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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Mama Always Said...

I grew up gardening with my mum. This usually meant I dug for worms to "take-care of" (i.e. accidentally kill) while my mum gardened. We lived in New Hampshire and during the 4 days a year there wasn't snow, mud, or black-flies my brother and I spent our afternoons outside foraging for lunch amongst the berry bushes and vegetable and herb gardens.

Now that David and I have settled in a house for a few years I can finally invest in my own garden. Our landlords had already nicely landscaped the yard with shrubs and flowers, so I decided to focus my efforts on small-space urban farming using the lessons my mother taught me.

This brings us to garden tip #1: Survey the terrain. If you've just moved into a new place, take your time before planting anything in the ground. Track the sunlight, learn about the soil and grading in your yard, and see what is already planted.

Case in point: moving into my house in the Summer meant I didn't know what plants Spring would bring. Turns out there were beautiful tulips in the "blank spot" where I had planned to put my green beans.

If you absolutely cannot wait to start gardening, stick to container gardens (planters, window boxes, water gardens, etc.) for the first few months. Kale, lettuces, strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers, and herbs all do well in pots.

DENIED! Chicken wire makes this is a husky-proof space.
Once I familiarized myself with my yard, the next step was building a husky-proof enclosure. For my birthday David built me a fenced, gated garden with two 3'x5' beds and a path down the middle.

Putting the garden in the corner of our fenced-in yard meant we only had to close off two sides of the garden. However, if you do this don't forget to leave some space between the bed and the fence itself, as direct soil-to-board contact will eventually rot out the fence.

Paths between the beds make harvesting easy, while bird netting protects my crops from the rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, and birds that live along the wooded greenway behind our house.

Garden tip #2: Small budgets are no problem. The gardens of Rome weren't built in a day, and I don't care if you saw a complete, one-day landscaping makeover on HGTV. Every professional gardener will tell you their own, personal gardens were curated over time and via trial and error. Start one plant at a time and build gradually.

Closest: blueberry bush, radishes
Middle: cucumbers, purple potatoes, curly-leaf kale
Farthest: asparagus, shallots, carrots 
This year for my birthday, a year after building the original garden, David added one more bed and path. Building the garden enclosure in two stages spread out the cost, as building materials and soil can add up quickly.

Buying seeds rather than ready-to-go plants also saves money, and I recommend buying any ready-to-go plants from local farmers and gardeners. We purchased a self-pollinating blueberry bush at the farmer's market for almost half the price of the garden center plants I'd seen. Craigslist can also be a great resource for this. However, I did end up buying my herbs and tomatoes from a regular garden center.

My garden trug
Another nice thing about gardening is that the tools aren't fancy or expensive and you don't need special gear. That doesn't mean you can't have fun and accessorize, though! My mum searched far and wide for a genuine trug, i.e. harvest basket. If you've ever watched British television and someone was picking peas or cutting roses, you've seen a trug.

Garden clogs and a tool box full of trowels, twine, garden gloves, garden shears, bug spray, buck knife, and extra-nourishing hand lotion complete my kit. 

Garden tip #3: Be realistic about your space. Due to the small size of my garden I chose a trellis-friendly cucumber varietal to conserve horizontal space. I also chose fast growing vegetables such as carrots, shallots, and radishes that can be planted several times each growing season. Kale plants can be harvested all Spring and well into the Fall. This way I can grow a greater variety of items while still having fairly consistent and abundant production.

As a fan of the edible-yard movement, I have also incorporated edibles into the existing gardens out front. The dogs are not allowed out front by themselves, so these plants don't need a protective enclosure. The front stoop and back deck provide space for planters full of sage, Italian basil, mint, rosemary, dill, and Thai basil.

A blank spot provides the perfect spot for space-taking butternut squash vines.
Bush-variety green beans keep my landlord's calla lilies, hostas, and Japanese maple company.
Space between the front of the house and a row of liriope (monkey grass) called
for tomatoes and bell peppers. 
Garden tip #4: Be realistic about your timeline. My house is a rental and we only plan to stay in Knoxville for another year or two until we finish our doctoral degrees. This means I want fast growing plants that will produce yields quickly. Planting fruit trees or installing a grape arbor would be a waste of money. Also, don't forget to ask your landlord if gardening is okay! If you own your home or have no intentions of moving in the next 10+ years, treat your garden like the investment it is and remember lesson #2...slow and steady, folks!

Garden tip #5: Expect failures and "well, crap!" moments. 
My first crop of radishes didn't form bulbs, as the neighbor's shrub grew about 4 feet and cast more shade than I had expected in that corner. I planted them in a different spot the second time, and put more shade-tolerate items in the original spot. I also planted asparagus last year not realizing it takes a few years to mature. I have my fingers crossed for next year, and in the meantime the juvenile fronds are pretty. But this is all normal and part of the process. If you didn't screw something up, it means you didn't learn anything new. Take mistakes as a sign of personal growth.

Enjoying your bounty:
Half the fun of gardening is coming up with creative ways to use your bounty and producing as little waste as possible. Kale, radish greens, and carrots tops can be made into delicious "superfood" pesto that keeps for months in canning jars. Both the tops and the bulbs of shallots are edible, and the flowers on my radishes, butternut squash, basil, and dill provide tasty and pretty garnishes. Word on the street is that basil flowers also make great tea, but I have yet to try it. Any parts that aren't used are composted, allowing the circle of life to keep on keeping on!

A friend once joked that I should use the bugs that come in on my harvests for extra protein, butI think I'll reserve that idea for apocalypse-type survival needs.

In the meantime, I'll keep plugging away at what I happily call "Bellemeade Farm," following the rules my mama taught me and dreaming of the day I can have chickens and fruit trees.


  1. Your taught me about gardening in pots. This year I planted lavender, tarragon and mint with the heliotrope and Mexican heather. My garden smells lovely! And as a bonus I can sit outside with my gin and tonic, reach over and pluck an herb of choice and create my own craft cocktail!

  2. Your taught me about gardening in pots. This year I planted lavender, tarragon and mint with the heliotrope and Mexican heather. My garden smells lovely! And as a bonus I can sit outside with my gin and tonic, reach over and pluck an herb of choice and create my own craft cocktail!

    1. It's a circle of knowledge giving, mama!