Friday, July 10, 2015

How I Created a (Mostly) Maintenance-Free Food Garden

Guys. I don't know about you, but I am getting smothered in rain. I mean seriously. It rains at least every 2-3 days....and I'm not talking about wonky little rain showers or super-fast storms (although we get those, too), I'm talking about flash flood rain levels that leave my yard nice and soggy despite the heat and harsh summer sun.

So you know what that means, don't you. That means high levels of standing water. That means high humidity. That means....oh yes.....that means mosquitoes. And what do you get when you combine pouring rain with high mosquito levels? You get an Indoor Jen. Yep. Indoor Jen loves to stare out the window and plan vicious attacks against any mosquito who happens to pass her threshold of doom. Indoor Jen doesn't like to sit out back and enjoy her yard. Indoor Jen doesn't like to BBQ. And worst of all? Indoor Jen won't go outside to weed.

Now normally I love to weed. I mean, it's hard work, and it makes me sweaty, and when I get done my hair looks like I just banged out Beethoven's 5th symphony or whatever, but it's peaceful for me. Calms my nerves and makes me feel accomplished.

But I won't weed among skeeters. I'd rather take an alternate route to maintaining my garden.

So I did some research. And I decided I was going to create a maintenance-free garden.

I started by buying the best seeds out there - heirloom seeds. Do you know what an heirloom seed is? When I first started this whole thing I had to Google it - no shame. An heirloom seed is a seed passed down from generation to generation, as opposed to made in a factory by genetic engineers. They are pollinated by the wind and bugs and consequently, any seeds found in the resulting plants are viable for replanting the next year. Cool, right? Explains why I was never able to get those apple seeds to grow into anything when I was little. Most of the seeds you find in produce from the grocery store won't actually grow into anything. Crazy, isn't it? Those seeds in the store produce are mostly sterile and incapable of producing strong, healthy plants. Heirlooms seeds, however, depend on seed saving for their survival. Any seeds collected from an heirloom veggie or fruit will indeed produce another plant with the same traits and growth. Isn't that interesting? I had no idea any of this crazy seed stuff was going on until I started this little gardening project. So much to learn! I purchased my seeds from Seed Savers and Baker Creek. They send gorgeous catalogs filled with things that make you go "GIMMIE NOW!" So what do seeds have to do with less maintenance? Well, with heirloom seeds, you can save the seeds from plants that grow well in your yard/window/planter box. Try new seeds each spring and soon enough, you'll only have seeds for plants that require the smallest amount of work.

I have a short growing season where I live, so after I selected my seeds I planted everything indoors in March. Grabbed some cheap little wire shelves and a shop light to get those little seedlings sprouting.

My first outdoor no-maintenance structure was my herb spiral. You can read about it here. The herbs have taken off, no joke. Added bonus? My hens and roo love to drink from the water basin at the bottom of the spiral. I added some water hyacinth to help filter that noise. Don't want them drinkin' larvae water....although knowing them, they'd like that.

The herb spiral is great, but I needed something sturdy to hold my veggies. I made some cinder block raised beds. I started with two beds this year; eventually I'll have six. These puppies are the best. I also have a raised wooden fence plank bed. It's still holding up, which is awesome cuz I needed the space.

After making sure I had free and clear structures to hold my maintenance-free food garden, I went ahead and built up the earth using compost, pine shavings, free mulch, and any other decomposing material I could get my hands on (minus, um, dead bodies). I did use a few bags of dirt (Happy Frog brand from my local feed store) to top off the beds and create a nice medium for the seedlings.

Then, it was go time.

The #1 way you can create a maintenance-free food garden, in my opinion, is to companion plant. Let nature do the work for you, man.

Wanna see how I diagrammed who would go where?

Go on Google and type in companion planting and you will easily find who is besties with who at Veggie High School.

In my wooden fence plank bed I planted my cauliflower with my kale and inter-planted spinach between them. (I also had this unmarked seedling that I didn't know what to do I planted it in the front and it's obviously become a tomato monster. Oops. Mark your seedlings people. And don't use broken crayons on peat pots and expect it to still show up come planting time.)

