Monday, July 9, 2012

Baby Steps for Newbie Gardeners

It’s easy to be seduced by the thought of juicy tomatoes and watermelon growing from one’s own patch of soil. Watermelon, yes. Tomatoes, yum. Green beans, yay. Gardening is often about the delirium of what we fantasize, dictated by our stomachs. We can see it growing in our plot, and want to dive right in, make it happen, and eat it. But sometimes, jumping in too fast is really counterproductive.

Having been at the Hali'imaile Community Garden for five years now, the pattern I’ve seen for new gardeners is they go gung ho into the garden, and do an insane amount of work, get discouraged by this problem or that – weeds, irrigation problems or not enough water, bugs, seeds that won’t sprout or get eaten – and then abruptly give up.  Maybe they even get one fantastic harvest in the beginning, but then subsequent attempts don’t work so well, and they then still give up.  It’s so easy to overdo the garden, get super exhausted and see the garden as a chore.

The ultimate way to fail at gardening is to have the garden become a chore. The best way to succeed at gardening is to keep it fun, to be prepared for gardening, and to take baby steps.  Yes, this post is inspired by and was written originally for the community garden site, but became too long. 

Keep it fun
If you go to the garden in the middle of the day, when the sun is super hot and bright, then you’ll probably get tired and thirsty and associate gardening with pain and discomfort. If you spend four hours tilling or pulling out weeds and then your back hurts the next day, you’ve made your gardening experience negative. Make sure you get some enjoyment while you’re at the garden. If it’s just work, it’s not fun.

It’s easier to go to the garden earlier in the day before 11 am or to go later in the afternoon, when it’s cooler. It’s more pleasant to go when it’s slightly overcast, since it’s cooler.

Take plenty of breaks, and get into the shade. You don’t want to have a sunburn later. A severe sunburn will make you less likely to come back to the garden.

Bring a cooler with food to eat and lots of water. If you don’t have cool water to quench your thirst, then it’s going to be unpleasant. Even better, bring a smoothie or two or coconut water or iced tea. You need to replenish yourself and get electrolytes. Bring good snacks to eat, or be willing to leave the garden and get food and come back if you need to. Don’t keep slogging away and making yourself tired and hungry to boot.

Plant easy crops at the beginning – radishes, beans, things that will grow quickly and produce quickly so you can get some quick gratification for your efforts. If you pick the most difficult plants to grow at first, then you’re increasing the amount of work and effort (and also may have less fun).

Sometimes you should just enjoy the garden without doing anything major. Walk around the garden and look at plants, admire butterflies, show off your plot to a friend. Maybe just pick herbs and go home. Maybe just go there for a picnic. If you are constantly doing “work” at the garden and not having fun, then the garden becomes another “to do.”  Instead of adding to your life, it gives you stress and guilt.

If you plant a few flowers (which are usually easier to grow than veggies), at the borders of your garden, you’ll always have something nice to look at. No matter how awful or weedy your plot can get, if you have a few flowers in your garden, you’ll enjoy it more. Also, the flowers will attract butterflies and bees.

Butterfly on Mexican sunflower.
Overgrown lettuce in the background, but who cares?
Keep it fun by harvesting as you go. Instead of doing a lot of work, and then harvesting at the end when you’re really tired and can’t think straight, take little breaks and harvest some things. Otherwise, by the time you’re ready to go, you may be too tired or it may be too dark to harvest anything, and then you’re not balancing your work with pleasure. Keep a cooler handy for putting veggies inside.  If your plot doesn’t have anything to harvest, go to the herb garden and take some clippings or walk to the orchard and see if any of the fruit trees are producing. If you bring something home to eat each time, you’ll associate your trips to the garden with bringing food home.

Also, take breaks and talk with people who are there. Get to know other people. It’s more fun if you socialize. Even though it may take time from the “all important” work you are doing, it’ll make your time more enjoyable to talk with people. Also, they may have good tips or ideas for dealing with certain plants or bugs or just making your plot more productive.

Share your harvest. If your garden is producing a lot, then share it with people at the garden or neighbors. It’ll come back in some way or another.

Do not give into guilt. There will always be people who have better carrots, squash, tomatoes, lettuce (fill in the blank) than you. There will always be plots that look neater and are more productive than yours. If you compare yourself to other plots or gardeners, then you will feel guilty and embarrassed and then not want to come back. Do not compare your plot to others. Accept your plot with all its faults and imperfections and root for every seed that’s sprouting (unless it’s a weed). 

A weedy garden.
A neat garden. 

Keep your expectations balanced. If you’re new at gardening, there can be a lot of learning in the beginning. You may get lucky, but then again, you may have a lot of difficulties.  Or you may have one bumper crop at the very beginning followed by several “failures” aka “learning experiences.” If you have unrealistic expectations about how much food you can produce given the amount of time you’ve put in, you may be in for a shock. It ALWAYS takes more time at the beginning. Then double that. So, if you are putting in a lot of time, and things don’t go the way you’ve wanted them to, then you can get easily discouraged.  If you treat the garden as a process not as an end result, you’ll have more success.  The bottom line is that you’re gardening to produce your own food. But, it can take a while to get there. In the meantime, make sure you are getting some benefit out of going to the garden. The benefits include: getting fresh air, exercise, enjoyment of nature and beauty, aromatherapy from the herb garden. If you are too results-focused and then don’t get those results, you will give up too soon. Usually just before your plants would have produced a ton of food. 

