Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Gardening

So you want to grow a garden, but you have a serious black thumb. You’ve killed cactuses. You plant seeds, but they don’t come up. Your tomatoes rot on the vine before they ripen. Luckily for you, I’ve put together this handy absolute beginner’s guide to gardening.

  1. Have you considered growing weeds?

I’m serious.

Okay, half serious.

Take a good look at what grows well in your area, particularly in your yard and neighborhood. Mint dies in my neighborhood but bulbs grow well; at a friend’s house some 20 miles away, mint grows rampant but bulbs die. Do you live in a wooded area with lots of pines, or a dry area with succulents and cacti? Do strawberries grow wild in your yard?

If you see a flower or plant you love growing wild near your house, chances are good it will grow in your yard. If you can just dig it up and take it home without running afoul of the law, go ahead! If not, take a couple of good picture of it and take the pictures to your local garden store. While you’re there, ask the employees what they recommend for your area.

(Note: I’m pretty sure that most big-box stores that sell plants, like Walmart or Lowes, sell similar plants all over the country. These are kind of generic and will probably work fine in your area, but if you want local plant varieties that may be better adapted to your area, try a local garden store.)

The most successful plants in my garden are actually plants I found growing “wild” in the area–a couple of domesticated plants that were growing so abundantly they had escaped their original garden and the gardener was fine with me digging up and taking home the shoots that were cluttering up her yard and some wild flowers I liked. These hardy plants have survived and thrived despite, in one case, being nearly murdered in the process of tearing it out the anti-weed mesh it was growing in.

    2. Now take a good look at your microclimate–the specific place where you are trying to grow plants.

Are you putting potted plants on a cement porch with no shade in front of a glass door, where they’re going to get direct and reflected sunlight all day? Temperatures here can easily reach 100 degrees every day. Or are you trying to grow plants in the shade under a large tree, where the ground is always damp and they receive no direct sunlight? You can easily have both microclimates in the same yard, and the plants that grow well in one spot definitely won’t grow well in the other. If you’re confined to gardening in an ultra-sunny location, you’ll need heat and drought-tolerant plants. If you’re gardening in the shade, look for shade-tolerant plants.

In my experience, fruits won’t ripen in the shade. I’ve grown plenty of strawberry, tomato, and pumpkin plants in the shade, (strawberries make a lovely, shade-tolerant groundcover,) and never gotten a single decent fruit off of them. My tomatoes, yes, rotted before they ripened.

It’s okay. I don’t even like fresh tomatoes. I was just growing them because everyone else does.

I can get fruit to ripen on the sunny side of the house. I’ve gotten lots of tasty fruit on the sunny side of the house. Unfortunately that’s the patio side, so everything there has to be grown in pots and watered often because they dry out quickly.

I have had luck, however, growing some vegetables in the shade.

C’est la vie!

    3. Start small, simple, and easy.

Some plants grow easily and will work almost anywhere. Peas, for example, have never failed me, whether planted in way too hot, dry, dusty soil or in a pot in the shade. Soy beans and regular beans grow well, too. (And personally, I like the taste.)

By contrast, some seeds come with a list of instructions six months long:

“Put these seeds in a container of sterile sand in your refrigerator for 3 months. Mist them once a week so they don’t dry out, but don’t get them wet. Then warm them up slowly. Put them in a container with sandpaper and shake them, and if that doesn’t work, nick them with a knife. Then plant them 1/4 inch deep in a mix of 1 part peat moss, 1 part sterile potting mix, and 1 part sand. Water once a day for 3 months, until you give up and plant peas instead.”

You see, some seeds are designed by nature to just fall on the ground and start growing; some seeds are designed to get eaten, pass through a digestive tract without getting destroyed, and then sprout; and some seeds are designed to sit around all winter until they sprout in the spring. You want the first kind of seeds. If you really want a plant grown from more difficult seeds, just go buy a plant. Trust me, it’s better to spend $8 on one plant that’s actually alive than $4 on 30 seeds that won’t grow.

While we’re on the subject of seeds that don’t grow, remember that unlike people, most plants produce hundreds or thousands of seeds during their lives. Obviously not all of these seeds can possibly turn into new plants. So if some of your seeds didn’t sprout, remember that the average tree sends out thousands of seeds that don’t sprout, either. So don’t feel bad! You probably still have a better success rate than nature!

Some plants don’t even like using seeds. Strawberries prefer to propagate via runners (which is why they make such nice groundcover.)

Additionally, some plants will live for years, while others live for only a season and then pass away.

If your plants keep dying, you might have annuals! They’re supposed to do that.

If you enjoy digging in the dirt and want an excuse to get outside more often, plant annuals. Annuals tend to grow quickly and look nice right away–lots of pretty flowers are annuals. If you get lucky, they might even sow their seeds in your garden, resulting in new flowers popping up next year, but there’s no guarantee.

