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For the new gardener

Dear new gardener,

If you’re planting your first edible garden this spring — first of all, thank you for taking this step. You’re taking responsibility for your needs and for your family’s needs. You’re taking responsibility for your food and how it’s grown, and that’s incredibly powerful in today’s world.

And you’re not alone. You’re joining hands with others who are also stepping up to become stewards of our degraded lands and our broken food system. People everywhere are picking up shovels and starting new gardens, or expanding existing ones. I see this on my daily walks in my neighborhood: people out in their yards, new raised bed boxes where there weren’t any before, vegetable seeds being sold out in stores (when was the last time that happened?). It’s one of the more life-affirming and empowering responses to the Covid-19 crisis.

So first of all, thank you for being a part of this movement.

 

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.

— Audrey Hepburn

 

At the same time, starting out gardening can feel overwhelming. “Where do I start? There’s so much information out there and so much I don’t know. I can’t tell a cucumber seedling from a pepper seedling. I don’t know the Latin names of vegetables.”

I know all too well how that feels. I wasn’t always a gardener. I didn’t always know how to do this.

I now grow food on a third-acre lot. But this is where I started, about 10 years ago:

 

And because I remember being a new gardener, I know that gardening absolutely can be learned.

If you want practical tips, like finding planting calendars or choosing vegetables that grow fast or provide maximum calories, scroll to the bottom of this post. But what I want to offer first is some advice about the beginning gardener’s mindset. For along with good compost and non-GMO seeds, you also need some patience, self-compassion, and a good dose of humor.

 

It takes time, and that’s okay.

When I planted the first garden of my adult life — patio containers for some salad greens and herbs — I read in one of my gardening books that gardening involves a steep learning curve. To be precise, it said, it takes 10 years to learn how to garden. You can’t speed-date nature. You learn simply by experience, by making mistakes. There will always be a new unexpected challenge each year: a summer of nothing but rain, late frosts, a new pest, a new crop.

I remember despairing. Ten years! That’s too long! (Patience was not one of my virtues then and still isn’t.) I felt embarrassed about all that I didn’t know, I felt that I should be further along, and yes, I was wondering about all those Latin names.

But now that I’ve been gardening almost a decade, I can say that confidence in gardening really comes simply from doing it over and over again, year after year. You make mistakes and learn from them. But. It. Is. All. Worth. It. That feeling when you make your first meal entirely from homegrown ingredients, or grow your first perfect artichoke or braid of garlic — you can’t buy that in a grocery store produce aisle. In fact, a lot of the food you will go on to grow will also be food that you simply cannot buy in a grocery store.

Whether this is your Year 1 of gardening, or Year 10, there’s only one way to become a better gardener: to garden today, and the next day, and the day after that.

 

Start small.

You don’t need to have a lot of land to garden. You don’t need to own land to garden. And no, you don’t need to plant a jaw-dropping food forest your first year.

Start with some potted herbs, or salad greens on the windowsill. If you do have a backyard, build a couple of 4×8 raised bed boxes and start with that. The following year, you can add some blueberries in half wine barrel containers and try your hand at double-digging or sheet mulching.

As one of my permaculture teachers, Marisha Auerbach, puts it: Start small, and then roll over the edges. If you take on too much all at once, you’ll only become discouraged if you can’t maintain it all, and you might give up. Take on what you can manage, and then expand.

 

invest in good soil.

To grow healthy, nutrient-dense, delicious vegetables and fruits, you need good soil. This is the one part where I wouldn’t recommend skimping.

You can build good soil on a low budget over time; my two favorite ways of building good garden soil are sheet mulching and no-till gardening. But both of these take time. If you want to fast-forward things, invest in a bulk order of compost (by the cubic yard) from the best source you can find locally, and mix the compost with your existing soil to fill up raised bed frames or to establish beds. Start a home compost pile to grow your own soil fertility going forward.

 

Grow foods you actually like to eat.

If you don’t like kohlrabi, don’t grow kohlrabi. If pesto on a summer day is what makes you happy, plant as much basil as you can fit in. You get my point.

 

You don’t have to know everything.

You don’t have to read every gardening book on the planet. Find your 2-4 go-to resources that are like a couple of good friends you can turn to. (See my suggestions below.)

If a specific problem comes up, you can always find help on Google or Youtube.

