(Photos: Courtesy Amy Barr)
Did you ever plant radish seeds in Dixie cups back in grade school? Then set the cups on a sunny windowsill until the seedlings emerged? Oh, the excitement of seeing the sprouts push their tiny green heads up through the soil followed by the disappointment of watching those scraggly stems wither and die a few days later. That pretty much summed up my experience with vegetable gardening until just a few summers ago, when my husband and I decided to take a hoe to a patch of grass at our upstate house and try our hands at growing our own.
Gardening seems so simple: You plant, you tend, you harvest. But my early experience as a grade-schooler taught me at least one thing about raising veggies: It’s not as easy as it looks. There are endless considerations that can make or break a garden, such as soil composition, weather, irrigation and critters. Just as influential and potentially defeating are human factors, like one spouse haranguing the other to weed, weed, weed! Or said spouse’s insistence that every single seed be meticulously placed, like stitches on a couture gown. Or those not-so-gentle reminders that thinning the arugula is more pressing than lying in the hammock, reading a novel. (It is not, as far as I’m concerned.)
The ritual of planting, tending and harvesting enables my husband and me to make something special, together.
That first spring , two years ago, we planted with abandon, paying no attention to whether kale likes living next to mesclun. Nor did we consider that cucumber vines spread ferociously, choking anything in their path. We over-watered and under-watered. We used the wrong fertilizer. In the end, we grew a couple of bitter carrots, a handful of stunted peppers and a bunch of tasteless radishes. Our Swiss chard, kale and tomatoes were more successful, providing us with just enough motivation to try again the following year.
This time around, we approached the challenge differently, employing a tactic we now often use when faced with tricky endeavors at this stage of our lives: We hired a pro.
Seamus, a former farmer now working at our local nursery, filled our beds with expertly prepped soil. He helped design a plan for our garden so we knew when and where to plant. He advised us on eliminating poor performers and adding hardier species. He set up an automated watering system that sprinkled our precious seedlings every day at 2:00 pm, whether we were there or not.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that before we ever hired Seamus, and before we even dropped a single seed into the ground, we were in the hole for a sizable sum. Gardening isn’t an inexpensive hobby, and if anyone thinks you’ll save money by growing your own produce, I’m here to tell you: You won’t.
But that’s not what this activity is about for us. The ritual of planting, tending and harvesting enables my husband and me to make something special, together. It’s akin to raising children: We create then nurture until our offspring grow tall and strong enough to stand on their own. And while we don’t toss our children in a salad or sauté them with butter and garlic, the satisfaction of initiating life, facilitating growth and watching your seedlings/children thrive is similar and altogether wonderful. And to me, well worth the price tag.
Gardening was also completely outside our skill set. It’s good to learn something new, especially later in life when we get comfortable coasting along on what we already know.
On planting day 2014, it poured rain, just as it had the year before. My husband and I crouched in the damp dirt until our knees locked and our backs screamed for mercy. (Obviously, we would not last long as actual farmers.) He painstakingly laid out lengths of string so the seeds I sowed would be in straight lines and used a stick to ensure uniform distance between each plant. I poured the tiny seeds from package to palm, counting the proper number to drop into the hundreds of holes I’d dug with my index finger. That fingernail still has dirt beneath it.
Next, we waited for something green to happen. Just when we were sure that our plants had made a pact to remain underground in order to shame us, up popped a couple of spriggy radish stems. And just like back in second grade, I got really excited. This time, we (mostly) got it right.
We served a half-dozen varieties of salad all summer long alongside Swiss chard and Gruyere tarts. Our single batch of potatoes was a huge hit at our family reunion weekend. We had baskets of sweet snap peas, cherry tomatoes, pole beans, jalapenos, two kinds of beets and peppery radishes. Those stupid carrots were still bitter and the flowers I planted were a total fail but all in all, our tiny farm was a success.
Although I’m still acres away from being an expert, I can offer these three tidbits that I’ve learned from my two-plus years of amateur gardening.
1. Do a little homework. Spontaneity is great but you need to know some basics. Research which vegetables grow well in your climate zone – you might love artichokes but they might not love your yard. Ask experienced gardeners for tips – every single one I’ve met loves to share war stories about outwitting Japanese beetles (you can’t) or the perfect way to stake heavy tomatoes. Your local nursery is another resource, especially if you’re a good customer. Or pick the brain of a pro at a big mail-order nursery like White Flower Farm.
2. Don’t overplant. You’ll be tempted to plant every vegetable you can get your hands on, but don’t. Vegetables grow best when they have space to spread out and up. Choose a couple of your favorites and include foolproof options (lettuce, scallions and peas) that’ll grow despite novice mistakes that might do them in.
3. A little maintenance goes a long way. Rather than opt for a marathon weed-a-thon, tend to your garden often, in brief intervals whenever you can. Your plants will be happier and so will you. Nothing kills a gardening buzz like spending three hours weeding on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Regular maintenance is a tall order for city dwellers like us, so if that’s your situation, enlist a helper, like a willing neighbor who’d be happy to pull a few weeds midweek in exchange for some of your bounty.
To my fellow gardening virgins, I welcome any tips you’re willing to share with this fellow newbie…and I wish you luck and a bumper crop!