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Smart Gardening

Updated: Jul 3, 2022

Busy people deserve a thoughtful, beautiful and well designed garden maintenance program that will save them time and money, and inspire them to garden forever.

Almost 22 years ago, we moved into the rancher where we now live, on a comparatively large flat lot on a plateau carved into the foothills of the densely forested coastal mountains. It rains a lot here, so we didn't have to pay too much attention to existing plantings in order to see something green and growing outside for most of the year.

We did little formal gardening when our three children were small, but we always grew a some child-friendly vegetables and tomatoes and a few small fruit trees in small beds or pots, and we kept the grass alive and supple enough for the children to wear down as they played, kicked balls, dug for buried treasure, climbed trees, sold lemonade, and did the things that children do.

Tools of the trellising trade close-at-hand right under the trellis.

Only two summers ago, as the pandemic set in and our nest was newly empty of our young adult offspring, did we set about to make the grounds our own, and design a wonderland of ordered natural chaos for grandchildren, if that happens one day.

Before then, I hadn’t really needed to walk the perimeter of the rancher again and again in succession, or noticed how many steps it took. But more recently, after repeated trips back and forth from the old greenhouse to the front boulevard, or from the garage to the new raised vegetable beds in the front yard, I quickly came to appreciate how planning and efficiency (and a better memory) could improve my gardening happiness and reduce my chore time.

Cucamelons starting to ascend a beautiful old cast iron firescreen found at a thrift store. No stakes necessary.

I love gardening, but I also love many other things — like kayaking, paddleboarding, riding our e-bikes, visiting our children, reading, doing ‘nothing’ — so this year my goal has been to hyper ‘efficientize’ the gardens and all of the things that I do in them.

Also this year, I committed to converting all of the in-ground broadcast irrigation dedicated to beds, boulevards, hedges and containers to drip, and reducing the amount of non-play grass that was laid originally some 75 years ago for ornamental purposes.

A $25 pine cupboard sanded bare hides a propane tank and garden maintenance essentials.

My ever-patient and indulgent husband remained a fan of the idea even as I dipped into the family room renovation budget to complete the irrigation makeover — we waited 22 years, what is a few more. The entire project grew larger than I imagined, and in the spirit of not wasting mature and biologically rich soil, the boulevard lawn removal component turned into two rather exciting re-wilding and natural habitat installation projects.

The number of linear feet of drip line grew beyond my initial estimates to accommodate the new ecosystems, new food gardens, raised beds, bee berms, pollinator gardens, hugelkultur bed, berry patch, two small dwarf fruit tree orchards, as well as the original borders.

Galvanized garbage cans keep fireplace hardwood ash, brown paper and potting soil close at hand.

I am very happy to report that, except for a few niggly bits, it is done. I learned a 'sh!t ton' as my young neighbours say so often and aptly, and I’m happy to share some of my time and money saving shortcuts with you all, so that you too can more fully enjoy your time in the garden rather than become a slave to it. Happiness is the key to conversion, I believe.

The less fabulous news is that some up-front time is necessary for success — rather like prepping a room for a beautiful new and long-lasting coat of paint. The truly great news is that the prep time is a game-changer that lasts a lifetime, one that can serve double-duty as educational podcast time.

One of two fully stocked tying, trimming, trellising and staking essentials stations.

Many non-gardeners started gardening during the pandemic — 20 million by some estimates — and many people quit. I’ve heard from several sources that 16 million or so people gave up the ghost because they didn’t have the ‘how-to’ information to be successful enough to stay engaged, or the return to work and school left them without enough time to continue gardening.

I so get it. Life is busy and the internet is way overfull of well intentioned but not-so-great and overly complicated information about how to grow food. The truth is that, food gardening isn’t rocket science unless you want it to be, or unless you are growing food on the space station. Also, if one is organized, gardening is pure joy.

Assorted farm bins store worm castings, compost, pea gravel, sand, etc, handily in the greenhouse.

I vote for pure joy, especially now when food security issues dominate headlines and we are learning how connected the consumption of organic, nutrient-dense food is to our physical and mental health.

Walking back and forth for water, clippers, string, garden ties, clippings buckets, harvest baskets, small shovels, mulch, stakes and step stools could take up half of my garden time on some days when I first undertook the makeover, so drawing on childhood memories of old barns on old farms, I made a trip to the feed store in the Fraser Valley.

