure, top soil, peat moss)
Total for April – $18.00 (hops)
Total cost for the year = $74.50

Total Time for the Year

This month we did have to spend some time trimming the garden back. I put it off and put it off (in the spirit of wild gardening, of course). Finally, after two snows, I did it this morning because I knew I needed to photograph it.

The hops are cut back to the base; raspberries and blackberries cut back to the main stems; grapes were trimmed just a little, since next year’s crop will grow on this year’s vines; tomato monsters tamed (with a few stray tomatoes left in their place to see if they will grow next year); and the kale left where it was. It was green still, so I couldn’t bring myself to cut it down. We also have mint still growing as well as some confused fennel and flower bulbs peeking out to see if it’s spring.

Total for December – 30 minutes
Total for November – seconds
Total for October - 10 minutes
Total for September – 20 minutes
Total for August – 30 minutes
Total for July – 10 minutes
Total for June – 90 minutes
Total for May – 2 hours 20 minutes
Total for April – 6 hours 20 minutes
Total for March – 45 minutes
Total time for the year = 12.5 hours

We wanted to spend no more than 30 minutes per month on the garden. We had to put in a full Saturday up front to get rid of an old dying bush and build a raised bed, then we spent a morning shopping and planting. With that out of the way, we averaged less than 30 minutes per month, including harvest but not including gazing in awe.

You Can Garden!

I have learned a few lessons in this experiment.

Nurture at least a little. The line between wild gardening and failure due to neglect is thin. We played on that line, but our garden still grew beautifully.

Stay accountable. Feeling attached to the long-term growth of the hops was the motivating factor for us (along with me knowing I needed to photograph progress each month). If the garden itself isn’t enough, see if your children will keep you focused on the garden or commit to photograph and share it like I did.

Take baby steps. Most of the parents Nature Mom and I know aspire to grow food in their own gardens, but they believe they don’t have time. I just want you to know that you can grow a garden with very little time. Take baby steps toward that big, gorgeous garden. Plant one plant; add another plant the next year. Your garden will grow in time, and you really can create that big, beautiful garden you dream of. I started this way, and this year we had almost two dozen fruits, herbs, greens, squashes, and other plants we harvested from 3-foot deep beds lining our house and sidewalk. We have a very small yard, but it has been easier every year to make it bloom.

Good luck. Spend the next few months dreaming of the plants you will grow.

Our Wall of Green

My garden through the year

Progress in the Cultivated Raised Bed

Full year of our raised bed

Wild Gardens for Busy Parents: Harvest

Small garden in September

My garden is neglected. What else would you expect from a wild garden tended by two busy parents. We don’t really tend it. We ignore it. This is fine, though.

This is payoff time.

We were very excited about the garden early in the year, and that’s when the garden needed a little time, money, and attention. Now, we go to the garden when it’s time to eat. That’s perfect!

September Garden Harvest

We know you are busy. If you are like Nature Mom and like me, you feel too busy to garden. We wanted to prove (mostly to ourselves) that it doesn’t take a lot of time to garden. Here is your proof that careful, daily tending is not necessary for an abundant harvest.

If my family and I were more conscious gardeners with more time, we would have cultivated the plants to control growth and promote fruit. We didn’t, and the garden is fine anyway. Maybe the ease of gardening will embolden us to be more ambitious about caring for the garden year after year. This year, the garden is wild.

Total Cost So Far

Total for September – $3.00 (stakes)
Total for August – $0 (nada!)
Total for July – $3.00 (supports)
Total for June – $16.50 (plants)
Total for May – $34.00 (manure, top soil, peat moss)
Total for April – $18.00 (hops)
Total for the year – $74.50

Total Time So Far

This past month, we’ve spent little time with the garden other than harvesting. We’re over the gazing, though it is fun to see how green has taken over our house. We did stake the tomatoes to prevent them from creeping across the lawn and to prevent the snails from finding them easily.

Harvest – 10 minutes
Staking – 10 minutes
Pest patrol – 20 minutes
Building supports – 10 minutes
Shopping – 1 hour
Digging & planting – 30 minutes
Previous time spent (research, prep, building raised bed, digging) – 9 hours
Total so far = 11 hours 20 minutes

You could certainly spend your allotted 30 minutes this month pruning, guiding, and generally keeping the garden to the designated spaces. Or, you could just skip it and spend more time over your homegrown meal.

Your 30 minutes for September:
Pest control – 10 minutes
Staking – 10 minutes
Harvest – 10 minutes

Hops Cones

Remember how this was meant to be a raised bed for three hops plants? They are in there if you look hard enough, but grapes, berries, and tomatoes have taken over. The hops are taking shelter under the grapes.

The hop plant grows cones, the hops. These are used to flavor beer—in this case, my husband’s homebrew beer. The cones grew this month, and they are close to harvest.