Don’t fret about all that you don’t know yet. It will come. If you fall in love with gardening the way most people do, you will find yourself gravitating towards your garden beds, checking on the seedlings. You don’t need to memorize the Latin names of the different vegetable families. Over time, you’ll start to notice that turnip seedlings look exactly like broccoli and kale seedlings, and beets and Swiss chard look similar too, and so do carrots and Queen Anne’s lace. Over time, the family tree of plants will become familiar to you because the characters in it pop out of the soil every year to greet you, like old friends.

 

Dear new gardener,

We don’t know what lies ahead. But I’m willing to wager that 5 years or 15 years from now, you will not regret learning how to garden. Enjoy this time of apprenticing and growing. Put your hands in the dirt, be curious, and have fun.

And now…

 

My top resources for the brand new gardener

Online trainings and inspiration:

My go-to gardening books:

Other resources:

Fall Garden Checklist

When the harvest season winds down and the abundance of the late summer and early fall has been brought in, it’s the time to put the garden to bed. Here’s how to prepare your garden for the winter and for optimal vigor in the spring.

Harvest the last of…

  • basil for pesto
  • herbs for herbal teas
  • tomatoes, okra, sweet potatoes, squashes and pumpkins

 

Clear and Cut back

  • Clean up any remaining dead plant matter and compost it, unless it is diseased.
  • Cut back herbs and perennial vegetables such as asparagus and rhubarb. It helps them to grow with new vigor in the spring.
  • Cut runners from strawberries, and top-dress them with compost.
  • Cut old fruiting canes of raspberry and blackberry.

 

Amend and cover the soil

  • Dig in amendments such as compost, manure, bone meal, kelp, or rock dust. They will have all winter to break down and enrich your soil.
  • Rake leaves and mulch garden beds with them. A thick layer of mulch helps to regulate the soil temperature, protects your crops from freezing, and adds organic matter into the soil.
  • Alternatively, leave the leaves where they are – it’s free fertilizer for your lawn, and an all-around good thing to do.

 

Cover crop

  • Plant a winter-hardy cover crop such as rye, vetch or Austrian winter pea. Cover crops help to prevent erosion, as all those tiny roots hold the soil in place; they aerate the soil and break up compacted lumps; they increase the level of organic matter in the soil. A leguminous cover crop such as vetch or peas adds nitrogen to the soil. Grasses, such as rye, improves the structure of compacted soil.

 

 

Protect your plants

  • Take cold-sensitive house plants and potted tropical plants indoors
  • Protect young trees and shrubs from deer, rabbits etc.
  • Prepare to protect overwintering vegetables with row covers. Mulch all the frost-sensitive plants with straw or leaves to protect them from frost.

 

Plant

We get to plant some, too, in the fall! Fall is the time to plant:

  • Garlic, shallots, and leeks (mulch generously to cover them well)
  • Flower bulbs (daffodil, crocus, tulip etc.) that will surprise you with their color in the spring

 

With these simple measures, your garden will wake up with the return of the spring, rested under cozy blankets of organic matter and replenished by amendments and cover crops.

Play in the Dirt: The Potent Antidepressant Called Gardening

 

Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.

           – John Muir

 

A dear friend who’s going through a divorce and a lot of exhausting relationship drama has a place where it all dissolves and falls away. Her apartment building has a few raised bed boxes for the residents, and this year she got one of them to grow some vegetables. There, sitting on the edge of her garden box and trellising the tender peas, pulling the weeds around the carrots and checking on the broccoli florets, she says, her mind is at ease, no matter what is going on. 

Ask any gardener, and they will tell you something similar. The garden is their happy place — the place that de-stresses and relaxes them, chases away the blues, and puts them in the “flow” mode of just enjoying the present moment.

In a lovely essay, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks writes:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.

 

Now scientific studies are starting to bring to light a fascinating explanation for the healing, even euphoric effect of gardening. The secret, it seems, lies in the soil itself. Gardening increases our exposure to beneficial micro-organisms that live in the soil, some of which have anti-depressant qualities. Researchers have been particularly interested in Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless microbe that can be found in soil and water. Initial studies suggest that the immune response to M. vaccae triggers the release of serotonin in our brain. Serotonin is our bodies’ “happy chemical” that reduces stress and contributes to a sense of well-being.

Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal, from “Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt” by Kate Messner.

 

But no single microbe is a miracle cure. More likely, says Daphne Miller, M.D., it’s the exposure to a diversity of micro-organisms that is healing for our immune and nervous systems.

Unfortunately, exposure to a diversity of micro-organisms is exactly what’s lacking in our microbe-phobic, over-sanitized modern lives. We’re killing the microbial diversity that we’ve evolved with and seem to need for our well-being. Asthma and allergy, for example, are lower in farming communities than in urban areas, as farm children get exposed to a diversity of bacterial species through their interaction with animals and farm dirt. These very bacterial and fungal organisms promote a healthy immunological response.  