Clean and chopped straw mulch bins located at either end of the garden for easy top-ups.

Feed stores and country co-ops are ‘the’ very best places to find rugged, durable, low-priced storage and carrying solutions for gardening. Feed stores carry a huge selection of critter and rodent-proof galvanized steel and aluminum buckets and pails in all sizes.

They carry round, square and oval bins. The low and wide rubber oats bowl for horses is one of my favourite items for harvesting, weeding, water catching, potting-up — you name it. It was built to withstand horses kicking it and tractors driving over it, so I imagine it will outlast me.

My favourite multi-use black rubber oats bin, intended for horses.

Feed stores carry clean, chopped-straw mulch, alfalfa pellets (excellent, slow-release nitrogen-rich top-dress that also contains trace minerals), garden tools, vegetable seeds, animal and mushroom manure, animal feed troughs (I grow tomatoes in them), bulk stakes, fencing, trellises, baby chicks (next year), and hundreds of other really cool and affordable agricultural items.

I make a ritual out of the feed store visits, setting out early in the morning, driving against the traffic coming into the city. A thermos mug full of good coffee from Bean Around the World at Ambleside, plus a warm chive and cheddar scone from Savary Island Pie Company are my only company, other than the Ryan Holiday and Charles Arnott podcasts playing in the background.

A full watering can near the birtbath makes cleaning and re-filling a breeze.

Most people who work at feeds stores, like farmers and people who work in agriculture in general, are friendly, helpful, and not so busy being hip and cool that they don’t have time to be nice. I like hanging out with them, and will stay for as long as I can. On my way home I will stop at rural farmstands, a creamery or two, and a garden centre if I have time, arriving ultimately with a basket full of crazy nutritious food grown in healthy soil, and a whole lot of inspiration.

Thrift Stores too, are a fantastic source of garden gear disguised as other things. They carry all sorts of interesting pots and aged iron whatnots that can be put into creative service as, trellises, dividers, waterers and scoops. Most often, proceeds go to those in need in my community, and that makes me happy,

One of several thrift store dog bowls re-purposed as bird/bee baths, attracting pollinators to potted fruit trees.

When I look out across my gardens I want to feel peace and calm, and see beautiful everythings made of natural materials. I don’t want to see artificially coloured, disposable plastic anything. The best news is that my non-traditional idea of beautiful is much cheaper, more enduring, and better for the environment than most items purpose-built for the garden.

My Top 15 Time and Money Saving Tips for Gardeners

  • Purchase used or new farm-quality buckets, pails, bins and tubs, with locking or snap lids to keep critters at bay and contents dry. Use inexpensive retail hang-tags to identify contents.

  • Opt for galvanized steel, wood, recycled rubber or other sturdy and weather-proof material that won’t degrade, break in freeze-thaw cycles, or wear out quickly.

One of several sets of snips and garden tape, hanging within easy reach of beds.

  • Invest in a few rolls of velcro-type garden tape to use to tie tomatoes and other vining fruits and vegetables, and then recycle the pieces each year. I’m into year five for some pieces. Store used pieces out of the heat and light over the winter, to help prevent degrading and breakdown. Keeping the pieces clean helps them last longer. Jute is adequate in many cases, but I've also lost many a heavy cucumber or vining squash when the jute slipped or failed, or was nibbled by a nesting bird or garden pest.

Hanging inexpensive galvanized chain makes for quick, efficient and beautiful tomato trellising.

  • I keep a small bucket containing recycled velcro-style tape strips, plants tags, plant tag grease pencil, jute string, irrigation line maintenance pins and couplers, scissors, and used corks next to an old maple sap bucket filled with assorted small stakes (magnolia tree trimmings, bamboo stakes, bamboo sticks, etc).

A little bit of everything I need to primp and prune, including recycled garden tape and spent corks.

  • Use spent wine corks to cap the tops of garden stakes that are situated in spots where someone may lose an eye if they lean down into the garden, unaware.

  • Use inexpensive bamboo marshmallow roasting sticks to support dwarf pole beans and other densely planted crops that need light support. The ultra slender but sturdy 36-inch sticks look nice in the garden and ensure that you see the lovely plants instead of a sea of thick poles.

Inexpensive bamboo marshmallow roasting stick 'poles' all but disappear in the bushbean foliage.

