April 8, 2010

Calling All Amateur Gardeners

Hello Sew Green readers! I'm Jennifer and I usually blog about vegetarian food over at It Ain't Meat, Babe. This is my first post for Sew Green so I decided to focus on my current non-cooking obsession: my garden. Enjoy!

My friend Shawn has been a gardener as long as I've known him. He comes from a family that planted, no joke, one hundred tomato plants every summer. And even when we were both in our early twenties, when all my other friends were more interested in booze and rock 'n roll, Shawn and his partner Katie were thinking about, talking about, and growing their own food.

For the past decade I've had sporadic container gardens. When my living situation allowed for it, I'd have some basil, lettuce, and tomato plants on the back deck. I always wanted to grow as much of my own food as possible, being very aware of the positive effects it would have on both the environment and my health. I liked those little container gardens just fine, but I dreamed of something bigger. Then I moved into a home with a vast yard and my lovely partner built a fence to keep the dogs out of the sunniest part of it. I finally had my chance. Last year was my first year as a full fledged, in-the-ground, gardener. I was terrified.

As anyone who has ever started a garden knows, it can be completely overwhelming. I didn’t know what to grow where, let alone which specific variety of organic tomato to order from which fancy seed catalogue. So, I played it safe and bought plants from a local nursery, not trying anything from seed. I found the thought of seeding my own plants wildly intimidating. With the plants from the nursery, I reasoned, all I had to do was keep them alive. Someone else had the daunting task of growing them from seed.

side yard with laundry

Truthfully, the selection of vegetable plants at the local nurseries and markets wasn't that great. And the food I grew was nice, but not as amazing as the heirloom vegetables I got at the neighbourhood farmer's market. It was enough to make me want to conquer my fears of seed starting as I moved into my second year of small-scale urban farming. I started reading up on how to seed my own plants.

One of the problems that a novice gardener faces is how to navigate a whole internet’s worth of contradictory gardening advice. Sites discussing seed starting were no exception. You need grow lights! You don't need grown lights! Start your seeds in paper towels! Just shove your seeds in the ground! Seed them in toilet paper rolls! Seed them in the largest pots possible! It was enough to make me put my head down on the table and weep.

Which is when I turned to Shawn. I figured with the years of gardening experience he had under his belt, he'd probably give me reasonable advice on the delicate art of seed starting.

He did. He told me one thing in particular that has been echoing in my head since I read it in the text of his advice-filled e-mail. The most important piece of advice anyone has given me since I began my gardening adventures.

He said, "Plants grow through f@#*ing cement."

In other words, relax. Plants know what they're doing.

Besides that priceless piece of advice, Shawn told me that for seed starting, a south facing window was going to be my best friend. Check! The window in our kitchen faces south and has a nice wide sill. He told me to get whatever potting soil mix I liked, then add my own compost (which, for our vegetarian household, is rich and plentiful), fill up some trays, cover them with one of those clear plastic domes, add water, and wait.

I nervously hovered over my seedlings for a few days, wondering if anything at all would pop out of all that soil. Then I forgot to check one day and by the time I remembered, about a dozen skinny green seedlings were poking their way up out of the dirt towards the light.

And that's where we are right now in this long and lovely gardening process. I removed the dome as soon as I saw green (also Shawn's suggestion) and I've been using a spray bottle full of water to gently dampen the trays of seedlings every day (again, Shawn). This weekend I planted another tray, this one full of basil seeds. I can't wait to see them start to poke up out of the soil. Finally, I'm confident that I can do this whole seed starting thing. I may be an amateur, but at least the plants know what they're doing.



Sara Kirby said...

What a great & fun post! I've been thinking about starting a garden myself. I live in the city and worry about rats eating my plants so I will probably go with hanging tomatoes and a little herb garden on the deck, but you gotta start somewhere, right?!

Congrats on the seedling progress!

xinme said...

You have expressed all of my own fears and trepidations about starting a food garden, Jennifer! And you've inspired me to at least try SOMETHING from seed this year. We've been COLLECTING seeds for years now -- do you think age matters? Do they weaken or diminish in quality if they've been sitting around for a number of years?

BTW -- still no garlic shoots:( Perhaps not enough sun.

Katie said...

This is such an important theme for new gardeners. Yes, as gardeners, we have a role to play in managing the environment of our seeds, seedlings, and plants, but it's a two-way street. Plants want to live and know how to live, and they will meet us halfway. Great blog! Every new gardener needs someone like Shawn!

f. pea said...

That's the best gardening advice I've ever read!

Kerstin Svendsen said...

love it! thanks for posting this jennifer. i am overwhelmed about starting a garden. there is so much information out there. my friends and i planned to start one last year, but i think we all felt daunted (and too busy). your post is inspiring me to try again...

lisa s said...

i <3 plants grow thru f-ing cement ! :)
great post

Kif said...

This is my second year for growing vegetables. I tried to grow beans from seeds last year but something ate or pulled all of them up. My friend gave me some asparagus seeds and I am worried how to grow that. But you are so right - need to just DO IT! Fun post - love your backyard - great clothes line!

Mary said...

Really great to see gardens in progress from outside my own country. It is surprising how similar the problems (and solutions) are.

Great fun reading the blog.

Mary Bailey
Wickford, Essex, U.K.
English Garden

maepress said...

I love to research in books and on the web - but it's true, the best way to learn is from friends. Not only are they likely to have similar soil and weather, but it's just more fun!