I take pictures frequently and that helps me to keep track of what I’ve done. Sometimes there is something wonderful like a butterfly on a flower, or some weird weed that is worth investigating. Taking pictures is a way to keep it fun.  Even if all I’m growing are weeds at the time.

I also am a very lazy gardener. SO if there’s a big section of cane grass (a major weed), I’ll try to suffocate it first before pulling it out. I’ll try to minimize my efforts in certain areas so that I don’t overtire myself each time I go.

Be prepared for gardening
Going to the garden is like going on a hike or a major outing. The weather conditions can change, and you need fuel for your journey. You need to be prepared for all sorts of situations.  If you forget something, then it makes your experience unpleasant instead of fun.

My preparation for the garden also includes -
Getting the car ready with my gardening supplies, and putting an old towel or rug on the seat or in the trunk where I’m going to be putting gardening supplies. This helps to keep the car cleaner afterwards.  Some people leave their tools in the car at all times. But I need to empty the car after each gardening trip.

Garden supplies in the car. 

My garden packing list:
  • A small cooler with food and cold water, smoothies, food, utensils, napkins
  • Small plastic bags, reusable bags, or paper bags to bring back veggies and herbs
  • A big cooler with ice packs for the veggies and herbs, to keep them in good condition until I get home
  • A good hat with a brim – the sun is very strong here
  • Sunscreen or lip balm
  • Lotion or salve for my fingers and hands
  • Gardening gloves
  • Mosquito repellant
  • A gardening outfit – for me, oversize pants that fit over shorts, a long sleeve shirt, socks and sneakers or gardening boots
  • A cutting knife
  • A bucket or two, very helpful and useful
  • Extra batteries in case the timer dies
  • Instructions for my timer in case I have to reprogram it
  • Codes for the gate and tool shed – I keep them as a note in my cell phone, but you could also make an entry for the garden in your contacts – add the phone # of one of the committee members and add the codes below. It sucks going to the garden and then not being able to enter the gate or open the tool shed.
  • A list of things I want to accomplish – just to keep me on target (try to not overdo this)
  • My cell phone
  • A camera
  • Hand tools – for me, a small spade, a weeding tool, and a Japanese hand saw/scythe
  • A bag with assorted garden items: a bottle of fertilizer, Teflon tape for dealing with irrigation, maybe extra irrigation parts, scissors, string.
  • Seeds, compost, seedlings, fertilizer – If I’m planting that day
  • Rain jacket – if it looks overcast
I know it sounds like a lot, but it’s painful to trek all the way to the garden to forget something that you needed or would have made your time more enjoyable.

Inevitably, I’ll arrive to the garden and get distracted by something there, or will be in the sun too long and get spacey. So having all these things make it more fun and keeps my mind operating better so I can be there.

After I get back from gardening, I try not to do anything too strenuous the rest of the day. Lately, I’ve been keeping an extra cooler outside, filled with ice to put the gardening harvest in so that it doesn’t take over the fridge until I can deal with it. It can be really tiring to come back from gardening, and then try to wash and prep all the veggies from one’s trip or stuff them in the fridge so that opening the fridge can be a stressful experience. So the cooler gives me the option of dealing with veggies the next day or the day after. Also, sometimes I overharvest things - and bring more plants home for whatever reason than I can reasonably eat or deal with in a given time, so the cooler gives me more time.

Taking baby steps
Go to the garden in small segments in the beginning, maybe only an hour or two to start with. Now, some people are super energetic, A type achievers and so they may want to spend 8 hours a day at the garden for the first week or two to get their plot cleared, tilled and planted. But if you know you’re not that kind of person, don’t knock yourself out. Be lazy. Maybe clear only half your plot and cover the other half with weedmat. Maybe only commit to weeding one square foot and then leave for the day. If you are going to set up an irrigation system, don’t try to do that and also weed your entire plot and also plant your entire plot. Pick one task, and allow it to take as long as it needs.  Don’t make a huge to do list of everything you want to do in your garden and expect to do it all in one day or even in one week. It’s a process.

If you get to the garden and don’t know where to start, just do one small thing. Maybe the one small thing is just to sift some compost and add it to one section of your plot. You don’t have to sift all the compost and put it all in your plot all at once. Or trim along the edges of your plot – even though it’s not a lot of work, it will make it look neater and give you instant results.

If you take too many major steps at once and then get wiped out and tired, you’ll come back less and less. You’ll rationalize this by saying that you put in more effort and time than what you got out of it.  If the only goal is to produce a certain amount of food in a certain amount of time, the odds are against you in the short run. The longer you spend gardening over time, and enjoy it, the more productive it will be in the long run and the bigger harvests you’ll get.

The thing that really tricks new gardeners is the lure of instant gratification. Plants take time. And gardening takes stamina. It’s not about running a sprint. It’s about running a marathon (even if you run really slow and it takes you years), and enjoying the sights along the way. Just like anything else, the more time you spend over the long haul, the more successful you’ll be.

1 comment:

  1. I usually do not comment, however I browsed some of the remarks on
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