As Maya Sherat-Klein writes in The Dirt Cure, “It turns out that all the things that are messy and dirty in the world, the very things we thought we needed to control and even eliminate to stay alive, are actually the very elements necessary for robust health.”

So go ahead. Get your hands in the dirt and let your kids play in it too. Glove-free digging, handling compost, saying hello to the occasional earthworm — and above all, eating the fresh, not-obsessively-scrubbed garden produce — may be one of the best things you can do for your health. Unlike with pharmaceutical anti-depressants, gardening has no side effects. Warning: it may be highly addictive though!

The regenerative urban garden II: Sheet mulching

This is the second in a series of posts about regenerative gardening techniques. Read Part I on No-till here!

If you’ve heard of permaculture, you’ve probably heard of sheet mulching. Sometimes it feels like the two are treated almost as synonyms: every Permaculture Design Course must include the initiation rite that involves laying down cardboard as earnestly as if you were trying to cover the entire planet in it. Every self-respecting permaculturist will be spreading cardboard… I mean, the gospel of sheet mulching, wherever, whenever.

I’m being just a tad sarcastic. Sheet mulching is hands down one of my favorite and most effective methods of garden establishment and soil-building. I’ve done a lot of it myself, made some mistakes in the process, and almost gotten into trouble for pulling cardboard out of the dumpsters behind Target. I think sheet mulching is an essential tool in the toolkit of regenerative gardening. But just to be clear: I don’t think it’s always the right choice, and it’s not bulletproof.

What is Sheet Mulching?

Sheet mulching means laying down layers of organic material, including a weed block layer of some kind (usually cardboard or old newspaper), to smother existing plants and create a blank canvas, if you will, on which to establish a new garden area. Some people call it “lasagna gardening” — the same idea.

Here are the main benefits of sheet mulching: It

  • acts as a great weed block (if done right), giving you and the plants you choose to plant a competitive edge over weeds
  • takes materials out of the waste stream (such as newspaper or cardboard) and converts it into garden soil
  • is a great soil builder! The layers of organic materials gradually break down and get incorporated into the soil. Earthworms and other critters crawl up to munch on them, aerating the soil. The whole process builds the humus layer.
  • …and that is why sheet mulching is a regenerative and carbon-sequestering gardening practice, especially when combined with cover crops. It provides soil cover; it feeds the diversity of biology in the soil; and it has the potential of turning carbon-rich organic materials like straw or cardboard into the kind of carbon that feeds the living soil.

Since Toby Hemenway has written a killer how-to for sheet mulching, I don’t need to go over all the steps here. Instead, I’m going to share the sheet mulching process we’ve done as part of establishing our urban homestead in the past year, and some lessons learned.

Here’s our front yard a few weeks after we moved in in Spring 2018:

Our goal was simply to build soil in this area for a year before planting anything (in contrast to the vegetable beds that you see me double-digging in the background in this photo). Having the blank canvas of the sheet mulch also allowed some design ideas to come forth.

Once the last layer was on, I seeded the entire area with a cover crop mix. And here’s what the area looked like about three months later:

In other words, the cover crops took off. They pushed their roots through whatever layers of cardboard remained, pumped lots of nitrogen into the soil, and grew flowers that attracted pollinators. The Nitro radish in Sow True Seed’s cover crop mix busted through the compacted soil with its thick tubers and such vigor that it drew many remarks from neighbors and passers-by.

The one challenge, I’d say, with using a cover crop mix with multiple plant species in it is that it became challenging to monitor for the weeds that inevitably did push their way through the cracks of the cardboard layer. By the fall, I was happy with how the cover crop was working the soil, but also finding a lot of pernicious vines and weeds.

For that reason, we scythed it all down in the fall, and in the spring, we did it all over again.

This time, we used thinner rolls of brown paper instead of cardboard, laid out pathways with woodchips to create the teardrop shape for this future mini forest garden, and started planting perennials. I’m really happy we did two rounds of sheet mulching, even though it was a lot of work. Now when I put my hand into that soil, I see a new dark brown layer over the lighter, clayey original soil, and the soil’s got great texture and fluff to it. That’s what we’re going for.