If you want a garden that will keep going without you having to start over from scratch every year, plant perennials. I’m lazy, so I have perennials. (Except the peas.)

Perennials can take a while to get going. For example, while your peas might be ready to harvest after a mere two months in the ground, asparagus takes 2 to 4 years to develop. But once you do have a mature plant, you can harvest it every year for decades. Apple trees take 4+ years to mature, but again, last for decades. (There’s an apple tree in Germany that’s 185 years old.)

By the way, you might think cactuses and succulents are the easiest plants to grow, but my cactuses always die. Always. I am the cactus murderer. I don’t know. I over-water them or something.

    ETA: 3B. Start seeds in pots:

This has become such an established part of my gardening routine that I nearly forgot how much I struggled before I figured it out: sow your seeds in small pots, not directly into the ground.

I don’t know why it works, but I have spent years watering long rows of flower seeds I planted directly in my garden, only to get nothing in return. (Except weeds. Lots of weeds.) By contrast, when I start seeds in pots, at least some of them almost always come up. They are much more convenient, as well, because I can keep all of the little pots together on one rack on the porch and water them all at once rather than hauling the hose up and down the garden, and if you have one set of pots positioned above another set, water from the first group can drip down and water the second.

When the plants get big enough, (about the same size as the ones growing in similar pots in the garden store if you have one per pot,) transfer them to the ground.

Speaking of which:

    4. Dirt, water, and fertilizer.

You probably know all about these already, but remember that plants like dirt with plenty of nutrients. If your dirt is bad, you’ll need to fertilize. If things have been growing in your garden for a while, you’ll need to fertilize. If you want to grow corn, you’ll need to fertilize.

But… like everything, there’s too much of a good thing, and you can over-fertilize plants. Each plant has its own needs, so read up on the plants you have.

        5. What if I’ve done everything right, and my plants are still producing mealy, unpleasant fruit?

 

The plants/seeds sold at garden stores, nurseries, Walmart, etc., have been optimized for all sorts of traits, like fast growth, attractive leaves, beautiful flowers, pest resistance, ease of sprouting, etc. Some of them have been bred to taste good, but plenty of them haven’t–honestly, I’ve been surprised at what a high percent of fruit plants sold at regular stores actually produce totally inferior, unpleasant-tasting fruits.

If your plants aren’t making tasty fruit, it might not be your fault at all. You may have to experiment with several different varieties before you find one you like, or do some research into the best varieties for your region. This year I ended up mail-ordering a specific variety of fruit plants that are supposed to be tasty and grow well in my area, but aren’t available at my local big-box garden store. (Probably because they’re a local variety and I hear they have some issues with pest resistance/rot.) Wish me luck.

Just like the seeds, don’t get discouraged if your first few plants don’t work out. Plants are dynamic. They grow, flower, seed, wither, and start again. If one thing doesn’t work, try something else. Remember, humans have been growing plants for 10,000 years, and it has generally worked out well.

So that’s my absolute newbies’ guide to growing plants. I hope it helps.

Kabloona Friday (Summer comes, and with it, the end.)

This is the last installment of quotes from Kabloona, an account of Gontran “Mike” dePoncins’s year spent among the Eskimo of Canada in 1939. To make it easier to read, I am going to dispense with the blockquote:

“Spring was returning to the arctic. The temperature rose till it stood well above zero, and suddenly one day–it was the 25th April–it mounted to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. A nasty warm wind was blowing, the kind of win which, at home, makes us fearful of catching an unseasonable cold. The “heat” was intolerable. …

Light had come to the northern night–or if this was not light, at any rate it was no longer darkness. The air was filled with an eerie glow; the horizon was swollen with the promise of light, and the night was a ruddy purple. … as the days went by the lamp became unnecessary and we had the light of the sky all though the night.

One of the most curious things was our resistance to sleep. … Sleep would not come. I would get quietly out of bed and go out-of-doors to sketch. … Across the northern sky stretched a band like white gold, white and liquid, like gold in a crucible. … The southern sky was a hard bright blue, and so luminous that the caplets of islands and the faraway mountains emerged in the distance with brilliant clarity. … something stirring, something vibrant was present that filled the being with a nameless agitation. It was impossible to be still. You wanted to walk, to run, to go on endlessly from hillock to hillock, shouting verses aloud, singing songs you had never before heard. You were seized by what could easily become delirium and might move you as plausibly to religious ecstasy as to sexual explosion–of itself and without the intervention of your will. The earth was being born again. You were witnessing its creation. You wanted harps to chant its glory’ and you knew that it was moving the missionaries to prayer and urging on the Eskimos to their indefatigable mating. …

