How to Keep On Gardening When Things Get Tough

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Picking apples

Results from a recent survey conducted by the Garden Writers Foundation found that about 7.7 million Americans grew their first food gardens last year. A similar trend is unfolding in the UK, where up to 100,000 would-be gardeners are on allotment waiting lists. To ease this gap, the Royal Horticultural Society’s Grow Your Own Campaign is encouraging the creation of new allotment plots at the workplace. What a fabulous idea!

Along with all this good news are dropout numbers which I find disturbing. After trying edible gardening for one season, over 70,000 people in the Garden Writers survey were ready to give up. Their reasons were far from new. Writing in 1975, the county agent for Richland County, Washington summed up the problem like this: "beginners tend to plant too large a garden, lack a garden plan, and fail to commit to regular maintenance."

Small garden

The Advantages of Starting Small

When I came across this gem a 2006 thread in GardenWeb’s Pennsylvania Gardening forum, it made me laugh:
Me + large vegetable garden = failed experiment

This is an all too common equation! At the same time, if you’ve never grown a food garden before, how can you know how much is too much?

In my experience, the first year of gardening is best used as a learning year. One season will teach you truckloads about your soil, weather, and how plants grow. If you think of each crop as a college course, it’s easy to see why new gardeners should not try to juggle more than five or six subjects in their first season. Or, simply limit your space. In my new book, Starter Vegetable Gardens, the basic layouts for nana-newbie gardeners include only three beds.

Broccoli in cloches made from plastic bottles

Making a Plan

From crop choices to where and when you plant what, GrowVeg is all about creating a sound garden plan. If you’re a new gardener, you also need local information about which vegetables are especially easy to grow in your climate. For example, growing tomatoes in Louisville, Kentucky, is much easier than growing them in London, but the opposite is true of carrots and spinach. This is where allotment and community gardeners have an advantage, because you can watch other people’s plots to see what grows especially well. If you build your plan around veggies and herbs that are proven performers in your area, you can look forward to a successful season.

Winners Never Quit

As the saying goes, winners never quit and quitters never win. If you abandon a garden to weeds and never bother to thin, water, or mulch, you will not have a pleasing harvest. Why a person quits or fails may be related, but they are not the same. Failure can be due to many factors beyond your control like bad weather or hungry rabbits, but one must decide to quit. This is the right choice for people who discover that gardening is not in their blood, but for the rest of us it’s important to pick up your spade and try again. Keep your first garden small and commit to a spending a few hours each week keeping it up, and you will get a handsome return on your time and trouble.

Would you like to do your part to lower the gardening dropout rate? If you have words of wisdom for new gardeners who need a gentle push to get their gardens going, please take a few minutes to share them below.

