Thursday, May 24, 2012

How to Start a Garden with Laughably Little Knowledge About Gardening

I know absolutely nothing about gardening.


And throughout my life, having little or no knowledge about something has always irked me – and motivated me. It was this combination of curiosity and frustration that has led to start learning about many things. This desire to rid myself of ignorance pushed me to learn how to play the piano, golf, make a documentary, be an actor, learn carpentry, play the guitar, drive a backhoe, pull a trailer, ride a horse, raise chickens, use a sextant, fly an airplane, and the list goes on. I love diving into new things. It’s why I pick up new instruments. It’s why I read books. I’m obsessed with accumulating knowledge. Right now I have a very long list of things I’m learning about or am going to learn about - among them sailing, scuba diving, botany, and cooking.

And, of course, gardening. Like I said, I know NOTHING about gardening.

In theory, gardening is one of the most basic of human endeavors –again, in theory. Somewhere long ago mankind figured out that instead of just gathering wild fruits and vegetables, they could manipulate their growth in a controlled environment and have better and more predictable results. This was the birth of gardening.

But any person who has gardened their whole life will tell you it’s not simple. At all. Gardening is an art. It has nuances, and generalities, and specifics. There is a flow to it as well as a predictable unpredictability. It takes a lifetime of accumulated knowledge to become truly great at gardening. Keeping these caveats in mind I decided this year to embark on a gardening adventure, aiming at best to be a mediocre gardener. 

The first step was to clear a spot. The woman who owned the house before made this easy. She already had a garden, so all I had to do was clear it out. I did it all by hand because any obese man smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer can go rent a tiller. I wanted to challenge myself. It took a couple of weeks of intense labor but I finally got the garden cleared. In my limited knowledge, the soil appeared to be healthy soil, full of nutrients and the garden sat in full sunlight for about six hours a day. 

As I prepared the garden, I was constantly referencing charts, tables, and YouTube videos. From what I gathered, you want to plant after the last frost of the year. In the south, this usually falls in early March or so. I finally picked a day and went to Lowe’s and arbitrarily picked some fruits and vegetables to put in my garden. The next morning I went to work planting the plants according to the spacing recommendations on the packaging.

That was my first mistake. Whatever the spacing recommendation is on the package, in my opinion, should be doubled. I will explain why later. I planted tomatoes, watermelon, potatoes, mint, onions, cucumbers, green peppers, strawberries, carrots, okra, and lettuce. I stepped back and admired my new garden. So far so good.

Hart decided to serve as a manager and oversee the project

The very next day, my National Weather Service weather alert radio started blaring that we should expect strong storms that night. I stood in the back door of my house and watched it hail on my new garden. Luckily, the hailstones never got bigger than pea size. This would be the predictable unpredictability I spoke of earlier. Unbelievably the next day it happened AGAIN. Only this time, with Donna's help, I was prepared.

I’ve lived in Shreveport for a half a decade and never ONCE did it hail, only to have it hail TWICE in a forty-eight hour period – which just happened to be the first forty-eight hours after I planted my garden. Not a good start, I thought. My only consolation was that my life did not depend on the vegetables growing in my garden.

Then the skies cleared and my little garden took root. The cucumbers, as it turns out, needed to be planted about 300 feet apart, preferably in the middle of a soccer field or professional sports stadium. (I’m exaggerating, but cucumbers definitely need some space…way more than was suggested on the package.) It seems silly but the first time I noticed a fruit actually growing, I was ecstatic. I preach a lot on this theme but it’s worth repeating. We grow up in a society where things like cucumbers grow on Aisle 10 at the supermarket. When you actually see one growing and pull it straight from the ground, you have a little “ah-ha!” moment. It was the same feeling I had when I raised chickens in Waring, Texas. The first time I went to the coop, grabbed an egg and then ate it for breakfast, I felt surprisingly strong sense of empowerment.

Watermelon and cucumber on the left, tomatoes in the middle, and bell peppers on the right

My current challenge, as my garden continues to grow, is to know when to harvest – especially the vegetables like potatoes that are underground. About a week ago, I sacrificed one of my potato plants so I could see what was going on underground. There was one small potato (which I ended up eating so I wasn’t a total loss.) But now I know how far along the potato is at one month. I sacrificed one plant to know what was going on with the other nineteen.

As an aside, I should emphasize here that in any learning process its okay to make mistakes and ask questions. One of the most important lessons I learned about this is with horses. Someone told me once (and I can’t remember who so forgive me whoever you are!) that when you’re learning to ride a horse the first thing to know is this: you WILL fall off. So stop worrying about that part. The second part is that AFTER you fall off you get back on. I saw a lot of novice riders at Wind River Ranch that were so preoccupied with worrying about falling off that they forgot to have fun and learn. That spirit applies to any endeavor and it applies to gardening as well. I’m the first to admit I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m also the first to ask questions and glean information from ANY source I can find. Donna’s brother-in-law Jonathan Patin had some suggestions for my tomatoes. My neighbors Ginger and Jason shared some of their gardening experiences, and of course there’s the seemingly infinite source of information called the Internet. The knowledge is everywhere and it’s your responsibility to assemble it into a working format that you can then apply to your endeavor, be it gardening or whatever.

About a month ago, I decided to pick the first fruit from my garden. We called it the “Ceremonial First Fruit” which is an ancient tradition that I started. I picked the biggest, plumpest strawberry on the plant, and then marched it into the house as Donna snapped pictures. 

Understanding the immense and powerful symbolism of the Ceremonial First Fruit, I cut it two and served it up on two plates. We put a little sugar on that strawberry and ate it in one bite. Everyone knows that any food you grow yourself automatically tastes a little better.

The garden is an ongoing project. I tend it daily weeding it and watering it, keeping a watchful eye on my field. Soon I believe we will have a big potato harvest as well as tomatoes and cucumbers. My goal is to eat a whole meal out of my garden. Stay tuned for more garden updates and more naturalist adventures! 

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