This was my first year in my first (rental) house with a garden all my own (and Z’s). Growing up, I don’t remember ever being fond of yard work. Except when it offered the chance to tan in the summer, and possibly build some sexy arm musculature. But having a garden of your own is quite another thing. Kind of like not really liking babies until you have one of your own… I’m guessing. If you let yourself, you’ll fall in love with it. Working in it will calm your mind. It’ll inspire you. I think you’ll find yourself better off whenever you spend time there. For reals. It’s a powerful thing, a garden. And if you bring it up right, it could actually like feed you. Real food. Good food. It’s kinda the awesomest.
This first year was a trial. I learned a lot, failed a lot, but had a wonderful time the whole while. Here, for those who would like to get started in your own garden, are 8 lessons I’ve learned in our yard - in no particular order. Read, then go forth and cultivate plant life.
1. LOOK AT YOUR YARD BEFORE YOU PUT THE MOWER AWAY
Because when you mowed the lawn, you missed a spot. In fact, you missed a lot of spots. And if you’ve already put the mower away, you’re not going to get it out again and fix the spots. Because you’re tired, because you just mowed the whole lawn. Or at least most of it. And those spots you missed? They’re too long as it is. The next time you get around to mowing your lawn they’ll be twice as tall. They’ll be so tall that they’ll flop over, and lie horizontally perpendicular to your shorter, vertical grass. And when you go to mow those spots now, the mower won’t cut them. They’ve flopped over - they’re laying flat, because they’re SO long. And now if you want to get rid of these spots you need to go in by hand with your trimmers, to really get under the flops and chop ‘em off. And let’s be honest - if you were too tired to get out your lawn mower to mow the missed bits in the first place, you sure as hell aren’t going to get out the clippers to hand chop them the next time around. It’s a vicious cycle. By the end of the summer the long bits are growing toward your house, about to creep in your bedroom window and strangle you in your sleep. This is serious shit. Survey the lawn before you put the mower away. You’ll thank yourself.
2. WATCH IT AROUND FENCES
I saw this thing on the internet about planting lettuce in rows of eavestroughs lined up along a house. COOL.
Since I’m in a rental and not toooo comfortable with screwing into the owner’s stuff, I opted out of the full eaves construction this summer. Instead, I bought a long rectangular window box type thing that came with a special hook to attach to my fence. Just like the eaves thing, but more trial sized and impermanent. I filled it with vegetable soil and a crop of organic lettuce seed mix from Hilary, my seed hookup. I put it up on the fence and watered it. The next day the soil had all been scooped out and the seeds were lost. Squirrels? Raccoons? A few days later a basil plant that also happened to be hanging on the fence disappeared. Squirrels? Raccoons? Asshole neighbour? We’re not talking a few ripped leaves here. The plant, roots and all, was cleanly swiped. Like so tidily removed I was highly suspicious of human intervention. I vented my surprise and frustration about the missing basil very loudly to Z while my neighbour was working in his yard next door, because if it was a human that took my basil it was totally that guy, and I wanted him to know I was on to him.
So be aware that the tops of fences are animal highways, and also the easiest for your neighbours to reach. If you’re gonna hang things from there, do some patio lanterns or something. No plants. Keep those down low, or on the side of a building or something. ALSO, be aware of which side of your fence gets the good light. I had this raspberry plant, for instance, that I planted on the shady side of the fence. But the shady side of the fence is the sunny side of the fence on the other side. Where my basil-stealing neighbour lives. So this raspberry plant kept trying to grow on his side, through the slat in the fence. Every day it would stick it’s top through and every day I’d pull it back to safety. I get it, it just wanted some sun. I felt bad for pulling it away. It should have been on the other side of the yard, where the fence is sunny. So guys, using your vertical or peripheral fence area may seem like a good idea, cuz your yard is small and you’re trying to maximize your use of space, but don’t sacrifice the plants’ safety or sunshine happiness.
3. WATER WATER WATER
I never imagined a summer when I’d look to the sky, fists shaking, and say “Enough with the beautiful sunny days! Where is the rain?”. Plants hate being dry. HATE it. I speak broadly here… cacti obvi an exception. But in your average garden, everything thirsts. And if Mother Nature is not satisfying those thirsts, you gotta get out your hose. At the start of spring, make sure you have a functioning sprinkler. Making trips all over your yards with a watering can gets tiresome fast. And leaky spray guns are a waste of water. So just do it right the first time and everyone’s happy. Water often, and thoroughly, but do not oversaturate. Don’t drown the plants, just make sure they are thirst-free. And when the forecast calls for rain, ooooh be excited! You’ll feel such a grand exuberance at the sound of drops in your yard - a thrill more powerful than any drug. The blissful relief of knowing that the world is sustaining itself, all while you’re sitting and relaxing, is a beautiful feeling. You gotta give maximum respect to the farmers of the world, always at the mercy of the daily probability of precipitation. This year, I could barely keep a tiny yard going. To witness a drought on your whole farm - to see the devastation of your entire year, years to come, or perhaps your livelihood - I can’t even imagine the dread and helplessness. So if you ain’t growing it yourself, go out and buy local. Support team awesome farmers. They need all the help they can get. Especially the little farms.
