The Gentle Art of Non-Gardening

From Gene Logsdon

About ten years ago, I planted some bibb lettuce, and though it is my favorite kind (Buttercrunch), I haven’t planted it in the garden since then. Haven’t had to. It comes up every year all on its lonesome. All I have to do is not take care of it very well, that is let it go to seed and sprawl all over. Nature does the rest. The lettuce blooms and reseeds itself helter-skelter. All I have to do is keep the tiller away when the seedlings come up in early spring. The neat thing about it is that, as you can see from the photo, the lettuce grows so thickly that hardly any weeds grow up in it, but only around it.

This non-gardening drama repeats itself every year. The most amazing aspect of it, and I don’t know why, is that this “wild” lettuce is ready to eat before the lettuce that I plant early in the cold frame, coddled with compost and protected with a plastic cover on cold nights. The “wild” lettuce grows faster. If I had any brains, I would quit the cold-frame lettuce, but so far I just don’t have enough faith in nature to do it.

Nor does this “wild” lettuce show any signs of decreasing in quality or taste. I presume that coming from seed now for many years, it does not carry the hybrid vigor or quality of the original Buttercrunch but it makes mighty fine lettuce anyway.

Non-gardening, or as my very particular sister calls it, “slop-gardening,” works for radishes, kale and sometimes broccoli in my experience. I would assume that with a little luck and laziness, anything that matures seed in one season can be non-gardened.

If when harvesting potatoes, you miss some, they will sprout and grow in the Spring if they are in the ground deep enough not to get frozen over winter. They grow just as well as the new crop I plant in the standard manner. I have often considered planting my spuds in the fall rather than spring and not have to battle mud and early frost in spring planting. But again, I don’t have enough faith.

Onions growing from onion sets, left in the garden in the fall will often overwinter and grow new tender, little stalks very early in the spring. Peas allowed to mature from an early crop will drop seed which will sprout and grow if you get sufficient August and September rains. Mine are usually too late to make peas before frost but I know gardeners who regularly plant peas for a fall crop and get one.

A non-garden will of course look the part. It will be all raggedy-annie and will require some hand-weeding. But if you can rid yourself of the Germanic impulse that most of us carry in our genes and get accustomed to a lack of weedless, straight row-ness, you soon realize that you don’t need an absolutely weed-free garden to get food from it. And of course, some of the weeds taste good too.

I don’t imagine that non-gardening will ever become popular because it requires, as I keep saying, in a trust in nature or in fate that few of us are willing to stake our food supply on. But it is fun to think about. When I was a child on the farm, we picked lots of food from the wild including strawberries and raspberries and many other kinds of wild fruits and nuts. My wife’s family picked wild blackberries for market. Dandelions were the usual early spring salad. But we never thought that perhaps most of our garden food could come from wild-like plantings. We had passed from the hunting and gathering era of human progress and by heaven we were going to sweat and slave to get our food from a settled, stable agriculture and horticulture.

Asparagus comes closest of all our domesticated vegetables to being a product of non-gardening and indeed it does grow wild and many people gather it that way. And now I know that I can trust nature to give me plenty of lettuce without having to plant the stuff. I keep asking myself how far in this direction a crafty gardener might go. I keep hoping someone will do it. As I say, I just don’t have enough faith yet.
~~

15 Comments

Well, from my experience, onions is one thing that don’t like to be tended very much. It seems that if you don’t worry them too much they do better. They’ll hold their own against weeds pretty good. It don’t seem like the weeds bother them so much as somebody going out there and stirring around with them.

Some other people have tried this and it seemed to work for them too.

I don’t think I’d try it with sweet potatoes though.

Leigh, what a delight! I vote for you. Write a book and call it Slop Gardening. Gene Logsdon

Cool term, “slop gardening”. Get some faith, Gene! I’ve been doing this with a lot of plants for many years in zone 3/4. I don’t have a cold frame, or greenhouse. I do admit that I still save seeds from the volunteers, but I very seldom have to sow them, except to get succession plantings. I think the trick is to have a really wide variety of stuff in the garden, you know, a scattershot approach. Even here, fall planted potatoes are pretty reliable, tho I always keep back-up for spring planting. We’ve had quite a few potato varieties survive in the ground for 10 years and counting. I don’t machine till at all, just flame weed and fork… and yes, you have to do a lot of hand weeding, but it’s not too bad, as long as the witchgrass is kept out.
I love Small Scale Grain Raising, by the way!

Connecticut Field Pumpkins and Yellow Crook Neck Squash volunteer here.
They always come true to type.

That said, I’d be crazy to absolutely trust nature to supply my food needs.

The good Lord gave me a brain and 2 hands.
I’ll continue to use them and put my trust in Him and the cold frame and sunny window sills🙂

About 10 days ago we had a killing frost that blacken the concord grapes on our 125 year old grape arbor.
On this farm it doesn’t look so good for grapes this year.
If I want grapes I’ll be driving to Erie to pick grapes this year.
Maybe nature was a little kinder there.

By the way. Just about finished with “The last of the Husbandman” and just started “All Flesh is Grass”. I really enjoy your books and I refer to them often. Thanks.

Paul

Gene,

Thanks for the insight. I have been giving them a little sheep feed and that quieted things down considerably. I’ll have to watch that they don’t get fat on it. It seems they like to snack a little on the feed and then graze going back and forth between the two. thanks again for the information.

Paul

My best and most predictable volunteer has been my zucchini. My plants are different from the original as they start to turn golden when about 10″. But they are delicious. I just bury part of a mature zucchini in the summer or fall and then thin or transplant in the spring. I also get lettuce, volunteers. I’ve always wondered about a garden that would seed itself.

