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Low effort veggie gardening

 
Posts: 50
Location: Eastern Ontario, Canada Zone 5b
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Hi all,

I've been a yearly gardener or the past 15 years, but am slowly growing disheartened and disillusioned. The short version is that the results have rarely been worth the time, effort, and cost that has gone into my garden. Yields remain low, but the reasons change every year - often weed pressure, but also significant pest issues (of different sorts) each year.

I'm in Zone 5A. Soil is a type of clay loam that and the garden area was either pasture and / or hay fields since the land was first settled. Soil PH is ~6.8 on the surface, and 7.2 in the lower layers. It's pretty solid clay below ~12" deep.

I've tried several years each of lots of mulch, low mulch, no mulch (all ramial mulch from the local electricity company's forestry / line clearing department). Yearly compost additions. Given how much mulch and compost of various types has disappeared into the soil, I should have a good OM level in the top ~8-12". I have large amounts of earthworms working the soil - it has all the outside appearances of rich, live soil especially when compared to soil from outside the garden area. Tried no-dig for the last 4-5 years, but have had issues with grasses invading. Dense planting didn't provide good results - the plants just didn't thrive, and the weeds did!

Weeds are my biggest problem - I have huge issues with rhizomatic grasses and thistles. The thistles are easy to remove when young, but I find grass rhizomes down 4-6". If I chop them up, they sprout individually. I've manually worked through beds and removed *all* the rhizomes by digging and sifting the soil. That kept them out for a season until they invaded from the surrounding lawn again, but the effort required was huge.

My time is also limited - I can't spare more than an hour or two a week to work on the garden. This makes it easy to fall behind the weeds.

I'd love to hear some strategies to help reduce the time required and improve the results!

A few things that come to mind:

1. I need a weed barrier - either a surface barrier to prevent weeds from ever getting daylight, or else an edge barrier to keep the grass rhizomes out. Thick mulching did suppress some weeds, but the grasses still colonized it, and it gave me huge slug issues. It also was a headache when I wanted to direct-sow some plants.

2. I have fertility issues of some sort. I plan to do some soil testing this year, but I haven't found many resources for a lab that isn't aimed towards conventional farming.

Resources available:

- Rabbit and chicken manures
- A lot of comfrey
- Vermicompost (small amounts being made)
- 'Regular' compost - probably will have a yard ready this spring.
- I can harvest and cut as much grass and green material out of the surrounding fields as needed.
 
pollinator
Posts: 142
Location: Southern Ontario, 6b
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I would want to know how big a space you are dealing with and what you are trying to grow.

I've just moved south to Norfolk county but was near Stratford and on clay for the past 15 years. I never had great luck on annual veggies direct in the ground. I did single board height squarefoot beds and one double height.
Herbs, perennial onions, weedy greens like purslane and asparagus are about all of the veg I did direct.

The fruit trees, vines and shrubs were my winners, in that ground. Along with edible flowers and wild greens.
 
master steward
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I am sorry to hear that weeds aka grass are taking over.

If I had that problem, I might buy horticultural vinegar, which I would regularly pour along the perimeter of my garden.

While I have not tried this it sounds to me like this method might help keep the grass at bay.

If I had those resources I would use lots of compost tea and worm tea as fertilizer.

I would also suggest gathering leaves to compost into leaf mold.

The leaves could also be used as a top-dressing mulch to help with weeds.

I hope that others will make suggestion that will help make low effort vegetable gardening for you.
 
master gardener
Posts: 2810
Location: Upstate NY, Zone 5, 43 inch Avg. Rainfall
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Do you by chance have a picture of the plot that you are working in?

I'm assuming you are doing in-ground planting. I do raised beds myself but had some issues with persistent weeds coming in from a nearby area. I'm experimenting this upcoming season with a wood chip barrier around my garden area to try and 'capture' emergent rhizome weeds invading into before it is into my garden soil.
 
pollinator
Posts: 485
Location: Boudamasa, Chad
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I agree with Dian: raise beds high enough that the grasses won't grow up through it. Seeing as you have all the ingredients for fantastic soil, just fill up the beds with the good stuff. That way you don't have to worry about your soil type because you're building optimal soil on top of it.

 
gardener
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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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I will echo the comments that call for raised beds.
Growing up we amended the soul every year, with poor results.
The first raised bed I built changed all of that.

I will also suggest that you edge the beds with comfrey and line  it with something like tile, aluminum flashing or cement board.

Sub irrigated buckets and barrels are another great alternative.
They spread out how often you need to water, and are impervious to grass(but not vines!)

