Garden SRE

There’s a saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; I tend to take the SRE approach to everything, including gardening, so here are some thoughts about gardening. My context is that we have a relatively large garden, and I don’t like gardening; if you have a more manageable garden or you like gardening, you might not find this helpful.

Reduce your toil

A lot of my advice is aimed at reducing toil to keep the overall work to a manageable level; I’m defining toil as work that does not bring long-term value. You can’t remove toil entirely from gardening, but you can reduce it.

Cutting grass

Sitting on a ride-on mower to cut grass is a waste of time. Back in 2013 my wife convinced me that we should buy a Husqvarna Automower, and I’m delighted that she did. We call it Robosheep :) I spend about 30 minutes on maintenance every 3 weeks, swapping or rotating Robosheep’s blades and cleaning away any built up grass. Because Robosheep can’t get right up to the edge - its wheels would go over the edge and it would get stuck - I also need to cut the edges, which takes about 30-40 minutes every 2 weeks with the cheapest push mower I could buy. In contrast it would take about 4 hours every 10 days to cut the lawn with a ride-on mower, and that’s if the weather cooperates - in reality I would be mowing-oncall from May-September. We did have some problems with Robosheep in 2019 - that’s how I know how much time it takes to cut our lawn with a ride-on mower - but happily our local Husqvarna dealer Coughlan Garden Equipment chased Husqvarna Ireland until they fixed it.

Weed control

For the first few months we tried keeping weeds under control using a dutch hoe; this is exhausting, takes a long time, and in the long-term is counterproductive because it loosens up the soil making it easier for weeds to take root.

By the end of the first summer I had bought a knapsack sprayer and was spraying with weedkiller. This takes far less effort and time, making it much more sustainable, and lets the ground harden over time making it harder for weeds to grow. I recommend a 12 litre or smaller knapsack sprayer; it’s tempting to buy a bigger one, but they are not ergonomic or comfortable, and I have only completely filled my 20 litre sprayer once - it’s just too heavy to use.

Prevention is better than cure for weed control: in my experience you’re far better of spraying frequently to kill small weeds than spraying infrequently to kill big weeds - big weeds take a lot longer to die and it’s harder to be careful with the spray because big weeds are taller. When you spray more frequently each session takes a lot less time, so it’s probably a similar amount of effort whether you spray frequently or infrequently. Sadly spraying is very weather-dependent, so you might not be able to spray for many weeks - in the summer of 2020 there were 7 consecutive weeks where I couldn’t spray because of the weather :(

As Rage Against The Machine sang, Know Your Enemy. Many weeds will respond to a generic weedkiller like Round Up, but some will not. Our garden has a lot of Willowherb, which is horribly invasive, grows rapidly, and is hurt but not killed by Round Up. Without active management Willowherb would cover our garden in a summer or less :( I asked my local agricultural supplier for advice and they recommended Grazon, which is much more effective on Willowherb than Round Up. You do have to be more careful with Grazon than Round Up - Round Up won’t do much damage to shrubs, but Grazon will, so I have to be more careful spraying with it. I mix Grazon and Clearall 360 (also recommended by my agricultural supplier) and spray that on all the weeds because that is much more manageable than spraying twice with different weedkillers.

When weeds get out of control sometimes it’s better to take a different approach. For tall weeds I recommend using a strimmer to cut them at the base, then collect the stems and dump them - your garden will look better faster, and spraying tall weeds is difficult to do without the spray drifting.

A couple of years ago I tried organic weedkiller but sadly I can’t recommend it. Organic weedkiller is acid of some sort (typically acetic acid, which is also used in vinegar) and it works by burning the leaves of the weeds. This greatly changes how you apply it compared to non-organic weedkiller: you need to drench the weeds because a leaf that doesn’t have acid on it is a leaf that won’t be burned. This is particularly problematic for taller weeds, where higher leaves will shelter lower leaves. One advantage of organic weedkiller is that the impact is visible after about 4 days, so it’s easy to tell if you missed an area. Sadly organic weedkiller is very expensive compared to non-organic weedkiller:

  • TL;DR: organic weedkiller costs about 4 times as much as non-organic weedkiller.
  • I generally need 3 knapsacks of non-organic weedkiller for my garden, so about 36 litres. 5 litres of Clearall 360 costs €38 and gives me over 200 litres of spray. 1 litre of Grazon costs €65 and gives me 165 litres of spray. For €103 I will spray 4, maybe 5 times, and have enough Clearall 360 left for another full spray - so a single spray costs about €26.
  • It usually took 5-6 knapsacks of organic weedkiller because you have to spray so much more of the acid on everything. 5 litres of Irish Organic Weed Off costs €59, or €39 if I take advantage of the buy 2 get 1 free offer that’s usually available. In my experience there’s no point in diluting it more than 4:1 because it doesn’t have much impact when it’s more dilute, so 5 litres gives me 25 litres of spray. I need 60-70 litres of spray, so I need 12-15 litres of organic weedkiller, so spraying once costs €100-€118 :(

Never lose ground

Imagine you can deal with one quarter of your garden each weekend; it’s very tempting to do one quarter each weekend for four weekends, but it’s my experience that on the fifth weekend you’ll find that the first quarter is bad again and takes close to as much effort as it did first time round :( We’ve learned that it’s better to maintain the ground you’ve gained, even though it delays eventual completion; you’ll completely deal with your garden in five-six weeks rather than four, but your garden will be in a much better state after six weeks when you adopt the never lose ground attitude than if you try to finish in four weeks.

Perfect is the enemy of good

This is generally true in life, but it’s particularly true for gardening. Imagine if you could somehow remove every single weed in your garden? That would take an enormous amount of time, and although it would be satisfying today, tomorrow new weeds would already be growing :( It’s tempting to aim for perfection but it’s not achievable or maintainable.

Little and often

Doing 8 hours of gardening in a day is exhausting, and I would dread having to spend that long gardening once a month, so instead I try to do smaller amounts of work more frequently so that it’s less intrusive.