February might be brown and cold here in Pennsylvania, but colorful seed packets are arriving in the mail and I'm beginning to dream about gardening.
There is a danger in dreams. I've watched gardeners turn over soil and plant seeds in May with hopeful optimism. But too often those same gardeners throw up their hands in despair three months later as the August weeds put the death-choke on their plants.
Sometimes that gardener has been me.
What can I do to help insure a successful garden this year?
This past year I watched two beginning gardens. Both were located on a road that I travel often. I don't know if this was the gardeners first garden, but in both cases, they started with a bare stretch of lawn and turned it into a lush garden. From driving past on the road, I couldn't tell how much they harvested from their garden, but both gardens were obviously cared for throughout the season.
Here are a few of my observations of these two gardens and the tips I've gleaned from my own gardening experiences.
1. Dream within Reality
Neither of these gardens were large. I might be a poor judge of distance, but I'd guess the one as a 10 by 20 foot plot. The other garden consisted of four raised beds maybe 3 by 6 feet. They did not turn their entire yard into a garden. They didn't plant a market garden. I have seen many beginning gardeners fail because of planning too large of a garden.
A wise gardener will plan realistically, which is more difficult than it seems in the spring. It is easy to forget the reality of August, when the weeds, heat, and bugs conspire against the most hardy gardener.
Last year I purposely planted a smaller garden. I knew I would have a six-month-old baby in August and I decided that it wasn't the year to break records.
I didn't regret that decision.
While the two gardens I observed last year were small, they appeared to be well-maintained, which will give courage to plant a garden next year, and maybe, with a little experience under dirty fingernails, the gardener can successfully extend its size.
Planning a smaller garden will also help make sure you are planting wisely. Why plant zucchini if you hate it? Or ten tomato plants if all you want is a few cherry tomatoes for your salad? Evaluate what you already eat and don't pretend you will suddenly acquire a love for eggplant.
2. Have a Plan, And Do It
Both gardeners that I watched last spring obviously had a plan. They didn't walk out to their yard one day, dig a hole, push some green bean seeds in the ground, and hope they would grow.
One of the gardens actually began the year before. One Saturday in late summer Ed and I drove by this yard where a man was busy at work with a shovel and wheelbarrow. It appeared as if he was removing the sod. We made guesses about what he was doing. Planting a tree? Building a shed? But after a few weeks it appeared that the project was abandoned. A neat rectangle section of sod had been removed but there were no further signs of progress.
A few weeks later Ed mentioned that it appeared that they were layering grass clippings and leaves on this section of bare earth. Throughout the fall, more leaves and more grass clippings were added and we guessed that this spot was meant for a future garden. Sure enough, in the spring, this new garden was planted. Those months of adding mulch and a winter for it to decompose would have made a wonderful rich planting bed in the spring. The summer appearance of the garden proved the gardener was rewarded for his efforts in planning a whole season before planting his garden.
The other gardener I watched last year prepared four raised beds. They were simple wooden beds, narrow enough to reach into the middle easily. Again, the work of preparing this garden was resulted in lovely growing conditions.
3. Sit and Enjoy
I've long been a proponent of "walk your garden." In other words, spend regular time in your garden, both to enjoy it and recognize problems while they are still small.
But maybe I should change that to "sit in your garden." The gardener with the raised beds placed a bench beside the garden. They also planted perennials, maybe herbs, nearby. The garden was directly beside the house and certainly added beauty to the home's landscape.
The other garden didn't have a bench beside it, but I often saw a small child's riding toy in the yard and a large deck was nearby. My impression was that these were people who spent time outdoors.
If you plant a garden, find ways to enjoy it. Take your coffee outside and listen to the robins at dawn. Or carry out a lawn chair and watch the bats come out to eat the mosquitos at sunset.
There are many ways to provide food for your family. A garden is not a necessity for most of us. So keep it manageable, plan well for your success, so you can sit and enjoy it in August.
If you find ways to enjoy your garden, you are more likely to have positive memories to make you spend your brown February days planning the success of your next garden.
What are your tips to a successful garden? Or am I the only one who is dreaming of gardening?
For more garden info, check out our garden page.