This summer I took on the challenge of a backyard garden – what I affectionately (and generously) refer to as my farm. This has been a long-time goal and I am proud that I made the effort. Caring for plants does not come naturally to me, but I really, really, want to be one of those people for whom it does. And here is the first lesson of Home gardening – you can really, really want whatever the heck you want, but wanting to be/have/grow something is worlds apart from it actually happening. Though my goal was to grow a boatload of my own food, what I actually got most out of my home garden this summer were lessons on living my life. Accepting that fact may have been the biggest gardening challenge of all.
How to create a home garden Step 1: PLAN IT OUT
I got this app that helps you to plan out your square foot garden. Basically, you divide your plantable space into 12-inch squares and then decide what goes where. I started there and ended on a zillion drafts in my notebook because some things are just better done by hand.
I also did meticulous research to determine which plants do best in beds together, and which are like Leos and Scorpios in bed together.
I then mapped out what I wanted to plant, and where it would go in pencil. I erased, I added, I removed. Then I went over it in pen.
Yes, I Type A'd the sh** out of it. I ended up planting about 40% of my garden in the way I'd intended.
When it comes to gardening, as it turns out, you can plan all you want, but as with life, we always need to leave room for space, creativity and spur of the moment changes and the stuff we just can't plan for.
Step 2: Get The Plants and Seeds
Based on my list of what I wanted to grow, I determined what I felt prepared to try from seed (salad greens, herbs, peas and beans) and what I wanted to get as seedlings (everything else!). I went to the nursery with two things in hand:
- My carefully drawn map of my garden beds
- My wish-list of plants/seeds I wanted to get
But then I saw ground cherries, yellow tomatoes, eggplant, beautiful varieties of basil, arugula, salad blends, different types of peppers, and more tomatoes.
I moved from Plan A, which was to follow my plan, to Plan B which included getting overzealous and buying everything! I spent way too much on seedlings and bought more than I had space for. My square foot garden map was effectively turned into garden mulch.
What I Planted
- Tomatoes - seedling / raised bed (5 varieties of cherry tomatoes, two varieties of slicers)
- Basil - seed and seedling / raised bed and pot
- Peppers - seedling (bell and cayenne) / raised bed
- Eggplant - seedling / raised bed
- Zucchini - seedling / pot (didn't make it!)
- Yellow beans - seed / raised bed
- Snap peas - seed / raised bed
- Arugula - seedling / raised bed (didn't make it, bolted very fast)
- Swiss chard - seedling / raised bed
- Sorrel - seedling / raised bed
- Kale - seedling / raised bed + pot (four varieties didn't make, all got covered with caterpillars)
- Ground cherries - seedling / raised bed + pot (pots worked for two months but beds took off amazingly well!)
- Parsley - seedling / pot
- Tarragon - seedling / pot
- Rosemary - seedling / pot
- Sage - seedling / main garden bed
- Oregano - seedling / main garden bed
Step 3: BE Patient
Since I overbought, I didn't have room for everything and tried to get creative without having any real clue as to whether I was taking calculated risks or ridiculous ones. The biggest challenge was that I wanted it to succeed. I did a whole bunch of Q&As on my Instagram and ended up with the same response over and over again: "Try it and see." Zucchinis in a large pot? Try it and see. Eggplants behind the tomatoes? Try it and see.
I have a business where 99% of the time, what I'm creating is on a "try and see" approach. It's new, it's different, there are a lot of factors involved. Try and see what works. I can handle this uncertainty in my business. It's part of what I love about it and keeps it exciting (and mildly terrifying) every single day. I don't know why I had such a challenge applying this to my garden. I felt tied to wanting total and complete easy success. I should know better! Total and complete easy success has yet to be my reality.
After an afternoon of planning out what I actually bought with the space I had, I put everything in the ground, watered it and then came the hardest part of all. I started waiting. Waiting is 100% the hardest part of gardening for me.
Despite my understanding that life unfolds in its own good time, I wanted the life in my garden to act on time-lapse mode. I wanted to plant it, hit a button, and watch it grow and bare food!
I walked my 'grounds' every morning and evening looking for any small sign of growth and success. The first sign that something was happening was a fungus that took over my tomatoes and basil. I lost a few basil plants, trimmed my tomatoes way back to where hardly any leaves remained, spritzed it all with soapy water and basically felt sure it was all done for.
By the third week of June, the plants had been in the ground for 3 weeks, and taking my impatience into account, I noticed the brand new bed with fresh soil was doing way better than the two beds that we'd used last year. I decided I needed to feed the soil. I bought some organic fertilizer, and put it on the garden beds.
And then I went away for a week.
Step 4: Give It Time To Breathe
I wouldn't recommend the fertilizer I bought because, despite the certifications it carried, it contained animal meal and poop and I was concerned my son might stick his hand in and eat it.
That being said, when we came home after being away for a week, I had a garden! I stopped watching for the pot to boil and with a week of sun and rain, and my prying eyes away, the garden took off. Blossoms were forming on nearly all the plants, the peas were popping up, the herbs had all recovered and the fungus was gone. My lettuces were growing at last, and there were even a couple ground cherries ready for snacking. My confidence was renewed!
