People often tell me they don’t understand how I have time to garden. I enjoy working in the garden almost more than anything else, and I prioritize my time so I have time to garden. Gardening does take time, but it’s also a forgiving hobby: if I don’t have time to do something today, it will usually be okay if I wait until tomorrow or next week, as long as it’s not watering a shriveled plant or moving plants inside and away from impending frost.
Most folks have hobbies to which they devote their spare time. People have favorite TV shows, video games, or they play golf or tennis. People shop or go to movies. They train for marathons or make crafts. To make time for gardening, I have had to prioritize my hobbies and interests, and I have had to eliminate some things I used to spend time doing, before I had children, in favor of gardening.
Now that the weather is pleasant and leaves are abundant, it’s the perfect time to start a garden. If gardening is a new hobby, start small, just as you would if you
decided to take up golf or running marathons, and work up to a large garden, if
you enjoy the work. A garden no bigger than 10 square feet gives space to grow a variety of plants, but it is small enough to remain easily manageable. If you are
starting with sod or weeds, and don’t want to dig, layer newspaper (don’t use
the shiny ad slicks because they might contain toxins) on top of the sod or weeds, put compost or soil on top in as thick a layer as you desire over the paper, and top it with leaves. Leave it to rot over the winter, and in the spring you’ll have a nice bed, ready for planting and full of earthworms.
If you want to forgo your usual gym visit for today, get out a shovel, spading fork, or a mattock, and dig up the sod. One thing I gave up when making time for gardening is regular deliberate exercise like walking or going to the gym. Digging up 10 square feet of sod burns enough calories to make up for skipping the gym.
Shake the dirt out of the sod or weeds, and compost or discard them—if
you have weed seeds or invasive grass, don’t compost them. Then mix in mushroom compost and organic fertilizer, and your garden is ready to plant.
Save some fall leaves to mulch the garden, and you won’t have to pull weeds. Many people give up their gardens because weeds infest them. The only way I am able to have as large a garden as I have is by using a lot of free mulch. In the fall, I pick
up bags of leaves from the side of the road, and, of course, I save my own leaves. Leaves don’t necessarily look as attractive as purchased mulch, but they are free, lightweight, and easy to spread.
Mulch applied several inches deep is critical to keeping the weeds down. A few weeds might penetrate the cover of mulch, but they will be easy to remove during a stroll through the garden. When I deadhead plants or cut back dead ones, assuming they aren’t diseased, I often stick them under the edge of the mulch, which saves me a trip to the compost pile and puts the compost right where I want it: on the roots of the plants. In the vegetable garden, I use rotten hay
from a round bale my father gives me. If you have a small suburban lot, you don’t have room for an enormous bale of hay in your yard, but those of you with more land could contact a local farmer about getting a bale of old hay, or even buying a new bale of hay. It isn’t very expensive.
The late Margot Rochester, who wrote “Earthly Delights,” lived in Lugoff, SC, and said she bought a large round bale of coastal Bermuda grass hay every year and used it to mulch her garden. Coastal Bermuda grass contains no weed seeds, allaying fears that you might inadvertently sow seeds in the garden. I haven’t had many problems with weeds from my hay, primarily because I keep it thick enough, several inches, to prevent seeds from germinating. Ruth Stout, who wrote “How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back,” also used thick layers of hay to keep her garden’s weeds under control. Both of these women gardened into their older years through both determination to pursue the hobby they loved and by making things as easy on themselves as possible.
If gardening is a hobby you would like to pursue, it’s a great time of year to start. Prepare your bed and give the earthworms time to work over the winter to improve the soil further, or plant it immediately. Now, I am off to run the tiller over the site of our future orchard. The calories I burn off wielding that machine will make up for the consumption of all the Halloween candy I steal from my daughters.
I originally wrote this article in 2011. In 2011, I had children who were 2 and 5 years old, and plenty of free time. Although the spirit of this article remains intact, I spend my mornings homeschooling my now 9 and 12 year olds and my afternoons taking them to activities, as well as taking care of my three-year-old. I must work even harder to make time to garden.
I do still love my garden, but it is now smaller, and I have learned more efficient methods of controlling weeds than mulch on the scale of the garden I have. I use cover crops to control weeds and to improve the soil, and I use the stale seedbed and tarps to kill weeds in the vegetable garden.
I have spent the past seven years figuring out how to continue to garden in spite of even greater restrictions on my time, but determination helped me continue. I moved recently, and I have had to start over with a garden. I will share more about the methods I used to make my new garden in future posts.