The Half Acre Garden
My fascination with the outdoors and my love for the garden began when I was young, and it's never left me. I grew up in the country on five acres surrounded by 70-some acres of woods. I would rarely put shoes on my feet when I went outside and I spent most of my summer days in my fort in the woods. My parents were passionate gardeners, and I'd estimate about half of our yard was landscaped with flower gardens, shrubs, rock gardens, and a koi pond to boot. There were a few summers where we attempted a vegetable garden, but the rabbits and deer ate better than we did, unfortunately. To this day, I feel most like myself and at rest when I'm surrounded by nature.
Garden on the Half Acre
When Ethan and I moved into our first home and inherited this glorious little half acre of land, I couldn't wait to start my own garden. When I began my plans early last spring, a reoccurring piece of advice I heard was to "start small and avoid over-planting" (mind you, I didn't necessarily heed this advice). After reading through several gardening books, consulting the all-knowing Google, and conferring with garden-savvy family and friends, I decided that "Square Foot Gardening" (SFG) would work well for our first garden venture. I was amazed at how much variety and quantity you could grow in such a small space, and the notion of not having to till large portions of our yard was quite appealing. We built two 4' x 8' raised beds for vegetables, and one smaller 2' x 4' raised bed for herbs (and by "we", I mean Ethan). If you're interested, here's a quick-read article that outlines the SFG method of gardening and a short list of pros and cons if you're considering going this route.
My love of cooking greatly inspires my love for gardening.The two go hand in hand. Walking out my back door and assembling a salad with what's growing in my garden is a joy all it's own. Our meals are far more flavorful, I'm inspired to try new recipes, and cooking is much more enjoyable when I have instant access to such variety.
It can be really empowering to grow your own food. In a small way, you're partnering with the earth to nurture seeds into full grown plants that produce food to fuel your body and to share with friends. Joining in that process has given me a newfound appreciation and satisfaction in the food I grow, purchase, cook, and eat. In cooking and gardening alike, there are some things that simply cannot be rushed. In our instant-satisfaction-on-demand culture I think it's especially important to have spaces where you must bow to nature's timeline.
Words to the Wise
I put together a short list of tips and encouragements for you whether you have a year or two of gardening under your belt, or you're planning your first garden. Here are the pieces of advice I most needed to hear when I was starting out, my biggest gardening epiphanies, and things I still remind myself of.
1.) When considering what to grow in your vegetable garden, start by looking in your refrigerator! What do you regularly cook with and enjoy eating? It's a great place to begin, and will likely save you money when you start harvesting it yourself instead of purchasing it at the grocery! There are many vegetables that I'm tempted to purchase seeds for and grow, because it seems like a fun idea and seeds are relatively inexpensive. But in reality, I rarely eat eggplant so it would be wasteful to grow it just because I can. Grow what you'll use and enjoy (also, succession plant!). For me, I love to use lots of fresh herbs when I cook, but I don't regularly purchase a variety of herbs from the grocery because they're $4.00/each for a tiny package. However, you buy one rosemary plant for $4.00, plant it in your garden, and you've got fresh rosemary whenever you need it all season long.
2.) Plan ahead. I'm not an avid planner in most areas of my life, but when it comes to gardening some forethought is necessary. Instead of bopping into a garden store and tossing tomato plants and packets of seeds into your cart (as fun as that is!), survey your yard first and find where it's appropriate to plant based upon the amount of sunlight you receive. You'll want to take some time to research what plants will grow well in your hardiness zone and make sure you know when to plant based upon your last frost date. Also consider the size and "style" of garden you'd like to have. Do you want to plant in rows? pots? raised beds? There's advantages to each, but you have to do what's best for you and your yard. Even if you only have a small sunny balcony off your apartment, you can have a garden!
3.) Look into what resources your community offers. Your local library or garden center may have classes available for beginners where you can learn some basics and connect with other gardeners as well. Your local library may even have a "seed library", and if so...rejoice because this is an incredible resource! A seed library is exactly what it sounds like; at my library it's a small chest of drawers filled with packets of vegetable, fruit, flower, and native plant seeds donated by local gardeners and they're 100% free for the taking. It's a goldmine! It's also a great place to donate any unused seeds you have at the end of the season (since you likely didn't grow 200 heads of cabbage from seed).
4.) Learn some basics, but enjoy the process of learning as you go. Beginning a garden can seem like a daunting task since there's lots of options and opinions. If you're anything like me and you learn best by doing, there's no better way to learn than to jump in and get your hands dirty (literally). Talking with garden-savvy friends and family was certainly my most helpful resource, but I've listed some other resources below that I found helpful as I was planning and that I continue to use as a reference. I still consider myself a gardening novice, but I really look forward to learning so much more again this growing season!
No Mistakes, Just Experiments
As I began my garden plans last spring, I had a few looming fears mixed in with my excitement. My greatest concern was that I would kill everything I tried to grow and it would all be a waste of time and money. So optimistic, I know. There were certainly set-backs, frustrations (slugs...who would have thought!?), and lessons learned throughout that first growing season, but I'm happy to say that my first attempt was largely a success. To quote Janet Kilburn Phillips, "There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments." I love that. It brought me so much joy to have a garden of my own. Our "harvest baskets" were full enough to share with friends, I spent so much more time outside, and my love for gardening grew exponentially.
My Happiest Place
My parents would walk through their garden together almost every day after work in the spring and summer. They walked around the yard debriefing their days and casually picked weeds while the cats and I followed along. I'd ask my Dad the names of plants as we walked, and I learned the subtle art of deadheading daylilies. Now as an adult with my own garden, I have a space for my own version of that tradition I grew up with. There's nothing I enjoy more on a summer morning than a walk through my little garden while I'm still in my jammies with a cup of coffee in hand. It's a quiet moment to check and see how things are growing, pick a few weeds, breathe in the morning air, and give the plants a quick drink. It's such a happy place.
It's still incredible to me that plants grow like they do. You sow seeds in the ground, give them some water and sun, and they just grow. One of my favorite phrases that my brother-in-law assured me of early on is "plants want to grow". It's so true! If the thought of having a garden of your own to nurture and grow is exciting to you, I really encourage you to give it a go! Read a little to get familiar with the basics, start small, and enjoy the journey. It's wildly rewarding. Happy gardening to you!
"Grow, Cook Eat" Willie Galloway
"The Vegetable Gardener's Bible" Edward C. Smith
"All New Square Foot Gardening II" Mel Bartholomew