Tom and Nancy Atwell’s “vegetable” garden last June. The Atwells’ method of “disorganized” gardening is a cousin to “chaos gardening.” Photo by Tom Atwell

While wandering around the internet looking for entertainment and inspiration on a cold and dreary day, I came across the concept of chaos gardening. I immediately wondered if I was already doing it.

It turns out I’m not, but I’m getting close. Perhaps our gardens are just disorganized. Actually, that lack of organization applies only to about 25 percent of our property that we call the vegetable garden. (Another 25 percent is woods; 20 percent is driveway, walkways and patio; 5 percent is the actual house; and the remainder is fairly organized landscaping.)

Chaos gardening is a way to use up any old seeds you’ve got lying around (they get less viable each year). The method liberates you from traditional gardening rules. In chaos gardening, seeds of all sorts grow together willy-nilly, which has several benefits. For one, pests find it easier to target plants when single types are grouped together. Also, plants often help each other, for example, think of the traditional “three sisters” plantings of corn, squash and beans.

One thing you should not be chaotic about in a chaos garden is the soil. It must be good with a lot of nutrients. Readers of this column know that I often remind people to get a soil test. It can done after the ground thaws, and here’s where to go to do it: University of Maine Soil Testing Service. The website notes that all the rain last year washed nitrogen out of the soil, so a soil test would be a good idea for everybody, to see how much nitrogen and other nutrients you need to add this coming gardening season. Chaos garden soil should be rich in organic matter, fairly neutral on the pH scale, and have a lot of nutrients supplied by your choice of fertilizer.

In addition, the soil should be fairly loose so the seeds you are going to plant settle in well. Traditionally, that would mean tilling, but not with a rototiller – which breaks down soil integrity. Using a broad fork, spading fork or just a hoe is friendlier to the soil. Alternatively, spread a 1-inch layer of good compost on top of the soil.

You do have some time to organize your garden chaos – forgive the contradiction in terms – because you won’t be planting the seeds until all danger of frost is past. That’s Memorial Day weekend in most of Maine, at least historically. It’s anyone’s guess now that climate change is unsettling our weather patterns.


To begin, take all of your leftover seeds – both for vegetables and flowers – and mix them together in a bowl. Most gardeners have leftover seeds, but if you don’t, go to your local seed store and pick a variety of flower and vegetable seeds that you like. Some people recommend putting large seeds (such as squash, beans and sunflowers) into one batch and small seeds (such as carrots, lettuce and poppies) in another and planting the two groups in separate parts of the garden. I wonder if that would be called organized chaos? I found a website that offers a premixed set of chaos gardening seeds, but I think that defeats the concept.

Once the soil is prepared, soak the seeds in their bowl for a couple of days in a dark space so they begin to sprout before you plant them. This helps because you won’t be covering the seeds with soil as you would in a traditional garden. Once they’ve sprouted, spread the seeds over the area you’ve designated as your chaos garden. At that point, you can ignore the chaos garden until late June, when you wander through it to see if any vegetables or flowers are ready to harvest, trying not to step on anything.

The vegetable garden my wife Nancy and I grow is more disorganized than chaotic. Among our perennial crops – asparagus, strawberries and raspberries – we let the asparagus self-seed, giving us new plants in new areas, and we allow the raspberries and strawberries to spread their roots as they will. We plant peas in rows so they can climb fences; carrots, beets, lettuce, beans and flowering annuals in patches; and seedlings, such as tomatoes and peppers as well as the dahlias and gladioli, wherever we find space.

We leave the seeds from the flowers on the ground, allowing the poppies, sunflowers, rudbeckia and any other flowers in our vegetable garden to sprout the following summer wherever they like.  

In our vegetable garden, vegetables and flowers are in bloom from mid-May all the way up until the first freeze. It may not qualify as chaos, but I love its disorganized and wonderfully full look.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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