Basic AF Gardening Tips

So you have a black thumb, don’t worry there is hope! If you can’t grow squat then you don’t need advice on pruning, composting or freeing root bound plants. Let’s go back, way, way back and get you to the “I might be able to grow more tomatoes per plant next year,” by the end of the summer.

basic gardening1
Stuff I actually grew myself: Chives on my condo patio, fuchsia, stargazer lily and camomile for tea (clockwise from top left).

You don’t need to add diapers to your pots, make plant markers or save your coffee and tea grounds for your garden. Those are solutions to problems you don’t even have right now. I started my veggie garden 5 years ago and a small flower garden about 8 years ago and most years they do okay now, but honestly for the space I have to work with I’m not an epic gardener yet. So let’s dive into the first secret.

It takes a few years for the soil to ‘get good’: This is for a variety of reasons like the more you turn the soil and add things like compost, peat and manure the better it gets. Doing any of these things just once isn’t going to amount to a whole lot in the first year. My veggie garden wasn’t worth showing to people until year three. Also mostly if your opening new ground it will at first, mostly grow weeds which out compete the plants you actually want to grow for nutrients water and even light. It takes a few tugs on the same weed to get the whole root. Over time, like a few seasons this actually has an effect and your plants actually start to win. Plus some plants just won’t thrive in your space and it takes a few years for you to give up on them.

So how do you get around this? Well recognize that any new (think 3 years or so) garden space is going to be a lot of work for not as much reward for some time. Resist the urge to open up that huge garden space all at once since it’s likely to be a lot of weed pulling and not that rewarding. This will be not all that motivating and you might give up claiming you have a black thumb. Instead open a small, even teeny tiny space and nurture it wait until you start reaping the rewards, or at least putting in less time, to open up more space. Work in phases.

You have to water the garden: I’m still snuggling with this one but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. The main one is that we are on a well and not an unlimited supply of water. If we run out that’s it. We have a very healthy but rather shallow dug well that seems to recover well and never go completely dry but it could. So when your standing there watering your garden you are running down the water table that you rely on every day. It’s also hard to know what will happen a few weeks or months down the road. Last summer the well was overflowing and had to be run off a few times in the spring but we went on to have the driest summer on record and it held at about a foot for over about 6 weeks. Meanwhile I was bathing once a week at my sisters, marathon training, buying baby wipes in bulk and doing my washing at the laundromat. So yeah, I was glad I hadn’t dumped all my water into the garden as our neighbours did, also drawing down our water table, since their well was completely dry.

I don’t put a lot of stock into long term spring/summer forecasts like cooler at first but warmer later. Not exactly next weeks winning lottery numbers is it? Ideally unless it’s poured in the last 48 hours you would go out every evening or around dawn and water your garden until it is well and truly saturated. But take your water bill and well into account. If you’re on a limited supply plant water doesn’t have to be clean water. Let pasta water cool, save bath or shower water and remember every little bit helps. I water my camomile tea plants first, since sometimes you have to prioritize. Also catch rainwater if you can.

Plant under DARK plastic or something: So I heard if you plant your plants under plastic and poke holes in it your plants will thrive and weeds will be kept at bay. Yeah, that’s true but… if you use clear plastic the weds will grow under it, faster than your plants and you’ll loose them in a mess of weeds. Learned that the hard way. Same is true for all but the heaviest of landscaping cloth which is meant to be covered with mulch or gravel, learned that the hard way too. But… using plastic limits the water penetration into the soil and you have to use more. In hotter climates black plastic can draw too much heat to the soil, great for me in sometimes chilly Nova Scotia, maybe not so much in Texas.

What I use now to help quash weeds is cardboard. It gets wet and molds to the soil which is great and keeps the light out while letting water through. It’s both good and bad that it breaks down over time meaning you have to use more but you’re not hemmed into one planting pattern for all of time.

Heirloom is crunchy but hybrid is success oriented: There are all sorts of benefits to growing heirloom crops like avoiding mono-culturing, they may well be more delicious, Instagram hashtags and funny coloured carrots. But hybrids are developed between strains, not genetically modified, for greater yields, easier growing, blight resistance and pest resistance. Grow what ever you want ultimately but don’t discount the hybrids automatically.

