Over the last six years I have carefully maintained a community garden (known here in the UK as an allotment). In that time I have been amazed at how many other gardeners have come and gone – largely because they “don’t have the time”. Just as many have been kicked off their plots for lack of maintenance – again because they claimed not to have the time.
The funny thing about this situation is that I’m the youngest gardener on sight by several decades. The average community gardener in my part of Sussex is retired from work, so has all the time in the world. Personally, I work a 50 hour week and only have a few hours each weekend to dedicate to my passion.
All the same, I’ve not only been able to produce a range of cut flowers, fruits and vegetables, but continually win compliments (and even one award) for how well-maintained my plot is.
If you’d love to grow your own vegetables but have avoided it due to lack of time, in this article I’d like to discuss some of the tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years for effort-free gardening...
Black Matting is Your Friend
Keeping the weeds in check has always been one of my most important – yet least favorite – jobs in the summer months. I barely blink and there are weeds sprouting everywhere, growing at an alarming rate. If I’m honest, a few years ago it was all starting to get a bit much for me. I seemed to spend my entire summer just weeding, and had very little time to truly “enjoy” my plot.
In my quest for a solution I decided to try some black weed control matting. Purchased online (where it is cheaper than in garden centers) I purchased a long roll, complete with plastic “pegs” to fix the matting down. I then cut small crosses in the matting, and planted crops through the holes.
The experience has literally transformed my gardening. Weeding has now been cut down to a fraction of what it used to be, and while it can’t be used for all crops, my tomatoes, pumpkins, squashes, corn and more all benefit from a weed-free environment.
Even better, the black color of the matting helps it to absorb the sun’s heat, gently warming your plants and encouraging earlier ripening. Taken care of, such matting can be used for years on end, making it surprising good value.
Aim to Weed “Little and Often”
One common theme among my fellow growers at the community garden is that many ignore their plot for weeks on end, then turn up red-faced one weekend with the aim of doing everything. Of course, by then their vegetable plot looks more like a wild meadow, and the weeding process becomes so unpleasant that they need a few weeks to recover. And by this point it’s back to how it was.
My philosophy has been rather different. In the cold winter months I dig over my entire plot. It’s easy in January or February (so long as the ground hasn’t frozen) because there are very few weeds about, and the act of digging is pleasantly warming.
Once this is done, I’m ready for the growing season. Here my aim to “little and often”. For 99% of weeds I can use a simple garden hoe, just running it gently over the surface of the soil. It’s a quick, easy and relatively pain-free process that keeps me pretty much weed free for the entire summer.
Buy (or Build) a Potting Bench
I plant a lot of seeds each spring, and selecting then planting my vegetable seeds is a task I enjoy greatly. The problem I had, however, was that if you’re not set up right you can quickly get sore and achy from the odd positions you get into.
When I finally succumbed and bought a simple potting bench off an “old timer” it revolutionized my planting. Finally I could sit at my bench and reach everything necessary – pots, seeds and compost. No more sore shoulders or back ache from leaning over trying to plant seeds on the ground.
Knee Pads Are Worth Their Weight in Gold
Planting and weeding can involve a surprising amount of crouching down; enough that bad backs can ensue after a few hours. To make life easier, don’t try to bend yourself into varying yoga positions; instead kneel down properly. By kneeling you’ll be that much closer to the plants you’re working on, so will experience less joint strain.
With some strap-on knee pads you don’t need to worry about moving a kneeler around; instead you can kneel down as and when you want. I appreciate that I might look a little daft in mine, but the extra comfort they bring me are well worth it!
Select the Right Varieties
When you first get started growing vegetables it’s all too easy to think that all vegetable varieties are the same. After all, how much can two different varieties of tomatoes really differ? The honest answer, in my experience, is plenty!
I find that some varieties not only grow much better on my plot, but the care required can also differ wildly. As an example, whilst I’ve tried to grow classic “Moneymaker” tomatoes, I find that I get far easier and heavier crops from other varieties I have tested.
If you’ve tried to grow a specific vegetable without success, don’t accept defeat or blame yourself. Instead, try two or three new varieties next year and you might just find the one that works best for you.
Plant More Than You Need
Nature can be harsh on gardeners. Storms batter crops, wind blows them down and everything from pigeons to slugs may have a nibble. Only very rarely will 100% of the seedlings you plant out survive. For this reason, I aim to plant far more seeds than I think I will need.
I plant out what I think I will need, then keep the others carefully tended in my greenhouse or on a windowsill for a few weeks.
In that time, you’ll normally spot any damage and can quickly replace damaged plants. And any seedlings that you have left over? Either pop them into containers or offer them to your gardening buddies; you’ll be surprised how popular you’ll become!
Protect Sensitive Crops from Pests
Some crops tend to be far more popular with slugs, snails and caterpillars than others. Brassicas are a great example that can be decimated by pests in a matter of hours. Whilst it sounds obvious, the key is to protect these plants from the very start.
All too often I see other gardeners trying to save time by not protecting their crops, hoping they’ll be able to spot and deal with any influx of pests. Either that, or they try to rely on slug pellets and the like. Such chemical barriers can not only become far less effective after rain, but of course you’re going to be eating those chemical-laden crops soon enough.
My policy is therefore that if there’s a good chance that a crop will tempt local pests then it gets protected with mesh or netting from the moment it is planted out. I’ve even built myself a little “cage” into which I plant my cabbages now, in order to keep the caterpillars off them.
Water Your Greenhouse Automatically
Greenhouses can be worth their weight in gold in cooler months, allowing you to start seeds earlier and keep crops ripening for longer. But in the summer months, as the temperature rises, there’s no denying that they can be hard work. Within an hour or so of watering my greenhouse – even if I completely soak it with my hose – the soil is bone dry and my plants are starting to wilt.
Two years ago I decided to try something different, and tested out various automatic irrigation solutions. Whilst some worked much better than others, now I’ve found a solution that works it cuts down my watering immeasurably.
I can simply top up the reservoir each morning before work, and then carry on my day knowing that my beloved tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are all being gently drip-fed the water they need, all without me having to lift another finger.
It may cost a little to get set up the first year, but when you see just how much time and effort you save in the hotter months I guarantee you’ll be a convert like me for life.
Get Prepared in the Winter
At the end of the growing season, when all the garden plants are starting to die off, it’s tempting to just lock up the shed and largely forget about things till Spring. The problem with this attitude, as I have found myself, is that when Spring rolls around you suddenly realize you’re not even remotely prepared!
My philosophy now is to make the most of the cold winter months in order to prepare for Spring. I tidy my shed, clean and maintain my gardening equipment and make sure I have everything neat and organized ready for the new growing season. In this way, as the days start to lengthen I’m all ready to get started.
Save Seeds for Next Year
I’ve already mentioned just how many seeds I plant each year, so it should hardly be a surprise that in the first few years my seed catalog orders were painfully expensive. The trick, I have found, is to save as much seed as you possibly can, so you can replant your own seeds next year and save money.
To give you a great example, I’m a sucker for freshly-picked purple sprouting broccoli. At the end of the season, I leave one or two plants to their own devices, and don’t harvest their heads.
Within a few weeks those yellow flowers open up, and some months after that I’m rewarded with hundreds of tiny seeds, all ready for the following year. By carefully collecting and labelling as many seeds as possible I’ve almost become self-sufficient in recent years, which saves me time as well as money.