On Gardening, and Reaping More Than What You Sow (Part Two)

You know, the difficult thing about writing a two-part blog post is not that you have to follow through with the second part, but that you must do so in a timely manner…

In my previous post, On Gardening, and Reaping More Than What You Sow (Part One), I looked at my history to pin point the who, what, where, when, and why of my peeking curiosity and newly found interest in gardening. For this second installment, I would like to share with everyone the resources I used, my successes and failures, what I learned from my first official growing season, and what our plans for the future are.

On my way

I believe it was late December, potentially early January that I happened to be touring around one of several libraries on campus where I work. This particular library I frequent because it is the visual arts library as well as music and architecture, so there are always great texts to browse through on a break. It also, when checking the catalogue, seems to be the library that has the landscaping and gardening books. I was fully committed to the 2015 growing season, especially after my husband and I found out we were going to be given a garden plot to work in the community garden space. There really was no option to turn back. As if sensing that I needed guidance, one rainy day while roaming the stacks, the “book Gods” bestowed on me a resource that I believe should be seminal for the contemporary, urban, super-beginner, lady gardener: You Grow Girl, by Gayla Trail.

Gayla’s book is not only aesthetically appealing (she comes from a graphic design background. Her and her husband are creatives, and it shows in this pleasing collaboration between the two), but the book is also well written for beginners. She has a knack for getting the message across in an accessible manner. She is empathetic to the beginner because she was, herself, unexposed to gardening until in her late teens/early twenties, though she writes extensively about her connection to the earth since an early age on her website. She’s also excited about people wanting to garden, and it’s that enthusiasm that encourages you to leap forward and try. I also found Gayla’s style of writing humourous. Many times, I was laughing out loud while reading on the bus or in bed. Laughing reading a gardening book! Who knew that was possible?

Briefly mentioned above, Gayla’s website, yougrowgirl.com, is a recommended follow up after reading You Grow Girl, the book. Her site has been active for an impressive 15 years, so you can imagine the amount of information available to you. There are minimal overlaps between what is included in the book, and the books that have followed, and what is on her website too! Instead, you’ll find great recipes, drool-triggering photos of her own garden, topical blog posts, interviews/tours around other gardens in Gayla’s neighbourhood, as well as great think pieces. It’s a delightful site to visit every now and then.

Gayla also created helpful guides on popular topics, such as seed starting,that live on her site. I highlight this one in particular because it is extremely helpful if you decide to start growing from seed. Being naive, I assumed there was something terrible with buying seedlings, or transplants, from a garden store versus growing from seed. Gayla’s book doesn’t cover gardening from the beginner scenario where one purchases transplants from a garden store, but she doesn’t condone it either. Instead, she warns that it can be extremely costly to purchase transplants each year, and you miss out on the benefit of growing from seed: you know exactly what treatment your seedlings have received, whereas it’s a complete mystery when you purchase from a garden store.

I wanted to try out growing from seed. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it full on! I knew from the book that in order for seeds to grow in my climate/winter/house, I needed to have a lighting system; a daunting project to tackle. However, it was a surprisingly simple set-up: garage lights that can hang by a chain (so their height can be adjusted as your seedlings grow), a shelf to hang the lights from, a timer for the lights, trays for your seedling starters to sit in, seeds and your own starter kits (whichever you want to go with. I used empty transplant pots from the plant store I had with the intention of recycling, and seed starting soil, but there are complete kits you can purchase as well). Also, I suppose not to be overlooked, you need the space. Thankfully, we have a little room  available for our grated shelf and lighting system. One trip out to the hardware stores around town and I was set and ready to go!

Successes and failures

I truly could go on ad nauseum about the minute details and discoveries of my experience with seed starting and gardening, but  I think it’s more interesting to you, readers, if I group together the things I feel were successes, and what were failures. So to begin with the aforementioned, let’s review what were the successes:

  • The Light Set-Up — Seriously, this was easy. Almost everything can be sourced online through Amazon, if you do not have a car. I was able to purchase all my items at my local hardware stores. I will say this: make sure you have the right measurements for your lighting and shelving system that suites your house or apartment! The last thing you want to do is have to deal with returning items that are too large for your space. I almost bought the incorrect size of lights for my grated shelf because they were on sale. They would have been 6 inches too long! The assembly of this system, however, was short and sweet. One afternoon and I was making seed starting pots before dinner needed to be made.
  • The Gardening Journal — In the book, Gayla recommends getting (even creating!) your own gardening journal to reflect on the season’s events. As you know, I am a big proponent of journalling, and so I cannot endorse this enough. I’ll add an amendment for anyone who is a beginner: buy it at the outset of the season. I found it useful to journal as I went, rather than waiting until season’s end. The entries don’t have to be Shakespearean prose (mine were more like “to-do” lists or reminders), but they serve as a valuable resource to read back as the months pass, and when next season comes around.
  • The Seed Starting — Being new to this cultivating thing, you’ll have to excuse my gushing over something so banal. Everyday after work I would peek at my seed starting station and was amazed to see the activity going on in those pots. I assumed because I was a beginner, everything would die on me, but nothing did! As a result, I started too many plants and wasted some seeds, but it was a great exercise that I learned a lot from, including that I can grow from seed and my seedlings can become full grown plants!
  • The Garden Plot — If there were an unsung hero award for the season, it would be the garden plot. I couldn’t say I felt so positively about it in the beginning. I found it difficult to get into the routine of going over there and checking on our plants as much as they needed in early spring. As a result, we lost a lot of good plants. My hours played a big part in that, but they were permanently changed for the better in summer, and so we were able to make a more concerted effort, and reaped the rewards of that. I also learned that the plot was something I just couldn’t get to everyday, and that was okay. In future, I need to adjust my plans and plant plants that don’t need watering everyday in that location.

