Does your garden often get overshadowed by your busy schedule? Are you looking for a low maintenance garden that fits your lifestyle? Here are some crops that will allow you to reap an abundant harvest with less work.
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For many of you, your garden is your happy place. It’s where you go for a timeout from this fast-paced world, and where you reap delicious rewards for your toils.
But what happens when time gets away from you (whether it’s your job or running kids to and fro), your beloved garden grows full of weeds, and becomes a source of stress instead of solace?
Then you’re ready to focus on the following crops that give a lot without taking your sanity.
Annual Crops with a Long Season
Let’s start with the vegetable crops that will help you fall in love with your garden again. What we’re looking for here are set-it-and-forget-it crops that have a long season, don’t need a lot of babying, and are generally harvested all at one time so you don’t have to constantly be checking the garden, afraid of missing out on a harvest.
The most ideal set-it-and-forget-it crops store well, too. That way, there’s not a lot of pressure to process them right away before they go bad.
Ideal Annual Crops: Garlic, Onions, Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Winter Squash
These crops are ideal because they have a long season, are harvested all at once, and after a bit of curing, will go into cold storage for up to 8 months or so. Because of their longevity, there is no need to worry they will go bad if you can’t use them up right away.
Want to read more about proper cold storage? Check out the book Root Cellaring for proper storage techniques for each type of fruit or vegetable.
Pretty Good Annual Crops: Asparagus*, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Leeks, Tomatoes**, Watermelon
These crops are pretty good because they have a long season and are harvested all at once. However, they will need some attention after harvesting, which makes them not as ideal as the list above. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and leeks will need refrigerated and will have varying storage lengths.
Watermelons can remain in cold storage (whole) for 2-3 weeks. After that you’ll need to preserve them.
*Asparagus is a perennial rather than an annual. But since I’m talking about low maintenance vegetables here, I have to mention this easy-to-grow crop. Plant it once and get years of harvests! I put it here in the pretty good category, because it will need eaten or processed fairly soon after harvesting. And don’t forget to give it a good prune before winter.
**Tomatoes: Grow a determinate variety to get a bumper crop that is harvested all at once. While tomatoes can sit out at room temperature for 2-3 days, they will need processing after that. The quickest method is to freeze them whole, but since tomatoes are bulky, you’ll need a good sized freezer. Try San Marzano tomatoes! I love these heirloom tomatoes that are excellent for making sauces.
Are you looking for more strategies to grow food with the time you have? You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Herbs for the Low Maintenance Garden
If you’re looking for the ultimate low maintenance crop that could even be ignored straight through the harvest window if need be, herbs are it.
Ideal Herbs: Chives, Oregano, Thyme
The reason why I like these three herbs is that they are perennial, so they only need planted once, coming back every year without any work on your part. Most fruits and many vegetables will rot and become a smelly eyesore in the garden if you don’t get around to harvesting them, but this is thankfully not the case with herbs.
Now, there are a lot of perennial herbs, but here I’m sticking to the most popular culinary herbs that are easy to use in the kitchen. If you live in hardiness zones 7-10, you may also want to grow rosemary.
Fresh herbs are potent sources of nutrients, so adding just a tiny bit to meals can have a healthful effect. Try adding a handful of diced chives to mashed potatoes, fresh oregano leaves to pasta or pizza sauce, or fresh thyme leaves to rotisserie chicken or vegetable soup, for example.
I love having these herbs right outside my kitchen door for a quick trip while making dinner!
Pruning them regularly will keep the plants full and healthy. One pruning in late spring and another around August back to about 5 inches of growth will keep them going indefinitely.
For more information on these herbs, see:
Pretty Good Herbs: Basil, Cilantro
These annual herbs aren’t as low maintenance as the perennial ones listed above, but they still beat many typical crops. Although they will need to be sown annually, I still enjoy growing them because even if their harvest windows pass you by, their flowers will be loved by pollinators and beneficial insects.
Basil sprigs along with sprigs of oregano, rosemary, and thyme can be stuck in a glass of water and kept on the counter until you need them. Just be sure to change the water every couple of days. After a while, they will grow roots which can be planted back out in the garden!
See How to Prune, Store, and Use Fresh Basil for more ideas.
Cilantro is one of my favorite flowers in the garden, so if I miss that short harvest window, I’m not too upset.
Fruits: The Ultimate Low Maintenance Crop
Most fruits are perennials, which of course means that once they are planted, they’ll keep giving year after year with just a little maintenance. Most fruits will enjoy one or two prunings per year, and a once-a-year nutrient boost from compost or another organic matter.
