Starting is Simple, Keeping it Going is the Challenge

>> Friday, January 30, 2009

As the saying goes: “There is no better time to start than the present”. And so it is with home gardening. Many home gardeners grow their own food out of a love of just doing it, some others do it for the peace of mind that comes with knowing the food they take from their garden is not tainted with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. And of course there is the freshness that can come only from picking from your garden and having it on your dinner table the same day.

With our economy going the way it is, tightening everyone’s purse strings typically means more people are going to join us in the gardening world. If this is something you have never done, then the startup can be a bit overwhelming. I think back to when I grew my first vegetable, it was in a typically small space where some previous renter had previously grown something, so I was fortunate, and very grateful, that the soil had already been used for something other than grass. The one thing I did not know for certain was if the previous tenant used chemicals. I set aside my fears by reasoning that up until that point in my life I probably had already been exposed to chemicals in my food so worrying about what might have been was not going to stop me from planting. I knew I wasn’t going to add any chemicals, so off I went.

I was very much like every beginning gardener in that I chose tomatoes as my first crop. And as is typical of a first time gardener, I planted too many. Needless to say the neighborhood had fresh tomatoes for a time. I just know, as I write this, realized that even that long ago, just as today, very few of my neighbors had a home garden. But, as I mentioned previously, that will probably change. I do hope so.

I also grew some strawberries that first year. The crop that was produced exceeded my expectations and I was ecstatic at the sweet juicy berries we picked from those first plants. Ecstatic over the bounty of the strawberries and the tomatoes and ecstatic that I was actually able to succeed. That was a great confidence booster.

Experience, I have found, learned from your own mistakes and successes, will provide you with far better lessons than just reading about others’ mis-adventures.

The best way to start is to put something in the ground, even if it is unproductive the roots from that first growth will provide a starting point for bringing soil nutrients locked below the surface up to where future plants can take advantage of them. The most miraculous thing I have learned from gardening is that a plot of ground that seemingly will never support anything, such as hard packed clay, will grow healthy plants that will produce a monstrous harvest as long as you feed the soil.

Soil will quickly come to life with worms and microbes simply by tilling compost into it. By keeping the soil cool in the summer with mulch and maintaining a steady, somewhat constant temperature through winter, also with mulch, you will already win over half the battle of maintaining a healthy and thriving garden.

Worms work to aerate the soil and breakdown large chunks of compost into smaller ones that serve to keep the soil loose to allow air and water to pass through. This ‘looseness’ of the soil, called friability, will also aid plant roots in their search for nutrients. Worms and microbes basically keep the plot refreshed through their constant churning. As long as you feed them they will be there for you. The thing you don’t want to do goes against what may at first seem natural. You don’t want to over-till the soil. It is more beneficial to ‘work’ compost into the top few inches of soil with a pitch fork by gently turning over the soil. A mechanical tiller will tend to cut up the soil too fine and unfortunately cut up the worms as well.

Even if you will not live in the house you are in for very long, starting a garden will prepare the soil for the next person. Perhaps this will be just the encouragement that next person needs to grow their own food. Imagine for a moment if everyone was to do this with their current yard, before too long, grass won’t be taking up so much acreage on this planet, there will be a decrease in the amount of chemical fertilizers used to feed the lawn, and you will have helped in progressing the natural evolution toward a more organic world. After all, there is far more residential property than commercial property so each of us, when we start a home garden, will be increasing the total amount of farm land. Plus, every little bit you do adds to your knowledge base for when you do have space to grow that dream garden. Every new garden plot helps the global community.

Then, if you would post your results to your very own blog, or leave comments on someone else’s blog describing your experiences, both good and bad, you would be adding to the world’s knowledge pool and that is always much appreciated by the next beginner. Perhaps you will learn of a hidden talent that you can specialize in.

You really do not require a huge farm to grow everything you need. You can grow a surprising amount of plants in a very small space. If you have a neighbor who has a garden, ask if you can offer to help weeding or planting. You will gain valuable advice and perhaps even a few plant starts to get your own garden going. Gardeners are an endless supply of knowledge, some of which you cannot learn from books. And I have never met a gardener who does not want to talk about their garden or share advice.

Dig a hole in the ground, fill it in with store bought garden soil (compost can come later), stick a plant in the soil, feed it with non-synthetic fertilizer and watch it grow. You may not get a huge harvest from this first planting but, like every new undertaking, baby steps count. You will gain confidence to try something bigger next year.

If you don’t have a yard, use a container. Many plants do great in containers, you just need to feed and water them more often and make sure the container has good drainage.

Also, don’t be afraid to plant vegetables among your flowers. The added dimension and diversity will benefit both types of plants and prevent any bare spots that would otherwise invite weeds.

For more advanced tips on starting and maintaining a garden plot, see here.

I am willing to bet that once you gain a little experience you will want to continue growing your own food, even after the economy gets back on its feet and it is no longer a ‘necessity’ to grow your own food. So, if you do find you enjoy maintaining a garden maybe keeping it going won’t be such a challenge after all.


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