Gardens are like toddlers. There is a balance between nurturing them and letting nature take its course. Along the way, everyone learns things, survival happens when you least expect it, and new strengths are developed. There might be a lot of laundry involved, but there are giggles, too.
Some people might call it neglect, when you don’t hover, trying to fine tune your garden soil or maintain just the right insect population. I call it making realistic choices which lead to learning through trial and error, which garden advice is actually helpful and which is busy work. Probably some of this learning is very specific to a climate or particular crop. Some learning involves dealing with issues that don’t seem to be documented anywhere, like the ants on my cole crops. Other learning is just for fun because, in the end, it is simply my garden and I am the only one who needs to be satisfied with it.
There are different levels of neglect. There is the prolonged neglect that comes from things like having morning sickness for weeks on end, and only looking longingly at your garden through the window occasionally. There is the episodic neglect due to unexpected opportunities. And there is observational neglect, where you either can’t quite seem to make yourself take action or are still evaluating if and what to do. I have learned a variety of things from all these kinds of neglect. The specific experiences might be categorized as positive or negative, but in the end, it is all useful and helps make me a more intuitive gardener.
1. Plants grow in dirt. There are some things that I do along the way, in a low-key sort of way, to work on my soil’s characteristics, but for many years, with lots of little kids to care for, just having dirt was enough.
2. Seeds sprout when the time is right. Fall clean-up may be all the rage, but rotting or over-ripe produce left in the garden over the winter will often result in volunteers sprouting in the spring. Seeing when and where these sprouts come up will teach you things about your climate and garden microenvironments, as well as clue you in about the needs of certain plants.
3. Plants produce seeds naturally. Seed saving can seem so mysterious, but producing seeds is part of the cycle of life for plants. Sure, there are a few helpful hints to collecting, drying, and storing certain seeds, but plants want to propagate and often manage to do it without any help at all. You just need to step in and nab the seeds when they are there. Learn a bit about hybrids and non-hybrids to take advantage of this.
4. Plants grow whether you till the soil or not. I used to have a wonderfully fun rototiller from Sears. I say fun because it was just an awesome machine that made me feel like an authentic gardener when I struggled with it as it chewed up the soil. But I could never seem to get to tilling the whole garden and it didn’t make a difference in the places I neglected. So, as much as I liked that monster, I gave it up.
5. Some plants over winter when they aren’t supposed to. In particular, I have harvested onions and potatoes in the early spring from crops that supposedly should have been destroyed by freezing and thawing. I have had cabbages regrow from gnarly stalks and produce darling little heads. Learning these things has inspired me to both very selective fall clean-up and get to spring investigations earlier to take advantage of such crops.
6. Some produce can hold longer on the plant than you might think. I discovered that a combination of keeping the produce dry and basically off of the dirt with straw or grass clipping mulch, plus avoiding overhead watering, resulted in tomatoes holding ripe on the vine for a much longer time than I expected. Of course, some produce keeps growing anyway, and at lighting speeds and needs to be picked almost daily to keep the plants productive.
7. Not all insect invasions are a crisis. True, I have learned the hard way that a certain black bug will decimate a potato crop in 24-48 hours, but some trees and roses can weather aphids without any help from me. I began trying this after reading an article about it in Fine Gardening magazine a number of years ago. I stopped treating my roses for aphids after that and found that they stopped getting them as much!
8. Produce left on the vine makes great snacks for kids playing in the backyard. Harvesting has never been my strong suit, so I was glad when it occurred to me that I could encourage the kids to eat produce directly from the garden. They thought this was fun, they discovered how delicious truly fresh vegetables can be, and they would tell me when things were ripe. They also often got inspired to help me pick the rest of the crop so that it could be enjoyed later.
9. Most plants that have germinated directly in the garden, transplant very easily. Just choose a relatively cool day or a late evening. Scoop up an amount of soil under the plant that mirrors the growth on top, and you will probably get most of the roots and disturb them very little. Relocate the plant to its new home and water it in gently. I have even done this with plants like poppies that have tap roots that don’t like to be disturbed. It is a great way to even out a row of vegetables that haven’t sprouted predictably or with good spacing, or to refill where plants have been lost.
10. Pulling small weeds is not always effective or time efficient. The really small weeds can be extremely tedious to try to get your fingertips on, and before long your hands are cramping and you are discouraged at how little progress you are making. For weeds that sprout so tiny, I try to mulch over them as much as possible. If a few keep growing, to push themselves up under the mulch, it is still easier to wait until they are a bit bigger, but before they go to seed, to pull them.
I love to spend time in my garden. Regular observation, weeding, and proper watering are worth the effort. However, a little neglect now and then might not be as devastating as you might imagine. It doesn’t necessarily make you a bad gardener and might even help you to understand rhythms of your garden that you have been missing.