Gardening Basics for Beginners

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James McCloskey

James McCloskey › Jamie McCloskey and his wife Nikki moved from Brooklyn to an old farmhouse in southern New ...

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My wife and I lived in Brooklyn for almost eight years, from right out of college until we reached our early thirties. Slowly but surely we realized we were ready for a change and often talked about an easy, bucolic life. Summer nights lounging on a porch. Laying in bed listening to crickets instead of traffic on the BQE. Long hikes with our dog in the woods. Heating our house with a big woodstove.

Food always factored in big to these discussions as well: “It will be great,” we’d said, “to be able to grow our own veggies. Imagine picking a salad from our backyard!” We didn’t have a clue about gardening but figured it couldn’t be all that hard – you stick seeds in the ground, the vegetables grow, and then you eat them. That’s how it works, right?

We finally pulled up roots and left the city for a small town in southern New Hampshire two years ago. For the most part our lives are pretty much like we pictured – with some wrinkles. We sit out on the porch on summer nights, but the mosquitoes can be brutal. Instead of going to bed to sounds of car horns and sirens we fall asleep listening to the disconcerting lullaby of coyotes howling in the distance. We hike in the woods, but occasionally the dog gets sprayed by skunks or pricked by porcupines. The woodstove is wonderful, but hauling logs to heat your house everyday ain’t easy work.

And gardening? Listen: anyone who says that you can live off the fat of the land is lying. There is no fat of the land. Growing food is hard. Rewarding work, but time-consuming, physical work. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

This year we tilled about 2,000 square feet of ground for planting – a space bigger than our entire apartment back in Brooklyn. While there are some great gardening guides out there that I would recommend (The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch has been immensely helpful) none of the books or guides that we read had utterly simplistic advice for bonehead novices like us. Sure, it’s important to think about what your crop rotation schedule is going to be and how to alternate legumes and cucurbits. And yeah, getting input on caging vs. staking tomatoes is helpful. But nobody out there told us about the absolute basics. We were standing at the edge of this big tilled over dirt patch and realized: we don’t have any idea what we’re doing.

What follows is a list of very broad bits of wisdom that we wished someone had imparted onto us before we got started. This doesn’t include info on which varieties to plant, or how to layout your garden design, or any specifics like that – just broad points that no one told us before we began.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There are going to be weeds in your garden. Some of your plants are going to look funny compared to pictures in textbooks. Your tomatoes are going to have spots. So what? The reality is that nature isn’t all clean lines or photogenic vegetables, so don’t stress out about everything looking neat and picture perfect. All the veggies will still probably taste incredible.

Bite off a little bit more than you can chew and expect your hands to get dirty. Everywhere you turn you’ll be told to start small, to work on just a few plants the first year and expand from there. Forget that: I say challenge yourself. Plant enough so that you’ll have to put in work consistently, maybe even daily. Developing a good habit of regularly working in the garden is going to result in a great garden. Pull those weeds and get some dirt under those fingernails, dude.

Don’t get too fancy. Your fence doesn’t need to be built from lovingly hand-hewn cedar beams. Your gate doesn’t need to be an intricate trellis. Think “functional” for the first year. Chicken wire and metal stakes are fine. Build on and grow the aesthetics as you go, and remember that the plants themselves are going to be beautiful when they’re in bloom and producing all that good eatin’.

Listen to your neighbors. If there are other people raising gardens in the same area as you they’re going to have a lot to say about the soil, planting schedules, where to buy supplies, and all sorts of other tips unique to your area. Pick their brains and you’ll be rewarded when you’re picking crops.

Don’t listen to your neighbors. We wanted to plant okra. “You’re wasting your time,” they all told us. “Okra isn’t a New Hampshire crop.” Well we planted, took good care of the seedlings, and watched the Clemson Spineless varietal just burst out. In fact, we just enjoyed some tomato and okra stew for supper tonight. While your neighbors are going to have good advice most of the time, there is still room for you to experiment with some ideas of your own.

Take lots of notes. It’s nerdy, sure, but come February when you’re planning for the spring you’re going to thank yourself for all the information. Notes will help you improve year-to-year, to see what you’re doing wrong that can use tweaking and what you’re doing right.

Be patient. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be so excited to see all those tiny vegetables coming in that your impulse will be to pick them right away. Trust me though: hold off for a few more days. Wait until they’re really ripe. It’s hard, I know, but absolutely worth the wait in the end.

Waste not, want not. You put in the effort to growing everything, and now you’re just going to throw it away? Don’t do that to yourself. Can it, freeze it, dry it. Give it away to friends and family. Give it to strangers if you have to. Make sure someone enjoys the results of your labor, even if it isn’t you.

Be proud of your work. When you go to the grocery store it’s easy to look at the racks and racks of produce and get discouraged, but after only a few weeks of working in a garden you’ll know that growing food takes a lot of effort and that, to some extent, the bounty in the grocery store is a false one. There isn’t any such thing as living off the fat of the land. Take the time to appreciate and recognize that what you’re doing is impressive, and that your hard work pays off.

What’s the best piece of basic gardening advice you’ve ever received?

Photo Credit: James McCloskey