Getting Help With Your Garden
How often have you toiled in the hot sun, pulling out what seems like an endless sea of weeds or tying up tomatoes one after another, and thought to yourself, “This would be so much more fun if I had a little help?” Gardening, especially when you’re growing a very large garden, can be too much work for just one or two people to manage. And most of us don’t have 6+ hours a day to devote to the maintenance of our little paradise out the back. We’d like to think that our children understand the value of a garden, after all they eat from it all the time, but kids don’t always love gardening because it’s just another chore to them. And what if you’re a little older and just can’t bend and straighten up easily anymore? I often joke that the getting down isn’t the problem, it’s the getting back up again. Sure, there are raised bed gardens for those of us who are getting a little creaky in the joints, but building those can be expensive and it takes time. Time is one thing of which I never seem to have enough. I just need a little help! Is that too much to ask? Older and more experienced gardeners are absolutely chock full of wisdom and tricks that work in their gardens. Can you even imagine how much of that knowledge is going to be lost over the next 30 years as the torch is passed to a generation who have grown up without growing hardly any of their own food? It’s such a waste!
Well, what if I told you that there was a way to get people to come to your garden to help you, for free? Would you believe me? Would it be worth it to you to listen to my advice? Just think how much more efficient and productive you could be if you had someone you could count on to do 10 hours of weeding and maintenance in the garden every week. What would you do with that extra time? Could you manage a larger garden? Would it mean you would get a better harvest due to less competition with the weeds? Stop for a minute and just think about how much of a difference 10 hours a week or more could make in your gardening plans for the coming year.
At this point, you’re probably thinking that you don’t get something for nothing in this life, and I agree with that, despite the title of this article. My suggestions are not entirely free. But have you considered what you’ve got to offer in exchange for some garden help? I’m not just talking about money. Lots of us who grow food take for granted knowing where peas come from, and knowing how to shell them. We take for granted knowing how to spot a carrot growing in the soil, and we take for granted knowing how to dig, wash, and peel them. But have you ever thought that your knowledge might be worth something to someone else? Would you be willing to teach a youngster how to weed, and how to tell the difference between a tomato plant and a thistle? Could you offer room and board for a week in exchange for 4 hours or weeding per day? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, then please keep reading because I have some great suggestions to share with you!
Community Gardens and Fruit Trees
Have you ever considered turning your garden space into a community garden? Perhaps you have extra room you’re not using for growing, or you are considering downsizing your current garden. Why not turn it into a community garden and share the bounty with others? If you’re not comfortable with the idea of having people you don’t know over, then start with a few families you do know, and see how it goes. Lots of people who live in apartments would love to have a small plot that they could grow in. Perhaps the local seniors’ home would like to have a plot that’s available to their residents.
Similarly, many people with established gardens have mature fruit trees that were planted long ago and have been lovingly tended – and now the trees have become highly productive. The problem is that just as your trees are reaching their most fruitful years, the kids have grown and moved out and now you’re left with all this fruit! What on earth are you going to do with 600 lbs of apples? Yes, there is the usual array of sauces and jellies, but even getting all of the fruit picked can be a challenge some years. Lots of towns and cities now run a form of exchange whereby volunteers will come pick your fruit and give you back a portion of it. The benefits to the homeowner include less waste and mess in your yard each fall, and less chance of attracting deer and bears – plus you get between a third and a half of the fruit. The volunteers get some fruit to use and often a portion is given to a local food bank for distribution to those in need. It’s such a shame to waste perfectly good fruit just because we have too much, when someone else could certainly use our surplus.
Community Youth Groups
Brownies, scouts, and other youth groups are always looking for service projects they can do a few times per year. In the case of scouting programs they have merit badges to earn, and one of those is a gardening merit badge. Talk to the leaders of your local programs and see if the kids would like to come out and learn about your garden while performing some necessary tasks. I always encourage our local Brownies troops to come 3 times for one or two hours each time, and to work on their own project as well as helping me with mine. In the early spring they come and till the ground. They plant radishes, peas, and salad greens and they play with the new chicks and ducklings. The following month they harvest their radishes, tie up their peas, and plant pumpkins. Usually they also marvel at how fast a duckling grows in a month. And on the final visit they admire how big their pumpkins are. They pick the peas and we eat them raw right in the garden. Invariably we will also see them again in the fall when our pumpkin patch opens for U-Pick. So we get to meet their parents and make some new friends in the community, which is important to us as we’re still pretty new to the East Coast.
Service Clubs and Church Groups
Our church is pretty active in community service, and I know that’s true for most congregations and clubs like Rotary and Lions. If you find you need help, why not consider asking the local minister or leader if there’s someone who could lend a hand once in a while? Again, youth groups could come, or perhaps there’s someone who would love to share the harvest with you and would be willing to do half the labor. You never know unless you ask.
