Gardening has evolved. Today it's not uncommon for people to wait years on a waiting list for an opportunity to get a small plot in a community garden in which to partake in the heady emotions and both psychological and physical benefits that come from a direct connection to our Earth mother along with the priceless feelings of having tasted the contentment that can come from that connection as well as the knowledge that one has been a good land steward here on the planet, connected with the community, and produced healthy nutritious food for one's self, one's family, and one's friends and neighbors. These benefits are truly life changing, utterly basic in their ability to fulfill the needs of the human condition, and yet so precious as to be rare on the planet in this post industrial age.
Once one gets a garden plot, where to begin? How does one maximize these benefits? The food is surely secondary. The feelings achieved from digging fresh compost into a plot, the knowledge of increasing the biodiversity, the tilth, and the humus content of the soil along with all the good negative ions, beneficial bacteria, and insects that one can attract is intoxicating. The new gardening camaraderie of your fellow gardeners is also where it's at in terms of basic feelings of well being and right livelihood. Luckily, our species has been at this for quite some time, co-evolving alongside our photosynthetic friends, molding them to our liking through breeding and hybridizing programs that stretch back beyond recorded history, and we are now the beneficiaries of this heritage heirloom knowledge.
All the tricks to success, once one gets past acknowledging the soil food web mentality, tend to favor the saving of both space and time. Moderns science now tells us that the two are one and the same and yet together they make up the fabric of reality as we experience it. To the gardener of a small plot with a busy schedule, however, space and time can become the limiting factors of how much priceless benefits one can glean from their gardening experience. Even though it may seem we are going fast, we are no where near the speed of light, and our mass will not be bending the fabric of space-time any time soon. Below are some simple and yet time-tested strategies for saving both time and space in a small garden plot:
Succession Planting: This operates like clockwork. Our climate here in Marin allow us to garden in a prolonged season that can accommodate multiple seedings, setting out of starts on successive dates, and a prolonged harvest. This is especially true of baby green crops and short lived corps. Tables that describe the "days to maturity'" or "days to harvest" can be consulted for planning this for the greatest benefit. Seeding every two weeks for most greens is a good start.
Intercropping: Some plants grow fast, some slow. Some plants take up more space later in their lifespan. Some plants do better when shaded and protected by other plants. Growing two crops in one area can greatly increase the productivity of a given plot of soil. Lettuce and onions along with a quick radish crop are classic examples. There are many more.
Companion Planting: Some plants can actually benefit others by providing nutrients, attracting beneficial organisms, or repelling unwanted pests. A good example would be how marigolds inhibit the root knot nematode that affects tomatoes. Another might be how blooming cilantro (coriander) can attract parasitic wasps that keep aphids in check.
Crop rotation: Traditionally the four square garden rotation of root, fruit, grass, and legumes has proven successful. Now, rotating plant families is used to help maintain healthy soil ecologies along with balancing carbon and nitrogen levels.
Row Covers: These spun agricultural fabrics can help extend the growing season as well as protect young crops from birds and other pests such as keeping leaf miners from laying eggs on chard plants -or even keeping dogs and cats out of a newly seeded bed.
Sheet Mulching: All the rage in sustainability gardening, the use of recycled cardboard as a weed barrier beneath a layer of mulch can smother perennial weeds and stop the cycle of annual weeds in one season while improving soil organic mater content and increasing earth worm populations. Less time weeding and more space for desired plants just makes good sense.
Cover Crops: Although it's possible to keep a bed in production year-round here, cover crops are far preferable to leaving land fallow. Soil ecological diversity takes a dive when there's not an active rhizosphere in place. Blends of grasses and legumes can add nitrogen and organic matter -but rather than turning them under and waiting for them to decompose, it's more efficient to compost them and add ripe compost right away, thus keeping the beds alive and productive with minimal downtime.
Drip irrigation and ET based controllers: Here's the big time saver: automatic irrigation. If the time a gardener spends irrigating can be spent gardening, much more can be accomplished. Modern controllers that blend historic averaged evapotranspiration curves with on-site weather data are now affordable and easy to implement, making efficient irrigation possible with little input of our time. Pressure compensating and self-flushing emitters and related advances in in-line drip tubing makes getting water where it needs to be when it needs to be there in just the right amounts a realistic possibility.
Head Lamps: For those of us who have a busy life, juggling jobs and kids, those who need fresh herbs after dark, maintain compost and worm bins after hours, and those who take advantage of our climate to extend the growing season on both ends... modern head lamps can show us the light. Nocturnal feeders are now exposed, daylight is not a limiting factor, and yes, you are now a bona fide garden geek.
The list goes on, but these strategies will save you both time and space, get you closer to the garden nirvana we all crave, and make you a hero around the community compost pile. Go forth, live long, and prosper. I know your garden will. Happy Gardening!