Mother Earth Living

Garden Spaces: Plant the Easiest Garden Ever

When life intrudes on your hobby, try this garden plan to ease the workload.
By Kathleen Halloran
August/September 2011
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Illustration by Gayle Ford

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• Design Plans: Grow These Plants for the Easiest Garden Ever

Even if gardening is one of our favorite things to do, sometimes life sends us scrambling in other directions. We all know the feeling of being pulled from all sides, when we just don’t have the time or energy to tend the big garden of our fantasies. Perhaps it’s a new baby or grandchild, or recuperation from surgery, illness or injury, or a new and demanding job. There are many reasons why even the most avid gardeners among us occasionally yearn for a small, manageable, no-fuss garden bed.

If you find yourself in that position, take a tip from the growing numbers of backyard veggie growers who use 4-by-4 or 4-by-8-foot wooden box frames for tidy, little raised beds. Simple to put together, they are the easiest kind of garden beds imaginable to maintain, and there’s no reason you can’t borrow that concept for a small, neat perennial herb bed. The simple frame sets off the bountiful look of the herbs beautifully, and when you sit at the edge, every plant and weed is within reach.

The herb garden shown here is designed to be attractive even with very little time and effort from the gardener. After setting it up and filling it with a good soil, you can choose tough herbs that will pretty much take care of themselves but still provide plenty of flowers to make it colorful and cheerful. Herbs can showcase their carefree nature in a bed like this.

The Prep Work

For a little garden that won’t suck time and energy from you throughout the growing season, spend the time and money necessary to get it set up properly, which will pay you back for years.

Choose a spot in full sun, or at least six hours of sunlight a day. If it’s in an obvious place—close by or somewhere that you walk past and see every day—all the better. For example, a front-yard lawn would be a fine place for beds like this, which would cut down on the endless mowing, feeding and watering that most lawns require. Because you’re raising the bed, you can build it right on top of the grass, which will be smothered and gradually break down to feed the roots of the plants in the bed above it.

Look for a source of untreated lumber. Some lumber yards sell it, but ensure that it’s designated as untreated, because most lumber, including railroad ties and what is called landscape timber, is treated to make it last longer, usually with substances that you wouldn’t want leaching into your soil, especially if you plan to do any harvesting from this garden.

A height of 6 inches would be adequate, but 10 or 12 inches would be better. The lumber yard will cut it to the exact length you want, for free or for a small charge, then all you need is a simple bracket for each corner. A neighbor of mine made hers from untreated 2-by-12s that are sturdy enough for her to sit on at the edge and thick enough to last for years; she was especially grateful for it this year when she was recuperating from shoulder surgery.

Then find a good, fast-draining soil to fill your box with. A 4-by-8 bed like this one will take about a cubic yard of dirt, or about an average pickup truck load. Avoid the cheap fill dirt that builders use, if you can, and go for a good compost-based garden soil.

Garden Shortcuts

To make this garden as carefree as possible, choose plants that aren’t going to demand too much from you. Skip the annuals, which generally require more watering and maintenance, and use this bed for tough, drought-tolerant perennials. And remember that buying fresh basil and parsley at the farmers’ market or grocery store is an option. Don’t let time constraints get in the way of having delicious fresh herbs at home.

Don’t bother growing them from seed, or even from the small, more inexpensive potted transplants; if you start with quart- or gallon-sized plants, they’ll have more well-developed root systems and they’ll get established more quickly—and they’ll ask less of you.

Skip the herbs that are too aggressive, which will claim too much space or spread their seed too vigorously, as well as those that are not aggressive enough, which will need coddling or overwintering in pots indoors. Above all, choose plants that are suitable for your climate.

If you haven’t used mycorrhizal fungi before, look into this. It’s available in a number of products at good garden centers, either as a powder that’s sprinkled on the roots at planting time or in soluble form that can be watered in occasionally. (Some of the brand names include Plant Success, Great White, BioOrganics and Rooters.) Mycorrhizae are especially helpful in a no-fuss garden like this one, because the fungi attach to the roots and spread out a network of fine roots that feed water and nutrients to the plants—making them more drought-resistant and able to take up more nutrients even from poor soil.

Once your garden is planted, water it and fuss over the plants a bit until they’re well-established, then you can back off and let them assert their independence, while you kick up your feet. 

Kathleen Halloran is a freelance garden writer and editor living in beautiful Austin, Texas. She sometimes wishes she had a simple garden bed like this one.

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