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Demystifying Gardening Myths


Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
~ Confucius

This post is dedicated to all those who garden out of love, to all the grandmas and grandpas in the world who garden without Youtube or college courses or even books, to all those new to gardening and to all those whose lives may be changed forever if only they start gardening…

Nasturtium leaves and flowers and borage blue flowers from my garden...ready to eat!
Nasturtium leaves and flowers and borage blue flowers from my garden…ready to eat!

I don’t understand why some groups make things they do to seem “complex”: it may be their zeal to keep some sort of “professionalism” or be seen as “experts” or that nonsense of “I took many years and mistakes to learn this, why should I make it easy for you?”…

I’ve seen many people scared of gardening or just keeping themselves away from gardening because each time they try to “spy” into it, they start reading (or hearing) strange words and complicated methods that include measures, times of the year and day and amounts of this and that they have to use…and then, when you see the gardens of those “experts” what you see is boring rows of things, some growing with no reason (not even beauty), like plastic and perfect copies of other gardens and orchards or farmland: clean, cookie-cut and ready to pass the “quality control” test…

Crazy plot in my community garden...here are my chamomile and leetuce mixed with calendulas and carrots
Crazy plot in my community garden…here are my chamomile and leetuce mixed with calendulas and carrots

I have been “gardening” and growing food on and off all my life.

While I took an “Organic master gardener” course last year (2013) and a PDC (Permaculture Design certificate), I still lack many of the “skills” such as plant ID…

However, I have never had any big issues with gardening and look with surprise when people approach it with anxiety. It also makes me upset when “gardeners” try to overwhelm beginners making them feel inferior…

I currently have two main “gardens”: one is at home and mostly in containers as I live in a small townhouse in the suburbs. I grow herbs (various types of basil, oregano, rosemary, cilantro, sage, thyme, various types of mints, parsley, garlic, lemon balm, valerian, chamomile, red, yellow and green onions, Echinacea, dill and fennel), some vegetables (many types of kale, lettuce, bok and gai lan, mustard greens, etc), tubers (potatoes), “fruits” (strawberries, tomatoes…), edible flowers (nasturtiums, borage, calendulas, marigolds…) and many, many pollinator attractors/companion plants (some same as above, plus forget-me-nots, comfrey, money plant, sweet William…)

Small greenhouse and containers with anything we need...making use of small spaces
Small greenhouse and containers with anything we need…making use of small spaces

The other is my community garden plot, probably the craziest among the plots (everybody else has all in rows and very well organized, except me!) Here I’m a bit more playful and have already grown many green salads and stir-fries green leaves such as bok choi and gai lan, endivias and all kinds of lettuce and mustards, watercress and many of the herbs I also have at home…I am still waiting for the beans, peas, zucchinis, squash, corn, carrots, leeks and onions…but you can see them showing bigger and beautiful-er here:

Corn, beans, peas and squash coming...
Corn, beans, peas and squash coming…

 

Last week I was chatting with one of my clients and she shared how people (especially children) in her home country would depend so much on government subsidies and help as they were chronically in the brink of starvation: children would faint or sleep at school, sometimes skipping school for days because of hunger. Storms and other climate change related factors were taking away their livelihoods and many of these peoples have been displaced from the countryside long time ago, losing their access to land, seeds and even forgetting how to grow their own food. Some have been raised with the idea that they are dependent and need exterior help (government, agencies) and have been so disempowered that they see themselves as unable to care for themselves and their families.

When she told me she would send a day of her salary to feed some of the children in the back-home school where she used to teach, I suggested why she wouldn’t teach them to garden and buy, instead, seeds and tools (many do have access to public land or even balconies and small patios, and in the worse case, the school and the church both have land)…then she told me that they were so hungry that they wouldn’t wait for the seeds to germinate and wouldn’t even worry to grow them…

In my heart I thought: “how I wish I could travel there. I may bring some food for immediate needs, but would observe their landscape and lives, would talk to them and ask questions, and would eventually suggest to grow food…maybe grow something myself and share…trying local crops that work there, and organizing exchanges and sharing of seeds, crops and potlucks…”

I suggested this idea to my client and she liked it…”what if…” and a dream started…