And now… the failures:

  • The Garden Plot (in the beginning) — A piece of advice Gayla gives is to be realistic when it comes to your gardening goals. Critically evaluate the amount of time you actually have and whether the types of plants you’re choosing to grow are suited to your schedule. You save your self a lot of money, work and frustration doing so. The garden plot was a new venture for my husband and I, and now we know how to better use it. For next season, I’ll be switching up plants so they get the most out of that space, which is high exposure to sun. Hello tomatoes and cucumbers!
  • Eager Seed Starting — In general, I started my seeds way too early. Like, late January, and because of this I’m surprised we didn’t lose more plants to disease or lack of proper sun exposure than we did. We lucked out that when faced with no other option than to throw the plants outside and hope for the best, the weather turned. We faced what would be one of the hottest summer’s on record for BC. Not to sound like a broken record, but I thought most plants would die on me, so I started my seeds early, and en masse. Next season, I’ll give myself a little bit more of a grace period.
  • Too Many Seedlings To Plant — Again, I’ll cough this up to being new to gardening, but I had no gauge as to how large some plants could expand to, or how much they crawl.  As a result, I lost a lot of plants from suffocation (plants need air just like you and I!) or because they had inadequate structures to crawl up. I now know from this first experience how to properly support – literally and figuratively – my little plant babies as they mature!
  • No Flowers? No Pollinators — As is the case with many beginner gardeners, my focus this season was purely edibles. I wanted bounty! I wanted veggies and herbs, but didn’t pick up on the value of planting pretty flowers, that not only add colour to your space, but bring those wonderful pollinators to your plants. When they come around, you find your crops give you a lot more yield.
What Did I Learn?

I learned to not over do it. It’s easy to get carried away creating your dream garden that you forget it takes a lot of work once things get growing! They seem so small as little seedlings when you plants them in the ground, but read the seed packets people! It’s detailed how much space you need between each plant for a reason! Thankfully, I know myself. I have a tendency to do too much in the start out of sheer enthusiasm, that I end up overwhelming myself with too much to handle and become turned off. I mentioned previously Gayla warns about being realistic in terms of your garden goals and the time/space you have to give, and I am thankful I heeded that warning for the most part (those zucchinis were crazy! Planted way too many). As much as I wanted all the veggies in the world, I knew tackling that right out of the gate was a fool’s game.

I learned to be observant. There is so much you can glean from this wonderful organic system, our planet Earth, by truly slowing down and letting it tell you what it needs. It wants to thrive! Only through careful attention which is the result of slowing down can you really begin to understand your garden. Being observant means follow through, however, with research into your soil, your zone, your plant selection, your molds and diseases, or pests as these issues arise. Observing your plants day after day was what I discovered was the best way tackle any issues early on; early is key. You’ll be a very profitable gardener in terms of yield as result, as well as a bit more relaxed.

Last, I learned to be forgiving when it comes to plant death. As if I haven’t pumped Gayla enough, she also produces a podcast: Whatcha Growin? She interviews a different gardener within a different zone and level of experience each episode, and one of the best things I took from these podcasts is no matter what level you are at, you will have things die. You will kill plants. Almost everyone interviewed talked about how they kill plants all the time, and how that is a fact of gardening, and something most beginners misunderstand and get down on themselves about.

Now what?

What’s next, you might be asking? Well, my husband and I have committed to next season’s garden plot.  We concluded the plot is an invaluable space for us. We’re lucky now to have a bit of yard to work, but eventually we’ll move. Who knows what kind of an arrangement that will bring, if we’ll have the same luck with our new landlords? In this case, it’s beneficial to have an already established space.

As of this weekend, I’ll have closed down the garden and will begin planning for the next season. I didn’t get things going early enough in spring for truly ‘early spring plants’ like lettuces and strawberries, and missed out on fall plants like squashes.  Next year, I’ll try to incorporate these into the season’s plan.

And, we bought a green wall! My husband worked with one of the individual’s who builds these lovely units. He asked if I wanted one. Yes, of course, was my response! So, we purchased it and it’s just now ready to be picked up and installed (I’ll write a post when it is). We are so excited for this unit because it will provide us with lovely herbs, lettuce and spinach, or whatever we choose to grow, year round.

Finally, with first growing season under my belt, I’m confident the next round I can bring a greater yield to our household. I didn’t get the cucumber yield I wanted,  and we lost a lot of tomatoes because we simply didn’t know what to do with them all before they rotted. I’ve found some no pressure-canner-required recipes for tomato sauces and salsa, and am looking forward to next season to really give my pickles a chance.

I also told my husband all I wanted for Christmas was a dehydrator (hint hint)!  We enjoy hiking and doing over night camping trips, and my husband works a lot of contracts  in the back country throughout the year. We were lucky to head over to Twill & Timber’s for Christmas last year and were able to try out their dehydrator. We brought home a good yield of dried foods that at this time have all been used. It was wonderful to have these essential, high-nutrient foods available to eat during a back country trip. Getting a dehydrator will save us money on food items for overnight trips and lower our level of food waste.

I’d say that’s about enough for this entry! There are a few other resources I used this season that I will add below. Right now, I’m off to take advantage of this sunny Sunday in October and close up the garden.