Half-Assed, Lazy, and Extremely Successful


The one real contribution I hope to make to the literature of vegetable gardening is my total shamelessness. I’ve been growing so much food for so long that failures of any kind do not faze me, whether due to Acts of God or my own negligence. I firmly believe that perfection should be left to the professionals (and also that even the professionals never achieve it, because Mother Nature has her moods.) Unlike perfection, half-assedness and laziness are reasonable goals for people with day jobs. And fortunately, when it comes to growing food, half-assedness and laziness are generally sufficient for success.

Here’s proof: My community garden plot, which I visited exactly three times over the course of the season: Once, in mid-July, to plant. Once, in mid-August, to thin the carrots, bury the potato plants in their trenches, water, and weed. And then again yesterday to harvest.

I took the plot in the inaugural year of a lovely community garden organized by the delightful Susan Bokan on a patch of vacant land at Wesley, our local senior housing campus. Since I sold my second home, I now garden in my city backyard, not in the expansive garden I had in the country–and I often feel a little claustrophobic there and long to spread out. When Susan called me on June 6th to offer me a bed, long after I’d gotten my own backyard garden in, I said, “Susan, it’s a little late in the year, isn’t it?”

But half a second later, I thought, “second crop of potatoes” and took it.

I wound up annoying the rest of the community gardeners by failing to plant until mid-July. Hey, I know my potato schedule very well! But for many weeks of the summer, my six by ten foot raised bed was the only unpretty square in a pretty patchwork quilt.

Besides as many potatoes as I could cram in, I planted only three other crops in my bed: A strip of carrots at the front, a single row of sweet potatoes, and a row of collards.  And then I forgot about the whole damned thing, until mid-August when it occured to me that I should really thin those carrots. The bed was very dry, so I watered, just that once.

I live in the Northeast, where this particular form of neglect–a failure to get out the hose–tends not to be lethal.

Yesterday, I pulled out a lot of potatoes from that little bed and a scary number of gorgeous, sweet carrots. I’ll let the collards sit a little longer.

And the sweet potatoes! A total flyer. A crop I’ve never grown before, mainly because I live in an uncongenial climate for sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are native to South or Central America and are reputed to want a long growing season and lots of heat. I thought I would give them a try this year, now that I am gardening in balmy Saratoga Springs,NY, Zone 5, rather than chilly Washington County, NY, Zone 4. In spring, I tried getting slips going in the house as per instructions, using organic sweet potatoes from the supermarket. A total failure: no slips, just rotting sweet potato bits sitting in jars of foul water on the windowsill.

Clearly, planting sweet potatoes in mid-July in upstate New York is ridiculous. But nonetheless, I did have a couple of sprouted sweet potatoes sitting around the kitchen as I was planting my community garden bed, and I stuck them in the ground in the name of science.

My God, what a productive crop! Each sweet potato yielded dozens of young ones. They weren’t huge, but surely would have been delicious, except that a vole had beaten me there and eaten nearly every one hollow. In fact, I disturbed the fat little vole with the excellent palate while yanking them out.

But I do not consider this a failure! Instead, it is an illuminating experiment. And next year, by God, I will make sweet potatoes work.

I love vegetable gardening! A tiny little plot, the minimum of attention, yet nonetheless, always the opportunity not just to eat well, but to learn something new.


  1. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU MICHELLE !!!! YOU give me HOPE ;-)This is only my second year of atempting to gardening. Many, many many years ago I would spend 2 weeks of the summer at Grandma and Grandpa’s house (great memories!!!) Now realizing this was during harvest season 😉 Spending the mornings in the garden picking and eating. Afternoons learning how to can and freeze. Breaking my ankle and leg, I now having an 8″ piece of metal and 11 screws in my leg. Figured a good starting place to get moving more would be a few tomato and cucumber plants. LONG story short, had 15 flats of seedlings this spring, critters took them ALL out. Cucmbers took 4 plantings, tomatoes 3 times, and beans twice. I am happy with my harvest but was hoping for SO much more. Maybe next year “Optimists plant seeds” I am now digging out seed catalogs and looking forward to next season. LOVE LOVE LOVE this website !!!!