Here’s a good example. We built a small barn here at Humblebee Farm to house our sheep for the winter. When it came time to put the walls up, we knew that we would need some help. We could build all the framing on the ground, but lifting the walls into place requires less skill and a lot more muscle. We planned ahead and invited everyone from church to an old-fashioned barn raising and BBQ on a Saturday morning. Within 4 hours the walls had been raised into place entirely by amateurs, and the rafters for the roof framing were on. It certainly wasn’t a job we could have done by ourselves, and everyone had a great time. How many town folks have ever participated in a barn raising before?
Food banks and groups for new immigrants may also be a good place to find help. You can help someone new to your country to learn the basics of growing their own food, in exchange for labor. And some of these people are incredibly hard working. Many have grown food before, so they’re accustomed to working hard with hand tools. But as many of us know, every garden and area is different and it takes a little time to figure out what grows best in your soil. Imagine how hard it must be to move to an entirely different country. Helping an immigrant get on their feet and learn to feed their family fresh produce, rather than the usual groceries found at your neighborhood WalMart, is a great way to help a new family settle into the community and be healthy, productive members of society.
Organized Intern or Farm Volunteer Programs
Believe it or not, the majority of the labor we have on our farm comes from volunteers. We chose to sign up as a host farm with a program called WWOOF – World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. We’ve been with the program for 6 years now, although the program has been around for 30 years in Canada as of this year. It’s grown from a printed directory with a few dozen farms to having a presence all over the world. WWOOF maintains a database of farms that are looking for help and each farm writes up a little bio about themselves, the food they serve, their accommodations, and the type of help they need. The volunteers register and write a short bio about themselves. Then they write, call, or email the farms they’d like to stay at to see if we have room and still need the help. The farmers and volunteers arrange everything between themselves and that’s that. Volunteers come in all shapes and sizes but are typically college age adults who want to travel and learn about organic methods of growing. They are generally willing to volunteer in everything from a large city garden, to an allotment, to a farm. There really is something for everyone all over the world from Hawaii to Israel and all gardens or livestock operations in between. We’ve heard stories about dry land gardening in Israel, ranching in Australia (big spiders, we’re told), and tending pineapples in Hawaii. The volunteers are varied too, from an Aunt wanting to teach her teenage niece about gardening, to retired couples looking for a way to travel and explore a new area while saving on the cost of hotels. What motivates them all, though, is a desire to work and learn from others. And we’ve found it to be a very fair exchange.
On our farm we have a small cabin that’s 8’x20′ and is home to a queen size bed, a set of bunkbeds, a small fridge and microwave, and a sofa to sit on. Attached outdoors is a shower room and a composting toilet room, so it’s very basic. But every year we get between 8 and 12 people who come to stay for anywhere from a week to a month and they help with things like shearing, jam making, planting, and invariably weeding. We call our helpers willing weeders on our organic farm (WWOOFers). They have some personal space, but they work for us from 9am – 1pm and we provide 2 days off each week and 3 meals every day. In the afternoons we’ll go to the lake together or they just entertain themselves until we see them again for supper. It’s an arrangement that we really love because we get to teach the things we think are important to a new generation, and in return we get the help and also to hear stories about what life is like in different parts of the world. It’s as much a cultural exchange for us as a labor exchange.
WWOOF isn’t the only organization that’s available and new ones are popping up all the time, but I certainly feel that WWOOF is the best managed. Each area has it’s own group, we’re part of WWOOF Canada, and there are separate groups for the US and for Hawaii, as well as many other countries. I hear that Australia has a big group and lots of focus on permaculture down there. Australia is also good for people following the summer gardening work. As it cools up here in the north it’s Spring in the southern hemisphere so volunteers can get 2 full growing seasons of experience into one calendar year. We pay a membership fee of around $75 per year plus the cost of laundering bed sheets and feeding people, and we consider it money well spent. We control who comes and for how long so when the garden doesn’t need a lot of work we don’t have anyone, and during harvest time we have extra help. There is definitely an investment of time in training someone to do tasks the way you like but for the most part our volunteers have been a hard working bunch and have been fun to host. We highly recommend that you look into groups available in your area. A simple google search should yield good results and check out the comments below for more ideas from our readers.
Well there you have it. 4 ways that we’ve found to get help in our 1 acre garden. We’d love to hear from you about other ways you’ve discovered and how they’ve worked out for you. Have you hosted or volunteered for WWOOF yourself or a similar organization? If so, how did you like it? Do you have another amazing suggestion? Let’s get talking about this and share ideas so that our gardens can be as productive as possible, and our wisdom gets passed on to a new generation.
Have fun in the garden!