Gardening taught me I’m still allowed to like something, even if I suck at it.
I’ve been attempting to be a gardener for the last six years. Despite the TikTok videos and how-to blogs and expert advice from my master gardener sister, my garden has never, not once, not ever had a perfect year of growing. My soil composition ends up being wrong, I get swarmed by vegetable-eating bugs, or the leaves of my tomatoes become covered in powdery mildew. My root vegetables will underdevelop. My leafy greens will bolt. My squash will rot on the vine before they even ripen.
Needless to say, it has been an emotional journey — and an expensive one. I’m not the kind of person who can just have a cheap, ugly-lookin’ garden to work from. Nay, I need a state-of-the-art, fully functional, gorgeous garden that is the envy of my neighbors. I need six raised beds stained to match my house, surrounded by a weed-free patch of fresh woodchips which is edged in with delicious-smelling sage and lavender. I need an arch of thriving climbing new dawn roses, a garden shed tangled with wisteria vines and those lovely falling flowers.
In short: I am a garden snob who is, in fact, terrible at gardening.
The thing is, I live in a pretty confusing climate for these poor vegetables to grow. Spring in Tennessee is short. Summers are stiflingly hot and typically very wet, a combination that will often cause my leaves to wither away. And man, do we have bugs.
Still, each summer and fall I’m inevitably able to harvest enough delicious vegetables to keep me in the gardening game, and each year I’m able to apply what I’ve learned from my failures to get incrementally better at this survival skill. For those just starting out, here’s my best advice:
Plant a huge variety of crops your first year.
This is the fastest way to figure out what will work in your garden and what won’t. One day, you and I might both be good enough at gardening that we can reliably grow whatever we want; until then, though, it’s easiest to work with your garden, not against it. Your unique soil and sunlight situation will be ideal for a handful of vegetables–you just have to figure out which. Don’t expect more than 25% of what you plant to actually take off, but take note of what does, so you can focus on that the following year.
Good dirt is expensive for a reason and you should use it.
I don’t mean fill your raised beds with garden soil! Be thrifty with the bottom layers: logs, twigs, leaves, unfinished compost, and even some basic fill dirt. Then, top your beds with about 6 inches of compost and really great soil. It’ll save you a lot of headaches, trust me.
Check on your garden daily.
The fastest way for me to give up on that year’s crop is for me to let the garden go for a week or so without much intervention, then become overwhelmed with the work to be done when I come back to it.
I love vegetable gardening for the experience of growing things, not because I necessarily want to enjoy the crops. I love the excuse to be outside every day, to see life take hold before my very eyes, to witness the miracle of a little seed sprouting into something with roots and leaves and, if we’re lucky, fruit. I think somewhere in there is an important lesson on how to live my life, actually.