Notes From the Field: Slow Down, Amateur Gardeners!


Baby steps folks, baby steps.

I recently attended an event where we were instructed to close our eyes and envision our ideal 2040 and then report to the room what changes in our lives we could make to head towards that future. Not surprisingly, a great many individuals declared their first step would be to grow their own food. Everyone said ‘Bravo”, but inside I shuddered a little. I’ve watched many folks set out on this same path, get totally overwhelmed, and not only fail and feel miserable, but also develop a real aversion to gardening.

I’m here to help. I couldn’t jump up and redirect that meeting (it took a lot of self control, but I managed, you’d be proud) so I thought I’d write a little bit here about what would have happened if I’d stood up in that room and not kept my mouth shut.

First I’d implore, “Please, oh please, oh please, don’t take on too much.” Then I’d recommend intentionally taking on so little that you were sure you’d be disappointed by the results. One tomato plant underplanted by basil in an enormous pot on the patio by the grill. A raised bed full of just strawberries (or asparagus if you have the patience and determination to wait three years before harvesting a single stalk.) Four raised mounds in a fingerling potato patch that you’ll top up with rich, yummy compost as their green tips emerge. A rectangular planter at the top of the pool filled with all the herbs you really use (let’s be honest here, how many of us really use dill and sage?) Or perhaps a medley of kale varieties in a single, beautiful bed.

I know it sounds like I’m being controlling, but I’m not. I’m trying to make sure you can manage the work raising your own food incurs. I’ve done this with tons of clients. Even to the point where I had family cover with mulch and not use, for the first year, three-quarters of the vegetable garden they’d just so proudly created. And another could only add one additional raised bed a year. All in an effort to have them experience how much time it takes to weed, feed, water and maintain their plants. Thus informed they could then decide how much of their weekend, and/or after-work time, they wanted to spend on their hands and knees in the dirt.

This is not to say that you can’t, eventually, grow enough food that you can preserve, can and freeze the excess to feed your family straight through the winter (until they want to beat you to death with your jars of pickled zucchini or hurl you and all your baggies of frozen shredded summer squash out the nearest window) but it’s best to take baby steps. There’s anywhere from 10 to 30 seeds in a cucumber seed pack, trust me, your family isn’t going to be able to keep up with the crop of more than three plants – unless someone in your brood has a penchant for serving a proper British tea.

Start slow and start small.

Next decide if you want to grow everything from seed or get some plants as seedlings. As I’ve mentioned above, sometimes there’s a whole mess of seeds in vegetable packs, fabulous if you’re doing succession seeding of lettuce or cilantro, not so much if you’re a newlywed couple that occasionally eat acorn squash. I used to have a “seed buddy” with whom I shared and swapped seeds, but they moved away. We used to text “drop” locations where we’d furtively exchange little folded-over envelopes, ever so much like some kind of peculiar drug deal or a Deep Throat type information swap. (This furtiveness came, from the other gardener’s partner being significantly less enthused by the addition of another crop to the harvest schedule. Especially as they already felt a little competitive with, and possibly even abandoned in favor of, their significant other’s vegetable plot.) I’d take four of the cucumber seeds, five of the butternut squash and half the package of turnips & they take the rest. It worked out perfectly, so I’m sizing up my veggie growing friends trying to suss out who’ll have seeds I’m interested in trading for. Don’t expect me to share my bean seeds, there’s never enough haricots verts and last year bunnies found my plants before they’d even had a chance to get going. They demoed the poor things so I’m desperate for green beans in 2020. And certainly, your hungry family can consume everything that grows from a pack of radishes or peas, but let’s put down that package of pepper seeds and have a little chat.

If you have a greenhouse, a lot of acreage, and a gardener on staff, ignore everything I’m about to say, but the triumvirate of peppers, tomatoes and eggplant are probably best off brought home in plant form. All three need a much longer growing period than our final frost allows, they’d prefer to be living someplace like Santa Barbara, sown in-ground when the soil gets to be about 75 degrees. That’s not going to happen here soon enough to give them all the time they need before our first killing frost, so these types of plants need to be started inside, preferably under glass, in full, full sun. This kills me. I have a bag full of dried shishito pepper seeds from last year’s plants I’m dying to save money and sow. I LOVE shishito peppers, I’ll need at least a dozen plants – but I don’t have a greenhouse. I’m going to have to buy all mine as babies, or I won’t get a crop. I’m also a baby eggplant junkie. I could use up all the seeds in a package of my favorite, the Fairy, a variety somewhat difficult to find in seedling form, but unless this climate change thing gets much worse we don’t live in an area warm enough, for long enough, to allow me to sow these sweeties outside.

Thus, the seedling or “starts” route. These baby plants have been grown in perfect conditions in small pots or trays by someone who has kept them warm, safe and happy until our weather cooperates and they come home with us. There’s no need to buy lettuce this way, or carrots – both are super easy to start from seeds, and far more cost effective (unless you have soil so fertile and fluffy you can stick your fingers straight into the ground with no resistance until your palm comes in contact, I wouldn’t bother with carrots.) You’ll want to buy pumpkins as young plants, as you do most melons, chives, leeks and onions. Spinach is great from seed, but okra is better as a plant. If I don’t find a partner in crime for my seed swapping back alley deal mentioned above, I’ll be buying both my cucumbers and my zucchinis in four-inch pots this year as well.

If you’re venturing into “from garden to table” land for the first time, please, be honest with yourself about how much time you’re willing to spend weeding, then put back half of those seed packages you grabbed and, when it’s time, you should sidle up to the organically grown veggie & herb section with your head held high. You’re not wussing out, you’re cutting down on food waste but not growing all those zucchini you’re never going to use no matter how many zoodles you eat. Think about it, unless you’re a farmer, how many of those wonderfully weird heirloom tomato seeds in that package you have in your hand would you ideally want to plant? One? Two? I grow a mix of tomatoes, but also have cut myself way back to only four plants and still have far too many tomatoes for us to consume, and I’m a junkie who’ll have nothing but freshly picked, warm from the sun tomatoes for dinner three or four nights in a row. I know you think you’ll be saving money by growing your own, but a wiser way to invest in feeding yourself would be to get a couple serious, heavy duty 72” high tomato cages like the ones we have at Marders. Yes, they’re more expensive than the regular ones, but trust me, if you’ve grown your tomatoes right those little cages are like bobby socks for a tomato plant. I treat myself to one or two every year (soon will have enough to last me a lifetime) and once you see how brilliantly they hold up our enormous, gorgeous, fruit filled tomato plants, I bet you’ll agree they’re the best “grow your own” dollars you ever spend.

Paige Patterson never seems to grow enough parsley so plans on planting it by the tray-load this spring.