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Advice for Beginning Gardeners - From a Farm Kid

A few weeks ago, I began prepping my garden plot for spring planting. One morning I was finalizing my plan for the kitchen garden; I was excited to try a few new varieties I had ordered earlier as well as my tried and true favorites. Anxious to get to work, I pulled out my stash of seeds to sort through the varieties I would plant first. I keep a hefty stockpile of seeds, so I leafed happily through my tin of nature's little treasures looking for the packets of snap peas. Peas love the cooler, wet spring weather and are one of the first varieties I sow. I dug to the bottom of the tin- grateful to locate my planting tweezers and a few strawflower seeds I didn't think I had. To my horror, I found the bottom of the box but no pea seeds. None. How could I have overlooked restocking my pea seeds? Hmmmm. Now what? I found myself in quite the dilemma: my kids were knee deep in distance learning. Did I risk catching THE virus and venture out in public for one packet of seeds? If so, did that mean I had to actually shower for the day? Or was a hat enough? The answer was obvious. I poured myself another steaming cup of coffee, plopped down on the couch, and flipped open the laptop. What a great excuse to add a few other varieties in my shopping cart to qualify for that free shipping deal I saw in that email the other day!- I smiled to myself as I opened tabs to my favorite seeds companies. Continent to lounge in my pjs while also strengthening my own food security. Well done, Alyson I thought to myself. Safety all around. Well, hold the phone, folks - the website was down! It took a minute for the gateway to spin open to the website - a sign of heavy server traffic so my techie husband explained. I had to set my coffee down for this one. Perhaps it was the morning light on the monitor? No such luck. In front of me was no dreamy photo of sunlit flowers, but instead a blank, white screen with a notice stuck to the page like a desperate scrawl on a sticky note - -we are out of toilet paper! I'm kidding. It really said : We are out of seeds. We are sold out. We are overwhelmed!

How wonderful is that? I mean, to be honest, at the onset of this global self-quarantine I was truly concerned about the desperate need to stock up on TP rather than, say healthy food. Don't get me wrong, we've eaten more than our fair share of chips in these past few months. In fact, I think the salt is making me puffy - it can't be the cookies and homemade bread, right? And truthfully, I keep a pretty substantial amount of those paper rolls on hand as a general principle (it's cheaper in bulk, and it's downright hard to find leaves in Montana winters - you know what I mean?). Seriously though, I do think it a modern tragedy that so many people are far removed from their food. I get it. Not everyone can look out to the pasture and see a source of protein happily munching down on the hay you just fed it. But this whole ordeal has reminded me that too many of us are so far removed from a sustainable lifestyle that we don't even know where to start. So many do not cook or grow their own food at home, and instead have relied on packaged foods and restaurants. This is not to say that these options are not viable and wrong; we all are doing the best that we can. However, I find this time of crisis to also be one of hope and inspiration. Perhaps we can begin to truly rely more upon ourselves and local producers, creating not only a healthier lifestyle but also an improved food system and supply.

So I applaud the Modern Victory garden. And victorious it truly is. People discovering perhaps for the first time what it is to push a seed into the soil and watch it grow into something which fills our plates. It's truly amazing. Isn't it great? And, I'm thankful once again I don't live in a subdivision! Forget about rules for social distancing. People are going to be baring their doors to avoid the onslaught of another " neighborly basket of giant squash and the weekly loaf of zucchini bread, this time with walnuts." Well as you can guess, I closed up my laptop and added shampoo to my shopping list next to chips- I mean I'm only human.

So please excuse the salty crumbs here as I share with you a few of my "tips" for getting started with your garden. Be warned - I do not claim to be a Master Gardener - just a farm kid with a couple decades of experience playing in the dirt. There are many, many ways to go about gardening and much of what you should do will depend on your particular set up and location. Nonetheless, here's a few pointers to help you on this exciting, rewarding path to growing your own food.

