Keeping up with garden care: Simple, realistic approach works

Family emergencies kept me away from my gardening. Now I'm back and overwhelmed by how out of control the beds are. I don't know where to begin to make the most of my time. Also, do you have any tips on finding help? - S. -

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Even on a normal day in a routine spring a gardener can be overwhelmed. We know how hopeless things can seem when circumstances keep a gardener away. Here's how we keep up or catch up, and some ideas to help you find garden help.

 

Set realistic goals to be happy and be done!

We keep up and catch up by setting realistic objectives and maintaining focus. Once we know how much we can expect to get done:

To keep up in a garden and feel good about it even when there's "too much" to do, start by identifying a 100 square foot area and testing how much time and effort it takes to tend it. Here, two ten-foot strings and three stakes mark two sides of a 100 square foot square. For many years we've advocated staying in a spot this size until everything that needs doing in that spot, is done. People have told us, "That really works."

To keep up in a garden and feel good about it even when there's "too much" to do, start by identifying a 100 square foot area and testing how much time and effort it takes to tend it. Here, two ten-foot strings and three stakes mark two sides of a 100 square foot square. For many years we've advocated staying in a spot this size until everything that needs doing in that spot, is done. People have told us, "That really works."

  • We're able to decide which area to do that will have the most impact, such as a spot seen first or most often.
  • We can assure ourselves of our progress. We can tell how we're doing even in the beginning and middle stages of a large project.
  • It's possible to divide the work and the schedule into activities that require more or less skill, and so make the most of available novices. For instance, experts can weed or prune while novices rake up and haul weeds and clippings to the compost. Or novices can edge beds to start, then experts can do all of the weeding and dividing and finally novices can return to spread slow release fertilizer and cover all bare ground with mulch.

Here's a recent example of applying this approach.

There are many beds in this garden. All needed routine spring work. Janet noted the time as she started here, in a 125 square foot bed. Then she simply did all that needed doing: Cutting back, edging, weeding, dividing, and pruning. In two hours, everything was done. She could take a break, look around at the other beds in the garden and say, "Okay, I can do this much in two hours. So that bed over there that's about the same size, I could finish by lunchtime. Or that big bed right by the front door, about twice this size... it's more important and I could get it done first by mid-afternoon..."

Below, left to right: A 125 square foot bed at the start of spring work, two hours later, and after 6 weeks.

And here's another example from a larger project.

Test, forecast, succeed

Take some big, beautiful beds, about 3,000 square feet. They need weeding, some sorting out of aggressive perennials, some dividing and then mulching.

We got to this project (below, left) a bit late. We knew if we didn't snap to it, in another two weeks (below, right) the plants would be so full that weeding and even simple access would be much more complicated and even more time-consuming. So we aimed to get as much done that day, as we could.

Janet chose an area of about 100 square feet that seemed average-to-needy in terms of amount of work, marked her start time, did all that needed doing there except the mulching, and looked at the clock again. 45 minutes had passed.  Allowing some additional time to take clippings and weeds to the compost area, and spread mulch, she projected one hour required for each 100 square feet. That meant 30 hours for the entire garden.

Right: 100 square feet.

Below: The weeding and dividing needed doing.  When that was done, we could look on to the rest, know how much we could accomplish and focus on spots where that accomplishment would mean the most.

We had a crew of three experienced gardeners who had no objections to working a long day, but still we might not get it all done. So we consulted with the garden's owner and designated two less-critical areas of the court as "work here last." Also, the owner knew of people she could call to do the mulching, but who were not well versed in perennials and so could not expect to do well if asked to weed and divide. So we set out to do the work that required our level of expertise, and leave the garden ready to be mulched by others. We expected to be able to complete the entire bed.

By break time in the morning we could look at how much we had accomplished. We had started in the foreground of this scene, and reached the corner in the background. More than one-third done!

We knew that we were on track. In seven hours (21 man hours) we finished our work and left everything ready for mulch.

That left us time to move to another area that required our level of skill. Once again we did the needed work in a small area and then projected that for the whole bed.

With too little time left in the day to complete that bed we opted to begin in the middle (below, left), so we could leave the bed's central focal point under control and visually distinct (below, right) until the next time work could be done there.

Applying this approach even to specific plants in a garden

We look at beds through this filter every single day, and that lens colors our approach to design as well as maintenance.

For instance, some people say "We know you don't like roses" because they have heard us say "We don't plant many roses..." But we do like roses. We are simply being realistic about what we can do in our own and others' gardens, if the plant's as needy as most roses.

When we see that we can't manage the work required for a particular plant, we either don't plant it, take it out, or "write it off" by letting it fend for itself.

Often, when we take on a bed that includes roses, we can't implement the fungicide routine (or be comfortable with it ecologically), and we are not there often enough to stay ahead of rose fungi via sanitation -- it requires an every morning walk-through, to pluck the bad leaves." So we do the best we can and if the roses ever fail to please under that regime we say, "Let's take these out!"

This border of carpet roses (right) has done quite well in past years with hard pruning each spring, regular fertilizer and deadheading. The plants have shown resistance to black spot and grown vigorously enough that any shoots or flowers lost to aphids and bud worms have been insignificant.

However, this year the weather conditions have been perfect for black spot formation. That problem is present, in force, a month ahead of schedule. We're only in the garden every 3-4 weeks, not often enough to stay up on either fungicide applications or regular leaf removal. (Circled area is enlarged, below; that would be a lot of leaves to pluck every day!) We're going to have to stay the course and see if we can live with the result.

 

Six ideas for finding and making the most of garden help

  1. Search the Internet, phone directories and bulletin boards at churches, bookstores and garden centers for "professional gardener." (On the Internet, search "Professional gardener YOUR STATE NAME." In Michigan that yields the Association of Professional Gardeners.)
  2. When you hire help, assign that person or crew to a project you have already trialed, so you have an estimated completion time. You will have realistic, specific objectives as you assess someone's skill, give direction and decide about continued associations.
  3. Do not expect skilled gardening for minimum wage.
  4. Cultivate the help of neighborhood youngsters. We find paying jobs for interested children even as young as 8 or 9. It's fun to see them involved and great to know they will think of us as they get older and are looking for jobs.
  5. Don't try to work and supervise at the same time. Do the work only you can do and "stack up" other jobs such as clearing away clippings. Then work alongside your novice helper(s) on those simpler tasks, watching and instructing until you are confident they can work without supervision.
  6. Call in favors. Possibilities include those in your family who say, "I don't know what to get you for your birthday." Tell those who owe you or wish to gift you that you'd like four hours of help on a specific spring or fall weekend and then make sure you have a realistic amount of work that person can handle. If they can see what-all you expect to be done, can actually complete that and see they have made a difference, they'll come again.

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