Cones of the Hop Plant

Wall of Green Garden

My usual progress image showing how the garden has changed month by month doesn’t show the full height and the full impact of the changes in the past couple of months, so I’m including two views this month.

Garden month by month

I planted my garden in a spot that had been, for about 30 years, an evergreen bush with large, flat leaves. My mother cultivated it; I was neglectful. I let it die. It became an eyesore, so we tore it out this past spring and replaced it with a raised bed that matches our house. I’ll miss the green through the winter, but I love what we’ve replaced it with. Over time, I want to replace more of the decorative trees and plants my mother planted with food.

I love the wild green wall that now lines my front walkway. Rather than 3 feet of tidy green, I have a 12-foot wall of green reaching out in every direction.

Garden from spring to fall

Wild Gardens for Busy Parents: Early Harvest

My wild garden at the beginning of August

Late summer brings an early harvest. Suddenly our little garden is growing out of control, giving us small, daily gifts of salad and berries.

August Garden Protecting the Harvest

I’m not the only one who notices raspberries in my garden. The robins seem to find one in ten berries, and I’m fine with that ratio.

I’m not, however, fine with the snails eating my lettuce and kale. Most of my time this past month has been spent on snail patrol.

Because I really am not much of a cultivator, I assumed my garden would go wild. This month is the proof that neglect can still result in an explosion of green. This is why I am convinced that you can grow a garden, too. Other than putting a couple of plants and seeds into the ground, I haven’t done much. Nevertheless, look what abundant my garden brings.

Garden wall of grapes and hops

I love the architectural feel of our garden. The hops are the pillars; the grapes and berries are the canopy; and the tomatoes are the overwhelmingly dominant presence at ground level. They all frame the lettuce and kale, which we are eating regularly.

Harvest so far has given:

  • about 2 dozen raspberries
  • kale for dinner twice
  • 4 big salads

Coming up I see:

  • more raspberries
  • many blackberries starting to develop
  • grape leaves for dolmathes (though, sadly, no grapes again this year)
  • more kale
  • more lettuce, if I can fight off the snails
  • a few dozen tomatoes
  • possibly a few chili peppers

Out of the photo in another very small patch we also have cucumbers, zucchini, and summer squash that are all growing well.

Tomatoes are taking over. They are so heavy that they are pulling down their wire frames. If I were a better gardener, I would probably be keeping them under control, but I’m curious to see what they do on their own. Under that mass of tomato growth I am finally seeing fruit. Tomatoes won’t grow in extreme heat, and much of the past month has been over 100 degree Fahrenheit for us. Our recent cooler weather (80s and 90s) gives the tomatoes the signal to set fruit.

Most important, since this garden is supposed to be about hops, we have little hop flowers. It does look like my husband will have hops this year.

Supports. If you built physical supports for the heaviest of your plants, they may still need more support this month. We’ve continued to guide grapes and hops along the wires we set up for structure.
Goal: adjust to the changing needs of your plants

Pests. Check for pests. I have snails. Rather than leaving snail traps (beer in lids works well, but I don’t want to deal with a beer swimming pool full of dead snails), I just pick them off and toss them far away. Depending on what you find, you can probably find a non-chemical way to either rid your garden of pests or share your garden with them (as I’ve decided to do with the robins).
Goal: find your own balance in sharing the garden space

Total Cost So Far

  • String – $0 (on hand)
  • Tomato cages – $3 for 2
  • Total for August – $0 (nada!)
  • Total for July – $3.00 (supports)
  • Total for June – $16.50 (plants)
  • Total for May – $34.00 (manure, top soil, peat moss)
  • Total for April – $18.00 (hops)
  • Total for the year – $71.50

Total Time So Far

Obviously, gardening takes a lot more time up front than it does during the height of the summer. Right now, the plants are doing all of the work

  • Pest patrol – 20 minutes
  • Building supports – 10 minutes
  • Shopping – 1 hour
  • Digging & planting – 30 minutes
  • Previous time spent (research, prep, building raised bed, digging) – 9 hours
  • Total so far = 11 hours

I cruise my garden daily, but it doesn’t need me much at this point. Most of my garden time is spent on pest control, but your garden may need different care—water, stronger supports, more vigorous pest control. You can probably still get away with a lot less than 30 minutes in the garden this month.

  • Pest control – 20 minutes
  • Harvest – 5 minutes
  • Gaze – 5 minutes

The Tomato Takeover

This is meant to be a hop garden, but the tomatoes are asserting themselves. The tomatoes were added at the last-minute when one of the hops didn’t grow this year. Next year we will have a third hop plant where the tomatoes are now.

Garden growth month by month

Wild Gardens for Busy Parents: Supports

Wild Gardens for Busy Parents July

Midsummer brings big growth, even to a semi-neglected garden. When your plants grow taller, you might need to add simple supports to help them grow to their full height.

