Have you ever felt overwhelmed by your garden – by out of control growth or disease or an abundance of crops? You aren’t alone. Nearly all of us feel garden overwhelm at some point during the growing season – and some of us feel that way frequently through the summer months.
This week, I talk with Margaret Roach of, A Way to Garden. Margaret has learned a thing or two in her 30 years of gardening on her two-acre property in upstate New York. When she first acquired the property, she was a weekend warrior – travelling from her high-powered New York City corporate job as then-Garden Editor for Newsday New York. Each Friday, she would make the hours-long commute to her property, attend to gardening and home maintenance throughout the weekend, and head back to the big city for Monday morning’s job responsibilities.
Eventually, Margaret opted to simply her life. She left the corporate world to live year-round on her garden retreat. Yet with a popular podcast show, writing a number of books, speaking engagements, and plenty of other demands which come from being an industry-expert, Margaret still doesn’t have the luxury of endless days spent keeping her landscape in check. The key, according to Margaret is, knowing how to identify and manage your priorities.
The Garden Task List is King
Margaret is a self-identified List Person. While working in her garden, she never has her trusty list clipboard far from hand. Not one for using apps and relying on electronic devices, Margaret’s journalism background instilled a love of the written word. She writes everything down – everything.
While in the middle of one garden chore, gardeners usually spot a dozen other things needing to be done. By the time you get back indoors, your mind is often occupied with what comes next, and it’s easy to forget what you had observed. If you keep your list with you in the garden, you can jot those items down in the moment and organize them later.
Every day, Margaret pours out her garden project “brain dump.” Later that day, she will review and reorganize so that tasks are broken down into high and low priorities, grouped by resources that might be needed, grouped by area, etc. For those rare days when she does have help, she has a list for that too. She knows who will be best for which chores and has tools at the ready.
One principle which is key to working well from a list (or in Margaret’s case, multiple lists) is to keep your list nimble. Priorities can shift or change throughout the day or from day to day. For example, weather might prevent you from tackling your top priority on the day you had planned. Time to shift gears and re-prioritize.
Cherry-pick the tasks that make the most sense each day given your current resources and conditions.
It’s a good idea to break large tasks down into smaller items. As you complete the little things, you feel a greater sense of accomplishment and are more encouraged to keep going – even when the rest of your list might feel endless.
Gardening Is About Progress, Not Perfection
You might want to read that again. It’s so easy to get caught up in the pursuit of perfection that you lose sight of progress made. I’m sure guilty of that. Remind yourself that every little bit helps. Even if you’re only able to spend 20 minutes tackling weeds or corralling overgrown tomato plants, the end result is better than where you began. Celebrate that.
Consider allowing an area of your garden to go a little wild. Perfectly manicured grass might be the expectation in your minds’ eye, but it doesn’t serve smaller garden visitors. Allowing grasses to grow tall, fallen leaves to remain on the ground – embracing a little garden messiness – creates habitat for pollinators, birds, frogs, and plenty of other beneficial creatures.
Margaret has taken this approach for a number of years, and we featured one of these areas on an episode of Growing a Greener World®. It was fascinating to see the variety of life thriving in the wild areas of her landscape. These became beautiful and flourishing spaces.
Now, Margaret is allowing a new area of her property to grow wild and making note of the plantlife to naturally seek a foothold there. She has begun to observe plant varieties she didn’t realize were present in her landscape. As time goes by, she plans to thoughtfully “edit” the spot – deciding which plants she will keep and which she will remove. Learning never ends in the garden.
When you do have limited time (and who doesn’t?), prioritize those areas that receive the most foot traffic or that you see most often. Focus on the area around your front door before you tackle the back corner of the yard where you rarely spend time. Make the opportunity to cut a clean edge around your landscape beds, and set down a good layer of mulch. Both those steps can cover a multitude of sins, so you can spend time on other priorities.
That mulch will save you garden time in many other ways too. If you haven’t heard this from me already, allow me to get back up on my mulch soapbox again: Mulch is a multi-tasking powerhouse. More on that in a moment.
Waging a War Against Weeds
As I prepared for this episode, I polled my joe gardener Facebook Group to ask how often these gardeners feel overwhelm and what creates the greatest level of stress. Not surprisingly, 70% of the group admitted to being overwhelmed during at least half their time in the garden.
Weather was, collectively, a big factor for many of us this year. I certainly saw the impact of unusual weather at the GardenFarm™. More rain, heat and humidity than normal meant weed growth spun out of control far faster than usual, and a heavy travel schedule to film for Growing a Greener World meant I wasn’t always around to keep things in check. Regardless of conditions and attention, weeds always make their presence felt, and weeds were the most common struggle for joe gardener Facebook Group members too.
