With all of the responsibilities we have in our daily lives, the time that we can dedicate to tending to and enjoying our garden is often all too short. On this week’s podcast, I share my tips for making precious gardening time more productive and more pleasurable — and for ensuring summer success.
I can usually dedicate a good chunk of my weekend to working on my garden, and on weekdays I set aside an hour in the morning. Now that June is nearly here and plants are beginning to take off, I am truly busy for that hour. While I’m getting a lot done in small increments and making progress, there’s always more to do. The time to stake and fertilize is starting up, and I know that pest and disease issues are on the horizon.
So I don’t get bogged down in tasks that are unnecessary or that can wait, I prioritize the most important tasks — my non-negotiables for summer success in the garden. These are the routines, systems and efficiencies that I rely on, adopted over the many, many years that I have been gardening.
When we put off tackling an issue, like controlling pests and pulling weeds, it only gets worse, and gardening can start to feel overwhelming rather than pleasurable. We should never dread going out into the garden, so I want to share with you ways to get ahead before work piles up.
Start Early and Envision the Possibilities
Over the course of a day, work and other responsibilities can wear us down. By the evening, we may just not have the motivation or the energy to put time into inspecting, weeding, watering and troubleshooting in our gardens. That’s why I like to get out into the garden first thing in the morning.
Usually, the day hasn’t gotten out of hand yet in the morning, and a stroll through the garden feels like a privilege rather than a chore. It’s also a time to observe, noticing the changes and envisioning the possibilities — and that’s very motivating. Imagine what that little tomato seedling is going to look like in six weeks, that cucumber trellis once it’s full of vines with lots of fruit coming on, or the perennials that will come into bloom and attract pollinators.
When you make your garden the first stop of your day — perhaps the second stop, after the coffee maker — you’ll really look forward to it, and your garden will reward you for it. You’ll feel accomplished in the progress that you are making in little chunks every day, and it will never become overwhelming.
I have a very big garden here on the GardenFarm™, and it does require an hour a day, but I don’t mind it because I love the exercise, the fresh air and the feeling of progress. You may have a much smaller garden that doesn’t need as much of your time, but a daily check-in is still a smart idea.
Keep Your Tools Close at Hand
Having your most important tools close at hand, right there in the garden, will make a world of difference in your efficiency and your momentum. If you’re on a roll, you don’t want to have to stop to go get trowels, pruners and weeders. You also don’t want to skip a task because the right tool wasn’t readily available.
I have an extra-large mailbox on one of my garden potting benches that’s waterproof. It’s not the most attractive thing, but it is super-convenient for storing tools, gloves, plant tags, stakes, velcro-strips and a sharpening stone so they are at the ready when I need them. I also keep an alcohol spray bottle in there so I can spray my pruner blades or micro snips between cuts to prevent spreading diseases from plant to plant, plus sunscreen, a hat and a basic first aid kit.
Avoid a Walk to the Trash Bin
If your trash can is quite a distance from your garden, it can be time-consuming to throw out the littlest things, like diseased plant material that you don’t want to add to your compost or an old plastic plant tag. To save myself the trip, I keep separate containers right there in the garden. A trash can is a must, and if your compost bins are also a walk, a container for composting materials is a big convenience.
If you have to walk out of your garden to throw something away or add something to your compost, you may not feel like coming back. It’s a real momentum breaker. Conversely, having the necessary container right where you need it is just so sweet — grab it, and you’re off to the races.
Keep a List
Keeping a list will keep you on task, and I don’t mean a list in your head. Write it down in your phone or better yet, right in the garden. Consider a whiteboard under a small roof to keep it dry, in a place where you can see it all the time and add tasks and erase as necessary. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as crossing a task off a list. There could be a column for today and a second column for the big, weekend jobs, to break it down into a more manageable list.
Phones are convenient in so many ways, but taking off your gloves, digging your phone out of your pocket, opening an app and scrolling to a list is a disruption you don’t need. A physical list is just much easier.
Prep Before You Plant
Even when you’re anxious to get your plants into the ground, you should address the soil itself first. Amending the soil with compost and adding fertilizer should be done before the plants go on. Not only will the plants be better for it, but it is also much easier for you to topdress the soil in a vacant garden than applying amendments around plants.
If you haven’t planted yet, this is your blank slate, unencumbered time to get the soil right how you want it, so when your plants go in, everything they need is there. This too is something that you can’t put off, thinking that you’re going to get to it later — you will not. The moment you think you need to do it, you need to do it.
Yes, you can improve soil at any time, but there is no better time than at the very beginning to create that homogeneous blend of all of your inputs. Speaking of making great garden soil, we just released The Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class as a standalone mini-course in the Online Gardening Academy™. It’s about all aspects of creating the ideal growing environment. You can find the course easily at joegardener.com/perfectsoil.
If your garden was mulched over the winter, you may be wondering if you should top dress the organic mulch with compost or pull the mulch back, add the compost, then reapply the mulch. Well, in the long game, it all comes out in the wash. That is to say, you can really go either way because it’s all organic matter that will improve the soil in the end. But I do prefer to pull back the mulch, add compost, then put the mulch back, the logic being that I want the compost in direct contact with the soil to encourage the soil food web underneath.