Other than that, your only mission if you choose to accept it, is to be aware of your fruit’s annual harvest window and make sure you’re around for it!
Ideal Fruits for Busy Gardeners: Apples (8 months), Citrus Fruits (1-2 months), Grapes (1-2 months), Pears (3-4 months)
When we stick to the notion that crops with a long storage life are the easiest to grow because we don’t have the pressure of using or processing the crops right away, the above fruits are some of the best to try if they grow well in your area.
I’ve put in parentheses above the amount of time each fruit is expected to store in ideal conditions. (Remember to check the Root Cellaring book mentioned above for all kinds of storage suggestions!)
Pretty Good Fruits for Busy Gardeners: Berries*, Pawpaws (several weeks), Plums (2-3 weeks)
*Berries are pretty good fruits to grow in that they are typically popular fruits most everyone will enjoy. The trouble is that they are highly perishable. Be ready to pop them in the freezer soon after harvesting so you don’t lose your harvest!
If pawpaws or plums grow well in your area, they will be reasonably low maintenance and give you at least a few weeks to figure out how to process them. Be sure to look for varieties of fruits that are (1) appropriate to your location, and (2) known to store well.
Cherries are my absolute favorite fruit, but I didn’t have the heart to list them here. That’s because cherries must be pitted before they can be frozen or dehydrated, and it is a fairly arduous, tedious process.
See my article 5 Steps to Planting Fruit Trees.
Tips for a Successful Low Maintenance Garden
Although this set-it-and-forget-it garden is sure to bring you loads of delicious satisfaction, there are a few things you can do to be more successful.
#1: Spend 15 minutes a day in the garden.
Say what? I know, I know, you’re busy.
Don’t worry about going out to the garden to work. Think of it as an observation period. If you follow my monthly garden planning suggestions or my 6 tips for success, you know that I am very protective of this 15 minutes a day.
Imagine going out on your lunch break, or even 7 minutes before work (with coffee) + 8 minutes after work (with favorite happy hour beverage) and just walking through your garden. It’s not only relaxing, but it will help you stay connected to your garden even if you don’t have a lot of time to spend on it.
You may get to enjoy your apple tree in bloom or notice that the asparagus is ready to harvest earlier than expected. It ensures you don’t miss out on the essential reasons for having a garden!
Plus, sometimes we’re so focused on a task list, that we forget to enjoy the garden. This special daily time helps us practice being as much as doing.
If you must, you could pull a few weeds while you’re out there.
#2: Mulch well.
If a low maintenance garden is what you’re after, spending some time to mulch the garden after planting will help you to keep the weeds at bay.
#3: Stagger harvest windows.
As you decide what to plant in your low maintenance garden, one thing to keep in mind is each crop’s harvest window. For the busy gardener, it may not be a good idea to have multiple crops coming to harvest at the same time. That’s because you may not have time to harvest and manage multiple crops at once.
At the original Tenth Acre Farm, I planted black raspberries, cherry trees, currant bushes, and strawberries in my edible front yard. It was gloriously beautiful and productive, but the trouble is that all of these fruits come to harvest at the same time! It was quite the whirlwind to keep all of these harvests from going to waste, and I don’t feel I was able to fully enjoy the gifts of each fruit.
You don’t want to risk missing out on a harvest because you ran out of time!
As you choose which crops to grow, also don’t forget to consider how you will process the bounty. Often it’s the processing that takes more time than the growing!
This of course depends on your circumstances. For some people, batching multiple harvests at once can help save time in the long run if you are able to plan for this period and make sure you’re available.
Which leads me to tip #4…
#4: Get it on the calendar.
Once you’ve decided what you want to plant, getting essential information on your calendar will ensure you don’t miss important garden events. Write down planting, harvesting, and pruning windows on your calendar for each crop so you don’t miss out. This is especially important over the summer when families are taking vacations!
If calendars and checklists help you stay organized, then you’ll love the FREE bonus materials that come with the purchase of my book The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People. You’ll get a seedstarting & planting worksheet which will tell you when to plant and when to expect a harvest, monthly checklists and calendars, and a harvest log.
Many of us find that our time in the garden is essential to our happiness, yet when times get busy, our happy place can turn into a source of stress as we juggle garden maintenance with real life. The crops in this article will help you make decisions that are appropriate to your lifestyle so that you can have a garden and eat the harvest, too.
What crops have you found keep you growing when your life gets busy?