The Do-Nothing Garden – is it just a myth? Could it be true?

In a previous blog I alluded to this subject of low-maintenance gardening. That’s called foreshadowing. You see it all the time in movies and even in some books. The author (that would be me) cleverly lets the reader (that would be you) know that something either very cool or very bad is coming. I hope you find this very cool, since I am trying to save you from something very unnecessary work. I define “work” as something you have to do but don’t want to do. Gardening is NOT work, for some of us, yet it is “hell on earth” for those who can’t stand it. The idea behind the type of gardening outlined in this blog is to get everything in order in the beginning so that you can reap the rewards of your labor later.

Now what is it about gardening that people don’t like? Okay, okay, calm down! One at a time:

• All the digging and constant work
• The expenses – every year
• Having to start over EVERY spring
• WEEDS and GRASS – no, not THOSE weeds and certainly not THAT grass
• Bending over – the ground is SO far down there

Okay, nominations are over. What if I could show you a gardening method that addresses ALL these issues while at the same time improving (not guaranteeing – we went over that earlier) the outcome of your efforts. In other words, you have a MUCH better chance of growing what you want – tasty veggies, while not growing what you DON’T want – weeds and grass. One caveat – this presupposes you are not trying to grow GRASS and WEED. 

Okay, let the lesson begin. What I am talking about goes by several names and, as with most things in gardening, there are no hard and fast rules. The phrase de jour is permaculture, which, as the name implies, is permanent agriculture. The idea is to mimic as closely as possible the forces that Nature employs in her natural gardens.

Okay, another list. I love lists. This one details what Nature DOES NOT do to grow, well, nature:

• No artificial tilling – natural tilling is performed by worms, bugs, beetles and roots
• No/Reduced fertilizing – just what generally grows on the site and what the plants take out of the air
• No/Reduced weeds – such as you would expect to find in a permanent landscape, such as an old growth forest
• No/Minimal failures – Nature makes a crop every year. Some years are better, but there is always a crop.

Now how do you suppose WE are going to do all these wonderful things? I’m glad you asked. I have to warn you that while I promised less work than conventional gardening, the first time will probably be more work. But you can rest assured that NEXT year your garden will be better than this year and will take a LOT less work. The idea is for you to look forward to springtime so you can garden, rather than dreading the very thought of gardening.

We are going to build a raised bed garden. Actually “we” aren’t going to build anything. You are going to do all the work. 😉 First, when we talk about a raised bed, what we are trying to accomplish is to deepen the good soil we have to work with so we can control the outcome of our planting and growing. You do not have to use anything to hold the soil in place, but it is a good idea for those planting areas you plan to use for growing typical garden veggies as opposed to “field” veggies. I put peas, beans, and corn into this “field veggie” category. It is just too much work to have that many raised beds. What you would typically plant in raised beds are early spring crops such as lettuce, spinach, herbs, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, cucumbers, etc… These work very well, especially if you can grow three or more crops per year, so you get maximum production from your initial work and investment.

These are step by step directions in an ideal situation with easy-to-work soil and lots of raw materials; or in other words, probably NOT where you are coming from. But just follow the principals outlined in the instructions as best you can. While I would like to do everything at once, that may not be practical. If you can just get the beds tilled and the soil amended, the rest can happen when it happens. Ideally, this should have been done last fall, but since my time machine is on the fritz, we will do what we can.

1. ***Get your soil tested. If you have ANY idea what your soil is like, then most county agents can give you at least an idea of what “most” soils in your area need. For example, in the Dallas area with the very heavy black clay and the high pH, you need LOTS of compost tilled into your soil, along with gypsum (to supply calcium without raising the pH) along with sulfur flowers (to lower the pH). In Mississippi, where I am currently living, we need high calcium lime, along with LOTS of compost tilled into the soil, Epsom Salts (magnesium sulfate) and boron (from 20 Mule Team Borax). You get the idea.

2. Till (for the LAST time) all the recommended soil amendments into the soil. After the soil is well mixed, open up a trench, moving the soil to either side. The trench is backfilled with a mixture of wood chips, compost, tree limbs, and grass clippings. The idea is to put as much organic matter UNDER your beds as possible. Then replace the amended soil on TOP of your organic material. Water in your newly formed beds. This practice is called HUGELKULTUR, which is German for “mound culture.” BTW, does it strike you as strange that the German’s would have a NAME for something like that? It does me.

Ideally, all of this would have been completed last fall. I realize you didn’t know me then, but we are doing the best we can. Let’s continue.

3. Scatter a thin layer of manure or natural fertilizer. I recommend MightyGrow Organic Fertilizer with Trace Minerals or some other (howbeit less effective) good quality fertilizer.

4. If you can find it, lay down an overlapping layer of cardboard or just use a 3/8” layer of newspaper (no shiny print – that contains heavy metals). Make sure you overlap at least 6” so the weeds will not reappear. (Remember the weed discussion we had? I don’t, as I have wiped weeds from my MIND!) Yeah!
5. Another thin layer of manure or natural fertilizer scattered on top of the weed barrier.

6. Now comes the piece de resistance – 8 – 12” of OLD hay, straw, stable bedding, leaves or other mulching material. A good source of material for this layer can be found out in the country. Keep on the lookout for old round bales of hay that are of no value for feed. Tree companies will sometimes deliver loads of chipped limbs for FREE right to your door. BTW, that is actually just a FIGURE OF SPEECH. Put them as close to your garden as possible, not by the front door.

7. On top of the bulky mulching material, apply a 1 – 2” layer of good compost. If you have a compost pile, go ahead and raid it, since from this point forward you can do most of your composting IN the garden rather than composting somewhere else and taking it TO the garden.

8. Finally, put 2” of straw (not pine straw – use wheat straw or some other weedless material) on top of the compost. Don’t forget the areas between the rows.
You are done—for now. Water everything in and go get a beer! If you want you can go get a beer and THEN water everything in. Either way, drinking a beer is crucial to the success of your garden. I know. I drink beer every time I garden and my garden is always great. Now it is possible the beer is NOT the reason I have a great garden…but I’m not taking any chances. 😉

Next blog will be how you go about planting in this stuff. Relax, it’s easy. Trust me.

*** For soil testing you can try your local/state agricultural colleges such as Miss. State or Texas A&M. They offer low cost soil testing, but the timeliness of the results sometimes leaves a little to be desired. For fast, efficient, well qualified soil tests, contact Midwest Laboratories. They are good people to work with you can get your results online.

One of the primary reasons for a soil test is you cannot “fix” what you have not measured. Your particular soil may not need a lot of soil amendments or lime or sulfur or whatever. It may need something you just don’t know about. Also, a soil test provides a benchmark so you know where you are starting from. You can test every year or every other year, especially if you have problems. The soil lab can be one of your best resources to facilitate your gardening success.
This is just home spun wisdom with a sprinkling of experience from a “man out standing in his field.”

If you find this helpful, please let me know. If you have specific questions about gardening, you can email Michael at: For general questions, like “what is the meaning of life” just ask in the comment section.


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