Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Digging in the Dirt: Part 1
Note from Sara: You may remember that I've been lucky enough to have John (aka "El Gaucho") guest post for me in the past. He and his girl, Alycia, have been friends of mine for years and years, and they're also the most prolific gardeners I know. Because it seems that Mellisa and I are new to the world of growing our own food, I thought I'd ask John to hop over and offer up some tips. I'll be pestering him for more as the season continues on, and hopefully we'll bully him into sharing more of his wisdom come next spring when it's time to plant again. Enjoy!
Tips For Beginning Gardeners, Part 1:
Sara recently sent me an e-mail asking if I could offer up some trusty gardening tips to the wonderful readers of From Blah to Ta-Daa. When I pressed her for details about what kind of gardening tips to discuss, she said, “Make it for people like me. I seem to have some imaginary boundaries that venture only a few feet from my stove and refrigerator.” So bearing in mind that many people have time constraints, space limitations, fear of failure, imaginary boundaries, a dark and sinister past with failed gardening attempts, or just uncertainty of where to start in the huge realm of gardening, here are a few trusty tips to help you be successful in your garden.
If you’re already reading this blog, you’re obviously interested in cooking, preparing food, and making delicious dishes for your family. I’m here to tell you that even if you have any or all of the constraints I mentioned above, or have a “brown thumb” when it comes to gardening, that you should not let these things stop you from trying your hand at raising your own fruits and vegetables.
Here are a few things I’ve learned over many years playing in the dirt and succeeding and failing at growing stuff in the garden.
Just Like Real Estate – Location, Location, Location.
Make sure the spot you choose for your garden gets a full day (at least 6, preferably 8 or more) hours of sunshine, ideally oriented towards the south or west. Make sure that you’re near a water spigot, close to where your tools are kept, close to your backdoor/kitchen door, and not in a place where your dogs go to tinkle (Yes I made this mistake, remember this theme – every gardener makes mistakes).
The raised bed above faces south and is along my garage, so it gets additional heat and light reflected from the garage siding. I’ve learned that my heat loving plants (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant) do really well here, but it took a few seasons of trial and error to find that out.
If you don’t have your own yard or live in a condo, townhouse, or apartment, a sunny South or West facing patio/balcony can easily support a pot of tomatoes, some fresh herbs, or even a small lemon tree. Don’t let the physical constraints of your situation keep you from trying to grow your own fruits and veggies.
Don’t Break the Bank.
You can literally start gardening with zero dollars and no tools other than your two hands. Yes, digging in the dirt with just your hands is much harder than using a shovel or a trowel, but it can be done. The point is that it’s easy to get caught up in buying fancy new tools, pretty colored pots, specialized gardening accoutrements, or tons of vegetable seeds through a seed catalog. The point is to economically grow a few veggies that you love, enjoy the fruits of your successes, and then build from there.
A recurring theme in learning to garden is the beginner who gets all excited about raising their own food, spends a few or even several hundred dollars on shiny tools, fancy pots, and exotic plants, and then somehow gets derailed. Expertise and proficiency in gardening can’t be purchased with money. Start out slow with a few necessities (or borrow them if you can) and build up your inventory of tools, seeds, garden toys, etc over a number of years. My collection of tools are a series of hand-me-downs, stuff from Freecycle or the “Free” section on Craigslist, things left in the garage by previous home owners, Christmas/Birthday presents, and a few things I’ve actually purchased.
Keep a Journal.
This isn’t a mushy “thoughts and feelings” kind of journal, though if you want to add your thoughts and feelings, by all means go ahead. Mine sometimes have expressions of my emotional pain like “I’m full of despair. I wish I could find the bunny that ate my cucumber and watermelon seedlings that I just planted yesterday. I’d like to lure that bunny into a trap with some Skittles and then punch him in his little bunny head." But that’s just me. I just use a basic Mead Composition book, but any notebook, pad of paper, or even Excel spreadsheet will work.
You want to write the logistics of everything in your journal. What you planted, where you planted it, and when you planted it. During the year, make a few notes (rainfall, temperatures, weird weather, bugs, plant diseases, etc), and then a recap at the end of the season. This will help you understand the things that didn’t work (remember - everybody fails at growing something, even experienced gardeners) and identify and repeat next year the things that did work.
Make a sketch or a list or a spreadsheet to help you document what you did in the garden. My beginning of the year sketches look like this:
For me, the journal method helps us as we’re harvesting our veggies and realize that if one particular tomato is delicious, I can identify which nursery we bought that seedling from and make sure to get one (or two or three) next year. Last year we realized that one variety of cherry tomato, a yellow pear shaped tomato, just wasn’t that good. It looked pretty in salads, but just wasn’t that tasty. But we also realized that another variety of cherry tomato we planted, a wild Mexican hybrid, was absolutely delicious (seriously sweet and delicious, it was like candy), and we made sure to plant several this year.
Good luck in your gardening endeavors. And it’s only July, so it’s not too late to start a zucchini, cucumber, tomato, or pepper plant this year…