When not Gardening is not an Option, Seek Small Steps

By Andrea Laine, EMGV Durham County

Seems like there’s always plenty to do in the garden. My current list is two pages long and I’ve yet to consult the monthly Garden Calendar this blog publishes. Because my list is long and I struggle to tolerate the heat and humidity of a North Carolina summer, as well as the aches and pains gardening sometimes brings to my body, I’ve learned to apply a small-steps philosophy to my garden work.

One such philosophy is kaizen, a Japanese technique of  “achieving great and lasting success through small steps. … Small actions satisfy the brain’s need to do something and sooth its distress,” writes Robert Maurer, Ph.D., a behavioral health expert who wrote a book on the subject. Less sophisticated, and perhaps more widely known, is the old, timeless phrase “slow and steady wins the race.”

Here are a few ways to apply a small-steps approach to your garden work:

  • Set a specific time frame. I get outside early morning or early evening to avoid the summer heat and humidity as best I can. I strive to get out daily, yet rarely for more than 90-minutes straight. Why 90-minutes? It is the length of the average person’s activity-attention span. I’m not an over-achiever, so I stop after one 90-minute stretch.
  • Choose a few small tasks. Maybe instead of weeding or otherwise attending to the whole vegetable garden, you can tackle one row each day. This morning, for example, I cut down one weedy vine growing up my deck, collected some zinnia blooms to grace my living room, clipped root suckers popping up along the edge of my gravel driveway, pulled weeds from one relatively small section of my landscape, and watered one shrub and three perennials that I planted in the spring. That was all. Sometimes I tackle even less.
  • Take tiny steps toward a big project. A fellow master gardener is slowly growing her landscape bed by digging out just three more inches a year. In that way, a daunting project becomes doable and easier to accomplish.
  • Focus on one area at a time. As gardeners, we see potential (and chores) everywhere. To get the most bang for your buck (and that includes your time and energy as well as your dollars), focus on one section or thing until it is completed. This advice is especially helpful for newer landscapes and gardeners.

Going small prevents my enthusiasm for gardening from overwhelming my to-do list and stressing my brain and my body. Just as importantly, it leads to great results in my garden. Less is truly more.

zinnia bouqet

How would you apply a “small-step” approach to your gardening?

Maurer, (2004). One small step can change your life: the kaizen way. New York, NY: Workman Publishing Company, Inc.