Low Maintenance Gardening, by Northern Girl

I have been an avid gardener for many years, and most if what I have learned of has been through trial and error. Luckily, most of my errors have been corrected and when those errors did occur, it wasn’t a matter of eat or starve. I now know what plants will grow in Zone 3, and have learned that just because a seed company claims certain things will grow, it doesn’t always mean that they will. Learning from your mistakes now, can save you valuable time and energy when it counts. For example, I will never again try to grow watermelon when I only have a 90-100 day growing season regardless of what the seed company claims the time to maturity is, or if they say the variety I am trying to grow does well in northern climates. It’s not worth wasting precious space and resources.

My “in town” garden has been very reliable and predictable for the last few years so I wanted to try something different. My garden is not overly large (20×20) but I manage to produce a healthy amount of food each year. My other half, who doesn’t want me to increase the size of the garden in town, suggested we plant one at our retreat, even though it is 20 miles from where we currently live, and with our work schedules we are limited to going out there once a week. I thought this was a great idea, as we hope to be moving there within a year or so, and having an established garden ahead of time makes good sense. Problem was, how do we take care of it when we aren’t there? We knew we had to come up with an idea that would require little to no maintenance, but also provide enough food to make it worth our while. The results we got were amazing!

Some Background:
Our retreat is located 20 miles from town and is three miles down a dead end dirt road. Our nearest neighbor is over a ½ mile away and our driveway off the main road is a ¼ mile long. We are definitely off the beaten path, and are surrounded on three sides by Federal land. Wild game is plentiful, and we have trails through the woods leading to two great fishing lakes, one of which is only accessible by the general public in the winter when the swamp leading into it is frozen enough for snowmobile travel. Our trails cannot be seen from the air (we checked!) or the lakes. The location is perfect, even if our growing season isn’t.

I grew up where our retreat is located. We raised a few cows, pigs, and chickens for our personal use. My dad moved into town a few years ago (and has regretted it) when he decided that his “hobby farming” days were over. There is a small cabin on the property, and while it is livable, it needs a lot of work and is too small for more than one family to live in. We could move out there now if we had to, but we would prefer to wait until we can build a new, more efficient, masonry house with a basement and a second story. We have power on the property and an excellent well. The well is drilled to 50’, has a static water level of 18’ which enables us to use a hand pump if we had to, and is very clean and ice cold. The refill rate is estimated at 1,000 gallons per hour, so the last thing we are worried about is running out of safe drinking water. The cabin is heated by a wood stove, and there is also a non-electric propane furnace. There is also a small “barn” on the property. I use the term barn loosely, as it is nothing more than a 16×16 structure with a slightly sloping metal roof.
The property is mostly wooded, with a few acres that we had cleared and fenced for the cows. The soil conditions aren’t great because the ledge rock is very near the surface. This makes even putting in fence posts difficult, so our dilemma was where to put a garden. This endeavor was meant to be as easy and inexpensive as possible, so we decided that container gardening was the way to go. Luckily for us, we have many years’ worth of well composted manure and six old bathtubs that we had used as water troughs for the animals. The bath tubs were free for the taking from a local motel during a remodel years ago, and, with no livestock using them now, were just taking up space. After reclaiming an old twin sized bed spring and 10 used tires, we were set to go.

After moving the tubs to a level spot behind the barn, we removed the plugs we had welded into 5 of the tubs, filled them with 3 inches of gravel and topped them off with composted manure. The 6th tub was placed under the eave of the barn to collect water. Remember, this was supposed to be as low maintenance as possible, so even though we have a great well, why haul water when you don’t have to. We did not screen the manure, but did remove the top layer of sod and any visible roots. The years of composting seemed to have killed any weed seeds, as there was very little weeding that needed to be done during the growing season.
Here’s what we planted: One tub contained lettuce and carrots. Cucumbers filled another. Pumpkins got their own tub. Spaghetti squash and acorn squash shared a tub, as did bush green beans and pole wax beans. We buried the bed spring in the deepest tub, braced it with a fence post, planted the wax beans next to the bed spring and planted the bush beans along the outside of the tub. The tires were stacked two high and filled with the composted manure. In them, we planted 2 Roma tomatoes and 3 Beefsteak tomatoes. Aside from the lettuce (some of my seeds had gotten damp and I didn’t dare try to save them) I purposely choose plants that typically aren’t grown in containers. I already knew that peppers, spinach, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower would thrive in something as small as a window sill planter, so this was my chance to try something new and correct any mistakes when they were nothing more than a small annoyance.