July Garden Building Supports

Whether you planted seeds in the spring or bought garden store plants in June, July is the month that the plants need your support—actual, physical support.

One of my husband’s hops didn’t make it this year, so we filled in the space with two tomatoes and a chili pepper plant. Those tomatoes are huge and bushy, so we have surrounded them with wire cages.

Old hops are woody, but new hops are just thin vines. They need something to hold on to as they grow to 12-14′. It’s a light enough plant that string is strong enough to hold it up. We didn’t want to hurt the roots of the plant, so we didn’t anchor the string in the ground itself. We ran one string across the planter, tacked to the side; and we tied on another string to run from ground-level to the wire we installed last year for our grapes. (We actually did this last month, anticipating the need.) The hops have now reached the wire, which you can’t see clearly in the photo below except that the string stops in mid-air on the bottom wire and the grapes are creeping across the top wire.

Garden planter with hopsIn this fairly neglected, very small but wild-ing garden, you can see 10 food plants. From right: 2 kinds of heirloom tomatoes, 1 chili pepper, 2 kinds of lettuce (one from plant, one from seed), 2 kinds of hops, grapes, blackberries (mixed in with the grapes), and raspberries (the canes in front of the grapes). Not bad for a space about 3′ x 10′. Just outside this space, I have garlic that is ready, several kinds of mint, a lot of fennel, cucumbers that will probably succumb to the snails, summer squash, and zucchini. All I have are the 2-3′ wide spaces around my house and garage. I have flowers as well. I am not a gardener.

If I can do this, you can do this.

Assess the Support Need. Figure out if any of your plants need a little help. Are there any creeping vines or leaning stalks? While you are making your assessment, see if they need compost or manure.
Goal: see who needs help

Make or Buy Supports. It’s very easy to buy a tomato cage, and you can use it year after year. String is very easy when you need a minor support that isn’t meant to last. Wire provides a minor support that will last. We’ve used all three in this small space. It’s so easy, that I will probably stake a few of my heavy stalked flowers next year to keep them upright.
Goal: give the plants you have their best chance

Water? Make sure that all of your plants are getting the water they need. the top photo above was taken when it was 107 degrees outside (that’s 46.6 Celcius). It’s HOT. Don’t water your plants during the day. If the water droplets get on the leaves, the leaves can burn in the sun—and there goes your plant. It’s tough to see my sad lettuce every day about 2:00PM, wilted flat to the ground, but it perks up and firms up again every evening. Water in the early morning or in the evening. I have my sprinklers set to water every other day at 5:00AM.
Goal: keep the plants healthy and well watered

Total Cost So Far

  • String – $0 (on hand)
  • Tomato cages – $3 for 2
  • Total for July – $3.00 (supports)
  • Total for June – $16.50 (plants)
  • Total for May – $34.00 (manure, top soil, peat moss)
  • Total for April – $18.00 (hops)
  • Total for the year – $71.50

Total Time So Far

At this point, it takes a lot less than 30 minutes a month to take care of plants, unless you need to water them. It’s such a pleasure to cruise around my 30 square feet every morning, that I don’t even count that time. All of the work time putting up the tomato cages and hops strings was really more like 2-3 minutes, but I added padding. Now that the garden is looking so alive, I wouldn’t want you to think it doesn’t need you. So, 10 minutes.

  • Building supports – 10 minutes
  • Shopping – 1 hour
  • Digging & planting – 30 minutes
  • Previous time spent (research, prep, building raised bed, digging) – 9 hours
  • Total so far = 10 hours 40 minutes

I said no more than 30 minutes a month most months, so this is how you can spend this month’s 30 minutes.

  • Tie a string – 5 minutes
  • Install a cage – 5 minutes
  • Gaze – 20 minutes

It’s getting easier. If you want to get in on this easy action, go buy a tomato plant at the garden store. Put it in a pot so you can bring it inside when it gets cold. It isn’t too late to create a tiny wild garden.

See the Future Garden

My husband’s intention is to create a wall of hops. These plants are a long-term investment of time. They will create shade for our kitchen as well as feeding his brewing habit.


Wild Gardens for Busy Parents: Planting

May Wild Garden is a planter with budding plants

You want to garden but you don’t have time. Don’t sweat it. Focus just enough to cultivate one small patch, and you might be surprised how committed you become to helping your garden thrive.

May Garden Preparations

If you already followed March planning steps and April preparation of the ground, you can probably get your gardening done before breakfast on a Saturday.

