October 15, 2018
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How to keep your garden from falling to weeds when life gets busy

Last summer, horticulturist Kate Garland’s home vegetable garden looked just terrible.

But to be fair, she had a lot going on. At the time, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator was pregnant with her second daughter and busy trying to keep up with her first, a firecracker of a 3-year-old named Lucy. She and her husband, carpenter Josh Garland, had full-time jobs and when they weren’t at work, they were doing house projects at the old family camp where they live or building their new home on a dirt road in Clifton.

“Something’s got to give,” Kate Garland said recently.

What gave was the garden, though it took her awhile to admit the truth of what was going on. In past seasons, she and her husband spent many endless hours cultivating more than 3,500 square feet of juicy tomatoes, crisp peas, tender beans and so much more. But not last summer, when too many vegetables were left unweeded, unwatered and unharvested.

The only things I grew were weeds, a big belly and a sweet baby girl who arrived in December,” she wrote in the April edition of Maine Home Garden News, the Cooperative Extension’s online newsletter. “I reveal my horticultural tragedy and subsequent plans to recover from it to serve as both solace and inspiration for those of you who might also be struggling with limited time, energy and focus.”

So this year, Kate Garland is hoping her garden travails can help others who find themselves in a similar predicament. She’s turning her attention to what could almost be described as “ungardening,” or preparing her unused garden plot in a way that will keep down weeds and keep the soil in good shape for the future. She is happy to share what she is learning about how to best do that so that an unused garden can easily return to production one day.

“We didn’t ungarden last year and now we are paying the price,” she said. “Planned and unplanned things in life do happen, that’s for sure.”

Sometimes people take a break from their gardens because lives got hectic, as was the case for her. They might be traveling during critical planting or growing times, or have simply lost their garden moxie after the death of a spouse or while caring for elderly relatives.

“Ungardening comes up for so many reasons,” Garland said. “Eventually, people do want to get back to it. And if you can know your soil is OK and is not going to be overrun with weeds, it’s better.”

The two large garden plots she and her husband used to work had been woods and fields not so long ago. They bought their property in 2006, and that summer they had their first garden. It was a big effort to turn the rocky dirt into productive soil, Kate Garland said. They scraped up the dirt from the garden plot and screened it to remove the rocks, using a chain link fence set on top of a frame. They also tested the soil’s pH and then added organic material to make it the most productive it could be. It would be a shame to lose all that work, she said, and so they are taking concrete steps this year to protect their dirt and time investment while they plan a busy summer of camping trips, family and fun with Lucy, now 4, and her baby sister Sophie.

Those steps include the following:

— Mulching some of the beds with 5 inches of shredded leaves or straw. She is planning to do most of her mulching with leaves that she will shred with a mulching mower, a leaf shredder or by carefully using a weed whacker in a plastic bin. According to Kate Garland, shredded leaves will decompose and stay in place better than unshredded leaves.

— Using sheets of clear plastic salvaged from their construction project to solarize some of the garden space. Solarizing, which can take about six weeks to be truly effective, allows some weed seeds to germinate but then the heat from the sun-warmed plastic kills weeds and disease organisms in the top six inches of soil. “I think the concept is a cool concept,” she said. “It helps you to deplete the seedbank by causing them to germinate.”

— Placing large pieces of cardboard, also salvaged from their house project, on the permanent walkways they have established between garden beds then covering them with wood chips. Garland said that having permanent walkways between 4-foot wide beds helps reduce the amount of compaction in planting areas, which in turn can minimize or eliminate the need to do mechanical cultivation.

— Planting cover crops strategically on some garden beds. The Garland’s garden is plagued by crabgrass, an annual weed, and they will try to suppress it by a quick-growing crop of buckwheat. They’ll mow that buckwheat back about 10 to 15 days after it begins to flower in order to keep the seed from becoming a nuisance. They then plan to follow buckwheat with a crop of oats to finish the season.

— Mowing along the margins of the garden to avoid adding weed seeds to the soil.

“You can keep the space,” Garland said. “Your garden can still be really productive, even while it’s resting.”

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