How to work your garden and not vice versa

HELLO, GREEN: Winter peas emerge as a harbinger of spring and the launch of gardening season. Photo courtesy of Wild Abundance

Greetings, gardeners! It’s that time of year again when the soil starts warming and we become busy bees preparing and planting our patches of earth for the miracle of growth.

My name is Chloe, and I’ve been growing food for over 20 years, including the last 11 here in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I also teach about gardening through the Wild Abundance Online Gardening School and share my knowledge each month with y’all here in Mountain Xpress.

As you sow, transplant, water, weed and harvest, please send any gardening questions to, and I’ll do my best to answer them. My background is in holistic, organic agroecology, so I love hearing and unpacking complex questions. I hope to help us all get more deeply in touch with the magical dance of creation that’s happening every moment in our gardens. 

Tips for planning a stress-free garden  

It’s so easy to overdo it. This time of year, most of the garden is in the visionary realm. Are you hanging out there? Paging through seed catalogs, drawing up garden plans, imagining the dinner parties you’ll host and jars and jars of salsa you’ll put up and give away as gifts? This is fun, but it’s important to remember that your fantasies about your garden and your actual garden are two different things. 

As those grand ideas get translated into action, there are a few tips I’d like to share from many years of overdoing it, so that hopefully you can pace yourself and harvest serenity along with cucumbers. 

First of all, you don’t have to grow everything! For first-time gardeners, I usually suggest choosing about five kinds of crops to start with, up to eight or 10 if you’re feeling really ambitious. This is not only so that you don’t get overwhelmed, but also so that you can really pay attention to those crops and learn how to care for them. This knowledge will become foundational as you add more crops over time. Even for experienced gardeners, the principle of “less is more” can go a long way. When deciding what to grow, some helpful questions to ask yourself are: What do you really like eating? What grows well in your conditions? What’s easy to grow but costs a lot at the store or farmers market? The answers to these can help guide your choices about what to prioritize in your garden this year. 

My second tip is to consider how much care and attention a given crop will need over the course of its life. It can be supereasy to plant a huge garden, but keeping that garden weeded and watered, minimizing pests, and harvesting and processing all the bounty may easily add up to too much work over the growing season. 

Along with the total amount of care a given crop will need, think about when that work will need to be done. For example, green beans have a harvest window of several weeks, during which they’ll need to be picked every few days. That can be a fun chore if you have the time or a stressful obligation if you’ve got a bunch of other crops needing your attention right then, too. Generally speaking, fruit crops (beans, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis, etc.) will need more regular care and attention because of the extended period of harvest. Climbing crops like pole beans and indeterminate tomatoes will need trellising. To grow tomatoes in our warm and wet climate, they greatly benefit from regular pruning. Take all of these tasks and the time they take into account when you plan your garden.

My third tip is mulch, mulch, mulch. One of the most overwhelming parts of a garden is the weed pressure. A thick layer of organic mulch or a weed barrier material can dramatically reduce the time and stress of dealing with weeds. For small to medium-sized gardens, my preferred mulches are straw, hay or leaves. Both straw and leaves are nice because they rarely harbor weed seeds themselves, but they can be harder to obtain. Hay is readily available in our region rich in animal agriculture, but sometimes it has weed seeds in it. For larger plantings, my go-to weed barrier fabric is a woven polypropylene groundcover, UV-treated, Dewitt Sunbelt 3.2 ounce or similar. This is available at Home Depot or online. 

Mulch recommendations 

Here’s how I recommend using mulch: For early spring plantings, let the soil remain exposed for a month or so, weed at least once, then mulch; for later plantings, transplant directly into mulch or mulch after direct-sow crops are big enough, weeding until then. When temperatures are still cool (now until sometime in April or May; we’ll see how it goes this year), mulch can be an appealing habitat for slugs. I’ve lost entire beds of spring brassicas to slugs when I transplanted robust little plants directly into mulch. Another reason to wait to lay mulch in early spring is that you want the sun to directly warm the soil, as opposed to summertime when the cooling effect of the mulch is welcome. 

Once your plants are big enough and the soil is warm enough, do a thorough weeding either by hand or with one of my favorite garden tools, the stirrup hoe (aka Scuffle hoe, hula hoe, etc.), then lay down mulch about 3-5 inches thick, depending on the height of your plants. Yes, this is a thick layer. Thinner than that won’t be an effective weed barrier and will end up just getting in the way of weeding tools. If you don’t have enough material to mulch this thickly, get more! Weed barrier “fabric” (which is essentially specialized plastic) does the job all on its own but will need to be held down somehow so it doesn’t blow away in the wind. One option is to lay down the plastic, then layer some organic mulch on top to hold it down. Sandbags, logs and landscaping staples also can be used. 

I don’t use wood chips as mulch in my annual garden. There are two reasons I make this choice: One is that woody materials are broken down mostly by fungi, which are more beneficial to woody plants than annual plants. Second, and perhaps more practically, I’ve found that it’s hard to get a thick enough layer of wood chips to stop weed growth, while also leaving room for growing veggies. Unlike straw, hay and leaves, wood chips don’t clump together. Because they’re small particles, they tumble down the edges when they’re piled up high enough to block light from the soil. This makes it hard to pile them thickly without avalanching over and burying the plants you’re trying to protect from weeds. I love using wood chips to mulch trees and shrubs, but they just don’t work well for annual gardening, in my opinion. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, my third tip to avoid getting overwhelmed is to get in touch with why you want to garden in the first place. It almost goes without saying that you want to garden to harvest food to eat, but most of us have many layers of goals and intentions wrapped up in our gardening endeavors. Some examples: to get outside more; to connect with the seasons; to feed pollinators and other beneficials;  to teach my kids about where food comes from; to connect with my neighbors more, etc. If you can explicitly name the intangible goals you have, then you can more easily notice when you’re addressing them. Then, if you end up losing all of your cukes to striped cucumber beetles but you make it into a learning experience for you and your children, you’ll recognize the multifaceted bounty of experience and connection that your garden is giving. 


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2 thoughts on “How to work your garden and not vice versa

  1. Ron Leach

    Really good read for all of us dreaming about what to plant this year and setting the right expectations.

  2. martha

    hi, Chloe – thanks for this! I live in Kenilworth, new gardener, and am thinking about planting black/blue/strawberries in my first yard which we cleared of ivy. Any advice on dealing with wildlife – bears (which we seem to have plenty of here), birds, squirrels? any asheville-specific advice?

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