4. DON’T PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN A NEW AGE GARDENING TECHNIQUE BASKET
Remember what happened with the pseudo-eavestrough planters? Entire crop lost within 24 hours? Can you imagine what would have happened if I planted all my veg like that? No tastey tomato treats. No yummy dill. Gardening is like investing. The safest bet is a diversified portfolio. You want to use some pots. You want to plant directly into the ground. You want to use some hanging planters. And you also want to try cool things you saw on the internet. Like planting tomatoes upside down in cut off pop bottles. It goes pretty much like it sounds. You cut off the bottom bit of a pop bottle. You turn it upside down. You put the top of a tomato seedling through the spout. You fill the rest of the bottle with soil, which due to some law of physics, will not all fall out the opening. You fashion some sort of harness for the bottle out of twine, and you hang it from the bird feeder hanger which happens to be outside your window from the previous tenants who must have liked to feed birds. You’ll have to water it more than the in-ground plants. It dries out easily, sitting out, so exposed.
I don’t know why exactly you’d want to hang your tomatoes in this fashion, aside from pure curiosity. I think there are a couple of practical benefits… like no sluggy bugs… and less disease. But I think the physical planting area is too small. Although they were impressively the first to produce fruit, my hanging tomatoes grew to about 1/10 the size of my in-ground tomatoes, which all started from the same seedlings. So yeah it works, but you won’t see the same yield. Lower return and requires more work. So on paper, maybe an unwise investment? But what if there was a slug infestation this year? I bet my ONLY tomatoes would have come from the pop bottles. And my potted radishes? The pots didn’t have enough drainage so they all drowned. And I put radishes only in pots, so I didn’t have any radishes at all. True story. Diversify. Just in case.
5. WAIT AND SEE WHAT COMES OUT (BUT DEAD STICKS THAT STAY DEAD ALL YEAR ARE PROBABLY DEAD)
Come spring I was terribly afraid for my garden. It was so sparse. We had some tulips and such… and a lot of dirt and dead looking things. I was all set to go to the store and pick up some ground covery plants, and dig up everything that looked like death, when I got… lazy. So I let it all go. Fast forward to later spring, early summer, and we’ve got PLANTS. And I mean plaaaaants. Everywhere. Everything I thought was a dead stick grew new leaves. Sometimes even incredible flowers. Like the kind of flowers people pay good money for at the flower shop. I had them coming out the wazoo. Can you imagine, just a couple weeks ago, I was going to pull these plants out cuz they were so dead looking? But no! So alive. They just needed time. Same goes for empty spaces. There were entire sections of plain dirt that I thought I’d have to fill up with things, but lo and behold, things grew. Like out of nowhere. Different kinds of things - not just weeds. Nice flowering things. It was incredible. So, moral of the story, don’t give up on empty spaces and sticks unless they make it through one complete year without doing shit. Patience. Ooooh! You know what it reminds me of? Did you ever see THE SECRET GARDEN? When Mary tells Dickon she found this place, but it’s probably not that cool, cuz it’s probably all dead, and he’s all like dude, I know gardens, let me diagnose that shit. And so she takes him, and he cuts into a stick and shows her the green bit and calls it wick and says that means it’s alive. I loved that part. Dickon was such a handyman dream boat.
6. LEAVE ROOM FOR ENJOYMENT
I recommend two spaces. Space number one: a grassy square. Grassy squares are very good for laying out blankets. And on those blankets, put your hungover friends, and plates of bacon and fruit and waffles. It will make for an excellent afternoon. Space number two: seating. Home Depot sells plastic adirondacks for like $20. $14 if you get them on sale. They’re comfy, and you can hose them down. Because things outside get dirty like SO fast. Sitting and laying. That’s all you need. I dunno, maybe a picnic table if you have a lot of space. You just need somewhere to enjoy your outside niceness. Because what good is outside niceness if you’re just wandering around, pruning and weeding? You need a rest and relaxation zone. And don’t forget to use the damn thing.
7. PLANTS FIGHT
Some plants are assholes. They might be underground assholes, and grow really big roots that take up all the space in the hanging basket, so that the other plants in the basket can’t grow more than an inch tall. No room for roots. Sometimes they’re sunshine hogging assholes. They grow big with big leaves that spread out over top of all the smaller plants and hog their sunshine. So then the little plants are all hidden in darkness. Not cool guys, not cool. So you gotta get in there, with your weeding hands and your pruners, and you gotta break up the plant fights. The big plants that take over the sunshine? Trim them back a bit. Or move the little guys, hidden in darkness, to the front of the garden where they can get more light. And the root hogging plants? Keep them in their own pots. Or separated somehow from the other stuff. Just make sure everybody has their own space, and their own necessities for survival. Seems a bit political, no?
8. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER: NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME
The garden is a place of constant change. What was boring dirt one day will be tiny sprouts the next. Those tiny sprouts will grow into bigger plant shapes the next day. And if you don’t water the plant shapes, they’ll be shriveled the next day. And if you do water them they’ll be bigger and plumper the next. And then there will be blossoms. Copious beautiful flowers, and you won’t be able to imagine a time when it was all just dirt. And then the flowers will fall off and leave these thorny jerk bits that attack you when you go near them. And eventually, I imagine even the jerk bits will all wither and die with the coming cold. And next year maybe something will grow in their place. Or maybe it will stay as dirt. So enjoy every day out there, because you’ll never have another like it. And if you don’t like how things are looking - don’t worry, because they’ll be new again tomorrow. Change is the only constant.