On Gardening

Spring is when people often start to think about gardening, when the warmer weather and longer days make it appealing to being outside with our hands in the dirt. This means it’s time to share some of what I learned last year when I took a monthly class on urban gardening. The class covered so many aspects of gardening — sunlight, soil, compost/fertilizer, water, pest management — and yet what has really stuck with me are my gardening teacher’s three simple guidelines:

1. Start Small

Starting small is hard for me because when I think about gardening, I think about abundance. I think about all the things I’d like to grow myself.garden-march2013 But starting small is perhaps the simplest way to set beginning gardeners like me up for gardening success because it prevents us from taking on too much too soon. If we go whole hog and plant a bunch of stuff in our gardens, we may end up feeling overwhelmed and we may be more likely to give up on our gardens or lose track of what’s happening in our gardens.

Starting small also helps with gardening guideline #2:

2. Observe Closely

This initially baffled me, and I finally asked the instructor, what am I looking for? And the answer will be somewhat different depending on your experience, but the basic idea of observing closely is to simply pay attention to your plants. It could be just noticing if your plants are growing or flowering or bolting. Are your plants green or are the leaves turning yellow? Are there signs that something is eating your plants? I assume that with more experience, you can start to tell if your plants need more water or more sun. Maybe you’ll be able to tell exactly what bug is eating your plants and what to do about it.

But observing closely isn’t just about plants. It also helps to observe yourself closely. This way you notice whether you are finding the time to check on your garden or to water your plants. For me, observing closely means realizing that I’m much more likely to take care of the plants on our deck, which are right out the kitchen door, than the plants we have in the ground three stories below, and considering growing more on the deck.

Noticing what works and doesn’t work for you in your garden is also part of guideline #3:

3. Keep it Joyful

Now anyone who knows me knows that I can’t stand a word like joyful, but you get the idea: keep gardening fun because if it’s fun, you’re more apt to stick with it. If you stick with it, you’ll keep observing and learning from it.

peas

You’ll notice that these three steps didn’t mention anything about actually putting plants in the dirt (and putting plants in the dirt is what I think of as gardening). But my gardening class taught me that a big part of gardening is making decisions — where to plant (what areas get the most sun?); what to plant (and when); how to water (watering can or drip irritation?); where to get compost (make it at home or buy it?).

And these guidelines offer a framework for making these many decisions. Does making my own compost help keep gardening “joyful” for me? No, I’d rather buy it. Should I hand-water or use drip irritation? My gardening teacher says she enjoys watering her garden and she finds that when she hand-waters, she’s better at observing closely. But I tend to forget to water so I hope to eventually put in drip irritation (and, in the meantime, I try to plant hardy crops). Should I plant peas or lettuce? Lettuce might be more practical, but I really love growing peas and I’ve observed that they tend to survive even when I neglect them so I’ve planted peas (and they’re thriving).

Although I’ve found my teacher’s gardening principles really useful, I’m still trying to follow them in my own garden. We started small last year and planted only some carrots, beets and herbs, but it wasn’t really joyful. The neighborhood squirrels kept digging up our plants, and my focus was on the work we were doing inside our flat so I didn’t really spend much time in the garden to observe it. It took us until February (when we were quite successfully farming some weeds) to get back to the garden. Once again my inclination was not to start small: I wanted to replace all the weeds with seeds and starts, but instead we planted a few things (and covered them with chicken wire to see if we could keep the squirrels out) and we put down some mulch to try to keep down the weeds. An,d so far, even I have to admit, it’s been more joyful.

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