Foolproof Gardening Tips from a Not-So-Pro

I am a writer by trade. My forte is words but much of my job involves interviewing experts and learning all that I can about a subject. Sometimes that means increased mastery in a particular area. Sometimes it means better informed delusions of grandeur. As a gardening writer, I’ve had examples of both. So here are my tips and tricks that I’ve learned after years of interviewing, researching and writing about how to grow things successfully. I failed so you don’t have to.

• Join a CSA or find a favorite farmer’s market. I say this because in the first few years of gardening, things are tough. It’s a steep learning curve and nearly everyone makes an amateur mistake or two. If you are depending on your fledgling garden for sustenance, hedge your bets a little. Heck, you can even take those gorgeous heirloom tomatoes and go drop them in the dirt under your struggling plants. Just make sure that you ‘pick’ them before the squirrels get them.

• Be realistic about where you are gardening. I dream of overflowing beds of zucchini and tomatoes. I’ve searched out beautiful heirloom varieties of French melons. You know what grows in my garden? Kale and green beans. There is one type of cherry tomato so tenacious that it will thrive but the rest of the $80 in heirloom plants that I try to coax to life in my shady patch of yard are merely suggestions before they whither. If you don’t have full sun, plan accordingly.

• Realize that you have entered into a full-scale war with squirrels, rabbits, and a world of insects. I don’t have a gun, but I have contemplated getting one, just to target the squirrels that, if fate should smile on me, pick the one good tomato I have going, take one bite and then leave on the other side of the yard. Rabbits, once cute and cuddly, will be seen as tiny salad usurpers. Caterpillars that we used to play with as kids will become the scourge of your existence.

• Buy some herbs. This is the gardening equivalent of buying shoes when you don’t feel good in your clothes. Herbs tend to thrive in a variety of environments. If you want a really easy base hit, buy mint. You can’t KILL mint once you’ve planted it, and for heaven’s sake, keep it contained or you’ll think you’re living in a giant mojito. At the end of the summer, when you’ve killed everything else that you spent time, effort and money on, those two basil plants that just kept producing will make you feel good about yourself. Plus, there’s nothing like throwing together a caprese salad with herbs you’ve grown yourself. The tomatoes, of course, will come from the farmer’s market.

• Realize that it takes many, many years to become a proficient gardener. Maybe this is just my experience but the people that can grow anything, anywhere tend to be older than 50. Why? Because they’ve learned after season upon season of trial and error. They know what to plant where and what to plant just because they like watching it grow. Plant some flowers along with the kale. Beauty for the eyes is just as nourishing as a tasty veggie.

    But really—find a farmer’s market. There’s too much garden goodness to miss out on until you find your knack. Happy eating!