While in the grand scheme I’m still fairly new to gardening, the past few years have seen a gigantic leap forward both in my interest in plants and my ability to help them thrive.
I began ‘gardening’ a little over 10 years ago. Just a few pots on our apartment balcony for select culinary herbs (this was around the time when I really began trying to elevate my craft in the kitchen). I would say that I was only vaguely interested in gardening at that time. My parents had always kept a small herb garden in their backyard and I was quickly realizing that it was one of the many reasons their food always tasted so. damn. good. I also had small, warm, dream-like recollections of my grandparents’ patio garden, laden with tomatoes, peppers, carrots and radishes. At this time I had only slight notions of the joy that comes with a true reverence and knack for gardening. Anyhow- shortly after my little parsley and rosemary seedlings started growing, my downstairs neighbor (a supremely jolly bachelor/retiree with a beautiful dusty old Ford pickup truck and a very sunny demeanor) gave me a little packet of zinnia seeds.
‘Oh no,’ I protested. ‘I don’t know how to grow seeds, I just got some little plants from Home Depot’
‘Oh, anyone can grow zinnias,’ He replied easily.
‘Just plunk ‘em in the dirt, they don’t need much. PLUS, they are ‘cut-and-come-again’. That means that once the flowers bloom, you can cut them for a vase and a new one will grow right back!’
‘Seriously?!’ This had really piqued my interest-
Needless to say- the few pots on our balcony grew into a slightly larger collection of pots on the back porch of our house. A few more plant varieties gradually joined the party (mostly things requiring similar conditions), plus a zinnia here or there over the next couple years.
A few years later, my husband built us a small garden box and stuck it in the singular little patch of sun in our backyard. I painstakingly mapped out my gameplan with visions of prize-winning lettuce heads dancing on the edge of my subconscious. Sadly, almost everything I grew that year either didn’t mature OR matured but was savagely torn apart by enemy squirrels (grimaces and shakes fist). It was right around this time that another kindly neighbor entered my life. The lovely lady with whom we shared kitty-corner backyards and who had the most beautiful sprawling, Mad Hatter-type garden invited my twin daughters (probably about 3 years old at the time) to come over and pick strawberries. It was such a small thing that made such a big impact. My girls, squealing with delight, ran through our gate and into our neighbor’s magic fairy garden, excitedly asking where they would find the strawberries. We spent the better part of an hour over there, eating the amazingly sweet fruit, watching the girls prance happily through her garden and (very lucky for me) exploring about a gazillion questions regarding how to grow all this stuff, how to compost, how to fertilize, etc etc. It was a boatload of information, enthusiastically given and received. While I knew I wasn’t going to walk away from that conversation as a Master Gardener, I felt way more equipped to take my next few steps and supremely inspired to do so.
A few years (and many more educational visits with our ‘Mad Hatter Gardener’) later, one of my oldest and dearest friends reached out with a great idea- she had a nice garden space in the back of her dreamy Chicago home and had had a few seasons in which to start playing with some flowers, veggies and herbs. Her mother had been (and still is) a phenomenally talented and officially ordained ‘Master Gardener’ with the most impressive, inspiring and breathtaking collection of gardens in her hilariously large backyard in our beloved hometown. My friend suggested we take an online mastering gardening course through the U of I extension and simultaneously meet with her mother (who, besides being incredibly knowledgeable on all things gardening, also possessed an overabundance of native plants to share and teach us about). “YES! Let’s do it!’
The course not only left me with a wealth of new knowledge (as well as many new questions) but also led me to become a weekly volunteer at Honeybee Garden Farm, an amazingly cool garden/farm/market in my area. I was so lucky to get to work side by side with their resident farmer, Kevin, who patiently showed me many valuable things while simultaneously tolerating a constant barrage of questions with a smile (and his own barrage of very helpful answers). I just wrapped up the 2023 season with them and absolutely cannot wait to go back for more next year.
As the years in my home garden have passed, the garden box has become a small in-ground bed, grown into a much larger in-ground bed, that seemed to jive with the addition of MANY more pots on the back porch and all around the perimeter of our home, a south-facing raised bed came along, the addition of several types of perennial native plants seemed natural to encourage pollinators and mitigate our horrendous water retention issue and (perhaps most importantly) several types of compost have also been established.
Each year, I grow some of the things I’ve grown successfully in years past in addition to a handful of new things I’ve been excited to try out. Every season is full of small experiments that work out (or sometimes don’t). Each year I grow a little more, and some years I grow a lot. Most importantly, each year that passes leaves me with a new layer of lessons learned and a deeper need to continue onward.
We just finished putting our garden to sleep for the year. All the decaying tomato and pepper plants were pulled out at the root and composted, all of the pots were covered and put in the shed. A fresh layer of compost and leaf mulch was added to and spread over each of the beds to help it get ready for next year. I have many plans for the spring ahead and look very forward to using this at a place to document and share about it.
Recipe for next year’s success:
Before the first snow: Lay down some carrot, onion and spinach seeds in our south-facing raised bed and cover with a temporary hoop house. According to my farming mentor, these seeds can over-winter in the ground (especially with a cover to temperature control) and pop up first thing in the spring!
January/February: Select and order seeds for spring! I’ve grown very fond of Baker Creek in recent years.
March/April: Buy Pro-Mix for seed starting (a commandment level must-do from Farmer Kevin so I won’t argue) and get a few flats of frost hardy, early spring seeds germinating in my little indoor seed starting station.
Late April: Till up the beds, lay down some fertilizer and maybe this year finally set up an irrigation system so I can be done hauling hoses and watering cans all over the damn place.
Thanks so much for reading &