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A Case for a Messy Garden

There are many things that can be said for my vegetable garden; however, neat is not one of them. I prescribe to what can be described as the “messy garden” school of thought. No organized, tidy rows, no single locations for a single variety of vegetables or crop, nothing marked or signed… weeds abound and there is a minefield of holes and trenches left by my running battles with pocket gophers.

A Case for a Messy Garden

Not having neat rows or a single location for a specific kind of vegetable provides advantages by maximizing minor differences in soils and microclimate (sunlight, temperature, cold air drainage, etc.) that favor some varieties over others. In this way, I am constantly testing what varieties of what vegetables grow more abundantly in one location over another.

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Planting like this prevents nasty little bugs from getting the upper hand and wiping out my entire crop of radishes, tomatoes or cabbages. Varieties of vegetables will grow at different rates due to differences in temperature and light, often extending my harvest of seasonally sensitive plants throughout the entire summer. In this way—by experimentation—I learn what site and soil characteristics work best for any given crop.

A weedy garden is not a problem for me. Of course, I weed where necessary—in and around the crops—but most everything else can remain growing where it is. Weeds provide habitats for beneficial wildlife, food, and cover for a variety of birds, erosion control, organic matter for soil productivity and much-needed compost and mulch.

Robins are welcome in my garden! In the last four years, while other gardens have been devastated by grasshoppers, mine has been relatively free of them—and pests in general—thanks to the robins and other birds that benefit from the weeds and such. The occasional mule deer seem to prefer my so-called weeds over my prized vegetables, although they did show a liking to my grapes this year.

As for not having signed to identify my crops and all the holes left by me rather than gophers—well, it keeps me on my toes. You can’t weed just any seedling when you’re not sure if it’s a weed or a volunteer herb, and manually harassing pocket gophers and setting traps instead of using bait provides for deep tillage of the soil and a poison-free garden.

I grow several varieties of leaf lettuce and spinach, snow and sugar peas, a variety of beans, kale, Chinese cabbage, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, broccoli, celery, horseradish, chamomile tea and more. My garden’s weeds include garden dill and cilantro, numerous native wildflowers and grasses, and a few dubious non-natives like bindweed, downy brome and a knapweed-looking thing that both deer and gophers enjoy.

At 7,200 feet above sea level in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, my garden grows in very heavy clay soil, with cool nights and a very short growing season. Most of what I plant—capable of growing at this elevation and climate—does well.

Believe me, I don’t suggest that everyone keep his garden as I do. I have friends who have fine, very productive vegetable gardens, with neat rows, everything marked and well-weeded. Due to some odd personality quirk, they could never allow their gardens to look as untidy mine. They do, however, marvel at how productive mine is. Next year I will experiment, as I did this year, by adding new crops and varieties to my growing but messy garden.

Please comment below on your garden. What do you plant? What kind of soil and climate do you have? What pests are a problem? What natural methods do you use to help things grow? Any tips for other gardeners?

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