These may sound like a lot of set up but given all the work you have put in already, I think you will find raised beds and containers repay your efforts much better.

I am planning a rebuild for my sister's raised bed garden that will put every bed surface at 3' high, and cover all of them with hoops.
I think the accessibility and ease of use will give more productivity from a smaller footprint, making the upfront work worthwhile.

One more thing.
If any vegtable thrives, lean into it.
I planted a variety of tomatoes last year, but due to blight I only harvested cherry, grape and current types.
There were so many, mostly volunteer plants that they overwelmed an entire herb garden, and two of the pepper plants!
We ate pounds of sauce, from plants that were basically weeds.
I set aside the spoiled ones and they have been sown in.a dedicated bed for next year.






 
Dian Green
pollinator
Posts: 142
Location: Southern Ontario, 6b
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Just to mention that the high raised bed was cheater hugle. I covered the undug and not cleared ground with at least 2 layers of cardboard. Then lots of old, untreated wood chunks and branches. Stuffed in as much as I could, along with other garden debris to pack it in. A bit over half my depth was that. Followed by a good layer of some of our Clay soil, chunked and crumbled then topped it with peat moss and compost and a bit of vermiculite. ( much less than the squarefoot mix calls for, but I was feeling cheap)
The first year clearly had some voles in the bottom area but they left the crops alone and the spaces they used were gone by year 2. It was really great for both water retention and growing. Best growth I got out of any of the beds and easy to work. We did get a bit of grass invading by then but it came out easily and I was going to go for at least a foot surround of heavy woodchip, like my lower ones had, but we moved before that got done.

Woodchip and wood shavings have been my main mulches and both worked great for us but they needed refreshing every 2-3 years since they would get absorbed so quickly. I would use free chips so they would often have leaves mixed in which seems to accelerate the breakdown.
 
Posts: 46
Location: Kentucky - Zone6
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I'd recommend you use Joseph Lofthouse's method (he posts here as well), as described in his book "Landrace Gardening": Get seeds of a wide varieties of a vegetable you want to grow. Don't fertilize, minimum water, no mothering. The first year, only a small amount of plants will survive. Save the seeds of those plants, the second year you will have more plants survive, the third year, through the plants cross-breeding, you have a whole bunch of plants very adjusted to your garden and able to survive without fertility/water/maintenance.

To deal with the weeds, I would put down plastic in the fall, leave it on just before you put in your seeds. After you put in your seeds, your vegetable plants will have the same start as your weeds and the ones that outcompete the weeds are the ones you save seed of.

Another strategy is to mow your garden frequently the first year, this will avoid your annual weeds to set flower/seed. Next fall you put on the plastic which kills some of the perennial weeds so hopefully that gives your seeds an even better shot at survival.

M
 
gardener
Posts: 1035
Location: Zone 6 in the Pacific Northwest
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I feel your pain with the rhizome grass and thistle. Any untended space on my property turns into a thistle patch followed by a grass lawn. I even have to battle the grass growing up into my raised beds.

Have you looked into growing perennial vegetables? Your climate can be tricky. Day lilies could hold their own against the thistles and possibly even the grass.

What things did people eat traditionally in your area over the centuries? Maybe you can get some ideas of things that will grow more easily without a lot of babying.
 
gardener
Posts: 978
Location: Málaga, Spain
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Hi, I'm going to give you a radical point of view from the soil food web school:
You have grasses because you are feeding grasses. If you want more evolved plants (in succession) you need to feed them properly.

This means less nitrogen and more carbon.

If you are using compost, try to cook your batches with more than 80% of brown matter (dry leaves, cardboards). If you are using cover crops, try using fewer nitrogen fixers.

In our garden, bermuda grass is only a problem where we applied manure. Elsewhere, the native vegetation is keeping it at bay.

Another approach is using syntropic gardening, this is, growing more plants belonging to the current state of your soil (maximising the amount of vegetation), so they can thrive with little input, and be ready to prune and make room for the next kind of plants in succession, when the ecosystem is blooming. Pruning enhances growth for all plants in proximity.
 
pollinator
Posts: 116
Location: Vancouver, Washington
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What a lot of great ideas!