Plant It Properly
Light and air circulation are paramount when it comes to siting plants. For me here in the Southeast, where it’s very humid and hot, a lack of air circulation will create an environment that promotes plant diseases. Providing proper spaces will improve performance and reduce occurrences of disease.
I see many gardeners sharing photos of their gardens packed with tomato plants. I get it, they’re excited and they want a lot of tomatoes in that bed, but there gets to be a point where there are too many tomatoes. The minimum proper spacing distance is 24 inches, and any less just won’t cut it. Those small plants will grow taller, branch out and begin to grow into each other.
You don’t need to sacrifice the number of tomato plants that you are growing, but you do need to give them space. You can make room for them inexpensively with grow bags or straw bales.
Mulching is another part of proper planting, no less important than digging the hole, placing the plant, backfilling and watering it in. Mulch does many important things, but perhaps most importantly in the summertime, it retains moisture and creates a barrier between the soil, where diseases live, and the plants.
Another question I get often is whether mulch should be applied on top of freshly sown seeds. The answer is that you should wait for the seeds to sprout before placing mulch. Too much mulch or any amount of heavy, clunky mulch can prevent seedlings from breaking through.
Set Your Watering Strategy
There are two ways to go about proper watering: Put it on autopilot with drip irrigation or soaker hoses on a timer, or create a routine, like hand-watering every other day or less frequently during your morning visit.
Just be sure that when you apply water, it’s around the base of the plant, right on top of the soil and mulch. When spraying the plant foliage, the wet leaves and stems are very inviting for plant pathogens to take hold.
Having a good hose also makes a big difference and reduces frustration. I have been spoiled by a kink-resistant polyurethane hose, which costs a bit more but is worth the money for the convenience and will last forever. Another addition to your watering setup should be inexpensive hose guides. These guides protect your plants and prevent the hose from getting caught as you make your way around.
A quick shut-off valve at the end of your hose, before the watering wand, lets you control the flow and turn off the hose without a trip back to the spigot. I don’t recommend the valves with multi-function dials, which tend to always leak before the end of the season. Just a simple brass valve works best.
Inspect Gardens Regularly
The best time to find pests on plants is early in the morning, when they tend to be hanging out underneath leaves. That being said, you want to avoid handling wet plants, because that can spread disease. Plants are often wet with early morning dew before the sun has been up for a few hours, so minimize how much you touch plants when making observations in the morning. I save my heavy-duty, hands-on inspections for the evening, when I know everything is dry.
This early in the season, many plants may have circular or angular yellow or brown areas that appear to be symptoms of a disease. In fact, these spots are damage from piercing and sucking insects that use their stylets — their mouthparts — to suck out moisture from the leaf tissue. Turn those leaves over and you will find the culprits.
While inspecting, don’t forget the soil. You may find that it is drier than you expected or overly wet, and you may need to adjust your watering schedule accordingly. The easy way to inspect the soil is the finger test: If you stick your finger in the soil and it comes out dirty, the soil is wet. If your finger comes out clean because the soil is not sticking, then the soil is too dry.
Have Control Methods in Place
When a pest or disease issue arises, you don’t want to have to go out and find the product needed to treat it. If you wait, you may forget or get too busy, and the problem will only get worse the longer it goes untreated. Keep treatments in your garden toolkit and tackle problems right when you notice them.
For plant diseases, what you need at the ready may be your pruners and alcohol spray to remove the affected foliage. It could also be copper fungicide, which is an organic solution for an array of fungal diseases. If you are a whatever-it-takes gardener rather than an organic gardener, it could be a synthetic fungicide. And don’t forget a pump sprayer.
Floating row cover and shade cloth are barriers that keep insects from landing on your plants to eat or lay eggs. The best way to use physical barriers is to put them up before the pests arrive. You can look up when common pests are expected in your area and put up row cover before then, or add the row cover at planting time. For instance, eggplant is a magnet for flea beetles, so I use row cover as soon as I put the plants out. In the case of squash vine borer, I know it’s time to add a physical barrier when I see red and black moths scouting out squash plants.
Stay On Top of Weeding
Believe it or not, I like hand weeding, especially after rain when the weeds come right out easily. But once a week, I use a diamond weeder, which quickly slices through weeds. Eliminating the weeds is very gratifying, and conversely, seeing weeds accumulate and grow is very stressful. Those weeds compete with your plants for water and nutrients and oftentimes attract pests that transmit bacterias and viruses.
Document Your Garden Progress
Observation in tandem with documentation is the one-two that really allows you to tap into your intellect and experience. If you are on the fence about what’s worth documenting, remember that it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Taking pictures and notes to record your observations will make you a more aware gardener. The day-to-day changes, the high and low temperatures, the big wins, the big losses, and the things you have questions about are all worth writing down for later reference.
I hope you found my Non-Negotiables for Summer Success in the Garden valuable. If you haven’t listened yet, you can hear this episode now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
What are your non-negotiables for summer success in the garden? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier joins me in leading this course on how to grow healthier, productive tomato plants and how to overcome tomato-growing challenges.
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.