Organic Vegetable Gardening the Lazy Way: My Lazy, Cheapskate Gardening is Environmentally Friendly

When some gardeners start talking about organic vegetable gardening, it sounds like a cult, and an expensive, time-consuming one at that. It doesn't have to be hard to be organic. My vegetable gardening methods are "organic", not because I have any deep convictions about using organic versus synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, but because I'm a lazy cheapskate. If I can prevent weeds without buying and applying herbicides, grow vegetables without buying and spreading fertilizer, and keep the bugs and other pests under control by letting them kill each other, I'm happy. My budget is happy too.

The vegetables grow in raised beds made from the sides of discarded water beds held in place by 4x4 posts: it's cheap and sturdy. The picture shows the bed, a hopeful quail looking for vegetables to eat, and the soaker hose that minimizes water use. That's an eggplant in the foreground, in late March. By July it was 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide.

Organic Weed Control: My vegetable garden's organic weed control consists of a 4 to 6-inch deep layer of mulch, made by running the prunings from my trees and bushes through my chipper-shredder. Only a few weed seeds will come through the mulch, and they are easy to pull. The mulch also reduces the amount of watering I have to do by preventing evaporation.

The drawback to the mulch is that it attracts birds. The quail love to dig holes in it to make shady resting spots under the vegetables. The curve-billed thrashers and the towhees dig through it hunting for bugs. They are excellent bug controllers, but they throw mulch out of the beds and leave huge holes in the dirt. I have to throw the mulch back into the beds a couple of times a week.

Organic Fertilizer: Tree shreddings composted with the high-nitrogen beans that fall from mesquite trees and the grass clippings from the lawn, make good fertile soil for the raised vegetable beds. I mixed compost 50/50 with the alkaline native dirt the first year and just keep digging more compost into the beds every spring.

Where I deviate from the "organic" party line is with soil amendments. The local desert dirt (it doesn't deserve to be called soil) is alkaline, low in available iron, and high in clay and even the water is mineral-laden and alkaline. Vegetables don't grow well in it, even with lots of compost. I'm not going to waste time making compost tea, and I'm not going to waste money on various organic supposed remedies like bacterial infusions, Mycorrhyza inoculants, volcanic sands, and such. The dirt needs a higher pH and the most economical way to get it is to mix liberal quantities of soil sulfur into it. I also add a small amount of ammonium sulfate to the beds about mid-summer to give them a nitrogen boost.

What Grows Well: With this low-effort approach to organic vegetable gardening, I grow herbs and vegetables that are hard to find locally, or too expensive in supermarkets. The hot Arizona summers limit my choices because the usual garden vegetables can't survive the heat.

Tomatillos thrive and produce gallons of fruit.

Until the squash borers struck, the squash were thriving and producing a dozen or more edible squash a week per plant. With some screen to keep the adult borers from laying eggs on the stems, they should do better this year.

Artichokes grew and thrived, but they took up too much space to be practical. I gave the plants to a gardener with more room.

There was way too much okra! Okra is an African plant that apparently loves 110-degree days, and alkaline soil. A short row of 4 plants produced more than I could stand, and even the co-workers were losing enthusiasm for it.

Eggplant, like okra, grows almost too well. I harvested 15 to 20 softball and larger eggplants a week starting in mid-June. Much of it ended up going to friends at the office.

What Did Not Grow Well:

Tomatoes were not a success, probably because they were in full Arizona sun and heat stressed. Except for basil, the herbs either died or grew so slowly they took weeks to recover from harvest. I'm building a new bed in a spot that gets afternoon shade and will try again.