  2. Yeah, don’t get hung up on the picture perfect weed free vegetable patch. And try everything more thatn once, or twice or even three times. Never know what will happen with mother nature.

  3. Once you succeed with sweet potatoes you won’t need to bother with the whole making ‘slips’ process – just plant the off size or tiny tubers you dig at harvest. Even a large sweet potato will sprout and grow a nice bucket of tubers by fall if you pre-sprout it in the Spring as a houseplant and then plant it once the weather warms up. Easy easy easy plant to grow as long as you have a warm summer and I don’t know of any crop that stores as long. I can get more than a year out of mine kept in a damp cool basement. No need to do anything fancy to eat them either, just slice into coins, sprinkle with salt and hot spicy herbs and roast for 20 minutes til they start to darken around the edges. Yummy!

  4. I’m developing a strong dislike of this woman because in spite of my efforts and labors, this year’s garden was my worst in 40 years of gardening. If she tells me I was trying too hard, I’ll scream.

    • Why so bitter, Phytophactor? Were you gardening in one of the drought-afflicted parts of the world this year?

      I never said there aren’t bad years in vegetable gardens. But the glass does tend to be half-full, no matter what. The tomatoes get late blight in a cold rainy season? It’s a good bet that the brassicas are super-happy in such a year.

  5. Must be nice. But in my area of the country, forgetting to water means you’ll harvest drought-tolerant & inedible weeds. They will take over any bare patch of earth & manage to eke life out of waterless hardpan. Our last significant rain was April 25 – a “dry spell” broken just today with about an inch of precip. This is normal. There are no community gardens in my town, and no plans for any either. I must make do with my too-shady backyard. The only time my veggie garden produces “enough” these days is winter when the neighbors’ privacy trees shed their leaves & let the sun shine through.

  6. The way I look at it, we all do what we can. Mother Nature seems to interfere almost as much as she helps, and we won’t even talk about the interruptions of Life. Still, there is almost always something to celebrate. I finally put the row covers back over the mesclun and lettuce, so I may still rescue a salad or two from the rabbits.

  7. Five straight years of pillaging only a few short days before harvest time has finally convinced me to throw in the towel. I will no longer grow sweet corn for the raccoons. Damn varmints!

    It is nice to hear you got a failed crop of sweet potatoes from your late season half-assed attempt. That is what I decided to try next year as a replacement just to see what happens. I certainly have enough days to grow them. What I may lack is the heat. We are lucky to reach 85 for highs for only a couple weeks each summer, though this year we had a record 96 one day. The okra I planted this year pouted in our cool which wasn’t even quite as cool as normal and only managed to produce one tiny side dish. Oven baked with olive oil, garlic and pepper, it was ono. I may grow it again just for one tiny side dish.

    So wish me luck. I am going to ignore garden wisdom and give sweet potatoes a whirl.

  8. Thanks for a very encouraging post.
    You’re absolutely right, every year is different, no matter what we do, there are many variables, so we must garden to enjoy ourselves and reap what we can!

    We worked very hard on our tomatoes and got a very nice crop, even have sauce for later use. We are still eating our cherry tomatoes which are ripening indoors.

    I sliced a part of a red tomato (Cosmonaut Volkov) I’d neglected, and it rotted in the ripening bag, and it was delicious….already I anticipate next year’s tomatoes!
    Thanks so much for your cheerful attitude.

  9. Every year my kids and I cram a bunch of things into whatever containers I have laying around and plop them in the driveway, the only place that gets any sunshine at all once the leaves pop up. Each year I am amazed by what I get. This year after a nice little crop of summer squash, an incredibly abundant jalepeno plant appeared. If I had any land with sun I would pay more attention to a garden but I mainly do this as an activity with the kids and it is unbelievable what can flourish with my neglect.

  10. Thank you for articulating a fine gardening philosophy. Responding to the comment about corn: we had a couple of fresh corn meals from the garden this year only because of a chickenwire enclosed bed (around the whole bed, including the top). Keeping canines has also raised the amount of produce we plant that we get to eat.
    We garden in the city, even here gardeners encounter varmints.

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