Ruth Stout’s lazy gardening method appealed to me when I read her books in the 1970s, even though I was still full of energy and ambition in those days. She advised not digging, not tilling, avoiding a host of other unpleasant gardening chores, and, at least as I understood it, skipping straight ahead to the good part – harvesting a ton of delicious vegetables.
(This wasn’t too different from my approach to writing at that time, which called for me to wake up one morning and discover that I’d written a terrific book.)
I tried out Stout’s method in a small suburban lot almost entirely shaded by the trees from my neighbors’ yards. Grass would barely grow there. The patches of bare earth where I tried to plant tomatoes, peas and beans were smooth and hard, compacted by years of neglect. My year’s harvest amounted to a handful of peas.
Forty years later, I have better reasons to be lazy, as well as a better understanding of vegetables’ sunlight requirements. Our current vegetable garden, now in Year 4 of its existence, provides about three-quarters of our vegetables for the year. (We’re simultaneously building an edible food forest, but that’s another story.)
Creating the garden infrastructure turned out to be a lot of work (the lion’s share of it done by my partner), but we’re trying to be as lazy as we can in terms of ongoing maintenance. We’ve gathered information from many sources over the last few years. One thing we’ve learned is that maintenance has to be done – but the gardener doesn’t have to do all of it, or even most of it.
As the radical farmer Joel Salatin says, “Let the animals do the work!” In our case, most of the animals are very small, and we let vegetables do some of the work, too.
Letting nature do the work
Other than not tilling, here’s some of what we are doing to minimize planting, weeding, watering, fertilizing and pest-control chores:
- Use vegetables that self-sow. So far, we’re having good luck with mache (corn salad), arugula selvatica, radishes and tomatillos, all of which returned this spring. You have to let a few plants go to seed at the end of the season, of course, to make more plants for next year.
- Use perennials. Asparagus, some herbs and strawberries (OK, strawberries are fruits, but they’re in the vegetable garden) are all long-lived plants. We’ve tried a couple of other perennial vegetables but didn’t like them enough to eat.
- Plant catch crops (no, not cash crops). If you start lettuce and other salad greens along with bigger vegetables, the greens get a head start while the main crop is still small. Then they stay cool and shady (ideal lettuce conditions) once the main crop gets big enough to shade them. Meanwhile, the greens crowd out most of the weeds and hold the moisture in the soil. Lambs quarters, an edible weed, can be left in as a catch crop. When it’s young, it’s delicious in salad, and when it gets older it can be cooked. It’s especially good with green beans.
- Plant cover crops. If the main crop isn’t a legume, plant legumes (vetch and clover) as “weeds” alongside the main crop. In our garden, vetch and clover plant themselves; all we have to do is not pull them out. Like catch crops, they crowd out weeds and hold in moisture, but instead of making salad, they capture nitrogen from the air and use it to fertilize the soil. Purslane, another weed, is also a good cover crop.
- Build hugelkultur beds. If you’re making raised beds, instead of putting in a full load of soil, start with a layer of rotting logs and sticks, followed by hay and compost, then cover the top with dirt. The dead wood soaks up water like a sponge, which reduces the amount of watering you need to do, and it releases nutrients into the soil over several years as it decomposes. (Fungi and bacteria are doing the decomposition work for you.)
- Mulch with “chop and drop” plants. If you’re mowing a lawn, pile up grass clippings and leaves around your garden vegetables. Or use plants, like comfrey, that grow quickly and can be chopped down every few weeks. Like catch crops and cover crops, dead grass and leaves keep the ground cool and moist and prevent weeds from growing. They also make great habitat for those giant spiders that hunt and eat garden pests.
- Add fungi to the soil. Mycorrhizal fungi work best with most types of vegetables, except for brassica (broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), which prefer elm oysters (Hypsizygus ulmarius). Elm oysters have the advantage of being edible – a bonus crop. This is our first year using the elm oysters, so I can’t report on how they taste. The fungi digest other soil microbes and spread nutrients around the garden. And, of course, they hold water in the soil, too.
- Plant herbs and edible flowers to attract beneficial insects and spice up your salads. Larger flowers attract pollinators (native pollinators are very efficient – you don’t have to keep honeybees unless you want honey), and small flowers attract the insects that eat the insects that munch on your vegetables.