Hardly anyone’s garden is the size they want it to be. Either it is too small and limits options. Or it is too large and overwhelms with maintenance needs. Enthusiastic gardeners tend to keep increasing the size of their garden until, one day, they discover they either need to hire help or adjust their gardening strategy.
The garden may or may not be synonymous with the yard. It depends on your perspective. If you equate the two, there are still different elements to your yard that require more or less regular care. Flower gardens and vegetable gardens are what many Americans mean by “their gardens.” Those areas generally take more time and manual labor per square foot to maintain.
So what is a gardener to do when they have gone past the tipping point? How should choices be made about what to change and how to change it? This is an issue I have been dealing with the last few years. Up until a couple of years ago, I attempted to routinely rotate through different gardens, giving equal priority to every location. What I found was that I was constantly frustrated. Every time I got around to an area, it was out of control. (click on any photo to enlarge)
For the last couple of years, I adopted a different approach. Realizing that I was going to have to choose which areas to keep as typical garden beds, I determined to give priority to areas based on:
- How often I see them. This includes everything from what I see daily out of the kitchen window to what I see every time I park the car. Those areas have a visual priority to my sanity.
- How close to the house they are. Over the years, I have found that I use the gardens closest to the house more thoroughly. If the garden is closer, I am more likely to harvest the produce or cut some flowers for a vase. Although, some areas are too close to the house, and are being removed to keep water away from the house and windows.
- How important they are to growing food. It is not that I am trying to provide all our food. We still buy a lot of groceries. However, growing vegetables is important to me.
- How much work has gone into setting them up. Places where my husband has built me wonderful raised beds, or areas that I have worked the hardest on designing are examples of this criteria.
- How difficult they are to water. If it was an area that I have to work harder at dragging hoses to or has sprinkler coverage issues, that was a mark against them.
- How hard it would be to modify them. One area was relatively simple to incorporate into the chicken pen area. They had it weeded within a couple of weeks. A couple of other areas were fairly straightforward to return to the lawn.
Using these guidelines, I have had a much more enjoyable gardening season so far this year. I have been able to keep the most important areas looking quite nice. There is something soothing to the spirit about having some places to go that are well under control. I have discovered which areas are really not a priority for high maintenance gardening and have begun to make appropriate changes. When I have hired help, it feels more worth it, because it is making progress in ways that will cut down on the need for help.
An unexpected result of concentrating on the most important areas is that I sometimes come up with fun ideas for how to improve them, both for maintenance and visual appeal. When I was stretched too thinly, all I could think about was weeding. There was not much extra mental or physical reserve to deal with anything beyond that. Now, I am able to think of and have time to implement changes that improve my priority areas, like when I put pavers in around a faucet last fall.
I am applying a variation of this strategy to how I harvest my produce. I am trying to use more succession planting, for one thing. Similarly, I am trying to maximize my use of the seasons to cut down on the need to preserve produce. This partly means eating more seasonally, and partly means being more ready for the growing season. With less area to maintain, it is easier to end the fall with a garden ready for spring.
One of the challenges with making these adjustments is that they can’t all be done in one year, especially on an acre. Perhaps there are advantages to this, too. This gives me time to evaluate the effects of certain changes before proceeding to the next phase. I can make improvements on process and/or design that I probably wouldn’t if I was making many changes quickly. There are usually benefits from taking a step back and letting things settle a bit at different phases before going on in any project.
It can get on a gardener’s nerves to have overgrown, weedy patches, but knowing there is an overall plan and seeing progress being made puts it in perspective. I doubt my garden/yard will ever reach a static point. Changes are a part of gardening. Still, I have some reason to hope these particular changes will be the sort that make a lasting impact on garden maintenance and enjoyment.