  • Use inexpensive, double-link galvanized chain to trellis vegetables from an overhead anchoring point. I suspend mine from the eaves of our rancher. Gravity keeps the chain tought, and velcro-style garden tape or jute strung through the links ensures that the anchors don’t slide down or up as they often do when tied around string trellises or bamboo stakes. It looks rather hip as well.

  • Keep an inexpensive small hand trowel and hand rake in a small bucket near each major garden area. I use mine every time I trim, thin or clean up, and then I dump the greens in one trip into in-bed vermicomposts — easy peasy. Drill holes in the bottoms of the clean-up buckets so that when it rains unexpectedly, a partially full bucket doesn't spill over its contents.

Iron support hooks, scissors and tape right where they are needed next to trellised baby spaghetti squash.

  • If you have a vertical or overhead trellis project that needs frequent training and tying as it becomes established, keep a small bucket with eye hooks, ties or string, and small clippers very close by. I keep a small folding step stool in the vicinity as well, so I can get this recurring job done in moments.

  • Install drop irrigation if possible, and use a timer or control box to manage the flow rate. The system we used is called Netafim. It delivers .9 gallons per hour, per linear foot, watering deeply and wide (2-ft across in a A-frame shape). Garden centres and hardware stores offer endless small and large scale system options at a variety of prices. Lee Valley Hardware is a great resource also. Drip irrigation saves water, build strong roots, and creates resilient plants.

The cutest poultry waterer keeps squirrels and birds hydrated and tops-up nearby birdbaths.

  • Use cross-cuts of felled trees as shortcut footpaths through garden beds. This saves time but also prevents compaction of soil, and helps retain water. I chose locust wood because it breaks down very slowly when exposed to the elements. Locust is what the ‘century’ ranch fence poles are made from, and what many permaculturists cultivate in agroforestry projects. Cedar is another good choice as the natural resins make it resistant to rot and decay. Tree fallers are only too happy to turn already paid for goods into value-add 'cash sales'.

Locust wood pavers aged instantly with carbon rich mud allow me to short-cut through the new boulevard gardens.

  • Keep full watering cans wherever you have bird and/or bee baths. I find it easy to tip out the old dirty water and add clean water frequently, when a two or three gallon watering can is at the ready. I found a really sweet little poultry watering bucket at the feed store, that I set out for birds and squirrels. I keep it on the ground right next to a very popular in-bed bird/bee bath and two others in the rain gardens close by. I can top up the baths in seconds, with little inconvenience. Leaving tap water out to settle, evaporates out the chlorine and chloramine, making it safer for wildlife.

  • Hang frequently used tubs and ladders from decorative hooks on house siding or a fence. I use the hooks to dry bunches of herbs and veggies gone to seed during the summer — sharing the bounty with the birds and the bees.

Magnolia tree trimmings find new life as beautiful hardwood garden stakes

  • We use an old pine dresser to stow a propane tank at the back of the front garden. The drawers contain frequently used garden tools and citronella candles. On top, my grandmother’s old tea kettle filled with water is always close at hand for quenching potted plants. A couple of thrift store hurricane lantern style candle holders can be easily lit using a lighter stored in the drawer . A tiny bucket hanging from one of the sides contains everything I need to train young climbing plants up a relatively new trellis. The organic, water-based wood preservative called Lifetime Wood Treatment made by the Canadian company Valhalla Wood Preservative was used on the sanded pine, turning it a lovely old beach-washed grey more-or-less instantly, and it will never need re-finishing.

Small hand rakes set atop each worm compost lid make turning compost a breeze.

  • And finally, my all-time favourite time and money saver: sink lidded worm compost buckets into each and every garden bed. This practice alone will save huge time when cleaning beds, and allows you to turn kitchens scraps into high-value 'black gold' worm poop fertilizer for your plants. See my earlier post 'Anatomy of a No-Dig Raised Bed' for how-to instructions.

So there you have a few illustrated ideas to get you started saving time and money so that you can love your garden and love 'to' garden. I hope that you do, and that you stick with it. LMN

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Thank you for sharing your garden tips. I struggle with the idea of planting a garden due to the water shortage we are facing. The "drop" water line you suggest may be the best idea for saving on water. I would love to grow densely nutritious food for my small family. What do you find are the most nutritious and successful crops for our north shore? I am thinking of kale, beans and tomatoes and maybe berries would be nutritious and not too labor intensive.

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