Growing vegetables at home can be a time-intensive hobby. More than a few gardeners over the years have started out with the best intentions, yet quickly given up when the realities of vegetable gardening hit home.
For many people, it’s easier to buy a cabbage for 50p from the supermarket than it is to spend all summer long lovingly caring for their every need!
If you’re keen to grow your own vegetables, but only have limited amount of time to invest, here are some time-saving tips for your vegetable plot…
Reduce Your Weeding
I’m a perfectionist in the garden, which means regular and thorough hoeing to keep it pretty-much weed free at all times.
I’ve found that “little and often” works a lot better than ignoring your plot for weeks on end, then nearly killing yourself one weekend trying to get things back in order. Leave it too long, and the job becomes so immense that all the fun is gone.
Last year, however, I wanted to take a different tack. I was fed up with weeding, which in the summer months tended to take up more of my time than tending to the plants, or harvesting my crops. So I experimented with a few options.
Mulching was one, which worked reasonably well. What worked even better, however, was the use of weed control matting. I covered a large section of my vegetable garden with it, carefully attaching it to the ground using special pegs.
Small holes were cut in the matting, and everything from tomatoes and sunflowers to sweetcorn and butternut squash were planted in them. I found this virtually eliminated all my weeding in those areas, save for once or twice pulling up a weed that had managed to grow in the holes.
While carefully turning over the soil at the beginning of the season, then cutting and laying out the matting took a decent amount of time, once done I barely needed to weed at all. I literally saved myself 3 hours of work every weekend, which meant I was able to enjoy my garden all the more.
Indeed, my experience was so positive, I kicked myself for never having tried it before! From now on, I won’t even consider growing most vegetables without my weed matting, which saves huge amounts of time and effort throughout the growing season.
Ease Your Watering
Besides weeding your vegetable plot, the other time-intensive task during the hotter months of the year is watering. I spent many of my childhood summer evenings dashing around the garden with my Dad, watering can in hand, and it can be quite a backbreaking task.
There are, of course, easier ways to water your garden. Many of them will save you plenty of time too…
One such example is to buy a hose and reel, so you can quickly give your plot a good dosing without having the constant to-and-fro to the tap.
A second option is to place a water butt right next to your vegetable patch, so you can quickly and easily fill up your watering can without having to march all the way back to the house.
While this may sound lazy, remember that a good-sized vegetable plot will consume dozens of cans of water each time, so saving yourself even just a small amount of time on each trip to refill can quickly add up!
For those with a little money to spare, it is even possible to install a simple irrigation system from a kit. Typically you will sink small pipes into the soil around your more sensitive plants, with each pipe possessing a number of small holes. These pipes in turn can be fed from a tap, gently allowing water to trickle out of the holes, and so keeping your plants in perfect condition.
An alternative is of course to buy a sprinkler, which requires rather less effort to install. That said, be aware that much of the water may evaporate (irrigation systems provide their water underground, which is more efficient) and some areas have bans on such things.
Lastly, it is worth considering your greenhouse or polytunnel. These are most likely to be affected when the weather is hot. The good news is that most greenhouses are reasonably small, so watering shouldn’t take too long.
The bad news is that in the height of summer your greenhouse will likely need watering daily, or even twice a day. This means a serious commitment if you lead a busy life.
Here there are two possible time-saving solutions. The first is to use drip waterers that are attached to old drinks bottles. Simply screw one onto the end end of a bottle, stick the spike into the ground and then twist the little tap until it drips at the right speed for you.
While this is the cheapest option, having tested a few of these over the last few years I have been less than impressed. It seems that no matter how sensitively I try to set the drip speed, they either empty themselves in the space of minutes, or are still full the next day while my plants have become brown and crispy. Not ideal.
The other option is rather more expensive, but in my opinion more effective. These systems use a soft bag, which is filled up with water. A series of small tubes is then attached to the bag, with their ends buried in the soil around your plants.
In many ways they’re like an “off-grid” version of the irrigation systems we discussed above. These seem to work far more effectively, letting me quickly fill up the bag every few days, while the system does all the hard work for me in between.
Growing plants in containers can make your life easier or harder, depending on how its done. The bad news is that containers, with their smaller volumes of compost, can dry out much quicker in the summer than plants that are growing in your beds.
For this reason, it makes sense to use larger containers than you really need, and to grow ground-cover plants in them (or use mulch) to prevent them drying out.
Where containers can save you time, however, is in gap-filling. I grow a range of flowers and other plants in containers, and as plants pass their best or due off in my garden and can very quickly pop a container into the gap. No digging around and getting my tools out. Within 30 seconds the gap is plugged and the garden looks good again.
Choose the Right Plants
The plants themselves which you grow in your garden can also have a significant impact on your time investment.
For one thing, growing perennials as opposed to annuals means that your garden will continue to regrow year after year, with need to carefully plant seeds or tend sensitive seedlings. There are even a number of perennial vegetable crops, from elephant garlic to Jerusalem artichokes – which will regrow year after year.
Almost as good are those plants which will die back over the cold winter months, but not before scattering viable seed across your garden.
These so-called “self seeding” plants can quickly re-establish themselves in the spring, as the previous years seeds start to germinate. Great examples include nasturtiums and sweet peas.
Lastly, be aware that some plants need far more care than others. Some need to be staked and supported, others are prone to pests or diseases, and all this can use up valuable time.
By focusing on hardy plants that virtually take care of themselves throughout the year you will significantly reduce the effort required to maintain your garden.
Little and Often
One of the most common mistakes I see among gardeners in my area is that they completely ignore their patch until late spring. All through the autumn, winter and spring the weeds are growing bigger and stronger. By the time they actually want to start enjoying their garden, it has been overcome by weeds, requiring days of back-breaking work to resolve.
Over the years I have found it far easier to adopt a “little and often” approach to gardening, making the most of winter sun to do a little weeding now and again. By the time spring rolls around the soil is clear and weed-free, and I’m ready to start adding fresh plants while everyone else is struggling to get things under control.