By Barbara Pleasant

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"One just has to put in the hours! Our neighbouring allotment-holder didn't do so last year (was hardly seen at all!) and cropped nothing (except for a large number of weeds which seeded onto our land). Instead of making the decision to try harder - or even be honest with himself and give up - he appears to have renewed his subscription BUT STILL hasn't done anything this year. It drives us mad! Sorry for rant, but it is SO frustrating - especially when we could work his land as well as our own (we'd then have room for strawberries, vines, and other exciting things in addition to the many things we're already growing). But "the system" has to be followed through (warning letter, three months, another warning letter, he visits and half-heartedly strims the weeds down then doesn't come again for 6 months, warning letter ... you follow!)."
Sharon Moncur on Friday 5 March 2010
"I don't think the reasons are always so clear-cut. Allotments are often quite some distance away. This means petrol miles and carbon offsetting take away from the efforts of growing your own. Despite the fact that there is actually some piece of law that states if there is demand the council has an obligation to create an allotment in that area - but they don't. Then you have the scallies that break your greenhouse glass, and into your shed, destroying your work and stealing your tools and so on. It is for this reason my tools are in my house and my back garden is my allotment, but still they come and rip up your gardening. There have been several instances now of neighbours trying to tell them off, only to find their car tyres slashed and wing mirrors broken. And I live in a good part of town! For me the key to success is keeping it manageable (for myself) and enjoying the satisfaction of other enjoying my food I have grown. We need a shift in societies' attitudes, and it's people like us that is making it turn in a responsible direction. Well Done, Us!"
Kevin Hannan on Friday 5 March 2010
"I am so fortunate to have plenty of space on our 1/3-acre lot (although a good third of that is on a north-facing drop-off or cliff). Over a 30-year period I also have invested steadily so I finally have all the basic tools, equipment and supplies to grow a nice variety of veggies in last year's 10-foot by 30-foot raised bed and numerous flower beds. Our lot is situated on top of a steep slope a few hundred feet above the river valley floor with microclimates from zones 5-6 and frost sometimes into June. But with three nice composters, bird netting for our cherry tree, grow lights in the basement, those wonderful plastic flats of soil to start seeds in, a small fiberglass greenhouse, cold frame, black and clear poly sheeting and a caregiving career in my home, I'm eagerly looking forward to another summer's crop of fresh vegetables and fruits."
Clarice McKenney on Friday 5 March 2010
"I agree with Barbara that most folks quit becvause they took on too much to begin with, and didn't realise the work involved. On a colder than normal morning it's hard to drag myself out to the garage to turn on the seedling lights and on a really hot day (it can reach 105 here) I have to force myself outside to be sure the watering system is enough moisture for the plants. Then there's the wind, should I brave it and try to put up some protection for the recently planted seedlings or trust that what I've already done is enough? And those things are in addition to going out one fine morn to find that a gopher has pulled all my parsley underground, the birds have pulled out the pea seedlings, etc! So, starting small seems to be very helpful. Plant as close to the house as possible, so you can see it often and make adjustments daily, start with practically guaranteed- to-grow seeds, and read everything you can get your hands on about gardening. I've gleaned so much knowledge from so many sources, every year it's a little easier based on what I learned the previous year. And bear in mind some years, you are fighting a lost cause, other years for no discernable reason, everything comes up roses. Have patience and faith in yourself and your ability to learn this important and enjoyable skill. "
Gerrie on Friday 5 March 2010
"If you love your allotment or veg patch you are motivated to put the work in. I can find an hour in the gym absolute torment but three hours digging speeds by without a care in the world. For some however it is the IDEA of growing your own that they fall in love with. Sadly this is a brief romance doomed to failure.Luckily these days there is always another potential partner waiting in the wings ready to take up their spade with a song in their heart and a glint in their eye. As long as growing your own veg remains high profile and people are aware that it is an option available to them attrition rates should not be a worry."
michelle manning on Saturday 3 April 2010
"I agree with Michelle Manning that it's all about motivation, and I would add that love for the "soil" is an all-important motivator. I planted my first vegetable garden at our ranch when my daughter was only a year old (she's 41 now, but she's never liked "playing in the dirt," as she called my gardening endeavors). We had about 5,000 acres back then, when her father was a wheat and cattle rancher. Forty years later and a divorce brought me to my mountainside third of an acre, but I'm still raising vegetables. The terrain and weather here near the Canadian border are real challenges, but overcoming those has been a motivator for me, too. Yesterday, during a cold day that alternated between sleet and snow, my husband and I bent our 10-foot long apple tree prunings into arches to keep the clear plastic sheets off our little seedlings. We actually felt tremendous satisfaction when we had finished (in spite of the exhaustion, but it was from exercise we needed, anyway). That process was the latest in a series of projects that have resulted in a viable vegetable garden. Three years ago we began hauling large rock from local mountains, stacking it into a 10-foot by 30-foot oval to a height a foot above useless ground that would not even grow grass. Then we hand shoveled into it three loads of garden soil and a load of dry, rotted horse manure, built an entry and carved a curved path through the center. Chicken wire I installed last month helps keep our Dachshunds, cats and neighborhood skunks out. Last year's garden was our "learning year," as Ms. Pleasant put it. We enjoyed peas, beans, beets, squash and lettuce and recently finished off the frozen and canned batches (they were our "five subjects)." The carrots and corn were disasters, but a trip to our extension office and master gardener helped me plan better for this year. We're facing a drought because of unusually low snowpack this winter, but I have a good supply of drip and soaker hoses and two new, drip-free yard spigots to help with that. I have planted twice as many varieties this year, but the first thing I did at the end of winter was to install homemade supports for peas, beans and tomatoes, so I'm feeling much better prepared. Time will tell, but I always learn the most from my failures. "
Clarice McKenney on Sunday 4 April 2010
"Luckily, gardening is in my blood - I started when I was a little kid, using a small patch in my father's huge garden. My summer chores included picking beans and selling strawberries. I grew up with homegrown vegetables on the table all year round, so naturally I wanted to continue that. It is a tremendous amount of work, but well worth having fresh, clean, healthy food whenever you want it, not to mention feeding your family in the best possible way. I usually grow 30-50 varieties of vegetables, and about 15 herbs. The fun is learning new things and trying different crops each year. I've dropped melons and corn after many years, but picked up potatoes, I plan to try sweet potatoes again next year, now that I've gotten some good tips for the Northeast. I still have much to learn and new ideas to implement. My daughter didn't want to garden as a kid, but now loves having tomatoes and herbs in her window boxes. The important thing is to just do as much as you can- start small and expand a little each year. Gardening is great meditative work and good exercise too-"
Anita on Monday 2 August 2010
"I'm like Anita. Gardening was what people did in my family. My Father did it, my Grandfather did it and for all I know for generations back the family always gardened. That made it real easy for me in a way. But even so... the key that was mentioned is to start small and make gardening a pleasure. That way you will find success and not drudgery. I msut say I am most impressed with folks that have no family tradition of gardening who pick up the shovel and hoe to grow their own. I am especially impressed if they have a communal or allotment space that really isn't their own they slave over that may be some distance from their homes. Blessings on all gardeners but perhaps jsut a little extra for those folks. "
Bill in Ontario Canada on Wednesday 9 January 2013

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