Sunday, March 8, 2015

Big (realistic) Garden Dreams: The First Timer

Rainbow Chard is a great 'first timer' veggie!

You googled 'garden first timer', right? You clicked on this post thinking I am going to tell you the secrets of having an amazing garden cranking out pounds and pounds of produce with minimal effort when you have never even touched dirt before. Sorry to burst your bubble, but I'm going to give it to you straight... this year might stink. Your seedlings might die, your tomatoes might not ripen or all your corn will be eaten by deer. BUT, if you do take some of my advice you will probably have a fighting chance (no promises though).

I had my first garden at about 7 years old. I laugh now because my dad put it in a spot that only got about 3-4 hours of sun a day and filled the box with nothing but rotted cow manure from our neighbor. I can't remember everything we grew, only this one zucchini plant that would not stop cranking! Finally the frost killed it and that was the end of my first year 'gardening'. Then I expressed interest again and my dad once again lovingly set me up, this time with a little greenhouse complete with raised beds at the front of it. Being I was completely clueless and only 11 I let this beautiful gesture of faith fall into neglect. No more garden for me. Then I met my husband in Montana and moved in with him. This first house we shared was a shack, and we affectionately call it that! But, what it lacked in suitable housing, it made up for with low rent and... a backyard. Oh, my 18 year old fingers were itching to grow something, anything! So my loving husband-to-be made me a raised bed. Not much longer after my seeds sprouted, we had to move. So, again, I was left feeling the sting of failure.

Fast forward, we are back in Maine, married, and every year I keep trying with out much luck. Until last year. You want to know why last year was a success to me finally? I realized that I need to stop trying to cram my unrealistic expectations into a tiny greenhouse and some pots. Sure, this may have been a really long back story to tell you I learn slow, but gardens are like childbirth... you remember the beginning and end but forget about the details unless you write it down. So that's why we are going to start with:

Record keeping! No matter how much of a steel trap you think that brain of yours is, march yourself down to the office supply store and get a rocking notebook. I find if I get a pretty one I really like I will actually use it. If you're a guy, just cover that puppy with duct tape or trashy bumper stickers. Now use it! Write down everything. I won't bother to tell you how to organize your notes because this is always a very organic process to me (meaning I do it different every time). But, basically you want to keep track of seed names and types, germination rates, conditions, DATES, fertilizers/soil, and yields. This may sound tedious and sometimes it is, but trust me it is worth it.

Start small. Duh, right? No, really, SMALL. Pick no more than 5 things to grow including varieties. Meaning not 5 vegetables and then 3 varieties of each, 5 total. And, even limit the amount of the 5 despite how much room you have. That way you have less of a chance of becoming overwhelmed by weeding, watering and daily care. Do not let your advanced human brain trick you into thinking you can do something as simple as grow a dozen tomato plants, 500 carrots, 50 cabbages, 100 stalks of corn, 20 pepper plants and 5 kinds of pumpkins. It's like going to the huge buffet place and taking one of everything, you will regret it. 5 things! No more!

Learn to start seeds. Others might tell you to buy starts from the garden center. I think it's cheating... (don't hate me!). Listen, if you are gonna do this thing, do it right man! Seeds make plants and plants make gardens. It's not that hard, really! Even those elusive tomato plants are easy if you know what to do (more on that in another post). I will go over this sequentially I promise.

Choose your medium wisely. Do you have nothing but clay or rocks in your soil? Don't have access to a tiller? No yard at all? Do your research and pick something that will actually work for you. For example if you have lots of rocks and clay like we have here in our area of Maine, do raised beds and save your time. Make either a few small or one long one (no wider than 5 feet or you won't reach the middle). If you have no yard than choose varieties that do well in pots and get whatever kids of pots you like or can afford! As long as they have drainage and can hold enough soil for your plant types, you are good to go.

Do not underestimate water. For the love of peet, don't! Water is even more important than soil or fertilizer. If you have pots, water every day. Shallow raised beds at least every other day if not every day and regular 'in ground' beds and deep raised beds need a good soak 1-2 times a week. You might need to double this during high temperatures, droughts or when fruit it in it's peak of growing in size (not ripening).

Find a buddy. I have gleaned so much knowledge just by talking to friends, family and strangers who also garden in my climate. Don't try getting first hand advice from your aunt in Kansas if you live in Washington, pointless. There are garden clubs, strangers in the grocery store and vendors at the farmers market you can wheedle into giving you some advice. Don't try to compare your garden to theirs this first year. Just don't.

Now, I know lots of blogs and articles will enthusiastically tell you that this will be easy and so much fun! And, it can be if only you be realistic. I am not trying to trod on your confidence but rather feed you truth. Gardening can be hard at times. It is very rewarding though!

Til next time!

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