Just imagine what a small corner in a balcony can provide...even potatoes!
Just imagine what a small corner in a balcony can provide…even potatoes!
A corner in the world may be your grocery store, your pharmacy, your healing space, your food security, emergency preparedness and potluck place to meet family and friends...
A corner in the world may be your grocery store, your pharmacy, your healing space, your food security, emergency preparedness and potluck place to meet family and friends…

Plants need very basic things. Yes, there is a whole science developed with dozens, if not centuries, years of gardening, observing, experimenting and trying. But that doesn’t mean that anybody (including children) shouldn’t be allowed or encouraged to grow things…

Here are my very, very basic tips for those who are afraid of gardening:

  • Observe what is already there: what is growing in your garden? Where the sun comes from? Where the main winds? Are there any trees or shrubs? What happens in the soil when it rains? Are there slopes or natural ponds? Are there weeds? What type?
  • Start slow and small: I never follow this myself, but it is better to start with easier plants (those that grow well in your climate/region). In my case, I add two or three crops each year and may skip one or two that didn’t do that well or just for variety. This year I am experimenting with more herbs and trying potatoes and corn for the first time…
  • Grow what you eat: we tend to be more caring and loving if we like the harvest: I don’t eat/like cabbage that much, but I do love eggplants, artichokes and asparagus, so I’ll try them next year (although asparagus may take up to two-three years to be well established and able to harvest)
  • Mix them: plants love each other and many like to be crowded. You don’t see much isolated plants in Nature and there is a reason for that: if you isolate plants or grow the same in rows, you are doing three bads: 1) good bugs won’t come as they like variety, 2) bad bugs will come as they like that dinner is served without any predator around and no other crops to confuse them and 3) is boring and ugly (sorry!)
  • Interplant/crop with herbs and flowers: better if they are perennials: many flowers and herbs confuse bad bugs, attract the good ones add/fix nitrogen to the soil and beauty to the garden…and many are edible or medicinal!
  • Cover the soil! We are losing topsoil because of many factors, but also naked soil is an invitation for weeds (I do like weeds, but not as an invasion!) and an absolute waste of resources and space: check Nature: there is no bare soil anywhere except on deserts: everywhere, Nature covers the soil with grass, plants, trees, shrubs or fallen leaves…you can use cover crops (clover, hairy vetch, rye, buckwheat, fava beans, alyssum, barley…) some are for winter and some for intercropping in spring and summer, like alyssum (I love it!) but you also can use flowers of all types…
  • The best sun for us in the Northern Hemisphere is coming from the south. If you have a yard, balcony or window facing south that’s the best…
  • Plants need between 3-6 hours of direct sun, some may need more (such as basil and tomatoes) and some less (such as most of the greens: lettuces, kales and chois)
  • Mulch: cover the soil with grass clippings, straw, pecan shells, eggshells (smashed), leaves (of anything but not diseased plants, better if you can use comfrey or borage leaves). You can also mulch with shredded newspapers, woodchips or little stones, manure and compost. As always in life, use it with moderation and observe what’s happening: any changes on the plants? Soil? Soil life?
  • Watering: you can use many solutions: from harvesting rain water from your roof or any other surface (and then using this for watering or designing a system where this water is diverted to your garden and can also be locked); you can also bury ceramic or terracotta pots and allow them to catch the rain water and “filter” slowly to your plant roots, or you can use a normal hose, dripping irrigation or a watering can…
  • Watering: do not water every day and try watering early in the morning but if that is not possible, try in the late afternoon. In any case, avoid sprinklers or watering from the top…
  • The main thing plants need is healthy soil: forget about Ph (at least at the beginning of your journey) and just compost all you can from the kitchen and rest of harvest…I have never tested my soils Ph but have excellent results…including the help supplied by my worms and my composting bins.
  • Use the yields of your garden: eat and enjoy what you have…share the surplus and use the rest to compost and start again next year. Any surpluses can be canned, dehydrated, made in oils and teas or freeze.
  • Enjoy your garden: I spend a few minutes “working” in the garden. My “weeding” is almost nonexistent and fun: I wonder why a weed is where it is and what it is, sometimes I may allow some weeds to stay, as they have a function to fulfil. I only spend half an hour a week on my community garden plot, may need a bit more when it is full production. The rest is just relax and observe the bugs and the flowers and the life in the soil or just sitting there and marvel at life: how against all odds it thrives and succeeds!

It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.”
~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

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