Four years ago, we planted our first garden. It was a disaster. The plants were overgrown and entangled in each other, our dogs ate the little bit of produce that did grow, thistles taller than me took over, and we had crazy mutant cucumbers that mixed in with all the other plants! I really wish I had pictures of it to share with you guys to prove what a huge mess it was, but documenting the Garden of Shame was the last thing I wanted to do! We felt like such huge failures that we didn’t even attempt gardening for another three years.
At the time, I excused our terrible garden due to the fact that we weren’t gardeners and never would be. Which is pretty amusing now. But I honestly thought I had absolutely no business gardening because I wasn’t a “gardener”. Well, I’m still not a “gardener”. I can’t grow a rose bush to save my life and our hydrangea produced exactly one bloom last year. But we did grow enough food last summer to cut our grocery bill in half and have tons of canned produce to enjoy through the winter months.
You don’t have to be a master gardener to grow your own food and don’t believe people who tell you otherwise. Everyone has a right to be able to provide their family with healthy, garden fresh food. Gardening does take some skills, but they are basic skills that can be easily learned. I understand now that our garden didn’t fail that year because of my lack of green thumbs. It didn’t even fail because of pests or other elemental reasons. It failed because of five big mistakes that we made as new gardeners:
We didn’t understand our land
The best piece of advice I have ever gotten about homesteading and gardening is to do nothing until you understand your land. We chose our garden space that first year based on the criteria that we had an empty spot in the corner of our yard. That’s it. That’s the only thought we put into to it. We rushed into building some garden boxes, we plopped them down in the corner and bought some vegetable starts. We didn’t think about issues like sun/shade ratio, frost, drainage, how we would get water to the space, etc. The space was surrounded by three huge willow trees and two fence lines that kept the area shady most of the day. We had to drag hoses out to it every day to water, which we quickly got tired of and gave up on. We thought that simply having our plants in elevated garden boxes would keep our dogs from getting to the vegetables, but we were dead wrong. The space itself could have been a very useable piece of land, had we taken some time to learn about it. Three years later, we utilized this same garden area and it was a huge success, but we had to address and correct all of the issues. We had to trim back all the trees to allow the sun in, create water access, and put up a small garden fence to keep our plants safe from hungry puppies. Had we taken the time that first year to really understand that small piece of our yard, we would have had much greater success.
We didn’t develop the soil
Our first year gardening, we built garden boxes and filled them with left over garden soil that mom no longer wanted. It was a huge relief to not have to buy soil as funds were tight that year (some things never change!). But what we didn’t understand was that the soiled nothing left in it. It had been planted in for a couple of seasons, and then it sat around for a couple seasons after that. It was largely clay and there just was no nutritional value left in it. Our plants grew, but they grew slowly and produced very little. They were often a light green color rather than the rich deep greens they should have been. We didn’t realize they were trying to tell us that they were running on empty and needed nutrition badly. Three years later, when we returned to this garden area, we used some amazing compost from a friend’s compost pile and added it to the soil until it was about a fifty-fifty compost-soil mixture. We let that sit for about three months before planting and bam! We had the biggest, greenest, healthiest garden I have ever seen.
We didn’t understand companion planting
If someone had recommended the idea of companion planting to me that first year, I would have brushed it off thinking that companion planting was some highly scientific planting formula that only “real gardeners” used. I was only planting a couple of veggies after all, not a “real” garden. As I soon found out, I was wrong. And planting a bunch of zucchini and cucumbers in the middle of your tomato plants is a horrible idea. These little cucumber plants have little vines that like to hold on to other things… like your tomato plants. And then the little tomato plants like to be friends with the zucchini and hold onto to them. And then they grow, and grow, and grow. And then they become one giant to-cuc-ini plant. Had I understood even the tinniest bit of how companion planting worked, I could have avoided the dreaded to-cuc-ini plant. Companion planting is not a crazy hard formula, it is actually just a logical method of planting that will help you get the most out of your garden.
We didn’t have a goal for our garden
When people tell me they want to start a garden, the first thing I ask them is “What is your goal for your garden?” I think it is the single most important part of the gardening process and the one that people are most likely to breeze over. I know it isn’t as glamorous as fun as it is to just rush out and start buying supplies, but it is so critical to your garden’s success. Our first year gardening, we had no plan. We didn’t even plant the vegetables that we ate the most, we just planted the ones that people tell you to plant in your vegetable garden. It was pointless and a waste of money, frankly. The next time we returned to gardening, we spent time thinking about what we like to eat and what we could realistically grow in our space and climate. Most importantly, our we had a clear goal for our garden: we wanted to cut our grocery bill in half over the summer months while our garden was producing. We not only met our goal, we actually exceeded it as well.
We burned out
Gardening is work. Sorry to have to be the one to say it. If you aren’t in a place in your life to take on the care and responsibility of a garden, it is probably best to either go small or possibly hold off all together. That first summer, we had no established watering schedule. Sometimes our garden went days before we would remember to water it, and once Lindy even forgot and left the hose on for about 9 hours while we were at work. By late July, the weeds had taken over and we had given up. We just weren’t in the right place in our lives to have a garden. We lacked goals for our garden so by the time the “work” part of it set in, we had lost any excitement and motivation that led us to plant the garden in the first place. When we tried gardening three years later, things were different. The daily chores of gardening became something we looked forward to. We enjoyed the time we spent together working in the garden and the opportunity to be outside. And with each basket load of produce that we harvested, our joy and motivation deepened.
I hope that by sharing my embarrassing newbie gardener stories with you, you will be able to be the best, most rockin’ newbie gardener ever. Or at least just be a little less hard-headed than I was. Gardening isn’t hard, but it does take planning, proper preparation, and dedication. But, you guys, it is so worth it! Our garden has done more than give us fresh food. It has given us the opportunity to connect with the earth in a way I didn’t even know was possible. It has led us to meet amazing and inspiring people with common goals. It has allowed us to live more simply. And it makes us happy. You will experience some bumps along the journey, but don’t give up yet. And if you are having a rough day, just remember that I once created a to-cuc-ini plant. Rest assured, you got this!