The Lazy Gardener

Hey, gardeners! Have you heard about the lazy gardener trend? Lazy gardening is less work and more Nature. It’s also a different look, not as neat and tidy as my grandmother’s garden, and it breaks a few of the rules I learned from her. But fashion is the adjustment of the eye, and now that I’ve been practicing lazy gardening for a season, I see an important difference. I have many more pollinators working my plants. And I suspect I have a lot more mycelia growing in my soil. Also, I’m saving money. So, I’m on it, feeling the good vibrations, doing less to grow more. 

Billie Best garden

I’ve been gardening since I was five, when my grandmother taught me to plant seeds, water them and watch for sprouts. For her, order was paramount in the garden, evidence of the gardener’s work ethic. A gardener was judged by the straightness of her rows and the uniformity of growth. If a vegetable plant bolted into stalks of flower and seed, it was considered a mistake. Herbs were not allowed to mature and bloom before they were cut back. I never saw rhubarb, chard, parsley, or oregano bloom. It was against the rules. Finished vegetables and weeds were pulled up, roots and all, and dispatched to what we called the weed pile. Compost wasn’t part of our repertoire either. 

Soil was dirt and dirt was dirty, a necessary evil. Insects were the enemy. We used poison to kill disease, weeds, and bugs. Killing things was like cleaning, the exercise of our moral authority, the obligation of good citizenship, a signifier of our dominion. Soil microbes, bacteria, and fungi were not our allies. We didn’t see their utility. Microbial science had yet to penetrate the zeitgeist. Organic was not in our vocabulary. 

I was gardening for ten years before I heard the word pollution. Today whole aisles in the garden section are devoted to biocides while the media boo-hoo about butterfly extinction and the plight of bees. Hundreds of pesticide and herbicide brands come in stylish plastic bottles with adjustable spray nozzles that make it convenient to spread toxins on the land. Mainly we’re killing bird food. And there are so many kinds of poison to choose from, to doubt the efficacy of poison is to challenge the fruits of better living through chemistry. What are you, a communist?  

My grandmother would have found the two disorganizing principles of lazy gardening — diversity and decomposition — to be counter intuitive. Also, ugly. This year I grew a diverse mix of plants, including natives and common weeds, to build pollinator synergy and pest resilience in my garden. My grandmother would have cringed at the sight of milkweed, goldenrod, and Queen Anne’s lace in her little patch of heaven. To hold moisture in the soil and encourage the microbes, I used decomposing plant matter, clippings, and leaf litter from the plants that were already growing there. And I stopped pulling up finished plants by the roots. Instead, I cut them at the soil surface to let the roots decompose in the ground. Chop and drop! 

To my grandmother my garden would look unkempt. Sloppy. She would agree that I was a lazy gardener, but it wouldn’t have been a compliment. Laziness sounds easy, but it wasn’t that simple to give up this cultural indoctrination and habitual uprooting and tossing of deplorables. I had to have a little talk with myself. Stop pulling every weed! Stop removing litter from the surface of the soil like it was your kitchen floor! I’m not lazy! This mess you see is biology at work. 

Yes, bits of withering brown and yellow on my garden were a difficult adjustment. I needed a Twelve Step Program to unhook me from the rush of making dead plants disappear. But it’s a regenerative process, for me and my garden. Lazy gardening is circular gardening. Water and soil are conserved, and all the plant material in the garden is upcycled into nutrients for future plants. Think of it as composting in place. Chemical inputs and toxins are avoided. Pest management is a mix of tolerance, companion planting, encouraging natural enemies, trap species, crop rotation and patience. Mainly lazy gardening means no tilling, plowing, or digging. That’s a paradigm shift. The experiment continues.

Millions of us garden, spending billions of dollars a year to do it. How we garden has impact on our health and wellness, the ecology of our surroundings, the lifecycles of insects and birds, and the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. My soil, mulch, fertilizer, and pest management cost less, and I have more insects and birds in my garden. I love that. After a season experimenting with lazy gardening, I’m planning ways to become even lazier next year. 

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6 thoughts on “The Lazy Gardener

  1. Always been a lazy gardener. My dad plowed up the entire side yard to plant a garden. I enjoyed the fruits of said garden while watching our dog eat tomatoes off the vine. (Picture a Boxer snout covered in pulp and seeds). Now hubs plants “my herbs” in a raised bed so that I can occasionally snip them for dinner.

  2. Looks incredible, Billie. Closest I came to anything like this was our ‘wild garden’ back in Philly. I will never get my hands in the soil. I am a lazy non-gardener, but I love yr love for it.

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