I would like to add a few more:

We struggle with grass and weeds as well.  I'd suggest digging a shallow ditch (maybe a few inches deep) all around your beds to stem the grass from coming into the garden.  Then thickly mulch a path that follows along the same line (but don't mulch the ditch). The roots will hit the air when trying to come in the garden's direction, which will stop most of them and save you a lot time weeding. In larger areas where you want to kill the grass and weeds, try solarizing with clear plastic for a year, if you can. That will kill everything alive underneath the plastic, including the weed bank of seeds. Or, depending on what you are going to end up using the area for and how quickly you need it, you can cover it with cardboard and a thick (6") layer of mulch and let it sit and decompose. This will also kill most of the weeds. If you cover it with soil, then mulch, you can use the bed right away for trees and shrubs.

Chopping the weeds down before they flower and not tilling is incredibly important. I am glad to hear you don't till, or at least are trying it. Tilling is not good for the soil's biotic activities and it raises weed seeds to the surface. Any area you are trying to cultivate has a good 5 years worth of weed seeds just waiting to germinate. (There's more but most of them will germinate in this time frame, if given the chance.) You don't want to add more by letting your weeds go to seed. I have a area I've been trying to convert from one full of invasive weeds into a meadow garden with mostly natives. The fourth year I really noticed a big difference in the amount of weed seeds germinating in the area, so killing or mowing weeds before they flower does eventually work.

Another thought - it sounds like you are amending the soil with mulch and compost?  Only fully decomposed materials should be used in a vegetable garden.  As mulch decomposes, it robs the soil of nitrogen, which would decrease the fertility of the soil until the decomposition process is complete. And, of course, tilling mulch into the soil worsens that whole situation, as it robs the nitrogen deeper into the soil.

I am curious about the pest issues as well. One thought is to add flowers, native if possible, around the vegetable garden to attract beneficial insects. Another is to focus on using plants that don't get as many pests and do well for you. I believe very much in keeeping the plants that work and throwing the ones that don't in the compost. I don't know whether you are using anything to try to kill the pests, but using any sort of chemical on them usually kills the beneficials as well, and what you end up with a bloom of the bad ones. Maybe I'm just lucky, but I don't use anything (other than a natural slug bait) in my garden and I don't have any real problems with pests. I do rotate in my veggies and I have lots of different kinds of flowers in my yard that bloom throughout the year, making my garden more welcome for the good guys.

Good luck. I hope the advice you've gotten as a result of your post helps. I'd hate to see you give up!
 
gardener
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Brian I'm so sorry to hear your struggles. I would encourage you to not give up.  Once you figure it out, it's so very worth the time and effort.  

Like the majority I would strongly suggest raised beds.  I have several different types.  My favorite is my hugel beets.  I dug 2' down and filled it hugel style. towards the top I lined the edges with weed cloth so it was on the side, and dropped down into the bed a foot or two.  Then I laid down hardwire cloth(I didn't do this originally, and lost a lot of veggies to a gopher).  I put cinder blocks around the hole.  My paths have weed cloth with wood chips on top.  A lot of permies people are very against weed cloth. I understand why, but I have to many things to do to have to worry about my paths every year.  If you decide to use weed cloth, get the good stuff. I buy a large roll at Sam's club and it last many years.  Cardboard is great at suppressing weeds and is more natural, but at least where I live (N. Ca. zone 9b)  You have to replace it every year.   This raised bed style is amazing and I love them.  The problem with cinder blocks ( well any raised bed really) is if you don't have the area around them covered with some kind of weed block the grass will grow through the cracks.

I also made raised beds using corrugated steel, and old redwood fence boards.  I did line them with weed cloth to help keep the grass out.  I also filled them hugel style.  There isn't anything I can't grow in this style of raised bed. The benefit of this is I made it about 2' tall(I'm short) so it's a great height to garden. It's so easy to care for the garden when you don't have to get on your hand and knees.

My newest raised beds are made out of pallets I get for free at my work.  I use the heat treated ones so I don't bad chemicals leeching into the garden.  I don't treat them, so have no idea how long they will last, but they only cost me screws, and time. I enjoy making them. I also line them with weed cloth.  They preform as well as the others.
With all of these raised beds weeds aren't a problem. The key is not only the raised bed, but some kind of weed barrier a good distance around the bed. For me it's Bermuda grass. It will find every tiny crack.  When I redid some of my beds I removed the old weed cloth and there was Bermuda grass roots everywhere. They didn't die, they just kept going.

