Saturday, June 28, 2014

10 Real Life Gardening Tips I Learned the Hard Way

I think we can all agree that the majority of my blog posts are about spiritual matters so this time I wanted to share a different side of myself with you. I love gardening. My parents get a big kick out of this since I hated working in the garden growing up. I think that was mostly because I didn't appreciate, well, much of anything as a teenager. As an adult, wife, mother, responsible citizen who lives in the current economic climate I've really come to appreciate a lot of things I didn't back then. Hard work, the value of a dollar, where real food comes from, just the joy and satisfaction of seeing your hard work pay off are all a few reasons I've come to love gardening; not to mention, gardening is an extremely rewarding spiritual experience as well. But there are also many frustrations about gardening I didn't quite share in as a youth. Which brings me to the point of this post. I've compiled only a few of the major mistakes, twists and turns, gardening has showed me to share with all of you. If you're a beginner I hope you find this list helpful. These are just a few tips to get you started.

1. Dream big, start small.

My garden has easily doubled in size every year. I'm already making plans for my garden next year and it will be twice as big. I'm glad I started out small though. Oh I had vast and wonderful dreams for my little garden that first year. I planted carrots. A lot of carrots. At the time I juiced about a pound of carrots every morning. I envisioned myself strolling out to my garden every morning, pulling a few fat juicy carrots for my morning juice, plucking other wonderful ingredients along my way like kale, mint, garlic, parsley. So more then half my garden was carrots. Well here's the deal about carrots. Once you pull them, they're done. Not like a tomato plant that keeps producing. One and done. That's how carrots work. Also carrots take FOREVER to grow and mature. I planted early spring and finally by November I just pulled them all up. I got one tiny harvest of sour, dirt tasting, pinky sized carrots. But you know what? I learned from that. I learned a lot from that. It takes time to learn what kind of soil you have, what plants need what to grow. I learned carrots don't grow very well in the soil I have in my backyard. I learned that I don't like one and done plants. I learned that gardening helps you grow patience not just vegetables; that was the hardest lesson of all. So my advice is dream big, dream real big. Think about all the different kinds of plants you'd love to grow but start small. Instead of planting 10 rows of one thing plant 2 or 3 of one plant and see how it does. Especially if it's your first year. Generally the first year isn't that great even if you know what you're doing. So don't invest a lot of money, time, and energy in a huge garden that very well won't produce much at all. I learn something every year about different plants and I've talked with gardeners who have been gardening for 30 + years and are still learning new things.

2. Don't neglect your dirt.

If you're like me and have 4 kids, a large dog, and a cat then you are probably about sick of poop. That is until a truck load of horse, cow, goat, rabbit, or chicken crap gets dumped into your garden. NEVER have I been so excited to dig in cow poo as I was that first year. I personally unloaded 400 lbs of organic cow manure into my garden. Hmmm let me rephrase that. I didn't *personally* *unload* 400 lbs of manure. But I did, all by myself, unload 400 lbs of manure from my van onto my garden. (Oh here's another tip, if you're serious about gardening invest in a truck!) I was pretty much just as excited about cow poo the second year I did it as well! What kind of dirt do you have? Sandy? Clay? Brown, red, black? I'm pretty lucky in these parts. Most of Oklahoma sits on a clay foundation but my back yard is full of some of the darkest, richest black earth you'll find. Stick a shovel in my back yard and you're bound to hit a worm, no lie. So figure out what you have to start with and what plants like it or don't like it. Then fertilize, fertilize, fertilize. I prefer organic and here are some ways I've found work for me:
Organic manure. Get it wherever you can find it. Places like Lowes and Home Depot usually have 40 lb bags of it pretty cheap (although it gets more expensive every year!) Often times you can find it on Craigslist from farmers or ranchers who give it away as long as you can haul it off. Just be sure to double check that no chemicals/pesticides/weed killers were used around the compost pile because this can totally screw your garden.
Compost kitchen scraps all year. All year I keep a big plastic ice cream tub (got plenty of those lying around) with a lid under my sink that I can fill up. My kids take turns taking it out to the garden to dump when it's full. You can actually find pretty nice looking compost bins for this purpose that can sit on your counter. But with 4 kids I can never have anything nice.
Grass clippings, leaves, mulch. These all make great compost. Great to mix in before you start and great to mulch with once your plants have come up. Basically you only want organic materials so no cat litter, grease, plastic, although cardboard and coffee filters are great.
Buy organic fertilizer. There are lots of options, pellets, powders, mixes. Every year before I plant, after I've readied my soil I dump a big tub of organic fertilizer over my garden, especially right before it rains so it can get nice and soaked into the earth.
There are also lots of homemade fertilizers for different plants you probably already have the ingredients for in your kitchen. Epsom salts are great for tomatoes and peppers. Banana peals and coffee grinds are great for tomatoes as well. Egg shells are an excellent source of calcium for plants with blossom end rot. Pinterest is a wonderful resource for all kinds of fertilizer recipes.

