At Home in New Hampshire > How Much Gardening

It’s not time yet to plant tomatoes. But my brain is already fast-forwarding to summer, and one of my favorite tunes from Porgy and Bess: “Summertime and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.” Now is the time we must all decide how much time and energy will go into our gardens, and how much time we will save for going to the lake with kids or grandkids, or just plain goofing off.

Goofing off is not easy for me. Raised in the tradition of New England Calvinists, I was brought up to believe that laziness—exemplified by weeds in the garden—is a sign of moral failure. At age sixty-two, I have come to realize that weeds—both real and metaphorical— are part of life, and that I have to accept them. Still, it’s a rare day that I take time to lie down in my hammock.

Over the years, I’ve found ways to keep a big garden looking good without totally devoting my life to it. Here are a few of my tricks: Each fall, I prepare my vegetable garden for spring, pulling out weeds, adding compost to the beds and shaping the mounds that make my raised beds each summer. I cover the beds with chopped leaves to keep weeds from getting established early in the spring before I am ready for them.

Each spring, I pull off the mulch in my beds, raking it into the walkways. This allows the sun to warm and dry the soil. It also lets weeds germinate when I am ready for them—not before. Small weeds are easily eliminated by hoeing them down on a hot day when the sun will dry out their tiny rootlets. Do that a couple of times, barely disturbing the soil, and your lettuce and tomatoes will not be competing with so many weeds. And you will have more time to goof off later.

Once my plants are established and soil is warm, I move some mulch back around the plants, and my weeding is kept to a minimum. I like to put a layer of newspaper (six pages is fine) under the mulch. That helps keep out the light, which triggers weed germination. If you don’t have leaves for the mulch, hay or grass clippings work fine, too.

I tend to grow more plants than I really need. Most of us do. That’s why, come August, there are so many zucchini jokes and why “smart” folks just wait for those bags of tomatoes that many of us bring to our friends. But this year, I really am going to try to limit my garden.

Usually I grow about forty tomato plants; this year, I think thirty might be better. Don’t gasp. I have tricks for preserving tomatoes, so I don’t spend all of August at the stove making sauce. Instead, I freeze whole tomatoes, making
“red rocks” that I use later to make sauce when I need it. I just put them in the freezer whole and once they’re frozen, store them in freezer bags.

I grow between eight and ten cherry-tomato plants most years. To enliven any stew, pasta dish or winter salad, I put away, literally, thousands of these little gems by cutting the fruit in half and using a good food dehydrator. It’s a quick and easy process.

I always like to try new things in the garden. Last summer, I started some purple kohlrabi from seed and was amazed. They grew almost as fast as radishes, producing strange and wonderful-looking above-ground root crops the size of softballs. Kohlrabi are great raw in salads or cooked in stews. I’ll be growing more of them this summer.

So, if you are planning a vegetable garden this summer, I wish you luck.
I hope you won’t bite off more than you can chew and that you save a little time for goofing off. I plan to.