There were plenty of things that my parents always used to tell me that I’d grow to love when I got older. In many cases, they were right. Naps, for example, are a rare delicacy. Cleaning has become oddly therapeutic over the years, and these days I enjoy vegetables. Except tomatoes. They were wrong about tomatoes.
Working in the garden was near the top of the long list of things I’d apparently only appreciate when I became an adult. My mom is a horticulturist with a penchant for perennials and my dad has an extensive vegetable garden, as well as blueberry bushes and cherry trees. My mom had enough sense not to let us kids anywhere near her immaculate flower beds. My dad, on the other hand, had no such reservations.
Our summertime chores consisted of helping to weed, water, and harvest his hard-earned bounty. I have many memories of cranking up the volume on my Walkman and brooding about how boring and unfair it was to waste a beautiful afternoon picking stupid berries I thought were gross. In fact, my brother and I used to try to sabotage the entire garden so we would be free from its clutches. While harvesting the ripe blueberries, we’d also pick the green ones and throw them into the weeds, not realizing that by doing so, we were actually just causing ourselves to stay in the garden and pick longer.
But, like most things, my parents were right about gardening. I still hate to eat tomatoes, yet I get a profound sense of satisfaction from tending them and watching them grow. I shocked even myself when one of the first things I did when I got my first place was buy some pots and plant some flowers. What wasn’t surprising: they didn’t thrive, since I had spent so much time as a child avoiding learning how to keep green things alive. But as the years went by, I learned what to plant, when to plant it, and how to keep the maniacal squirrels away (at least some of the time). I also learned how to make the most of very small planting spaces, since renting in a city usually doesn’t allow for a proper garden.
But since I’m still an amateur, my mistakes have been many and the victories have been few. The most powerful lessons I’ve learned are what not to do:
Don’t forget to plan.
You may be thinking that since you’re gardening on a smaller scale, you can throw caution to the wind and just plant however and wherever you want. (Or maybe you aren’t thinking that, because you are far wiser than I was.) The truth is, planning is key to any garden, whether it’s in pots, hanging from your railing, or in a community plot. How much space do you have? How many hours of sun does that space get? When will you be watering and fertilizing? What is the soil quality like? As you gather answers to these questions, choose your seeds accordingly and make a planting and tending strategy. You’ll be happy you did.
Don’t limit yourself to pots.
When you are limited on space, you may automatically assume pots are your best option for planting. Get creative! I’ve seen people plant in everything from beautiful old wooden wine crates to slightly less appealing cut off plastic soda bottles. If you have a balcony, use your railing. If you have a fence that receives the perfect amount of sun, put up a temporary trellis and let your sugar snap peas climb to their heart’s content. If you have a small yard, making raised beds might be your best bet. There are endless ways to make the most of your space!
Don’t be intimidated by pests.
Bugs, birds, and squirrels can be frustrating neighbors when you are trying to make plants thrive. Even deer can make an appearance and ruin your hard work, depending on where your garden is. There are seemingly endless natural and safe ways to keep wildlife at a distance, but finding what will work for your space may take a while. Some basic rules of thumb include planting things that discourage insect infestations (like marigolds and nasturtiums), using cages or netting around tempting plants like lettuce, and repelling rodents with natural hot pepper sprays. Do you have a cat or a dog? Good. If possible, let them do the work for you. Having a cat sitting on your balcony or porch will help keep even the most daring birds and squirrels from coming around.
Don’t get too disappointed.
When you spend all summer tending your beans and tomatoes only to watch some of them get decimated by a particularly vindictive squirrel, or just shrivel and die for no apparent reason, don’t dwell. Even on a balcony or in a community garden plot, it’s survival of the fittest. Sometimes, no matter how much preparation and skill we put into growing vegetables, they just don’t make it. So if the unspeakable happens, take a deep breath, shake your fist at the retreating squirrel, and roll up your sleeves. Now is the time to take note of what to do differently next season, and do what you can to nurture the survivors.
Don’t forget to enjoy.
There’s so much more to gardening than the finished product. Having the warm sun on your back and your hands in the soil is good for the soul, especially after a long and stressful day. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the potential harvest and miss the beautiful moments that lead up to it. A garden, no matter how small, can be a refuge from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Take advantage of it!
Just because you don’t have acres of land to cultivate, doesn’t mean you can’t have fresh vegetables and flowers this year. With a little bit of planning and creativity, you can have your own bountiful harvest! Just watch out for squirrels.