Grow some idiot proof crops: Even if you grow beans, peas or kale terribly, you will still get some beans, peas and kale. I would suggest planting beans, peas and kale even if you don’t like them all that much for two reasons. The first being that success rocks and it’s great to actually get something for your efforts. And the second is food plucked straight from your very own garden is delicious. What ever it is hybrid or heirloom, you really haven’t tasted vegetable X until you pluck it directly from the garden, brush any dirt of and eat it!

Why do you want to grow organically? Fertilizer is a thing!: There is absolutely nothing wrong with growing organically. And let’s also acknowledge that there is a learning curve to gardening. In general plants get their first bits of energy and nutrients to sprout and grow a little from their seeds then the sun and the soil takes over. Now almost all soils won’t have enough nutrients in them to grow a plant to it’s maximum all through the season with out some being added. Generally adding even a lot of compost and manure to soil at the beginning of a season isn’t enough either, so you’ll want to add some through the growing season. Add to that you might be still a bit of a sucky gardener, plus those weeds in your new garden are sucking up some of those nutrients too. Chemical fertilizers are a quick, cheap and effective bridge over these troubled waters. Organic food is free of these fertilizers but also herbicides and pesticides and you are a long way from having the gardening skills to use these yet. Hell, you, and I, don’t even know what bugs to pick off yet! Look into it and decide if you are actually ok with adding some fertilizers and remember even if you buy all organic produce unless you’re a bit nutty on the organic stuff, the food you eat out and anything that’s not a veggie probably isn’t organic anyway. You’ve probably also heard that we can’t feed the whole world organically and that’s because of fertilizer. That means growing without fertilizer is harder for less of a reward.

If you a dedicated die hard organic food eater, well I’m not going to change your mind just skip to the next paragraph then, its ok. But if your pulling your weeds and watering and things seem to be stalling its time to add some fertilizer. If your nervous about it or damaging your plants with it just add 1/2 as much twice as often as the package recommends. If it still makes you iffy cut it off as the food matures. Remember though fertilizers are just nutrients added to the soil and the plants take what they need from there. If your just growing flowers why does it matter? But always wash your food before consuming it organic, fertilized or not. The realization you just ate a bug is never fun.

Define sucsess in a limited way: For some reason people think that unless you have so many veggies you need to pickle twice a week every week and your crisper drawer doesn’t resemble the produce section of your grocery store you have failed miserably. If you define success in a more limited way you might feel better about the whole experience. When I first started out and some years still just hope to be able to make margarita pizza once. So a few tomatoes, some basil and in years I’m particularly keen I also make the mozzarella cheese.

Frost: Or just really cold nights. Every spring I’m an eager beaver to turn the soil, sow the seeds and pull the weeds, later not so much. But one has to hold themselves back. Until the danger of frost or colder nights has passed. Even a unseasonably warm string of mid May days can be accompanied by frost in the evening. Old school almanac reading gardeners advise not planting until the first full moon in June. That’s probably true and you probably won’t go wrong with that, at least here anyway. But times have changed. Now you can look up your last frost date on the internets. This represents the last day there is a real risk of frost based on historical weather data for your location, yeah go do that. Now onto basil. Basil is a delicate little beast of a herb that hates the cold. Really it shouldn’t see nights below 12 degrees Celsius, so wait on that one well past the last frost date, ditto for bay trees and any plant that you are trying to grow north of where it should.

If in doubt full sun: Shade, partial sun and full sun, can you please define partial sun. Is there really a difference between morning sun and afternoon sun, hell if I know. Well I do a little, just a little but if you’re perplexed by this issue, you’re not alone. Most things will grow okay in sunny spots only some will thrive in shade. You’ve probably heard that hostas are shade plants, here’s a secret, they grow fine in the sun too. If you’re not sure, plunk it in the sun it’ll probably grow. Veggies in particular tend to do best in the sun.


Do you have any easy tips, tricks or hacks that people that claim to have a black thumb might find helpful?



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