I find it frustrating when someone decides to start their first garden and their enthusiasm quickly dwindles into impatience and disappointment. I should know better. Not everyone enjoys spending endless hours bent over in all kinds of weather, only to be bested by a hungry animal or a tiny, little insect. It’s hard for me to fathom, but some people have other interests. Still, I can’t help but think they’d like it more if they knew ahead of time what they were getting into – and if they didn’t bite off more than they could handle. That’s what I mull on today. It gets to be a wee bit of a rant, but this is something that I really feel strongly about. I think most of it is good advice for anyone and I’d welcome hearing what you would tell the gardener wannabe.
As always, there’s a link below, to listen to the podcast now, or you can access the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. And if you would just as soon read it yourself, scroll down below the photo and have at it.
The cold temps have given me time to think back on last year’s growing season – only a few months ago. Looking back over last year’s successes and disappointments, the biggest disappoint for me was seeing friends start their first garden only to throw in the towel when the weeds arrived or the harvest got ahead of them.
At a party a few years ago, in a yard I’d never visited before, I was impressed by the number of flowering and fruiting shrubs that were scattered about. I asked my hostess if she had designed this landscape herself and she just laughed. It wasn’t something she would have even considered. She was a city girl and digging holes for shrubs was not in her realm of possibility.
But it seems you can’t live in the country very long before you start to see yourself as a person of property and being a person of property requires that you take an interest in becoming a gardener. (Oddly this has never proved true with my husband, who is content to say “You should plant something over there.” and simply point.)
So my hostess, who has since become a friend, got it into her head that she wanted a vegetable garden. She loved entertaining on the patio and a vegetable garden nearby would complete the picture. So she hired someone (of course) to dig up a rather large patch of lawn and do “whatever you need to do” to the soil and then she planted. Yes, SHE planted. I was impressed enough to think we might have turned a corner here.
There was the impatience as the little seedlings settled in, but did not much more. And then the initial thrill of seeing the first tiny, fruits starting to form. The promise of a first tomato never gets old, but the first one is a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
And then it happened. Things she had not planted also began to grow and flower. This is what separates the dilettantes from the novices. A novice will learn as she goes along and take it upon herself to try and tackle the weeds. A dilettante will say “Okay, this was fun. And now it’s not.”
My friend turned out to be a dilettante. To be fair, she had a lot of other demands on her time and getting on her knees to yank weeds that were only going to grow back was not high on the list. And so the garden languished until she hired someone to turn it over and plant grass. The landscapers would take care of keeping it mowed.
I’ll grant you, gardening is a never ending chore, but it can be an incredibly agreeable one. I’d go so far as to say that it is the maintenance that is gardening. If you’ve been toying with starting a garden but haven’t gotten any further than listening to podcasts or reading books, if you know someone who gave up but still looks longingly at your veggie patch or if you find yourself coaching a garden newbie, here’s some advice I’ve learned the hard way.
❦ Start small. Really. Everyone says it but no one does it. I know as well as anyone how easy it is to get carried away. I have enough seeds to mulch my garden with the packets. But I’m willing to see it through. For someone new, the test should be how much are you willing to till, to get started. It doesn’t count if you hire someone to come in and turn the soil. How much are you willing to stick a fork in the unyielding soil? If you’re doing containers, how many are you willing to drag across the patio?
❦ Avoid houseplants. I saw someone recommending that a new gardener start with a houseplant, to learn what it means to care for just one plant. They said that if you tend a houseplant throughout winter, you’ll have a better sense of what plants need, when it comes time to start things growing outsides, in the spring. Unless you have phenomenal light in your house and you keep it humid, I don’t recommend starting there. Winter is the toughest time to care for houseplants. They’re dormant, so there’s little growth to encourage you. They dry out, they drop leavers, they get mildew, they turn yellow, they get whiteflies or scale… the list goes on. You’d be better off buying a pot of basil or parsley and keeping it until you’ve eaten it all – then start over.
❦ Use the winter to take a class. Every gardener in the Hudson Valley is counting the days until spring. Gardening organizations try and ease your pain by offering all kinds of classes. The best place to start looking is with your county cooperative extension. The Master Gardeners offer classes throughout the winter and many hold a whole day of classes in early spring, so you can cover all your bases in one binge feast. You may even find yourself signing up to become a Master Gardener yourself.
❦ Visit garden shows. The closest one to us is the Capital District Flower and Garden Show, in Troy, but there are bus trips to the Philly Flower Show and the Boston Show is a day trip away. And don’t forget the shows at Adams Fairacre Farms, in Dutchess, Orange, and Ulster counties.
You get to smell damp soil, see the latest plant introductions, and take a class or two. And, of course, there are vendors offering everything from seeds and plants to gadgets and tools. BTW, I’ll be at the Capital District Flower Show this year giving my Gardener’s Guide to the Hudson Valley talk, so stop by and say “hi”, if you go.
❦ Finally, my best tip is to volunteer at a public garden. Gardening is even more enjoyable in a group and you have no idea how much you will learn from the other gardeners. Don’t worry that you won’t know enough to be useful. They’ll get you up to speed in no time. And you won’t just be an unpaid weeder. Most will include you in every phase of the garden, from choosing plants, to starting seeds, to taking home the extras. I can’t recommend it enough. Pretty much every local garden welcomes volunteers. Just give them a call or go to their websites and shoot them an email.
There are few things as rewarding as getting your hands in the soil and seeing something come of it. I think my friend was more taken with the romance of having a garden, than the rewards of it. Even the most seasoned gardener can become overwhelmed, as many of us can attest to, I’m sure. Save yourself or your friends the disappointment and dissolution. Go for the easy win — and then tackle the rest of the backyard.
Well, we have lots of time to think about an approach to next season. Although, it is time to get seed orders in, so I guess it’s worth the reminder to think small, or at least reasonably so. I hope the weather warms a bit soon.
While you’re here, grab your copy of Secrets of a 4 Season Garden. Remember, only 74 days until spring!