Gardening is a life-long pursuit: there’s so much to learn, and only so much you can absorb in a single growing season. I’m in love with the entire process, so I figured I would share some tips for growing your green thumb. I came up with sixty tips(!) in one sitting, but I think ten is a manageable number to start with and I’ll leave some of the others for future posts. Hopefully there will be something here for both new and experienced gardeners!
1. Read a gardening memoir. All gardeners should have several good organic gardening references on hand, but they should also have and read a few gardening memoirs. You can learn a tremendous amount from the narrative of someone else’s garden–I know I have! I especially love reading memoirs during the winter months, when my soul is hungering for something green. Some of my favorite memoirs include My Vegetable Love by Carl H. Klaus, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate by Wendy Johnson, and The Seasons on Henry’s Farm by Terra Brockman (but there are lots more out there).
2. Learn about plant families. For those of us without an academic background in horticulture, learning Latin names and botanical terms can feel foreign at first. But learning a little bit about plant families can yield dividends in your day-to-day gardening. There are several hundred plant families (and that number changes as botanists classify and re-classify individual species), but most vegetables (and many culinary and medicinal herbs) fit into one of nine families: Alliaceae, Amaranthaceae, Apiaceae, Asteraceae, Brassicaceae, Cucurbitaceae, Fabaceae, Lamiaceae, and Solanaceae. If you get to know these nine and then find out where individual vegetables fit (for example, kale and cabbage are both brassicas from family Brassicaceae) you’ll be able to effectively plan rotations, know what pests different vegetables might have in common, and understand more about what kind of environments and conditions individual vegetables and herbs prefer.3. Incorporate insectary plants into your garden space. Insectary plants are those that attract beneficial insects to the garden, usually due to their flowering parts. If you don’t know a clematis from a clafoutis, don’t worry–there are lots of vegetables and herbs that do double-duty in this arena. Umbelliferous plants (typically members of family Apiaceae–good thing we learned our plant families, right?) are particularly attractive to beneficial predatory insects like ladybugs, lacewings, hover flies, and parasitic wasps, while members of family Asteraceae attract butterflies and many members of family Lamiaceae (also known as the mint family) attract a plethora of bees and other pollinators.
4. Practice season extension. If you live in the southeast, like I do, you are blessed with a very long growing season–really about nine months out of the year (February-November), especially if you utilize some simple season extension techniques. Season extension can range from the traditional and small-scale, like glass cloches and cold frames made from old windows, to modern and high-tech, like floating row cover and “caterpillar” tunnels made out of steel hoops and plastic. Regardless of your garden (and budget) size, there are season extension techniques appropriate for every gardener that will have you enjoying vegetables and herbs early in the spring and deep into winter with a little advance planning.5. Learn how to start seeds at home. Another good practice for getting a jump on the growing season is starting your own seeds. As with season extension, home seed-starting setups range from the dead simple to the exceedingly complex. Starting seeds with your kids is a great way to teach them about gardening and about natural cycles, and it can bear fruit–literally. Starting seeds for your garden also opens the door to greater varietal selection and increased control over the quality of your plants.
6. Keep records. Gardening records can take many forms, from a narrative journal to an Excel spreadsheet. Choose a method that suits your gardening style and then decide on basic data to track. If you’re a beginning gardener this could be as simple as making note of seasonal firsts or tracking rainfall by using a rain gauge. More advanced gardeners can keep notes on harvest yields, germination rates, and crop rotations. Whatever you choose to record and however you choose to do it, that information can come in very handy in future seasons. For instance, I track germination rates (among other things) for all of our herb and vegetable starts. So if I have a flat that seems to be taking a long time to germinate, I can compare germination rates from past years and see if I’m just being impatient and the flat is well within normal rates or if something really is wrong.7. Learn to love mulch. There are definitely regions of the country where mulch carries more cons than pros–the cool and moist Pacific Northwest, for one. But here in the south, mulch is a vital gardening practice. Mulching around your plants helps conserve soil moisture, reduces soil temperatures during hot weather, suppresses weeds, prevents the loss of organic matter and soil erosion, and provides an ideal environment for beneficial insects and soil microorganisms. One of the best garden mulches is chopped leaves, but they are not available year round and gathering and storing them in the fall requires advance planning. Straw–not hay, and not pine straw–is an excellent all-purpose garden mulch even though it is a little lower on the aesthetic scale than other types. Shredded cardboard (but not shredded paper) also makes a good mulch and has the best weed suppressing abilities by far.
8. Stretch before you work. Regular gardening imparts many physical health benefits, but they’re all for naught if you injure yourself in the process. When I still worked full-time in an office and worked nights and weekends on the farm, I suffered through constant sore and strained muscles because my body didn’t transition well between complete inactivity and heavy physical labor. Before you head out into the garden–whether it’s for light maintenance or heavy lifting–take five minutes to do some gentle stretching and warm your muscles up. It also pays to work smarter, not harder–take advantage of the miracle of the wheelbarrow instead of toting around heavy bags of potting soil or bales of straw mulch by hand.
9. Avoid overhead watering. The single best thing you can do for your vegetables and herbs is to water their root zones, not their top growth. This is especially true for seedlings and young plants trying to get themselves established in the ground; overhead watering can spread diseases and lead to damping off. Instead of spraying entire plants with a nozzle on the shower setting, use a soaker setting or a watering can with a thin spout to water only the soil around the plant. Water plug trays by setting them in a large shallow bin of water and letting capillary action bring the water up through the holes in the bottom of each cell. Avoiding overhead watering will result in happier, healthier plants.10. Practice situational awareness. It’s one thing to grow plants, but to really know your plants…well, that’s what separates average gardeners from great gardeners. Situational awareness is often discussed in the context of complex or high-stress environments like military actions or air traffic control, but it’s a basic human skill that our ancestors relied on every day for survival. Situational awareness, simply put, is the ability to observe and analyze one’s immediate environment, understand how it functions as a whole, and determine how one’s actions might affect it. In the garden, maintaining a high level of situational awareness will alert you to potential problems before they become full-blown crises. Noticing that the soil in your containers is pale brown instead of dark brown lets you know your potted herbs need water. Spotting a few black specks on the stem of a plant reveals, on closer inspection, the beginning of an aphid infestation. Paying attention to the way seasons play out around you can also put you in tune with natural cycles–flocks of robins signal spring even before the first daffodil raises its head, and knowing which direction is west helps you figure out if those clouds might be bringing you some rain on a stormy day. And an intimate knowledge of your garden space can lead to some exciting discoveries as you begin to notice details you might have otherwise missed…
What are some of your favorite ways to grow your green thumb?