Start Simple and Plant What You'll Eat

I think eggplant are so cute. Those glossy purple blobs wearing happy little elf hats. Delicious too, right? -Eggplant Parmesan. It seems so cultured and rich. Well, apparently not - according to my kids who are not picky eaters but certainly prefer tomato sauce. Lesson learned: the one leggy eggplant I planted a few years ago was hardly worth the effort. That's especially true when the unfamiliar veggie just sits on the counter until it rots. I know it can be really tempting to pick out a whole stack of pretty seed packets or till up half the yard, but I suggest you start by planting only what you and your family like eating. Start small, but by all means do start. It's also best, if you are looking to just get some great results right off the bat, to stick with tried and true types of veggies and flowers. Then, upgrade each year as you gain confidence and experience. You'll have far less disappointment when it comes to crop failure. Here's a little secret too: It's totally permissible and even encouraged to try a purchased varieties from the local nursery - grab a six-pack of sweet corn or broccoli. Pick up those tomatoes and peppers with buds of flowers already forming, especially if you live where there is a short growing season. I promise no judgement whatsoever, but if you happen to bump into me while at the garden center, just assume the hat is an accessory to my outfit, and we'll keep the shampoo situation between us, ok?

Know When to Sow

This is pretty easy to do, but also a bit frustrating thanks to social media. I am always telling my kids "Comparison steals your joy" - well you California gardeners are joy-thieves! I'm buried under a white blanket while you're harvesting fresh greens and making your Cinco de' Mayo pico with freshly picked peppers. Life can appear so unfair! But then again, I live in a postcard, so really, I can't even complain? Here's the thing: knowing your frost dates is essential in figuring out when to start plants indoors or sow them into the ground outside. Also knowing what zone you live in is super important for gardening success. Growing plants is a lot like growing people: you can't just pick up baby plants from the nursery and plop them into the cold April ground and expect them to live. They are going to need some time, attention, and warmth, my friends. And mind you, some plants, like people, are a little more tender than others. Those varieties will need to be babied a bit more. This rule of thumb is true in the heat of summer too. A scorching hot day or too much wind will dry up seedlings like a fart in a frying pan - poof! We aren't talking a nap in the sun folks, so set those little guys out on a cooler morning with some shade and a sippy cup - I mean water. My place here in Montana is zone 5, but even here I'm at a higher elevation than my friends just across the river - so they've got the benefit of earlier planting, I'm not comparing I promise. Figuring out where exactly you are located on the "frost map" can help you know the best time to plant zucchini or zinnias. I've also found a family-owned nursery is a wealth of information - the closer to home the better because they share your micro-climate.

Consider time in the garden moments of solitude

I love it when my girls join me in the garden, and my heart rejoices that my Evie has been bitten by the garden bug like her momma. It is such a joy to work and play alongside your kids. But, unfortunately, we are not all gardeners and distinguishing a weed from a flower can be hard for everyone, not just toddlers (I blame dandelions for this difficulty - salad? weed? flower? just decide already!) You get my point, right? If you have dreamed up some fairy-tale where your whole family will don matching overalls and sunhats to weed the garden on Saturday morning, let's drink from the small bottle labeled reality. You may have some help to begin with, but eventually only those who really enjoy being out in the garden will help you. And this is probably best in the end. My girls have spent a lot of hours in the garden and greenhouse with me, but I've learned not to always expect help. Rather I've anticipated I will do most of the work of gardening myself. This means I have to be reasonable about how much I can do myself. Last year was a good barometer for this as I ended up having an emergency hysterectomy in May - after I had planted the garden. A few days after surgery, I hobbled out to check on things. Everything was popping up - rows of carrots and sprigs of marigolds and weeds, millions and millions of little weeds. I started for the tool shed to arm myself, but of course Casey gently pried the hoe from my hand and led me back to the couch so I could finish watching the Poledark. At my follow up appointment, Casey tattled on me to the Dr. for my attempts at weeding. I know. He loves me and was looking out for my health, but I was pretty upset with him. And then my Dr. - he must have figured I wasn't easily removed from the battlefield because he suggested my squatting to pull weeds would likely disembowel me. Thankfully there are five seasons of Poledark, and June was a very rainy month. Once I recovered, I tried to fight back with it, arming myself with my favorite tool - the action hoe. But by this time, the garden had gone wild; it was a jungle. The girls had weeded some. Casey had faithfully watered it. You know what though, although it seemed a mess, it also produced a wonderful harvest and was beautiful regardless of the weeds growing out of control. Isn't that realization the aim of solitude, and in some ways, what gardening is all about anyway?

There are many other subjects to share about in future posts - from companion planting and composting to my favorite resources and blogs. Gardening is truly a labor of love, and while hard, is not that difficult to get started. You just have to try it! I Growing your own food, herbs, and flowers is a worthwhile endeavor, now more than ever.

I hope you will plant some seeds this spring and at the very least look up some recipes for zucchini.

With love from the Red Barn



Photo credits to my dear friends Jeremiah and Rachel Spray photography

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