How to Grow a Low-Effort Vegetable Garden
Growing a garden can be a great way to cut down on grocery-related waste, enjoy time outdoors, and save money on fresh, organic produce — but raising seeds from scratch and tending to a garden for a whole season does require a lot of time and work. Here are a few ways to grow a happy, healthy garden with a little less effort.
Set Up for Success
Under optimal conditions, plants will thrive and require less care; so, choosing the right plants — and the right spots to plant them — will mean less work for you. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map indicates which plants will thrive in a certain region, and most seed packets will give directions about which zone to plant in. Consider the sun and shade requirements for your crops as well. Generally, vegetables need 6-8 hours of direct sunlight every day, so avoid planting in the darker, shady corners of the yard. Other factors like wind, the angle of the ground and whether there are places water tends to pool during rainy seasons, and foot traffic are other important considerations. Creating a garden plan before planting — or even buying and starting seeds — will help you design a garden that works with the elements rather than against them, setting your plants up for success. The happier the plant, the less labor needed from you!
While annual plants need to be replanted every season, perennials will overwinter and come back year after year. Choosing perennial flowers and vegetables will save time in the long run after that first year, saving you the time of starting and transplanting seeds every spring. For herbs, try chives, lemon balm, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, thyme, and some varieties of basil, like African Blue or East Indian. Perennial vegetables include some varieties of artichoke and broccoli, asparagus (although you can’t harvest until its third season), radicchio, rhubarb, some varieties of spinach, and sweet potatoes.
Try Container Gardening
If you have limited outdoor space — even just a porch or a fire escape — container gardening can provide you with a season’s worth of fresh produce, even without a full garden. Growing crops in moveable containers also means you don’t have to rehab a large swath of your garden, and can move plants around if you find they need different conditions. They also require much less weeding, although containers do dry out more quickly than a typical garden bed and therefore need to be watered more frequently. For container-gardening success, choose vining varieties of plants — like beans and squash — that grow vertically and require less horizontal space.
Try Raised Beds
Especially for those with mobility constraints, raised beds are much easier on the body when it comes to planting, weeding, and harvesting. Pre-made raised beds are available at most garden stores, or try building your own using a simple design — or follow the “square foot gardening” concept and take boards that are 2 x 6 inches, create a square, place a fitted piece of cardboard in the bottom, and then add soil on top.
Maintain Healthy Soil
Putting in some work at the beginning of the season to rehabilitate your garden soil will lead to happier, healthier, lower-maintenance plants. Ideally, you want a dark, crumbly soil with a good mixture of sand, silt, and clay. A few weeks before planting, spread 2-3 inches of homemade or store-bought compost over the garden, then turn it about 6 inches under the surface — or purchase worm castings or fish emulsion to deliver those extra nutrients.
Mulching the surface of your garden does require some time at the beginning of the season, but will save you a lot of effort in the long run. Mulch not only suppresses weeds, but traps water against the soil and prevents it from evaporating, meaning less time weeding and watering for you. Organic mulch alternatives like grass and lawn clippings, straw (not hay), compost, shredded leaves, and even cardboard and newspaper will break down over time, enriching the soil in the process. Spread 2-3 inches of mulch to start, and replenish as it slowly decomposes.
Follow the No-Till Method
Some farmers have adopted a “no-till” method of farming, citing its environmental benefits and cost savings. This method basically entails not turning the soil, which helps prevent soil erosion, and preserves the subsoil environment and soil microbes beneath the surface. Rather than turning compost and other inputs into the soil, they are merely added to the surface, leaving the soil as undisturbed as possible. Without the extra labor of turning fertilizer under the surface, no-till gardening means less work for you — and happy soil colonies!
Plant Closer Together
Weeds love bare soil, and will quickly grow in the empty spaces of your garden. To prevent this, plant vegetable starts as close together as planting instructions allow. Bush varieties of plants will also spread over the ground, thereby suppressing weeds. Plants won’t be as productive if they are competing for sunlight, however, so don’t crowd them too much.
Work With Nature, Not Against It
Let nature do its work — don’t fight it! Harnessing natural ecosystem services will lead to a happier, healthier garden. For one, avoid synthetic chemicals like pesticides and herbicides, which kill species indiscriminately, including the beneficial bugs that are actually doing helpful work in the garden, like pollinating and eating harmful species. Letting native plants grow around the garden will also increase the biodiversity and resilience of your space, attracting more birds and insects, and allowing for more beneficial interactions between species.
Reevaluate Your Watering Methods
Watering every day can take a lot of time: unfurling the hose, navigating it through the garden, and standing over each bed as you water it. To save on time and effort, try a drip irrigation system or soaker hoses, which snake through the garden and water crops by themselves. Drip irrigation systems deliver water to individual plants, and soaker hoses have tons of small holes that soak the soil as water moves through it at a low pressure. These systems usually work more efficiently — delivering water directly to the roots of individual plants, rather than spraying the entire garden — and can even be set to a timer so you don’t have to schedule your day around watering. You can also connect these systems to rainwater storage bins, thereby saving on water costs.
Be Realistic About Your Goals
Perhaps most importantly, keep your garden expectations reasonable; don’t plant so many crops that you’ll need to devote hours of work every day just to keep it going. Start small, and only plant crops that you actually want to eat. Choose easier vegetables too: try bush tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumbers during warmer weather, and carrots, kale, chard, lettuce, and spinach in cooler seasons. If starting all of your plants from seed is too much of a time commitment, buying vegetable starts will cut down on both time and effort significantly. Planning for staggered harvests will also allow plants to mature at different times so you aren’t caring for everything all at once.
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