3. Thinning is your friend.

Probably one of the hardest things I've had to do as a gardener is thin out my vegetables. Why would I want to pull out a perfectly good plant? Thinning out certain plants is really one of the best things you can do though. Carrots, beets, pumpkins, squash, okra, leeks, are just a few that I can think of that really benefit from being thinned out. They all need room to grow. Root veggies can be especially deceiving. They can look fabulous on the top but if they're all crammed together they don't grow down, they grow up. So for example, you can have a gazillion beautiful carrot tops (told you I learned a lot about carrots my first year) and literally no carrots. Not all is lost though, many times you can do something with those plants that have been thinned out. Beet greens are super yummy, so thin those babies out and toss in a salad. Squash, cucumber, zucchini, pumpkin, they all transplant pretty easily. So if you have three or four sprouts next to each other and you have room spread them out once they are a few inches tall. If you don't one will end up taking over and the rest will die off anyway.

4. There IS such a thing as too much love.

Wait a little while after planting before you start to weed your garden, especially if you're not 100% sure what your sprouts look like. Spinach in particular looks a lot like grass. I usually wait until my sprouts are all a few inches tall before I go to town weeding. I did learn this the hard way the first couple years after pulling out a lot of my sprouts thinking they were weeds. Doh! *hand to forehead* Another way we can love our plants to death is by watering incorrectly. Yes there is a right way and a wrong way. A lot of plants have their own preference but I pretty much water all mine the same way cause I'm just bossy like that. Kale for example prefers to be watered the same amount the same time everyday and since I grow a lot of kale that's when I water everything else. It's much, much better on your plants to water only once a day. Give them a good soak preferably morning or evening. This way they form longer roots and are heartier plants. There's also such a thing as over watering. If the ends of your produce start to rot or if your plants start to yellow, especially leafy greens, you're probably over-watering. Sometimes this can't be helped because of too much rain. I lost a lot of beautiful spinach plants this year to too much rain. You can also over-love your garden by too much pruning or what I like to call, "impatient pruning." Impatient pruning is when you see a bit that needs pruned but are too lazy to get the proper tool to prune with so you yank off the branch, shoot, blossom, leaf, stem, or sucker and accidentally rip your plant out of the ground.....don't ask me how I know that.

5. Don't let your weeds take root.

Once you are completely sure what is weed and what is sprout feel free to weed away to your little hearts desire. As soon as you see that little weed pop it's head up yank it out of the ground. Don't let it go to seed or you'll have a full blown invasion on your hands. I personally have a bowl designated for weeding in my house. It's labeled "attitude adjuster." Just ask my 8 year old. This system works pretty well and weeds are really not a problem for me any more. Seriously though, going a day or two without much weeding probably won't hurt but eventually the grass and weeds WILL take over. I became very aware of this last year when I was 8 months pregnant in July and it became literally impossible for me to bend over; what am I saying I stopped bending over the minute I found out I was pregnant.

6. Know your enemy.

This is a big one. I lost a whole crop of squash one year to vine borers because I didn't know what was happening until it was too late. And nothing brings the "f" word out of me like a blasted squash bug....OK OK OK, nothing makes me *think* the "f" word quite like a squash bug. They are foul and disgusting creatures and you do not want them to infest your garden. There are just far to many pests to name and suggest remedies for in one blog post. So do your research. If you see a bug, don't assume it's OK because it's probably not but there are a lot of friendly bugs so don't just start smashing. If something weird starts happening to your leaves, vines, roots, or stems inspect the plant thoroughly for any sign of insect activity immediately. Don't wait and see what happens because what will happen is everything will die. Nothing more frustrating then leaving your garden healthy one night and waking up to it half dead the next morning. One caterpillar alone can decimate a lettuce crop in one night. Something nibbling your fruit after you've waited patiently for forever for it to ripen? Rabbits, mice, squirrels, moles, birds....all easily remedied by a feisty cat. Seriously. That's my advice. Get a cat. Haven't had a problem with animals sneaking in my garden since.