I felt the part. I was ready to dawn my Tilly Endurable hat, rock a gardening apron and live off the land (at least for a snack).
Step 5: Enjoy The Wins As They Come
When I set out with my home garden plans, I envisioned strolling through my land (keep in mind, my backyard is about 20 square feet), with giant baskets of zucchinis, and peas and beans. I would have more tomatoes than we could possibly consume and I would come to be known as that wild garden lady on the street with a box out front offering up my overflow of produce. In my imagination, my backyard was the equivalent of Mary Poppins' bag where I could pull out far more than could reasonably fit.
This summer has been marked by many peaceful evenings after I put my son to sleep, trimming back my tomatoes and tying them up to the supports. I added poles to support my beans and peppers. I played roulette with the local wildlife - seeing how long I could keep my tomatoes on the vines for optimal ripeness and still harvest them before a squirrel could get them. I harvested a bunch of zucchinis from our potted plant before it was clear they were suffering. I tried transplanting them mid-summer to the ground but the move was more than their sensitive selves could handle.
I have managed to fill bowls and bellies with a variety of salad greens on a nearly daily basis. We've snacked on the snap peas and grown enough beans to add to salads, but not enough to have as their own dish.
We have several peppers forming – both hot peppers and bell peppers. And the tomatoes and herbs just keep coming! I harvested garlic that we planted at the end of last year and used some of it in my pickles (the cucumbers I bought at the market).
The surprise hit of the season was the ground cherries. They weren't in my original plans as I'd never considered growing them, but they gave and gave and gave and my son loved looking for the ripe ones and peeling them open with his chubby little hands to share the goodness inside.
Step 6: Take It All In
For the first time in 39 years, I grew my own food all by myself. I attempted it last year with the support of a great company called At Home Organic Farm but ultimately knew that if I didn't attempt this on my own, I'd never learn what I wanted to learn. Did I grow the bounty I had hoped? I didn't. However, I now have a different outlook. A successful garden isn't just about what you pick from it.
I have learned about soil, water and sun in a whole new, first-hand way. I didn't kill them all, which as someone who is not known for her plant whispering skills, feels like the best accomplishment of all.
Mostly though I learned a lesson in process. I am, by nature, very goal-oriented. I like to try new things and see how they go, but it's an ongoing challenge to recognize that though the goal is what motivates me into action, becoming too tied to achieving the optimal outcome, I fail to enjoy the successes along the way.
Can you relate? See, it's important to have intentions and goals at the outset of our projects. It's what gets us moving. Often, however, our goal may actually limit us. There are times when we set goals based only on what we know, or determine is feasible. The reality is that with a firm intention, and with actions taken daily to move towards the goals we set, we may find that we land somewhere beyond what we ever could have conceived. We land beyond our own imagination.
I set out to plant a food garden alongside loads of flowers to support the bees and butterflies. I did grow some food. That part was awesome. But the home garden process challenged me more than I had anticipated. I appreciated the feeling of being in my garden and having a purpose that felt outside of me. I enjoyed being part of the ecosystem of my backyard, and learning more about how the food system, even on this small of a scale, works. I have long appreciated farmers and the work they do, particularly those who rely on the challenging brilliance of nature and how natural defences can be built in when done right.
I expected to write this post for you at the end of the summer and be able to offer all kinds of sage advice on how to get your home garden started, what to look for in your soil pH, what plants will thrive with what sunlight, what to plant together, what to keep apart, when to fertilize, how many worms per square foot you want to look for, how to compost and all that delightfully earnest gardening stuff. I have none of that to share. I don't know any of that – or at least not well enough to try and teach it.
Knowing all those things would likely help me to have a more successful home garden from the food abundance side of things, but as it turns out, that isn't actually what I needed at all to have a successful garden. The truly rewarding part was just being in the yard, tending to my plants, looking at bugs and worms, examining leaves, having my son out there with me holding the bowls as we collected lettuce, or taking my tomato trimmings to the mulch bin, and most of all, learning as always to just be patient and accept the flow of nature. All of this has been phenomenally more rewarding, satisfying and gratifying than I could have planned.
My garden will never be perfect. Neither will I. Every single day brings new challenges, new opportunities and new possibilities. And what I learn every day continues to remind me that absolutely everything is possible.
Maybe next year I'll have the how-to-garden details ready for you. But for now, all I can say is just plant something. Whether it be on the windowsill of your kitchen, a pot on your fire escape, or a small bed in the yard, just plant something and see what you can grow, and perhaps how it might inspire you to grow, too.
My Favourite Gardeners To Follow
- @epicgardening - Great tutorial videos
- @thehappygardeninglife - Stunning garden inspiration
- @yougrowgirl - Amazing local growing and author of essential gardening books!
- @rootedgarden - Extremely talented gardener who has a few online courses
- SmilingGardener.com - Very helpful eBooks and a course coming soon