My first cinder block raised bed holds my strawberries, onions, carrots, and far, far away from the strawberries, my sweet pepper plants. Strawberries and peppers do not mix.....but strawberries and onions? Bangarang. And carrots with peppers? Rad.

I planted dill, marigold, and nasturtium inside the little holes in the cinder blocks. Why? Well, because those three little plants have a ton of stink and veggie eating bugs don't like stink. Plus, the nasturtium can be eaten. You read that right. I can eat my flowers like lettuce. So pumped.

The tomatoes in the redneck Home Depot buckets were supposed to go in the ground, but I ran out of space. So buckets was what they got. The leaves are yellowing because of all the rain we're getting, but I'm hopeful these suckers will pull through. Maaaay have over-pruned those guys. Newbie alert.

My last cinder block bed is probably my favorite. It's showcases the best companion planting method ever. In my I Love Summer post I posted a little picture of this gardening technique - it's called the three sisters method.

Get this.

So you plant the first sister (corn). She grows tall and strong. Then you plant the second sister (pole beans) she climbs the first sister and provides nutrients to the soil (beans are nitrogen-fixers...and veggies love nitrogen). Then you plant the last sister (squash...or in my case, zucchini, cucumber, and pumpkin). She grows big and leafy to shade the ground and keep weeds from growing.

You guys. This is the best thing I've learned thus far in my adventure. Way back in the day Native Americans planted like this because it was a self-sustaining feast in the ground. You can make an entire meal with almost all the necessary components of a healthy diet just by planting these three crops. You get your sugars/starches from the corn, your veggie vitamins from the squash, and your protein from the beans. Are you about to jump out of your chair right now with excitement like I did when I learned about this? No? Anyone? But honestly, how does everyone not do this?? These were all direct-sow seeds, too, meaning you just put them in the ground after your last frost, no need to start them inside. I didn't need to do anything!

And the best part? I truly don't need to weed that bed at all. Not at all. The squash leaves are so huge I actually pruned a few back so the beans could grow (I planted them too late...ooops). No watering, no weeding, no seed-starting, nothing.

Now how easy is that? Here I am, almost halfway through July, and I've only gone out there to weed twice since planting. The other beds are doing well, too. All my seedlings are growing, which is incredible seeing as how I've never grown 90% of this stuff before. Insane. Easy. Practical. Healthy. And did I mention easy?

The bottom line? Find out what you like to eat, carve out a small space to plant (even if it's a balcony flower box, people), and then grab some seeds...or have them delivered to your door like I do. Figure out what you can plant with your favorite herbs and veggies to help them grow. Some companion plants prevent disease, others keep predators away, and some even add nutrients to the soil so your favorite veggies can go wild with production.

Speaking of production, I'm so excited for harvest season. I'm on pins and needles waiting to see what does well and what flops. Can't wait to show you. Can't wait to eat it. Can't wait to can. I'm ready!

How about you? What is your biggest barrier to growing your own food? Talk to me about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so, so much for reading :)


  1. That's awesome, I had no clue the seeds they sell at the grocery store was crap. Not surprised but I'm not familiar with gardening basics. :) Now I know what heirloom is, hehe. It's been raining here most of the week and has since stopped, woop! At least it's gorgeous outside now. Love it! Your garden is looking luscious and amazing! Can't wait to see once it's all bloomed hehe. Are you growing corn too!?!?!? SEND ME GOODS lol I WANT EGGS! Have a great one lovely! Take Care Jen -Iva

    1. Right? The seed thing really threw me for a loop! And it's not the seeds they sell, per-say (although heirloom is always best) it's the seeds inside the produce you buy. So like if you buy a sweet pepper and plant a sweet pepper seed, the seed is too jacked up to make a viable plant for you. So nuts! THANK you Iva!! I am very excited about actually getting some produce soon! I can see lil' sprouts of veggies making it to the top!

      I hope you have an awesome week girl! Talk to you soon!

  2. Wow, I am impressed. I just tend to kill all my plants.

    1. Haha thanks girl - it's a whole lotta green right now...hoping for veggies soon! :)