Beginning Gardening

For those pondering the first time creation of their own Eden on earth, we offer some beginning gardening advice.

| March/April 1989

I farm the soil that yields my food. I shared creation. Kings can do no more. — Ancient Chinese Proverb

Perhaps you spent a dreamy winter day among the sweet promises of seed catalogs, or maybe you've been seduced by the memory of granny's tomatoes. It could be that the latest ticker tape of grocery receipt provided the trigger. Or was it the wholesome fantasy of trading jogging shoes for a hoe? At any rate, you've decided to plant your first-time-ever garden. Congratulations! And welcome to the 44% of American families that share an addiction that we euphemistically call a hobby. Oh, you'll hear the same old rationalizations from most of us: We're gardening to save money, to keep fit, to put good food on the table, or to spend time outdoors. And those reasons might have provided motivation when we were at the same beginning gardening stage as you.

As you'll come to know, though, what makes us pull out our tools year after year is the sheer wonder of sticking that pinhead-sized little ball of a broccoli seed into the ground and — ta-da! — eventually harvesting something that holds up the hollandaise. Big crop, little crop — it doesn't matter really. As much fuss is made when just one fine head ripens as when we cart off bushels.

In short, it's being smack-dab in the middle of a real-life miracle that makes this pastime pretty hard to resist. Who can get enough of it? Building a cabinet or piecing a quilt just aren't quite the same. Only gardening (and having children) lets you stand so close to the miracle of life that, like the ancient Chinese quoted on this page, you feel as if you're sharing in creation.

Yes, welcome to gardening. None of us can ever claim to really know the territory. We're all learning as we grow. Each year's a mystery — a renewed challenge — during which you'll reap plenty of mouth-watering vegetables at the very least. What's more important, you'll occasionally have the opportunity to feel like the only person who ever saw a honeybee wake up after spending the night on a morning-glory, or the only soul who's seen the wind rattle a corn leaf, making the plant appear to be scratching its own back. And like a brand-new parent, you'll be blind to the beauty of any broccoli other than your own.

Getting Started

When learning to ride a bicycle, you don't read up on aerodynamics, physics, gravity, and inertia. Instead, you simply ask someone how to start, steer, and stop the thing, then hop on and give it a go. And you keep hopping on until you're pedaling vertically. The same goes for gardening. You might want to read a few good books, and you will want to find at least one neighbor who's gardened in your area awhile and pester him or her to death (the odds are great that most gardeners won't mind at all). Then simply go get your fingernails dirty. To get you started, I offer the following basic advice. (You'll have to find the neighbor yourself.)

1. Learn your climate zone: It's on that little map you'll see in seed catalogues or comprehensive gardening books. Climate zones are bands where weather conditions (average rainfall and temperature) fall into the same range, and seed catalogues will list (by number) which ones are suitable for certain plants.
2. Memorize your first and last frost dates: Planting times for everything from radish seeds to fruit trees depend on when frosts occur in your location.
3. Know your soil's make-up: Have a soil test done. (See "Fertilization" below.)
4. Be aware of available warm-and cool-weather crops: Some vegetables grow best in warm weather and some in cool.
5. Look into local clubs: Check the library or chamber of commerce for a list of garden-related clubs, organic growers' organizations, and native plant societies
are widespread, and their members will be more than willing to help you get started.
6. Read one or more of these books on gardening basics: How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons; The Self-Sufficient Gardener by John Seymour, The Healthy Garden Handbook by the staff of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

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