When you are growing food for survival, there is an important trade-off to consider: the amount of time/effort that you put into a crop versus the amount of food that you obtain. If you have little land and plenty of time and labor to invest, you might want to use a labor-intensive approach, like biointensive gardening, that will maximize the yield per square yard.
Conversely, if you have a large amount of arable land for growing food, and a limited amount of time/effort to invest in growing food, you might want to use an approach that several authors have called “lazy gardening”. In this method of gardening, you reduce time and labor as much as possible, accepting lower yields per unit area of land in exchange for less effort. This will maximize the yield per hour of your time.
Suppose that you have some stored food as well as food that you continue to buy. Then you won’t need the 1.0 to 1.5 acres of land per person required to grow a complete diet. If your needs are limited and you have much land, use a ‘lazy gardening’ approach: don’t weed too often, don’t pay too much attention to individual plants, and minimize the amount of manual labor that you put into the land. Accept a lower yield per unit area of land, but plant a large enough area to get the food you need.
If some extreme disaster wreaks havoc with society and the economy, you might be out of work, with plenty of time to grow food. If you have the land, you could invest much time, produce plenty of food for yourself, and even sell any excess for food or gardening seed to make some extra money.
But given that more moderate disasters are also more common, the likely scenario is a limited disruption in food distribution with sharp increases in prices. Suppose, under this scenario, that you don’t lose your job, and so you have limited free time. Yet you could benefit from growing some additional food. This would ease the burden on your grocery store budget, when prices are high, and still allow you the option of selling some of the excess food. If you have limited time to devote to growing food, lazy gardening is what you want.
Unlike biointensive gardening, lazy gardening is not one specific method. Many authors have described a range of approaches to reduce labor when growing food. The approach that I will describe briefly in this post is my own take on this concept, from a prepping point of view. I’m assuming that your time is very limited, you have plenty of land, and that you are willing to accept low yields in exchange for low manual labor.
1. Soil Preparation — The double-dig method from biointensive gardening is very labor intensive. For lazy gardening, you might till the soil with a small-scale tiller/cultivator, if you can afford it. Otherwise, just disturb the surface of the soil with a rake or hoe to accept the next crop of plants. The No-Till method of planting crops is used with much success by commercial farmers. There is no reason a similar method can’t work for the backyard gardener as well.
2. Planting — You will usually obtain the highest yields by growing individual seedlings indoors, and then using transplants in the field. But that is time and labor intensive. Direct seeding is easier. But if you want the least labor and time, plant by broadcast seeding. Simply scatter the seed over the land by throwing it. You can then rake the soil briefly to bury the seed under a shallow layer of soil. Quick and easy. The crop will not be neatly arranged in rows, making weeding more difficult, but…
3. Weeding — You can forego most weeding. If the weeds are large and overwhelming the plants, you might occasionally weed by pulling up the worst offenders. But otherwise, let the weeds grow. This approach will work for large plants that grow quickly, thereby out-competing or shading out most weeds. If a crop does not handle weeds well, you might want to pick a different crop to grow.
Commercial farmers sometimes grow crops without weeding. For example, camelina sativa is grown to provide camelina oil for biofuel (especially in the Pacific northwest). The crop is grown without herbicide, pesticides, or weeding. The yields are lower, but so are the inputs, and therefore the crop is profitable. See this PDF article.
4. Pests — Skip most pesticides. I would occasionally use an all-natural pesticide, like a pesticide soap or an essential oils spray. But otherwise, let the plants fend off the pests. Pick varieties of each plant that are known for good pest resistance. Lower yields in exchange for less labor is the trade-off here. You can also fend off pests will little effort by growing a strip of flowering plants around your garden, in order to attract good bugs: insects that will eat garden pests. Here’s a brief article on the topic: The best flowers to attract predator beneficial insects to your garden. And here’s an extensive list of the plants that attract good bugs: Organic Pest Control: The Best Plants to Attract Beneficial Insects and Bees.
I don’t recommend herbicides to kill weeds in a survival garden, nor pesticides to kill bugs. First, crops grown without pesticides and herbicides are healthier. You can’t test your crop for the amount of chemicals that might remain at harvest, as a large agricultural business could. And, second, those chemicals are expensive, especially when purchased in small quantity at retail. You can reduce both the labor and the cost of growing food by foregoing most herbicides and pesticides. I would consider using chemicals on a garden only if it were needed to save an important crop of food.
5. Harvest — some crops are easier to harvest than other crops. Choose the least labor-intensive crops. For example, rice and wheat have relatively little food on each plant stem. You have to cut many stems, thresh the grain (remove it from the plant), and then hull the threshed grain. By comparison, amaranth and quinoa have up to several ounces of grain on each stem, and they need no hulling. This saves much labor. Maize (corn) is also a low-labor crop. The ears are easy to pick and to husk.
When growing seeds or nuts, peanuts are easy to grow and harvest; removing the nuts from the shell is not difficult. By comparison, shelling sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds is labor intensive. Choose a hulless pumpkin variety like Lady Godiva or Kakai. When growing legumes, such as peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas, choose varieties with large seeds. This allows you to obtain more food with less work in shelling the legume.
Potatoes and sweet potatoes offer high yields with little labor. Harvesting involves simply digging up the tubers and washing them. They can be cooked with the skins, especially if you have used no herbicides or pesticides on the crop. You can save even more labor by growing tubers in raised rows, so that, at harvest, you can simply knock the rows down to ground level to expose the tubers.
With a little fore-thought and planning, you can grow plenty of food with less time and effort, if you have enough land to make up for the lower yields. Lazy gardening is smart gardening.