Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Gardening is Easier Than You Think

Many people ask me when it is the right time to plant in their gardens, how to make compost, and other detailed questions to help them get started. They feel overwhelmed by gardening, which feels like this huge undertaking that will quickly pull them under. But gardening really is easier than you might think. All you're doing is playing with nature, and getting dirt under your nails and greens on the table in the process.

Take planting dates. While there are certain general dates to follow, like the first and last average frost date, or general seasons like spring or fall crops, the timing of planting is not as regimented as one might think. This is especially true if you live in a climate like mine, Eastern Colorado, where you just never know what the weather is going to do. I planted peas in February, for instance, crossing my fingers and asking the pea fairies to do their magic. Now at the beginning of May the plants miraculously did not freeze but are just now putting out peas. But other cool season seeds I put in, like chard and beets, didn't really germinate the first time. I think - though I'm not totally sure of course - that the second planting took. Which is to say I planted in a warm spell in February (way too early by the calendar) and then again at the end of March when we had lots of rain (unheard of here) and one of those plantings took root and are now finding their way into our salads and stir fries and soups.

But if in Coloroad you haven't planted greens by May, that's okay! You still can. When that 100 degree weather hits in a few weeks, the plants may need some shade cloth, or may bolt (which does not mean run around the garden like chickens, it means set seed really fast), or might just be fine. You just never know. Again, gardening has much to teach us about faith, patience, and letting go. It's not a set of hard and fast rules, but a relationship with the earth. Give your garden healthy soil (or help it build its own healthy soil, really) and make sure it has a balance of light, heat, and water, and you're good to go. All the other fancy stuff like nitrogen ratios and planting guilds and coldframes can come, and will be easy when you get there.

It's all about taking the plunge and learning as you go. A friend of mine tried lettuce in her garden this year for the first time. She couldn't believe how easy and yummy it is and was aghast at all the sub-par salad greens she's been buying at the grocery store for years. I think much of gardening is like this. You try something new that seems impossible, overwhelming, and confusing, and you find that a) it wasn't really so hard as you thought, and b) teh results taste awesome. Another friend is new to gardening altogether, and she is tentative but very excited. She asked me about composting the other day when she saw my very un-fancy pile of weeds, chicken poo, and kitchen scraps. I told her that in our climate (where it is usually very dry), you can't mess up compost. It may take a long time to break down if you don't have enough nitrogen (chicken poo, blood meal, fresh grass cuttings) or you put exceptionally large things in it (whole broccoli stalks, entire tomato plants). But that's okay - slow compost is actually just another style of compost. (Now, in Seattle I had really soggy gross compost on a wetland, but that's a different story and not hard to fix.)

If you are still feeling overwhelmed, simplify and think common sense. Like for planting dates: find out the average last frost date (online or ask at a local nursery or friend), then after that date you can put in warm season veggies - think summer tomatoes, snap beans, hot peppers, corn - the hot, summery foods. Before that date you need to wait until the soil is soft enough, then plant "cool season" things - think spring salads, peas, cooler stuff. After the average last frost date, cool season plants like spinach and lettuce can go in a protected area like under the corn (mache loves this) or in the shade of a tree. Keep the soil gently wet, mulch with compost, add a little organic fertilizer if things are looking slow or the soil is a bit thin, and give thanks to the fairies for helping everything along.

When I was in high school I went on a mountain climbing expedition. I hated it. I was terrified. But determined. My guide kept saying, "Trust your boots." I did my best, and my boots did keep me to the rock and the trail. So I pass on to you the same advice: "Trust your garden." Watch, listen, learn, play. You'll be so glad you did.

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