 

Top recommendations and lessons learned:

  • Do smaller areas at a time. It’s a lot of work, wheelbarrowing all that organic material, and you’ll tire yourself out if you try to do too much at once.
  • If using cardboard, find the biggest pieces of cardboard you possibly can. Bike shops, kayak and canoe shops, furniture and home appliance stores usually have huge boxes in their dumpsters they don’t mind you hauling away.
  • An alternative to cardboard are rolls of brown paper (sold in the painting section at Lowe’s or Home Depot, for example). You’ll want to do at least two layers, but don’t need to spend time pulling out tape and staples from cardboard.
  • Make it a work party! Sheet mulching is overwhelming if done with too few pairs of hands, but a riot if you invite your friends.
  • Water the soil well before starting, and keep watering the weed block layer as you go. The soil-building organisms that will be munching on your sheet mulch cake need moisture to do their thing.
  • If cover-cropping, a single species cover crop seed might be a good idea, for reasons explained above
  • Plant any large perennials first and sheet mulch around them, rather than trying to cut into the cardboard and then dig a planting hole. Again, I speak from experience.

 

 

The regenerative urban garden I: No-till gardening

I am an advocate of regenerative farming. But I am not a farmer myself. The piece of land I steward is 1/3 acre — still sizable for an urban lot, but laughably minuscule compared to what Real Farmers are working with.

Yet, when I landed here last year and set out to establish our gardens, I decided I’d try my best to apply the same principles that regenerative farmers use when working the land. The benefits of regenerative farming practices add up to something pretty phenomenal: improved soil health, improved ecosystem health, better water retention, less erosion, more carbon sequestered in the soil… and more nutrient-dense food as a result.

Why would I not want all those benefits in my own garden, too? What would regenerative gardening, or carbon gardening, look like?

This post series is my attempt to answer that question. (Mind you, this is only our second year of gardening on this land, so no doubt I have a lot yet to learn and some steep learning curves to climb.)

 

Regenerative growing practices on the urban backyard scale

Here’s my back-of-the-napkin, off-the-cuff summary of key regenerative land management principles:

  • Disturb the soil as little as possible.
  • Always keep the soil covered.
  • Always keep a living root in the soil.
  • Plant more perennial crops.
  • Diversity, diversity, diversity!
  • Incorporate animals into the system, and have a system in place for rotating them through landscape.

Now, all of these can absolutely be applied even on the urban or suburban garden scale. Soil is soil is soil. There’s nothing inherent about them that says you can only do them if you have 200 acres to manage.

Let’s start with the first one. The way to disturb the soil as little as possible translates to:

 

no-till (or no-dig) gardening

No-till is exactly what it sounds like: you farm, or garden without ever tilling the soil. Tilling and plowing are almost synonymous with land cultivation, aren’t they? Yet they actually destroy soil structure, create compaction, and kill the very soil biology that’s the basis of fertility, like fungal networks and all those earthworms that make the soil nice and squishy.

But if you don’t till, how, then, do you break up and loosen the soil? How else do you kill all the weeds? How else do you build fertility?

In a no-till garden, these goals are achieved in a couple of simple ways:

1. Aerate using a broadfork. This is a fun annual spring ritual. The broadfork allows you to gently fluff up the soil and improve its structure without turning it over completely. It’s a garden chore my daughter loves doing with me — we rock back and forth, she can’t stop laughing, I get good exercise.

 

 

 

2. After broadforking, layer on a “lasagna mulch” to suppress weeds and build fertility. In other words, you layer on different types of organic material, one of which is a weed block layer like cardboard or newspaper. On garden beds, I like using a few layers of wetted newspaper because it breaks down faster.

There are many variations to lasagna or sheet mulching. Mine usually ends up looking something like this, from bottom layer to top layer:

  • bottom: slashed vegetation (any weeds or cover crops on soil surface)
  • any soil amendments
  • thin layer of composted manure
  • newspaper or cardboard
  • 2 inches of compost
  • top layer: seedless mulch, like straw, leaves, lawn clippings, or cut-down cover crops

All these layers gradually break down, and the compost or manure invites lots of juicy earthworms that aerate the beds and gradually pull the organic materials deep into the soil.

The mulch shades the soil, blocks weeds, and creates fantastic habitat for soil micro-organisms, which are your partners in building good soil.

You can literally see yesterday’s news turning into good garden soil! Now there’s something to meditate on while gardening.

Once all the beds are established in this way, you can simply plant seeds into the newly formed, weed-free bed. Or, in case of transplants, break a little opening into the wetted newspaper layer and transplant directly into that hole. You now have an effective advantage over the weeds: by the time they break through the mulch, the plants you want are already well-established.

 

My favorite video resources for No-till gardening:

How to make a No-Dig Garden with Morag Gamble

Anything by Charles Dowding, but especially this and this