With spring coming, Brian, the Climate Crossroads Curator
, asked me to write up some tips for getting started gardening.
I hesitated at first, saying that giving tips implies expertise, which I've never pretended to have, and entrusts me with authority and responsibility I don't necessarily want or deserve.
But what the hell. I do want to encourage people to garden. In keeping with my "lazy" brand, however, I'm not promising any research or fact-checking here, nor will I refund your wasted time if the tips don't pan out. Caveat emtor and all that — note: that's the last Latin you're going to see from me today. I'm not looking up any scientific names of plants.
I'm also going to make it as easy for myself as possible by resorting to the hoariest of formulas, the top ten list.
(Looks like I'm not going to be editing out the jibber-jabber either.)
Before I embark on the tips, I want to answer the broader question of why I garden, and why maybe, you might consider thinking of perhaps gardening yourself, if you so choose. (No hard sell here.)
So strap yourself in. There are two top ten lists below. (You can jump down directly to to the tips if you're already positive you want to get started. But then you'd miss half my spiel.)
Why I Garden
1. I like to be outside, doing physical work.
For someone who sits indoors in front of a computer for many hours every day, working with my hands outdoors gives me balance in my life. Walking, hiking, bicycling, running — for exercise, for pleasure, to get from one place to another — those activities are also a big part of my life, but I can garden in my own backyard. I like being home, partly because I like my garden so much.
2. Gardening is meditative/therapeutic.
An hour in the garden might be frustrating now and then, and sometimes it's boring, but it always grounds me, keeps me sane. Sometimes I listen to music, or talk shows, or chat on the phone with my headset on. Just as often, I let my mind wander or percolate over whatever I'm grappling with. Like exercise, gardening almost always contributes at least a little to making my life better.
3. It keeps me tuned in to the rhythm of the seasons, the lengths of the day, the angle of the sunlight.
We're now in the middle of "false spring," with fruit trees exploding with blossoms and wildflowers and weeds popping up everywhere. With daylight savings kicking in, for the first time since the fall, I'll have a little bit of daylight to garden when I come home from work. (Pulling weeds is a good way to decompress from the work day.)
4. It's an opportunity to be creative.
With colors, shapes, textures. I've been a graphic designer for decades, but that's only two dimension. Gardening has four.
One of the designs I'm most pleased with is my curving flagstone path.
5. Food and flowers.
The only thing I'm harvesting these days is kale I planted last fall, but several months from now there will berries to harvest, and flower to cut. Later in the summer come the tomatoes, apples, squash.
6. Replenishing the soil, giving back to the earth.
By applying compost, both from food waste and from the horse manure I get from Z's sister in Santa Cruz, I've been enriching the topsoil that the planet is losing at an alarming rate. It's part of the cycle of nature as much as the changing of the seasons.
By keeping things organic, replenishing the soil with compost, and leaving more than half the yard somewhat wild, I attract a lot of critters. Hummingbirds, robins, and other birds. Butterflies, squirrels, lots of insects. Even an occasional raccoon.
8. Gardening builds community.
It's something I share with my neighbors. While I grow most of my annuals in the backyard, which is where I get southern sun and shelter, I also have a small patch in the front, and I like working out there because it's more social. I'm surrounded by gardeners who are more serious than me, so I often end up with their leftovers. This year, for example, I may not need to buy tomato seedlings because one of my neighbors planted a few flats of seeds and won't have room for them all.
9. It's an opportunity to learn new things.
There are always new plants to grow. New designs to test. New chances to do things better. For example, this past winter, I built garden beds, partly because things were getting too wild and the drip irrigation was getting too spaghetti-like. I've only sown some fava beans and other cover crop so far, but I'm looking forward to a much improved vegetable patch with these beds.
A garden is a great place to sit and veg out. It's an outdoor room, and, because I have a smallish house, my biggest room is my backyard, with its deck and garden. One of the best parts of gardening is not gardening, but sitting and savoring what I've accomplished, or imagining what I'm going to do next. Here I am sitting on the ledge of my new garden beds.
Ten Easy Tips on How to Get Started
1. Start small.
Fewer plants means less work. (But get enough so if some fail to flourish, you won't be left with nothing. At least a dozen.)
2. Ask questions.
Go to a local nursery where there are people who know what grows well in your ecosystem and get a recommendation. For example, where I live, in Berkeley, it's not hot enough to grow melons. I tried, and got one, the size of a tennis ball.
3. Get seedlings instead of seeds.
Some plants, like beans and zucchini, are easy to grow from seed, but starting with seedlings is easier.
4. Buy garden soil and/or compost.
You can plant directly in the ground, but if you're starting anew, chances are the soil is less than ideal. Where I live, the clay soil is hard as a rock, though it's excellent once amended and loosened up with some digging and compost. (But that process took years.) Dig a hole, and fill it with the soil and compost you bought.
5. Grow vegetables that you love to eat. In most parts of the country, tomatoes are the best bet. It's easy, prolific, and who doesn't love fresh tomatoes? Kale is easy, too, and I eat it, but it screams "healthy vegetable" a lot louder than it does "decadent pleasure."
6. Water regularly — every day or every other day when plants are young, two or three times a week once they get established.
I recommend a drip system with a timer, but that takes some upfront work to set, so you might want to put that off until later. If you do drip, the easiest is the soaker hose or the hose with emitters every six inches or so. You can set one of those up quickly. If you're going to be away for a while and not able to water, you might try filing up a wine bottle with water and turning it upside down quickly and pushing it into the soil. The water seeps into the soil gradually as the soil dries. Not as reliable as drip on a timer, but free and low-tech. Try it out and let me know if it works.
7. Plant a tree or perennial.
When I started back in college in central Illinios, I was totally focused on food, so I didn't bother with shrubs and bushes, but they're actually easier. For example, where I live, lavendar and rosemary are very easy, and last for years.
8. Try natives.
Once established, they act like they belong there, and they will propagate themselves. A few years ago, I scattered California poppy seeds around my garden. Now, every year, around now, they pop up all over. Beauty without work.
9. Get good gloves.
You can get the loose kind that fit all size hands, but I like the ones that fit more snugly, with a velcro strap to tighten them above my wrist. With gloves on, I almost feel like a real gardener.
10. Don't treat gardening like a chore.
Gardening can involve a lot of work, but you don't have to treat it like work. I work for a while, then rest. See #10 above. Sometimes at a logical stopping point, like last weekend I filled up the green bin with ivy and grass and other weeds.
Sometimes I feel like I'm in a hurry to get something done, like get lettuce in early before it gets too hot, but then I say to myself, "There's always next year."