It was three o’clock in the morning and children were at play out on the frozen sea. Women, their mothers, sat on the point of a knoll and watched them, called out to them. … They will wander like this all summer long, sleeping only when they are too weary to stand, and sleeping wherever they happen to find themselves

This is the season of Eskimo madness, particularly for the young. I remember a boy of eleven or twelve years, named Ivitaligak, who went out of his mind every spring.  do not know if this malady exists elsewhere in the same way, but with Eskimo youths it takes the form of a violent somnambulism. Ivitaligak would rove like a somnambulist, coming, going shrieking, beating his head with his fists and screaming, “Give me a rifle! Give me a rifle! I want to kill myself!” It would not have been hard for him to kill himself before coming to. That night he picked up in both hands a burning stove and shook it violently without feeling the burns. His friends threw him down and pummeled him to try to wake him, but no one could do it. They smacked him again and again, holding him down on the ground as he twisted and contorted himself: all in vain. … Once awake again, he could remember nothing that had happened and when they told him, he burst out laughing and refused to believe them. His father, Anarvik, said to me that this always happened int he spring, when the boy did not get enough sleep, wandered all night long, night after night, and stretched out occasionally on the bare ground to slumber. Angulalik’s little son, Wakwak, displayed the same symptoms, though not so violently. Once they came to, the boys complained of headaches; but these things pass when they grow to be men.

Unlike ourselves, the Eskimos are still children of nature. Spring, the season of rut in the animal kingdom, induces physiological mutations in them. They change color: from earth brown they turn purple, a red glow lies over their cheekbones, and their eyes shine with a strange gleam. Here at Perry River a frenzy of sexuality had spread through the camp, embracing every member of it. Day and night they copulated in a sort of delirium, inexhaustible and insatiable.

Imagine a world covered by  the waters of an endlessly wide lake, and the waters receding until only peaks emerge like islands over the lake-bottom. There were hundreds of these peaks as far as the eye could see, with here and there a ridge that ran like a prehistoric river bank, its smoothly worn slope covered with pebbles that appeared from far away as fine as sand. Infinite in distance, hushed, seemingly deserted by man and beast, it was the landscape of a fairytale. Far away. farther away than I have ever been able to see anywhere in the world, the sun burned on the rim of a ridge, and every peak and slope and hillock stood bathed in a ruddy pink light, a rose that was unreal in its liquid softness. There were days enough when the land of the Eskimo, with its blizzards and its grey and horizonless air, had seemed to me in truth a ghastly world; but on this day, seeing this immensity spread out before me, being conscious of the solitude in which I stood gazing at it, I recognized the right of the Eskimo to the pride he took in his land, and fancied that in his mind this was an offering made to him by who knows what god, and that he too felt himself a member of a chosen people. Here, I told myself, is their Eden, this wide world stocked by the Great Giver with the magnificent game that came up year after year to feed them and arm them and clothe them and surrender itself, the constituent fundament of their households.

I thought of the months on the trail, of the hardships and even miseries I had endued, and of a sudden I began to miss them with an intensity which amazed me and which, since then, has never left me. … God knows we were poor enough. Our poverty was total. We possessed nothing: not even the snow was our own. … But there was a cheer and a contentment in our existence which I continue to muse upon and cannot altogether explain to myself. Was it because infinite poverty lent infinite price to the least object? There was more to it than this. I had lost all I owned, but had found great riches. Like a religious, I possessed the veritable treasures, those which could not be taken from me. I had lost the world, but I had found myself, had exchanged the glitter for the gold. Within me had lain potentialities for moral serenity;, and I had not known it. Storm and danger had been my salvation, an without them my spirit should have dropped heedlessly off to sleep in my flesh. Thee on that Arctic tundra I had constructed myself from within. Up though the lined and frozen layers of skin on my face, my true visage had begun to emerge, the visage that God had meant all men to show to one another; and that visage all the blizzards, all the adversity in the world could not decompose. …

I say “we” but I cannot pretend of course to lend to the Eskimos these thoughts I now express. The poverty that was my salvation had from the beginning of time been theirs … These men about whom I knew properly nothing at all, these beings of another race separated from me by thousand of years of the evolution of my kind, had stood shoulder to shoulder with me in the blizzard. With my friends Outside there had always been differences, we had always remained personalities, individuals. Here, after the first few weeks of my probation, none of this existed: he contact was direct, devoid of the detours of personality. Day after day a wind would raise, a sign of danger would appear in the air, and we would respond together, each forgetting himself and striving in the common cause. Outside, it wanted war and flood to give man this sense of brotherhood: here it was a commonplace of life. …

I stood on the shores of Ellice Island and said to myself that I did not want to leave this land. … And as I turned and walked down the hill, I knew that my fate lay elsewhere; and I know now that it lies in France. … for a Frenchman of our time, the trail back leads home.”

And thus de Poncins returns home just in time for World War II.