Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gardening for the harried

In the summertime, the traditional Southern garden staples - tomatoes, peppers, squash, green beans, cucumbers, and okra - all need to be picked and processed (either eaten, frozen, canned, fermented, dehydrated, or given away) on a schedule that is all their own (constantly!); the plants need to be kept watered, which in a drought can be a huge chore, and the plants need to be checked for pests and diseases fairly frequently. Sometimes, those pests and diseases require some kind of immediate action on the part of a gardener.

If that gardener has about a million other responsibilities at the same time, he or she can go nuts trying to keep up.

As a gardener with a job, family, friends, and volunteer work (and the blog!) all needing to be fitted into my daily life, I can understand when some people just give up on the garden, which can be seen as that “last straw” for a person who already is struggling to get everything done.

I am lucky in having family and friends who are happy to help when my schedule gets overwhelming, but not every gardener has that backup. For even the most harried of gardeners, though, there are food-plants that can be grown with a bare minimum of work on the part of the gardener.

For the truly stressed-out gardener living here in the South, I would choose the sweet potato as the easiest-to-grow garden crop. In my area, there is a big window of opportunity for planting, stretching from around May 10 to June 10 or even later. For a gardener who has trouble finding time to plant, this is a great gift. It is likely that somewhere in that four or five weeks, a planting day can be found.

Sweet potatoes will be plenty productive with just one side dressing of fertilizer that can be applied anytime within four to seven weeks after planting. The big window of time, again, is great for busy gardeners who can’t always manage to get the gardening done in a tighter time frame.

The plants don’t have to be watered two or three times each week; one really good drenching once every ten days to two weeks is enough for astonishingly good production.

The crop is relatively disease and pest free, and after the vines have spread across the garden, very few weeds survive the dense shade created by the leaves. Not having to weed is another great gift to the busy gardener.

The harvest window for sweet potatoes is as big as the planting window. As long as the plants have been in the ground for around 110 days, they just need to be dug up before the first frost. If I get my sweet potato slips into the ground in late May, I can dig them up anytime from the last week in September to the last week in October. If one week is too busy, I can wait for the next one.

I keep my harvested sweet potatoes in a wicker laundry basket in the kitchen. There is no canning, dehydrating, fermenting, or freezing necessary to preserve the harvest. The spuds are handy to use whenever I want them, and they keep for months without any extra effort on my part.

The harried gardener who has planted sweet potatoes will have plenty to smile about all winter long: a harvest of healthful food from his or her own garden, and it required hardly any work at all!

Other root crops are also easy-on-the-gardener, but not quite as easy as sweet potatoes. Potatoes, onions, and garlic all are time-savers in terms of their being harvested all at once and not requiring elaborate processing in order to “keep” for several months, but those crops need a little more tending.

“White” potatoes need more watering than sweet potatoes, and they will also need to be hilled-up and given a fertilizer boost at least once in their growing season. When white potatoes are harvested, they just go into a basket over which I will drape some towels to exclude the light. However, they are more prone to pests and diseases, which means they need to be checked fairly frequently while they are growing. If the gardener has to leave town for a week or two, this crop will need a minder, unlike sweet potatoes that will be fine on their own.

I have onions and garlic growing now, and there will be some weeding to do (some chickweed has started coming up between the plants), and they will need a fertilizer boost at some point, but otherwise the most they will need in terms of my attention is for me to remember to go out and harvest them in spring (onions) and early summer (garlic).

The harvest window is a little tighter than for potatoes, but onions and garlic left in the ground a week or two after the tops have fallen over and begun to dry will be fine, as long as the ground isn’t wet.

The onions I don’t eat right away will keep for quite a while if I’ve remembered to leave them spread out in the shade to dry for a couple of days before bringing them inside. Garlic is easier to peel if it’s been left to dry for several weeks, but that isn’t much of a drawback.

For gardeners who are not quite so harried, cool weather crops are a good choice (leaving summer to the sweet potatoes). In fall and spring, less time needs to be spent watering since there is usually more rain. Right now, for example, my yard is squishy with rain.

Cooler weather means that crops are growing more slowly, but weeds are growing more slowly, too, reducing time that needs to be spent weeding.

Even more helpful - a lot of cooler weather crops can be left in the ground and harvested when needed. The parsnips, carrots, beets, and winter radishes that I have growing now are good examples, and so are leafy greens like collards and kale. Most of the winter, I can go out and harvest what I need, when I need it.

There is some weeding to do, and the plants will need a fertilizer boost or two, but there isn’t as much “tending” as in the hot summer months, and the plants won’t go to seed until warmer weather returns in the early spring. That leaves a pretty big harvesting window, and if the plants are left for a week or two or three without any attention at all, they’ll probably be fine.

Broccoli plants will begin to flower if left unattended too long, and so will cabbages and cauliflower, so those cool weather crops probably are not great choices for gardeners whose other commitments make finding time for gardening more difficult.

Gardening does take some time, and for the most busy among us that can be a big problem, but for me it is worth the effort on a lot of levels. I like having produced some food for my family that I know is healthful; it helps that the food is cheap to grow; when I work in the yard, I’m getting exercise that I know I need; being outside is good for my vitamin D levels, and I like that the time spent outside has also been productive; sometimes, when I am having trouble thinking of what to make for supper, the garden supplies the inspiration – and ingredients – that I need; and my family eats a lot more vegetables than if we didn’t have the garden, because there is no way I’m going to waste the effort of having grown the food by letting it rot away unused. There are more reasons, but that’s probably enough for now.

In addition to enjoying the relatively easier-to-come-by fruits of the fall gardening season, this is a good time to do a little planning for the 2012 garden. The seed catalogs are starting to arrive and the yard-work is at a minimum (assuming the fallen leaves have already been moved to the compost). Thinking now about how much time will be available to work in the garden could help prevent some major stress and loss of crops in next year's garden.

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