What I get out of my garden is pure joy. After 50 seasons of gardening, I'd like to share some helpful advice for newbie and continuing gardeners alike.
This time of year it's flat soil, a blank canvas. The garden emerges as a co-creative dance with seeds, soil, sunlight, water and the variants of nature. Every day it's a challenge and experience of discovery, wonder, frustration, and beauty, and I get to have a role in it. It is awesome. I swear, there is something in dirt, some anti-depressant, stimulating component that has a deep effect on me.
My advice for new gardeners is to plant trees. I live on the open prairie land of Yavapai County, where the wind and sun are desiccating and fierce. In 1979 we planted a windbreak of Arizona Cypress. Now they are fifty feet high. These trees changed the climate by blocking the wind, the June hair dryer blast and the winter blizzard. Now I can grow berries; my peppers don't shrivel on the plants; the seedlings don't wilt. Trees have the power to change the microclimate and affect climate change. Plant some.
For a broader perspective, I asked experienced local gardening friends for their opinions. “Why do you garden? What advice do you have for new and beginning gardeners?”
“There is much that is not in our control (weather, pests, diseases). Learn from your failures and observe them closely. Then try again with your new information. Learn to let go. Remember gardens don't have to be neat to be productive.
“The soil is everything. Start a compost pile and actively manage it. Get your neighbors to give you their food waste to build your pile faster. Consider it a resource! When I started growing food, I began to put more thought into what I was buying and where it comes from. Food grown with love tastes better.”
“I've learned countless personal and universal lessons as a gardener, but one thing I always say to my students is that gardens teach us patience. The plants in a garden show us that you cannot rush things to mature, and nurturing things patiently, over time, is the only way to fully enjoy their sweetness.
“Start small and add on, or try new things bit by bit as you are successful. Plan ahead for wildlife pests. Fencing and electrical deterrent systems are essential for success. Use an automated watering system that is water-efficient and consistent. This is smart water use for our dry climate, and the plants love it.”
“Growing a garden isn’t difficult to do, but the rewards go far beyond putting food on the table. Your garden will teach you something every day, all year long if you are out there trying new things, learning new techniques, and constantly trying to improve your skills and increase your knowledge.”
“Start small and ask questions! Gardeners love to talk about gardening. Be patient with yourself and your garden, and rejoice in your successes!”
“The big lesson I have learned is that gardening and growing food are community-builders. They help break through political views. My neighbors (of a different political persuasion) and I share our crops, our experiences, and even our compost and manure.
“My advice for beginning gardeners is to get in there and plant something. Remember it's a grand experiment. A third is for the critters, a third may just die for no reason, and one third you'll be able to eat and enjoy. I call that success.”
“Take time to look and observe, then ask yourself lots of questions, like, ‘What is that bug? Who's digging up my plants? Why do the peppers on the north side of the plant look better than the south side? Why is the corn taller on one end of the row?’ There are a ton of questions, all interesting and wonderful.
“Plant more than you think you’ll need so you can share the surplus. Accept that not everything will work out and plenty will go wrong, so take delight in solving the little problems.”
“The biggest lesson I have learned from growing food is the investment and work that it truly takes. You'll never scoff at food prices again, and you'll see for yourself how mass-produced food can only be as cheap as it is because of subsidies. The gratitude I feel for every meal is reflected in the effort I've put into gardening. You have no idea how good food can taste till you grow it yourself.”
“Growing food for me is rewarding in many ways. I like the planning, physical activity and therapy that come from cultivating something. I have learned to plant what we can consume and what we enjoy as a family, but have struggled to learn how to preserve, store, can and eat it fresh. I’m that guy with a hundred pounds of extra zucchini.”
“It seems really obvious and simple, but plant what you like to eat. Every year I plant tomatoes because they're easy to grow, but no one in our house really likes tomatoes. This year I'm focusing on the things that we actually love to eat.”
“Persistence and patience are important. Don't give up! It will get better. Growing food takes practice. Don't plant too early. Don't pick too early. Just wait.”
“I like gardening because it meshes nicely with adjusting to climate change, providing a healthy diet, and supporting the planet. For new gardeners I advise starting with something fast. Plant things now that grow in cooler weather, when there are few bug problems and it's easier to keep the seed bed damp (like leafy greens, beets, turnips and radishes). These easy-to-grow crops will be harvested and out of the ground before the scorching-hot, dehydrating days of June.”
“Be really patient and don't expect to do everything right. Farming takes a lot of trial and error. When we started we overdid it and realized that we didn't have the ability to take care of everything. Ask for advice from people you know. We thought other farmers were secretive, then we realized that they have a community mindset and are happy to give advice.”
“Grow things you like and grow lots of herbs. Having a garden you can tour with tastes and smells is a true delight. A pinch of cilantro, a whiff of tulsi, the year-round warrior that is rosemary, are all ways to pack a huge flavor punch in your food in a small footprint. You'll also visit the garden more often, making it more likely that you'll be on top of the weeds and fertilization needs. When that kale plant you've lovingly tended into a tiny tree is getting attacked by aphids, you'll notice. If you don't like beans or okra, you'll never pick them before they're woody and you'll feel like a bad gardener. You're not. You're human.
“The biggest lesson I've learned from growing food? There are so many, ranging from a profound appreciation for a perfectly grown carrot to the delicate balance between life and death, to the lessons of true wealth inspired by saving one's own seed. I look at the grocery store differently, see potential in piles of leaves, and say real prayers of gratitude before I eat. Having an inkling of what it takes to get the food to my plate, whether it comes from my own garden, farmer's market, or grocery store, has inspired deep humility and gratitude — and a hefty dose of worry for our planet and its inhabitants. Summing it up in a single lesson seems the antithesis of what gardening can be. I suppose, though, that it could be simple: we are all connected in this tangled web of life.”
Yavapai County Master Gardener's Help Desk - firstname.lastname@example.org
Groundhog Garden Chat via Zoom, sponsored by Slow Food Prescott, every 2nd and 4th Tuesday at 6:30 pm. Contact: prescottAZ@slowfoodusa.org
Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott's leading creative food activist and teacher. Photos by Gary Beverly.