Welcome, Ed Bruske fans! We're fans here, too.
If you're new to our site, you should know that we write a lot about vegetable gardening because we're interested in the politics and the environmentals of gardening of all kinds. And because some of us think life's most important question is "What's for dinner?"
Of course, others members of the class are bored to tears about constantly having to discuss the provenance of every sandwich. You see, we invite dissent here at Garden Rant headquarters and distrust orthodoxy.
But if we're going to respect you as a backyard grower, you're going to have to follow a few rules.
- Smile. Vegetable gardening is profoundly enjoyable. The explosive growth of most vegetable crops from tiny seed to beautiful plant to gorgeous meal within a few short months is one of nature's great miracles. It's a democratic miracle, too. You don't have to have be able to offer infinite sums of money, time, or labor in order to participate in it. All you need is a little soil, sun, and water and a few packets of seeds, and you're on your way to one of the great, universal human experiences.
- Understand that there are no rules. There is no scientific consensus on even the most simple issues in backyard garden-making. (All the research money since time immemorial has gone to Big Ag instead.) And given the complexity of the average cup of garden soil, which contains more different species than there are in the entire world of plants and vertebrates that live above the ground, there may never be any consensus. So whatever advice you get about beginning your garden, be aware that it's empirical and not absolute. And what the empirical evidence suggests is that conditions always vary. What works in Phoenix, AZ does not work in Buffalo, NY. What works for your retired neighbor won't necessarily work for you if you have umpteen little kids and a job. Consider the garden a voyage of discovery and don't let the experts intimidate you.
- Admit that the principles are simple. Most vegetable crops are annuals, and they need a soil rich in organic matter to do their exploding growth trick. They also need full sun. (You cannot fudge this one, even if you are a fantastic gardener like my partner Susan Harris.) They need water when it's dry, particularly when they are tiny, shallow-rooted seedlings. Take care of those three things, and you will probably be a success.
- Try to think of a healthy garden as an ecosystem, and get out of nature's way. Why use bagged fertilizer to feed your plants, when your soil is full of creatures that will happily feed the plants for you, as you long as you give them some organic matter for lunch? That organic matter can take the form of composted manure, kitchen compost, fall leaves, rotted hay or straw, wood chips, whatever's handy in whatever combination. While you generally have to plow once to make a garden in a timely way, why dig annually, when the worms are willing to dig for you? Apply your organic matter once a year as a thick mulch and then have a beer. That mulch will cut way back on the watering and weeding all season. It will turn your ugly clay or sand into loam, correct your pH, cure your depression, and make you as pretty as Leighton Meester.
- Think of insects and diseases as symptoms not causes, and put away your potions and powders. If your soil is good and there is still some problem you can't control by squishing a few bugs or rotating your crops, just assume you are growing the wrong thing in the wrong spot at the wrong moment and try something else.
- That said, don't be a fool. Fence if you need to. No beginning gardener should be subjected to the kind of tragic discouragement that
hungry gophers or fat groundhogs can bring. Ask around. If there are going
to be competitors for your wares, put up a mechanical barrier or get a dog with big teeth. Neither one has to be expensive to work.
- Don't be fatuous. If you are complete beginner and spend thousands of dollars on backyard grading or an irrigation system or stonework to make your garden and umpteen hours taking utterly unnecessary pains–and then draw the conclusion that vegetable gardening is expensive and difficult and best left to professionals, we will mock you mercilessly here. You can make a wonderful garden for almost nothing and manage even a big garden, once it's made, in a few hours a week. The money and time you spend on your vegetable garden says more about YOU than it does about the nature of vegetable gardening.
- Be a wild man. If you are an adventuresome eater, here's your chance. Even Anthony Bourdain, wandering the world in search of the interesting meal, doesn't have more dining choices than a vegetable gardener. The enablers are out there, namely incredible seed companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Fedco Seeds that will sell you a camel ride or Everest climb for $2 a package. So go insane, grow the weird and wonderful and hairy. While you're at it, try parsnips.
- Make it pretty–why not? Most vegetables are annuals. While they can be mighty impressive in September, they don't look much in the spring. So it's helpful, for the sake of beauty, to add some architectural features, as well as permanent plantings in the form of shrubs or fruit trees. And I love flowers in the vegetable garden. Annual flowers like sweetpeas, zinnias, and poppies, as well as tubers and corms like dahlias and gladioli that are treated like annuals, are highly compatible with vegetables, since they appreciate the same steady moisture and rich soil to do their own exploding growth trick.
- Congratulate yourself on even imperfect successes. Nature's got the upper hand here and even the most experienced growers suffer years when it's too cold for melons or too hot for fava beans. The saving grace is that even in the worst years, something is sure to do well. The vegetable garden is excellent training for life, which is never satisfying in every single aspect, but worth celebrating for its spotty beauty nonetheless.