Most important is it's all about the soil.  This may take a while.  It sound like you have lots of great things to all to your soil.  If you are using your own compost I would make sure it's heating up enough for long enough. I struggle with this.  I have been buying organic compost which I'm sure isn't nearly as good as home made, but I just can't get mine to heat up.  If it doesn't heat up than the compost could contain any number of weed seeds.  In that case in stead of being gardeners gold it becomes our worst nightmare. I have had the most luck with the hugel style of filling garden beds.  The bottom gets covered with the largest wood I can get(In my case it was some old fire wood) native soil, branches, and smaller chunks of wood, soil compostable stuff, could be shredded cardboard, kitchen scraps, garden scraps, chicken coop bedding, leaves, just what ever I could find. Soil, wood chip, soil then I usually add what ever extra organic fertilizers I have, like bone meal, blood meal, azymite, green sand, organic veggie fertilizer.  I don't add much of any of this stuff, and It's always different depending on what I have on hand.  I use it because everything under that level is going to brake down.  While this is happening it can rob the soil of nitrogen.  I want to be able to use the bed from the start, so I add extra to get me through the process until time, and worms and all the fungi and critters have worked there magic to make amazing soil.  I finish off the top 8" to 12" with organic compost and soil.  

I like to over plant. When I first tried it I was sure I wouldn't get any veggies in that garden.  I really crammed a ton of stuff in a relatively small bed.  Veggies, herbs and flowers.  Strange enough I had more of everything. Veggies, flowers and herbs grew and produced like never before.   So far the only thing that didn't do well in this style of gardening is garlic.  At least for me it is unsocial and wants a bed of its own.  The nice thing about this style of gardening is you are bound to get something.  It also brings in the good bugs, helping the pest problem, and confuses the bad bugs making it harder for them to find there preferred meal, or home.  I've been organic gardening for several years. 3? years ago I stopped using all bug killers, even the organic stuff.  For the most part I just don't have pest issues. Well that's a lie at this very moment I plan to cover my beds with cyan pepper to try to keep the squirrels out. But not the bug kinds of pests.
The beauty of gardening can also be considered a curse depending how you look at it.  You will never know it all.  Once you figure out the key someone changes the lock.  I had almost no bug problems last year, now that I have tempted fate I could have nothing but this year.  I love it.  It's always an adventure, there is always something to learn.  Enjoy what works, learn from what doesn't. Get your hands in the soil and grow. I believe if you keep trying you will figure it out, and the victory will be sweeter.  Good luck to you.
 
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I agree with Abraham about the Soil Food Web information.  You are feeding the grasses and weeds.  They grow where the soil is deficient in calcium/phosphates and not enough humic acid to release the minerals.  Once the humate level is brought up and the proper minerals in balance, it will level out.  Nitrogen attracts insects and weeds like buttercup and thistles.  There is usually enough nitrogen in the air when actinomycetes are high enough in the soil to convert it when it comes down in rain water.  A little compost is great, too much is not great, but detrimental.   I can relate to those rhizomes being hard to eradicate.  Had a problem with Johnson Grass here and no matter how many times I deep dug them up, some were left and they just kept spreading, that is, until I got the balance right in the soil and then it disappeared,  Grasses are bacterial dominant, and most broad leafed plants are fungal dominant, but at some point in their lifetime they usually switch, but most soil has a little of both so it balances itself out.  Leaf mold is fungal and green matter including grasses are bacterial when you are making compost.   That’s why it is good to use both.   Throw in a little rotten bark or wood and mushrooms too.  

I do like raised beds or containers because I can control the soil in it better, and with age it is easier not to have to do all that stooping.  Mulches keep soil soft and protect the microbes which are essential for healthy crops, since they have to break down the minerals to make them available to plants as they (microbes) die.  

Don’t get disheartened and give up, just try something you haven’t done yet.  Gypsum or baking soda can soften hardpan soils.  Just mix into water and disperse over it.  Use a watering can or let it settle out and use the clear water in a sprayer so it doesn’t clog it.  
 
Anne Miller
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Faye Streiff wrote: I can relate to those rhizomes being hard to eradicate.  Had a problem with Johnson Grass here and no matter how many times I deep dug them up, some were left and they just kept spreading, that is, until I got the balance right in the soil and then it disappeared,  Grasses are bacterial dominant, and most broad leafed plants are fungal dominant, but at some point in their lifetime they usually switch, but most soil has a little of both so it balances itself out.  Leaf mold is fungal and green matter including grasses are bacterial when you are making compost.   That’s why it is good to use both.   Throw in a little rotten bark or wood and mushrooms too.    



Faye brings up a good suggestion about building soil with leaf mold, rotten wood, and mushrooms.

Here are some threads on building soil health for anyone interested:

https://permies.com/t/98472/Building-soil-Nutrient-Dense-Foods

https://permies.com/t/12664/Building-soil-leaf-mulch

https://permies.com/t/174352/lazy-approach-improving-soil
 
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