  • Gather materials
  • Mix soil
  • Plant
  • Water

Gather materials. Our gathering began as we investigated mystery bags in our garage and found potting soil, we turned over the year’s compost, and we talked to neighbors to borrow a very tiny amount of paint for the trim on our raised bed planter. We didn’t end up having enough compost, dirt, and other material, so gathering involved going to the gardening store. Sad though it seems to buy dirt, we didn’t have other sources nearby. Our county sells top soil, but they didn’t have any available when we went to buy it. If you are fortunate enough to live near a farm, you might find all of the manure you need for free. We had neither easily available, and our goal is not to fret about the garden this year. So, the store.
Goal: use what you have on hand or can borrow then buy as a last resort

Mix soil. The soil mix you need depends on what you are going to grow. We added a lot of manure, peat moss, compost, and top soil.
Goal: give your garden the best possible start

Plant. If you started seeds last month, it might be time to plant out. We had snow just last week, and we may have snow again until the end of May, so we only plant hardy plants outdoors in early May. Whether you plant out or keep your seedlings in the house or garage a bit longer depends on your zone and your plants. If you look closely at our main photo or skip to the close up below, you will see our hops. They were in pots that we moved indoors during the coldest nights over the past month. Since the planter is sheltered, we think they won’t get more snow. So, we planted them today.
Goal: plant out when the zone and plant align

Water. If you plant out, press down the nice, loamy soil, and water.
Goal: wet well the first day then ignore for a couple of days—if you can

Top Soil Mix

Our chosen spot has grown nothing but the same overgrown bush for 20+ years. The dirt is not impressively rich. Building our raised bed up 16″ over an area 3′ x 6′ meant that we would need a total of 24 cubic feet of soil, so we knew we would need to add to our few inches of dry dirt.

There was so much space to fill in my new raised bed that I decided to try lasagna gardening, with alternating layers of material. After digging out my dry, sad dirt and many, many rocks, then setting aside the dirt in buckets, I put down a layer of pizza boxes for my first lasagna layer. I followed this with dry grass and other dry pieces that I hadn’t cleared out from the garden last fall. Dry was followed by green grass clippings, then dried leaves, and peat moss. This brought us up to only 6″ deep, leaving me with another 16 cubic feet to go.

We didn’t have any more dirt or compost left, so we headed to the store to buy bags of top soil, peat moss, and manure. The manure should be about 40% of the total volume, according to our helpful in-store expert. By the time I added bags of stray potting soil I found in my garage, I think we had about 30% manure. Total cost for all of the bags for 16 cubic feet was $34.

My Lasagna Layers:

Top Soil Mix
Peat Moss
Green Grass
Dry Grass and garden litter

Total Cost So Far

  • Wood for raised bed – recovered from siding
  • Paint to match our house – borrowed from neighbor (since we all use the same paint)
  • Compost – homemade
  • Soil – $34 for manure, top soil, peat moss

Add this to previous $18 for 3 hops plants for a total of $52 so far.

Total Time So Far

We have not been spending just 30 minutes a month. I think we would have been a lot closer if we had chosen a smaller spot and not built a planter. The planter took most of a Saturday afternoon. My husband and son did a beautiful job building and painting our raised bed to blend in with our house and small yard. Apart from the building, we are spending about 30 minutes every two weeks.

Research and planning – 15 minutes
Ripping out old bushes – 15 minutes
Mapping out the area – 15 minutes
Sorting out materials – 30 minutes
Planting hops in pots – 20 minutes
Building raised bed – 5 hours
Painting raised bed – 30 minutes
Digging bed – 15 minutes
Lasagna layers – 10 minutes
Shopping – 1 hour
Mixing top soil – 15 minutes
Planting – 10 minutes

Total so far = 9 hours

Bonus, several of our neighbors have come by to see our raised bed. The siding matches our houses, and they asked how to make a planter like this for themselves. Maybe they were being polite, but we had nice conversations about our gardens, our dogs sniffed one another, and we had an all-around good time.

Your May List: Planting

How much time you spend this month depends on how well you prepared the ground last month. If you already dug in compost to create soil that is ready for the plants you started last month, you will have plenty of time to gaze at your garden in your allotted 30 minutes. Here is one possible way to spend 30 minutes on your garden in May.

  • Gather materials (10 minutes)
  • Mix soil (10 minutes)
  • Add plant (5 minutes)
  • Water (5 minutes)

If you didn’t plan or prepare yet, you still have time. Set aside a Saturday, and you’ll be ready to cultivate your tiny patch through the season. Easy.

The Hops

Centennial Hops

In the time total, I didn’t count all of the time my husband spent fussing over his hops in their pots over the past month—poking the soil, watering, taking the plants in the house or garage at night, and so on. He has been babying his plants, and they are now 1-3″.

He bought Centennial (pictured), Cascade, and Nugget. The Nugget is the most bitter, so he carefully placed it in the center of the less bitter two in hopes that he will be able to tell them apart when it comes time to pick the hops and brew the beer.

Progress of the wild garden from March through may