We were able to prepare and fill all the tubs and tire planters in one afternoon. Planting took no time at all and we were on our way to the easiest gardening experience I have ever seen. Aside from our first afternoon, we were able to maintain this garden with 20 minutes worth of work a week. The composted manure did an excellent job of holding enough water to keep the plants healthy, but the gravel in the bottom of the tubs allowed the extra water to drain away. Since we hadn’t packed the inside of the tires themselves with soil, but had just filled the center circle where the rim would have been, the excess water was able to drain into them and slowly water the tomatoes throughout the week. The majority of the water we needed for the garden was collected by the tub placed under the barn eve. We did have to haul water a couple times, but had we put up a simple gutter with a downspout, this wouldn’t have been an issue. It took a total of 15 gallons a week to keep everything healthy. Each tub got 2 gallons, and each tomato planter got one. The rest was provided by Mother Nature. Had it been a normal year for rainfall, we wouldn’t have had to water at all.

We had one area where we were able to till the soil enough to plant a 15×25 foot patch of potatoes. In that area we planted Reds, Yukon Golds, and Russets so that we could determine which ones would grow the best. We did not water or hill the potatoes the entire season, and even though it was unusually dry, all varieties did very well. We ended up with over 200lbs of potatoes from that patch, and we are still eating in mid January.

In this small garden, we ended up with a total of 80 lbs of tomatoes, 23 pints of bean that we canned plus another 4lbs or so that we ate fresh, more lettuce than we could eat or give away, about 15 lbs of cucumbers, 14 quarts of pumpkin, and numerous squash. The carrots did ok, but I didn’t thin them enough so they were kind of small. Overall, I was quite pleased with the results, especially with how little work we put into this. Had we hilled the potatoes or pruned the tomatoes, I have no doubt that our yield would have been much bigger, but in a survival situation, time needs to be spent wisely. Firewood doesn’t cut and split itself, laundry doesn’t magically appear clean and folded, and the dog doesn’t know how to cook dinner.

This method of gardening will also allow us to plant numerous small gardens hidden all over the property and even on the neighboring Federal land if needed. I believe this will be an advantage for a few reasons: 1) If one garden is discovered by 2 or 4 legged animals, they will not get your entire season’s worth of work. 2) If one garden is hit by disease, there is a chance that the others will escape. 3) Plants such as peas and spinach that prefer cooler temps can be grown in a spot that is slightly shaded in the afternoon, whereas tomatoes can go in a spot that receives full sun. 4) There is less of a chance of open pollination plants cross breeding if they are kept separated. It was not a good idea for me to plant two types of squash right next to each other as now I cannot be sure that the seeds will breed true next year. It is not a big deal right now, as I have more heirloom seeds, but in the future it could be a problem.

We are already planning this spring’s expansion. There is one more spot on the property where there is good soil and is large enough for more potatoes where we can till the ground without running into ledge rock. There is enough composted manure for at least four more gardens that are the size of the one we have, and we have spots picked out to hide them. All we need now are containers to plant in. While we did not fence in our garden this time, we will be surrounding every one we put up from now on with chicken wire to protect them from animals. I found it a bit humorous that the deer were bedding down in our potato patch, but they did ruin quite a few by exposing them to sunlight. A simple gutter and larger holding tank will keep us supplied with plenty of water, and we are kicking around the idea of constructing an 8×8 sloped surface (such as two sheets of plywood or a tarp on a frame of 2x4s) with a gutter and rain barrel system at each site to collect rain water. Not that we couldn’t haul it, but there are many things I would rather do than haul water a ¼ mile through the woods for a garden. We are also going to start a compost pile so we can keep our soil healthy. My plan is to grow twice the amount of food that we need, so that plenty can be given to others or used for barter, and so that we have a backup should we have a bad season.

Our total investment for this project was less than $30 for seeds and plants, plus some sweat equity.