7. Don't be afraid to get dirty, or smelly.

Cow manure, squished squash bugs, sweat, these are a few things I've had to overcome once I first started gardening. Now, I'm not a girly girl by any means but dirt (haha who am I kidding? Cow poo!) under my finger nails was a new experience for me. I wonder now why I would even bother painting my nails. Actually. No. I never wonder that, the thought of painting my finger nails never even crosses my mind any more. Dirt, sweat, bugs, whatever the residue is called that gets on you after touching a tomato or squash plant and makes you itch for forever, it's all part of it and if you want a successful garden you're going to have to roll up your sleeves, have a designated pair of shoes JUST for gardening, and get used to crap getting under your nails. Literally.

8. No shame!

Failure is not just an option. It's a given. There are so many variables, pests, and learning opportunities that sometimes things are just going to go wrong. There's no shame in that. Sometimes you'll rip out your own plant accidentally, or over-water, or be too tired to water or weed, or you'll plant too early or too late or it will be too hot or too cold. Epic failure is part of the gardening experience. Sometimes plants have a mind of their own and just won't produce for many different possible reasons even if you do everything perfect. The reward is totally worth it but if you let every dead plant or tomato that's already half eaten get you down you will miss all the joys of gardening. Obviously there's nothing like bringing in a big harvest but gardening is like it's own parallel universe, stuff just happens sometimes that's out of our control and it happens to the best of us so there's no shame in it. If anything it's the gardener equivalent of battle scars, something to brag about and freak out the civilians with.

9. Don't go it alone.

Of course you should have your significant other be on board and on the same page. My husband is all for a bigger garden, less he has to mow he says, but he's not majorly into gardening. He helps me with the heavy lifting and is supportive but doesn't like to talk about seeds, compost, or bugs; nor does he share in the depth of my hatred for vine borers and squash bugs. I have friends that garden and I thoroughly enjoy sharing many conversations centered around those topics with them. Facebook gardening groups and blogs are also great resources. I'm part of an awesome group about urban gardening and it's full of advice and opportunities to share pictures and condolences for dead plants. Like I said before, there is always something to learn, why not learn from someone else's mistakes?

10. There's a reason He walked in the garden everyday.

Maybe I'm just super spiritual but with each of the points above I can't help see an underlying spiritual lesson to be learned. Life is a journey we learn along the way; we start out humbly but that doesn't mean He doesn't want us to set our sights on bigger goals and dreams. No matter what, you can't forget about or neglect your foundation. Sometimes it takes intentional maintenance to keep our core beliefs, the foundation of our faith healthy. Without it nothing good can grow out of our lives. If we've believed one lie it can shape every aspect of our life. It's important to drink deeply from the well of His Spirit daily, to let our roots grow deep into His Word and Truth so we won't be swayed by the storms of this life. Because there is a very real enemy that would try and rob you of the fruit in your life. We have to stay vigilant, knowing his plan is half the battle. The Word says, "resist him and he'll flee." Guard your heart, your mind, don't let yourself be taken in by his schemes. Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid. Darkness, dirt, hard work, it's all part of this life. But you are strong, capable, created with a purpose, and you can do it. And when you still manage to fail? Do not be ashamed! We've all been there. We've all fallen short. But there's a reason the Father walked in the Garden with Adam every day and there's a reason you should walk in yours every day. Relationship. When you put your heart and soul into it, no matter the out come, you won't be disappointed. Don't neglect your garden, and don't neglect your relationship with your Creator. Let Him tend your heart as you tend your garden. Watch the seeds come to life. Enjoy the fruit and share it with your loved ones. And feel free to share it with me any time! You're not alone!

If you have an awesome gardening experience I'd love to hear about it. Comment below and share this post with your friends if you've enjoyed it!

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