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Are you fantasizing about starting a garden this year but not sure where to begin? Not to worry! There are many ways to participate in the gardening resurgence even if you don’t know the first thing about soil science, pollinators, or the difference between the 50 tomatoes to choose from on the seed rack at your local gardening store. Here are a few tips to get you started on your gardening journey.
Depending on your access to gardening space (tiny apartment or sprawling country farmhouse), free time, and available resources (how much money do you want to spend on this new gardening hobby anyway), you may want to start small or dig up your whole front yard and join the Food Not Lawns movement. All gardeners are welcome to the gardening club. As a start, I’m a big fan of growing sprouts in the kitchen as well as a tray of microgreens in a sunny window. Both options are just about the cheapest healthy fast food you can get. It’s an excellent way to try out your green thumb without breaking the bank, and all it takes is two or three minutes each day to keep the microgreen tray watered and the sprouts rinsed. It gets you into the rhythm of having to water and care for something, and the rewards come quickly. Just a few short days from deciding you are going to start sprouts, voila! Fresh food at your fingertips.
When fantasizing about your future garden, what exactly are you harvesting into that cute handwoven basket? Grow what you love to eat, and you will end up being a gardener for life. Nothing tastes better or gives as much satisfaction as putting your homegrown food on the table. Maybe sprouts are not on the top of your favorite food list? Then try some other too-easy-to-fail options--tomato, lettuce, kale, and most culinary herbs are very forgiving to the beginner gardener. The easiest way to launch into your gardening career is by buying seedlings from the store. Once you’re hooked on gardening you can venture into grow lights, shuffling seedling flats around the basement, and too-tiny-to-read instructions on the back of the seed packets.
If you’re just dipping your toe into the dirt, try growing food based on a home-cooked meal that you love to make. We have been enjoying delicious homemade sourdough pizza in the last few months. As I was picking out my seeds from the catalog, I thought about what ingredients we enjoy on our pizza that we can grow ourselves. Tomatoes, basil, oregano, thyme, garlic, onions, arugula--into the online checkout cart, done! If you’re currently competing in the sourdough frenzy, using your homegrown ingredients is an excellent way to raise the bar and outdo the competition.
If you want to keep it even simpler, just try going big on one plant. How about basil--it will be happy in a window box if that’s all you have room for. Homemade pesto, yummy!
If growing vegetables doesn’t get you excited, how about flowers or medicinal plants? Both are highly rewarding to grow for their beauty in the garden, a bouquet on the dinner table, or use as medicinal salve, tea, or syrup. The thrill of growing herbs to make herbal medicine for my family was an easy hook making me a lifelong gardener. The list of things to grow is endless, and the excitement of adding something new to the garden each year, with an eye to putting up a new product in our home apothecary, keeps my heart beating through the winter months. This year I’m planting Schisandra for the first time. It took a bit more thought than my normal rummaging through a friend’s garden to get a clipping of something new to bring home and plant. I had to track the plant down from a specialty nursery and build (otherwise known as bribe my husband to build) a trellis in a south-facing part of the yard.
Pick the medicinal plants you want to grow based on what tea you love to drink or what product you seem to keep buying from the store. Elderberry syrup anyone? Elder is super easy to grow! And you get to harvest not only the berries but the flowers too. I use my favorite medicinals mostly in tea fresh from the garden or dry for the winter months--peppermint, lemon balm, lemon verbena, nettle (in a little box outside the garden, so it doesn’t try to take over), tulsi, and chamomile to name a few.
I’m always looking for new flowers and shrubs to grow. When you’re out and about, I recommend taking note of the plants and flowers that give you joy over the seasons. Keep a running list and add one or two to your garden every year. Don’t know what that gorgeous yellow shrub is that’s growing along your favorite neighborhood bike route? Knock on the door and ask--most likely, the resident will be more than happy to gush over its beauty. Like puppies, beautiful plants are great ways to make conversation and new friends. If you’re not feeling so bold, there are many excellent plant identification books or apps that can help you identify those plants you have been eyeing.
For me, gardening is about beauty. It’s an art form, an expression of creativity. Through the cold Vermont winters, I love dreaming about what I will grow in my garden come spring and the bounty it will offer later in the season. I think up new ways to trellis something or what trees to add to the orchard--can I really grow peaches in Vermont?! With an intention to create more beauty in the world, I make sure that it’s not just about what food I harvest but, more importantly, the experience of being in the garden, engaging all the senses. What are those gorgeous flowers? Where is that amazing smell coming from? Taste this!
I plant flowers along every fence line so my vegetable garden is surrounded by a stunning array of blooms. I make room for benches to sit and chat with friends and small tables on which to lay my harvest--tomato picnic, anyone? When planning your garden layout, make sure you don’t have a mind just for efficiency but also for beauty and wonder. This garden of yours is not only feeding your family and maybe some lucky neighbors; it’s there to feed your soul. You are creating sacred space, an art installation that engages the spirit. The butterflies, bees, birds, and worms are working tirelessly every day, the show must go on.
Gardening draws you into the web of life. When you decide to become a gardener and begin to turn dirt and plant seeds, you’re plugging yourself into the life-giving food chain that is happening all around you that you might normally be too busy to notice. It is always time well spent. I never get up from hours of weeding or planting and think, “Well, that was a waste of time.” I feel calmer, dirty, sweaty, satisfied. Good work done. Time for a cold beer. The garden gives back; it’s a two-way street. Whatever you put in, you get back threefold. You can watch your hard work unfolding right before your eyes. When you sink your hands into the soil to plant seeds, you are connecting to something timeless, ancient. You are doing just what your ancestors did for generations.
In the ever-growing crisis surrounding us, sinking your hands into a garden is just what the herbalist ordered. While you’re at it, grow some chamomile and invite your neighbor over for a relaxing cup of afternoon tea--now we are on our way to world peace.
One cup of tea at a time.
One garden at a time.
Now we are getting somewhere.
Cheers to getting dirty in the garden, until next time.
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