To All The New Gardeners

Starting a new garden often begins with excitement, enthusiasm, and optimism for all the possibilities that await. In winter, you choose the most beautiful pictures and mouthwatering descriptions from the seed catalog. In spring, you bring home the best looking plants from the local garden shop. You prepare your soil with loving care and good intentions and you plant. Then maybe late frosts or spring storms come. Maybe some of the plants get injured or sick, or even die. The ones that survive will have to battle weeds to stay in the game until mid-summer, and then the insect predators arrive, and you may wonder if your labors will bear any fruit at all.

If you’re feeling a little garden frustration right now, take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. I’ve been there, countless others have been there, and many are feeling what you’re feeling right now. Gardening is a process. You’re not just growing plants, you’re also growing soil and skills.

Today is the 8 year anniversary of this blog, my 6 year anniversary with my land, and the 1 year anniversary of my life as a full-time farmer. In celebration of this auspicious day, here is a post all about my first garden ever, and filled with the lessons I harvested from it twelve years ago.

Invest in Organic Fertilizer

My first garden was planted in fill dirt, on top of an old landfill. It was a community garden so I didn’t own the land, and I thought I wouldn’t invest any money in the soil. Instead, I got loads of free rotted leaves and wood chips from the city and used coffee grounds from various coffee shops. While these items are great for gardens and make excellent mulches, they are not the same thing as compost.

I likely would have seen much better harvests much more quickly if I had purchased compost the first year. My many loads of free mulch did eventually build fabulous soil after about three years, but it was a long wait. You can make your own premium compost at home for free, but if you’ve just started gardening, you probably won’t have any homemade compost ready until the second year. Learn more about making your own compost from my article The Foundation of Our Future.

Grow Some Easy Wins

The most popular garden vegetables are not necessarily the easiest to grow. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, melons, and squashes all require good soil to thrive. Spinach and head lettuces must have a long cool season and rich soil, or they will go to seed before you ever get a salad. Carrots will grow into funky shapes if the soil isn’t perfectly light and loose and free of any twigs or stones.

Other garden plants are much more forgiving and adaptable. These are some crops that produced abundant harvests for me when other crops failed:

TomatillosKaleOregano
SunflowersCollard GreensMint
SunchokesRadishesLemon Balm
PeasSwiss ChardDill
BeansFennel

It’s worth noting that some of the plants mentioned may become weedy.

Make Friends

By joining a community garden, I had ample opportunity to talk to other gardeners. I was able to learn from their wisdom as well as my mistakes. Gardening is an inherently local act, and the wisdom of gardening is inextricably linked to place. There are many great books and blogs about gardening, and they’re worth reading. But that knowledge must be paired with local gardening knowledge that you can only get from experience- yours or someone else’s. So join a gardening club or a community garden or at least pay a visit to your county extension office to give yourself the best start possible.

Avoid Gimmicks

There are all kinds of stores out there trying to sell you stuff you don’t need. Invest in good soil amendments, durable hand tools like a digging fork and a hori-hori, quality seeds, and maybe a hose. Once you have gained some experience, you may realize the need for another tool or two, but I suggest starting from a minimalist perspective.

Try, Try Again

Keep a gardening journal and record all your joys, sorrows, trials, and lessons. Take pictures to document your gardening journey. You can refer back to them next year when you’re planning your next garden. And most importantly, plant that next garden. Every year, your garden will become better than the last, and you will become a better gardener. Gardening does not deliver instant results, but it is an ancient and rewarding pursuit. Keep showing up for your garden day after day, and it will show up for you as well.

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