by Nichole Schmitt
I am often so enthusiastic about starting the garden in the spring that I plant more than I can take care of through summer. By August I’ll be too busy harvesting, cooking and preserving my crop to pull up large hunks of crab grass, thistles and indian tobacco. Why spend time tidying and beautifying outside in the heat of August when I really ought to be in doors, chopping, blanching, canning, freezing, stewing and salsa-ing?
The Garden Journal
The ideal garden saves more money than it costs; otherwise, you’re just doing it for the exercise. This year I’ve started a garden journal. I want to know precisely how many hours I spend in the garden and how much money it costs to plant, mulch, and fertilize it; I will track the quantity of produce that it yields. Some simple math will show the actual value of this garden.
I estimate that I pulled about a thousand dollars worth of produce from this garden last year. For three solid months, the only produce I bought at the grocery store was bananas, lemons, and oranges. In those three months I normally would have spent a thousand dollars on produce at the store. Instead, I acquired it for free out of our garden.
The cultivated portion is rectangle roughly 25 feet by 50 feet. The first 150 square feet has berries, the center 300 square feet is where the veggies live. The southern section (which I call “uncultivated”) has a variety of 3-year-old fruit trees. The garden is surrounded by a fence that I’ve yet to finish, and I’ve started to line the outside of the fence with rose bushes.
This year I hope for a good return as my orchard is now mature enough to produce fruit and my past two years of mulching is paying off, weed-wise.
Better Rake in November than July
But money is not the only way to measure the garden’s value: a productive garden takes time and effort, especially in controlling weeds. As a matter of practical economy, I’ve developed a system that keeps the weeds to a minimum with the least amount of work.
In the fall of 2016, I purchased one bale of hay and flaked it about the berry plants. I have blueberry bushes, raspberry bushes, a wild black-cap raspberry kept in captivity, a thornless blackberry that I’ve trained to line the fence, and countless strawberry plants strewn throughout. The hay kept the weeds down very nicely, reducing my weeding time significantly. I emptied one bag of beauty bark around the raspberries because weeding back gets one scratched up.
By spring 2018, the hay has broken down about halfway towards humus, increasing the acidity of the soil. This is ideal for the berry patch because these plants love acid. Last year I interspersed acid-loving peppers amongst the berries and they produced very well. I maximize every nook of the garden and I pair complimentary plants together.
I have a very cheap and convenient source of mulch: wild cherry trees. The leaves had been an autumn plague on our lawn and driveway until I realized their value suppressing weeds. Every wheelbarrow load that I push to the garden in November saves me one hot summer afternoon of weeding. I’d much rather rake in November than weed in July. I don’t want the leaves to decompose throughout the winter, so I don’t mix it with anything to help it break down; I simply pile them up and let them sit.
By March the pile is glossy and wet. It has flattened, but not broken down completely. Lots of minerals and beneficial leaf mold have leached into the soil beneath. I alternate the specific location where the leaves are piled every fall so different portions of the garden can benefit from the nutrients. The year I piled leaves in the pepper section, I got three large grocery bags of fruit from just five plants!
After a couple years of mulching with leaves, the soil acidity can increase, so I do want to test the soil this year. If the acid is high, I’ll work in some alkaline amendments.
In mid to late March, I begin planting the early seeds. My brother usually isn’t ready to lend his tiller this early, so I must hand-trowel a couple of rows. The weeds are still tiny, so this is easy. In an hour, I’ve got two rows churned and planted with spinach and broccoli, and I’ve lined the fence with pea seeds. I haul a few buckets of mushy leaves over and spread them between the rows so I won’t have to hoe between the rows in summer. Some weeds will break through, but not enough to impact my crops.
This is the bottom line for me: The garden must produce as much as possible, with the least amount of effort.
One year, sprawling out of the neighbor’s compost pile, I noticed the most gigantic squash plant I had ever seen. I wanted such a monstrosity for myself!
To recreate the conditions, I made three chicken-wire rings, 6 feet in circumference. In early spring, I gradually filled them with yummy organic material, preparing for squash plants in May. I made a contest between three types of soil boosters: yard waste in one ring, kitchen scraps in the second, and store-bought steer manure in the third, with the same type of squash in each mound. The winner? Kitchen scraps! I’m now gathering every egg shell and orange peel, and I scold any family member who throws coffee grounds in the garbage.
Weeding around squash is a miserable business, so I packed a rampart of newspaper and grass clippings around the outsides of each chicken-wire ring. This worked pretty well at keeping the weeds down around the rings, though some dandelions and thistles did pop through. This year I will add even more newspapers, topped with straw as a pile of damp newspapers can be unsightly. Later in the summer, the vines will provide a beautiful covering, and by the following year, dried out vines become next season’s mulch.
By now I can till and begin planting seeds labeled “wait till after all danger of frost.” I’ll have radishes, carrots, lettuce, chard, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, cabbage, fava beans, pole beans, pumpkins … *whew*… and whatever else sparks my interest at the feed store. All the while, I am tossing the mushy leaves from last fall in between the rows. By the time tomato and pepper plants are installed, I’ve already harvested the early spring crops. In their place, I can plant things that over-winter and mature the following spring, like Russian kale or parsnips.
Beans and Corn: Together Forever
You can (and should!) plant beans in amongst your corn. The corn must be planted in a block, like a 10-foot by 10-foot square. Corn requires the wind to carry pollen from one stalk to another, so planting them in a block maximizes the pollination potential.
In May, I plant corn seedlings that are already 6 to 10 inches tall, fertilizing liberally. After they’ve grown to be about 16 inches tall, I plant bush bean seeds between the rows of corn. The peas push nitrogen into the soil to nourish the corn, and the bean plants minimize the weed population. My corn patch still has a weed problem by August, but the corn plants are tall and strong enough to dominate at that point. If I weed one last time before the beans get too thick and tangled, I will achieve maximum produce with minimum effort.
When I do weed, it’s never between the rows, only within the row and between the plants. Leaving some weeds between the rows helps trap moisture. After pulling weeds out I simply toss them into the aisle between rows. This helps tamp down some of the existing weeds and provides more mulch.
Someday I plan to have the energy in autumn to trowel up the garden and plant a cover crop, but so far my late summers and early autumns are filled with food preservation tasks. For now, I feel I have learned where the balance is with weeds: Don’t loathe them — view them as potential mulch. Don’t agonize over them in late summer — the veggies are big enough to win by then. And ignore how ugly they are — instead, take pictures of your pretty produce and post them on Instagram.
Nichole Schmitt is a late-in-life mom and an early retiree from a technology career. Gardening and writing are her passions.