At some point every year I hit a couple of weeks where I just can’t seem to get time out in the garden. If I’m lucky, this doesn’t happen during a heatwave, but sometimes it does. And if I’m really lucky, it happens only once. Unlike a vacation, these events are normally unplanned. This year it happened just a few weeks ago as I had some other life issues to deal with and was also nursing a sore back. The best my vegetable garden could
hope for was a bit of watering. At some point, it will probably happen to you too. Here is how to plan for those times and deal with the chaos when it happens.
Pace yourself. I swear when I’m anxiously waiting for my seedlings to grow they just sit there. But if I can’t check my garden for a couple of days late spring, zucchini becomes overgrown, tomato vines are too crazy to pinch, and the weeds? Sometimes I feel like I am hacking back bamboo forest. In early spring, everything grows slowly, but then it all speeds up when the days get longer and warmer. The slow release fertilizer that gets added pre-planting is now readily available for plants. Growth and bloom on plants can be phenomenal. In areas where you have a long growing season, the easiest way to manage this increase in productivity is to space out your planting. Don’t start all your seedlings on that same chilly morning in February. Start a few, the ones that take the longest to produce, like tomatoes and peppers. Then wait a couple of weeks. Most seed packets will tell you how many days from planting to harvest. (If this seems confusing, check out this post on how to countdown to your planting time.) Count the number of days forward on a calendar and see where that puts you. Is everything going to be ready at once? Do you have a big anniversary celebration that week? If so, wait to plant. It’s also a good idea to avoid having everything ripening at the same time. Although most things like tomatoes, squash and peppers have fruits that ripen over a period of time, things like lettuce, corn, and root crops ripen at one time. Unless you plan on freezing or canning (or sometimes if you do) you may not want to have everything ready during the same two week period. Now things like weather can speed up or slow down this timetable, it is still a good guide. And giving yourself a couple of weeks in between crops can really help.
Plan for busy periods if you can. In early spring all I want to do is play in the garden on weekends. By early summer all I want to do is sit on the porch and read. Planning your garden so it can survive without you every weekend helps. You can set up completely automatic watering systems or you can even save yourself time by attaching an inexpensive water timer to your faucet. Turn it on and walk away. Use slow release fertilizers rather than liquids. Slow release fertilizers can feed for weeks. Liquid fertilizers that need to be applied every week or two take that much more time. Apply mulch. Mulching helps conserve water so you water less often. It also suppresses weed growth. It’s also a good idea to put all your stakes, cages and trellises necessary for plant growth in before or at planting time. Don’t wait until that cucumber is two feet tall to try and train it up.
Accept some loss. After a long day smack dab in the middle of a heatwave, I just didn’t have any energy left to go out and check the greenhouse. I lost a couple things. I’m OK with that. Sometimes these losses seem almost like my garden’s way of editing itself. In early spring when I’m all full of joyful anticipation for the season I get a little over zealous. I start more seeds than I can possibly fit into the garden or care for. These small losses seem to balance everything out. There will also be that period towards the end of the season where I really don’t want to eat another zucchini. If you find yourself running into the same situation you have a few options. You can donate food to a food bank (in San Luis Obispo County, check out GleanSLO) or if it’s past the point of being edible, just toss it in the compost. It will become food for next year’s garden.
Catch up when you can. When things do calm down again, take a look at your garden and assess its needs. Then prioritize. I normally take care of the harvesting and tying up of plants first. This gets them up and out of pathways so I can move freely through the garden. Next I deal with any pests that are treating my garden like a buffet. Then I tackle the tossing of things that died and weeding. Last I pop in any replacements or later season crops and fertilize if need be. If you can’t get a solid block of time to finish your gardening tasks, take time where you can. With as little as 15-30 minutes each night for a week, you can tame your garden chaos and still have your weekend free for warm season fun.
Hire, beg, coerce, some help. For years I lived on a tree lined street. When I moved in one year in March, the trees were just leafing out and so lovely. Come the first fall I realized that all of the trees on the street were deciduous and that the autumn winds would deposit the leaves from half the street in my yard where they were corralled by a row of shrubs. I would fill my recycle bin every week with leaves and still not catch up until the following February. Then one year I decided to call a gardener. For $40 they not only raked up all the leaves but trimmed the hedges and hauled it all away. Hallelujah! If there is too much work for one person to do or you simply hate doing it, money invested in hiring some help (if you don’t have any teenagers you can utilize) makes gardening so much more enjoyable and is money well spent.