Paul, it’s precarious to give advice from a distance. Sheep are terrible complainers and will put on an act that would put Hollywood to shame if they think you will give them more goodies. When I turn them into a new pasture, they are content for about three days— until they eat up all the clover. There is still plenty of grass and weeds to eat, but they will cry for clover. I ignor them until all the greener grass is gone. Ewes with lambs need a little extra goodies (maybe) to keep up good milk flow but you can overdo it. Given a chance, sheep will eat of good hay twice what they actually need. Then they get fat and have trouble getting pregnant. In winter, I feed 20 sheep one and a half bales (70 pound bales)of good hay. If not so good, two bales. If it is poor hay you should feed a little oats with it but poor hay is a waste of time and money. The definition of good hay is that the sheep will eat every speck of it in a couple of hours and want more. But that is enough. Plus a little salt. My sheep have access to a white salt block at all times. Yes, whenever you come into view, your sheep will bellow. Study the grass. Common sense will tell you when there’s no more nutritious fresh growth left to eat. A good pasture will carry three sheep generally speaking (if it rains). Gene

Gene,

My sheep are driving me crazy. I purchased three ewes to help keep a very small pasture down and lo and behold two had been bred so I now have five. Problem is they have quickly thinned down the grass and I also gave them sweet feed. Now they fuss so much all day long especially when the see me. How do I tell if they are truely hungry or just trying to get more feed? I gave the some sheep feed and they ate it heartily and then all is quite for a while. I’m afraid I may have to give them feed until I finish the bigger pasture. Any thoughts? also how much feed per animal? Thanks

Thanks to the respondents above. Very interesting replies for me to learn from. And gadzooks, I forgot to mention the easiest of all non-gardening vegetables. Tomatoes! Especially cherry tomatoes. Heavens, they reseed as bad as any weed. While my wife and I continue to start plants in the house very laboriously every spring. Makes me wonder about my sanity.
Yes Fukuoka’s work is very much in this vein. His One Straw Revolution is one of my all time favorite books. Gene Logsdon

We’ve been experimenting with some traditional Italian vegetables. The chicories have great non-garden potential, Most are perennial here in Maine. I plant some mixed chicories [Mix with parsnip. Strew seed. Run over with tiller.]early for summer greens and large spring ones, and some mid-summer chicories for small greens in the spring. The 4 perennial types are radicchios [small heads, usually red. Red grumolos are spring at its best.], catalognas & Italian dandelion [long braising leaves], sugarloafs [broad tender salad greens], and asparagas chicories [succulent stems}. All kinds are a bit bitter to American tastes and tougher than lettuces. Once you get used to them, you find a craving for them. The annual chicories are endive and escarole. I have never grown a vegetable that produced so well for so little work. But they don’t self pollinate, so mixed seed patches eventually revert to the wild form, which is still delicious.

We’ve grown rapini/rapa/broccoli-raab for 2 years now, and they require a bit more lime and nitrogen than we’ve given them. But they reseed beautifully every year. If one wants to plow there, the small shoots can be cut and cooked like any tender mustard green. They’re delicious and tender at most stages, with a more succulent flavor than hybrid broccoli.

We have also been merciful with the wild Barbareas – wintercress. They put up delicious greens as soon as the snow is gone although occasionally pockmarked from flea beetles. This year I am actually going to grab seed from some of them and plant some in the chicory/parsnip patch. I may be creating a monster weed problem down the road.

The nice thing about all 3 of the above, chicory, rapini, and wintercress, is that when I eat them, I feel satisfied and don’t want to stuff my face all day. More grows in small spaces than we could possibly eat. And then there are the dandelion greens in the grass, too…

Needless to say, we haven’t suffered at all for vegetables this spring with no extra work but the picking.

PS Thanks for your writing. I just bought 4 of your books. One of my better investments.

Great stuff – reminds me of Fukuoka’s “do nothing” farming.

I screwed up my seed potatoes this year by storing them in peat moss (they turned to mush) but was pleasantly surprised when some of last year’s forgotten remnants popped up unexpectedly and got moved to their new row. Not only that, but every little tomato that fell to the ground turned into a zillion healthy transplants by May.

That did it – I’m done growing transplants, but am not ready to give up crop rotation or cover cropping. Next year’s tomatoes and potatoes will be dropped or buried right in their new homes under a winter-killing cover crop like buckwheat, and I might copy Fukuoka by encasing spinach, lettuce, carrots, beets, onions, etc. in little balls of clay and scattering them in the fall.

Thanks again for all your great posts, Mr. Logsdon – it’s a great change of pace from reading about our disintegrating civilization🙂

Gene,

A pioneer and experimenter in techniques like this was Masanobu Fukuoka. I love reading his accounts of how he developed his style over years of trial and error.

He died recently, but the books are great reading. A bit of a challenge to get a hold of but I think they’ve recently been re-published.

http://fukuokafarmingol.info/fphil.html

“In his books, Fukuoka describes Natural Farming as “… a Buddhist way of farming that originates in the philosophy of ‘Mu’ or nothingness, and returns to a ‘do-nothing’ nature.”

Thanks for your posts. I read & enjoy each one. They continue to give me hope when many other sources on farming make it seem hopelessly out of reach for me.

Isn’t this exactly what Sepp Holzer is doing with his seed mix.

From the film, Farming With Nature, he has a seed mix which he broadcasts whenever land is disturbed. It looks like it includes salad greens, and a bunch of vegetables which naturalize right there in the orchard.

I haven’t been able to find any reference to the seeds in his mix.

Ive been on a gene logsdon high for two days now!Discovered you on ebay….I grew up right down the road from you {im pretty sure}c.r.112A? would love a email address,so as i can write more on a personal note. I believe your daughter and my brother dated. Im a A.O.L. virgin new to this crazy stuff,if this was the wrong avenue to do this i apologize. thank-you for your time

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