I’ve had a sort-of garden in our yard for years. Some years I try to use it, and some years I don’t. I haven’t caught COVID this year, but like so many people, I caught an aggressive case of the gardening bug. And this time, gardening worked out for me. I watered enough, I managed pests, and I reaped some harvest. Nothing crazy, but it was enough to catapult me into the obsession zone. Once I’m in that mode, there’s no turning back. So here are some things I learned about gardening when the garden became not just a side chore but a significant focus.
Gardening is Easy
Gardening isn’t rocket science. You water the right amount, plant at the right time in a location where the plant will get enough sun, and it generally works out. In years past, I didn’t water regularly. Or weed. Or watch out for the beginnings of infestations.
Sometimes, though, the neglected plants thrive without our “help”. The fact that so many people find tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, or squash growing on their compost pile should tell you all you need to know about how good plants are at taking care of themselves.
Gardening is Hard
You can water too much. You can water too little. Same with fertilizing.
I grow in zone 5b, and this year we had a frost in June, followed by a heatwave. There are hail storms, droughts, and early frosts in the fall. You can strive mightily with shade cloth and hoop rows with plastic coverings, and triumph over some of that, but it’s a lot of work.
Pests arrive to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Maybe you’ll stop them, maybe you won’t. Maybe a groundhog will come in the night and chew up all your greens. A squirrel or skunk may decide your tomatoes are their tomatoes. You can do everything right and still watch your zucchini slowly succumb to powdery mildew.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, things won’t work out. And despite that…
Gardening is Therapy
This was especially true during lockdown, but having something to do that got me outside regularly was such an important part of getting through this year with my emotions intact. This is one reason I don’t care that gardening, especially your first year setting up raised beds and bringing in soil, can be expensive. As an introvert suddenly faced with an always home family, that quiet time outside was a life-saver.
Any hobby worth its salt also offers some level of zen. Something to take your mind off whatever else is going on at the time. One way gardening accomplishes this is by being such a remarkably deep discipline. There is SO MUCH to learn, because…
Gardening is Educational
Gardening will teach you about taking care of plants, yes. Even just that is a lifetime of learning. But it also taught me about insects in my area. About soil health and the environment. I learned that fall leaves contain trace minerals from deep in the soil, and that we should think twice about bagging them up and sending them to the dump.
A lot of what I learned is general ecological information, but I also got to know my specific micro-biome. I learned what grows well in my yard, and what doesn’t. What we grow well and use, as well as what we may grow successfully, but nobody in the house really wants to eat. I learned about the compass orientation of my yard, and saw what a big difference adding a birdbath made to the local wildlife.
And then to preserve the harvest, I experimented with three ways to ferment and pickle green beans. I made watermelon jelly, and watermelon fruit leather. I learned how to make black garlic. And that there are a million different types of garlic, and they all taste incredibly different than the one kind you find at every grocery store.
I started to explore the world of super-hot peppers, and fermented hot sauces. And seed saving.
Despite everything I learned this year…
If we have to feed our family off my garden, we’re screwed
My garden was about 100 square feet total. It sounds big, but it’s not. I had 6 tomato plants that were more successful than any tomatoes I’ve ever grown, but it really doesn’t produce all that much. Green beans did really well, as did our watermelon, but canning and freezing those doesn’t amount to even a week of sustenance. The mentality that you’re going to feed yourself off an urban garden is, in my opinion, only going to make you feel unsuccessful.
Anything you grow is good. Anything you grow is healthier and fresher than what you can buy at the grocery store. It comes with a sense of accomplishment and ownership. It helps with the food miles problem. All those reasons are reason enough to grow as much of your own food as you can.
Granted, next year’s garden will be bigger. I’ve learned a lot and will almost certainly see a bigger haul. But I’m not going to think of it as something I could rely on. And hopefully I’ll never have to. Hopefully we continue to have the luxury of getting to garden, and not having to garden.