What’s my best advice for minimize weeds in your garden? Here’s the top two:
- Mulch – A good layer of mulch prevents light from hitting the soil surface, so weeds don’t have the opportunity to germinate. Mulch will significantly reduce the number of weeds you will need to deal with. As an added benefit, that mulch will also break down to improve soil health (be sure to use an organic mulch like arborist wood chips or leaves), and it will help soil retain moisture, which reduces the need for watering. See what I mean about mulch being a multi-tasker? I love my mulch.
- Water Efficiently – Weeds are just like all plants and need water for survival. If you use drip irrigation, soaker hose or emitter tubing – you can target that water right at the base of your plants. Fewer weeds will get their thirsty share, which means you’ll have fewer weeds.
For those weeds which do inevitably pop up in some areas of your garden, your best line of defense is to Know Thy Enemy. Identify which weed species you are doing battle against, and study them to learn the best management techniques. Chopping the top off of a weed which spreads through the soil via rhizomes won’t accomplish much. On the other hand, a weed that reproduces by seed is best managed by never letting it bloom.
Margaret uses the example of garlic mustard weed. Did you know that garlic mustard exudes a chemical through the soil that prevents other plants from germinating? The term used to describe this is allelopathy. It hinders other plants from ever getting started. Knowing this, Margaret makes garlic mustard a top priority in her gardening. As soon as the soil has softened in spring, Margaret sets to work to pull any of this weed she can find on her property. She sets other priorities aside for this task, because she knows it will benefit her workload in the long run.
More Proactive Steps to Avoid Garden Overwhelm
Oftentimes, it’s later in the season when we really begin to feel that sense of overwhelm in the garden. It’s not uncommon to want to just mow everything down and start over again next year. Pests and diseases are rampant, plants need deadheading or pruning or more support, the grass keeps growing, vegetable production is going gangbusters (hopefully!), containers require near constant watering – it can all be a lot to manage.
Fortunately when you’ve been gardening for years, you’ve got the benefit of having been through and surviving it all before and knowing you can do so again. Still, gardening is always a learning process. To that end, here are a few more proactive measures to consider making a priority in your garden next season:
This can be a tough one. We are all eager to add more and do more every year. I get that. After all, I planted 32 tomato varieties in my raised beds this season and took on a mammoth seed-starting project to help my daughter, Amy, develop a future business and a passion for gardening. I’ve been feeling my own self-imposed pressure.
Sometimes though, more is not better. If you’ve felt overwhelm this season due to time constraints, health issues, etc.; it might be time to take a more realistic approach and pare down to a space you can pleasurably maintain. After all, this is supposed to be fun, right?
Remember that life will always throw some curve balls, so account for that when you plan for next season.
Focus on Soil Health
I often talk and write about soil health. It’s necessary for plant health, and that translates to less maintenance. When your soil is healthy, it is more efficiently able to hold and deliver water and nutrients that your plants need to be resilient. Resilient plants are better equipped to fight off pests and disease. If you feed your soil the organic nutrients it needs you will spend less time every year on disease and pest management.
Fair warning though: you may find yourself overwhelmed by much heavier crop output, but I’ll choose that sort of overwhelm every time!
Tackle Issues Early
Take a cue from Margaret’s garlic mustard example, and get those weeds while they are young. Spend a few minutes checking your plants for pests often, so you can pick them off before they mature and reproduce. Prune off diseased foliage as soon as it appears to keep it from spreading.
There are moments when your time might be better spent by sitting down with pen and paper (or your favorite organizational app) and gathering your thoughts. Write down all those projects and tasks, then organize and prioritize them.
Set small goals for yourself that you know you will be able to accomplish during a day, so you can check something off as complete. When you do tackle a to-do, focus solely on that. Don’t let yourself get distracted by other garden work – stay on that single item until it’s complete. Some gardeners find it helpful to set a specific time period, like devoting 30 minutes to nothing but weeding. You will be surprised at how much more you can get done when you really allow yourself to stay focused.
Don’t miss opportunities to celebrate your progress. Those victories – both small and large – add up. As Margaret says, any progress in the garden is “better than before” and, it’s certainly proof you are pushing head on to defeat garden overwhelm.
Trust me – you can do this. It might feel like a lot now, but you are learning important lessons that will carry on in your garden for seasons to come. As someone who has gardened for nearly all my life, I can personally vouch for that.
If you haven’t already done so, you can scroll to the top of this page and click the play icon in the green bar under the page title to listen to my discussion with Margaret. She shares stories of her garden experiences, and we talk about helping friends overcome their own versions of garden overwhelm.
Links & Resources
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