Saving work! Easier ways to cut labour

With nearly an acre of garden; forty raised vegetable beds, almost a thousand different species and varieties of plants I rarely have time to have visitors. But there are some questions those few visitors inevitably ask and the most common is "How do you look after all this?" They find it hard to believe that I do not have several under gardeners to help me. Sure I would be only too pleased to have help but it's hard to find, and especially when you don't want to pay, or delegate. My garden is a multitude of long term experiments that well meaning people could so easily and unwittingly interfere with.

In fact the growing of my kitchen garden crops is relatively little work at all compared to the time taken to pick, process preserve and store them; take just peas for example. Also I've nearly always found that the actual gardening has taken no more time, work and effort than the ancillary tasks from all that processing of crops to the maintenance of the fabric of the buildings, fences, paths, tools and so on.

Indeed it is amazing how many tv programmes there are on making a garden and not on maintaining one, more easily! It's far different work to maintain a large garden than to design and build one. Making a garden is a short term intensive set of very specific jobs with sudden visual impact whereas the maintenance needs be more subtle and requires much more planning and care or we waste a lot of our efforts and never achieve what we wanted in the first place.

It's certainly possible to get very good yields of many crops without doing all the work as recommended by experts. You see most of the advice is sincerely given but is aimed at producing either prize specimens or the maximum weight per area of production! For example there is a lot talked about runner beans and site preparation for them; in the real world once you get them past three inches high (which is the hard bit) then given a warm summer you will invariably give away carrier bags of beans, you want more bags then sow another foot of row!

My aim in growing my own is quality first; flavour and texture are paramount, yields are almost irrelevant but the work load incurred is not. There is a term Minimax; getting the maximum from the minimum effort, and for that I find we need ignore the counsels of perfection given us by the experts. Too often their advice leads to counterproductive work. Some following tradition still tie up their poor daffodil's leaves into sad ineffectual little bundles. Worse served are those led to bend down their onion necks; this insane quest for neatness frequently damages the tissues resulting in neck rot. And there's suggestions of such duff a nature as "Parsnips can be sown in a warm sheltered border from the middle of February" True, but they won't come up, and if they did then come June do you want that warm sheltered border to be packed with parsnips?

Few experts tell us much useful for saving effort but always more ways to get even better yields or bigger sizes by making ever more complication and work. I suspect it is because the real work is rather mundane, yet without doubt the best savings of work are to be found in doing the most repetitious jobs as these take the most time in the year. In the kitchen garden I find the biggest workloads to be associated with three areas: Weed control, Sowing & Planting and Watering. So it is to these I have applied most attention.

We spend a lot of time weeding. And in most kitchen gardens that means hoeing. And a funny old thing is that so many hoes just won't hold an edge. Indeed many of them don't even come with an edge and you have to put one on. Now a hoe is a knife on the end of a stick, the idea is to cut the weeds in half so that they die. Yet half the world goes round hoeing with a hoe that won't cut. Hoeing is much much easier with a sharp hoe! I have a sharpening stone I keep with me and I put the edge back on every five minutes or so. Then the hoeing flies by.

The autumn dig is once off work which takes ages; I've never done it here. I had tried digging and not digging methods before and apart from a couple of trial beds initially none of my forty beds here has ever been regularly autumn dug as such in nearly two decades. After all the soil disturbance getting up the carrots, other roots and the potatoes is plenty enough every few years as the rotation comes round. I found that if I didn't dig I had far far fewer weeds to deal with. Disturb the soil you get more weeds from more seeds germinating. So much weed control is exercised by never giving them opportunity to start!

There is no work more disappointing than wasted work. I hate to see all my early pea seedlings eaten by the pigeons or the slugs and cutworms scoffing my newly planted brassicas, beetroot, lettuce and chards. Thus I not only sow and plant carefully but invariably use some form of protection even if only a wire netting barricade to keep off the moggies and birds from everything. I am determined not to need to resow or replant where I can easily prevent the damage. Thus carrots are always grown under fine netting to keep off the root fly and a plastic bottle cloche is used for each and every more tender or susceptible plant planted out or sown in situ. Good supports are used to keep the plants happy, peas are happier on the more rigid chicken wire netting than they are on plastic -and at the end of the season the wire can be rolled up and all traces of haulm, disease and pest burnt off it.

Wherever possible I combine crops to save effort, and even supports. So broad beans are sown in the same holes as maincrop potatoes. running French beans, runner beans and squashes are sown in the same holes as sweet corn and climb up them. Both this and last year's sunflower stems can be used in the same way. I use two posts and a top rail like a mini goalpost to hang strings supporting my tomatoes rather than give each an individual cane. And a flysheet of clear plastic to keep off the late frosts and the worst weather while they establish.

I also ensure nothing ever goes short on water as this is critical. Most crops are got into the ground as soon as possible where less attention is needed to be given them, and in most cases they are mulched as well. I have put water butts wherever I have gutters to collect water and connected these by siphon to other water butts next to where I need it such as in the greenhouse, by the coldframe and by the patio. Surplus water is also taken by overflow and siphons to watering troughs full of gravel under plants in the ground rather than to the drains! I have a system of hoses so that if I need water it can be had to hand by altering connections rather than having to lug hose around. And I have many watering cans so one is always nearby.

I employ a flock of chickens in my orchard and they are very useful for pest and disease control there. They pre-process everything for th compost heap, supply activator and eggs. However they are not to be trusted in the vegetable beds! Ducks do less damage as they do not scratch and Muscovies in particular are trusty snail and slug controls. (They will steal low fruit though!)

Wherever possible I use thick straw mulches to save weeding and watering. It is almost essential here in driest East Anglia. In particular I use it for No dig No weed autumn planted spuds. It is nice to shift the work to the autumn and free up time in spring and there is then no work till the harvest -which is more of an uncovering. Yields are less than by the make work method but who cares, I get enough anyway.

Where weeds start to get hold I mulch them out with thick layers of straw on top of plastic or I use pieces of old carpet as a mulch. Newspaper is a good mulch in thick layers and held down with tyre cut outs. I use it around young trees and soft fruits, it does not look bad once aged and could be visually improved with a thin sprinkling of composted bark.

Where I have grass paths around the beds and between fruit trees I have filled up their margins with herbs, bulbs and wild flowers. This saves mowing each such strip, it saves edging each strip and the strips become of interest and wildlife use into the bargain. I expected my berries to suffer the increased competition from unrestrained "weeds" underneath but in fact the yields increased as birds became worried the long grass may hide a cat.

And I do not fight nature. Where I get a worn patch in the grass I put in a stepping stone rather than keep trying to encourage or replace the turf. And down the middle of the most frequently trod path I laid a slab path, point to point so that it makes a continuous path at minimal cost and perfect for rolling a wheel barrow along.

But most of all I make sure I don't waste work growing things I really have no use for. I hate to go to all the work of growing it unless it's different, wonderfully scented or gorgeous to eat. Thus I rarely grow more than two Brussels sprout plants or six parsnips unless I'm conducting a trial. But most years I have a vast area devoted to strawberries, raspberries, sweet corn and very tasty sorts of potatoes!