Relax. The rules of gardening were made to be broken.
Yesterday, I had a cup of coffee with my neighbour who does not garden because she feels she doesn’t know enough. She mows. She weeds. She hides out from her garden when she doesn’t want to do these things. Her garden is her enemy, and she doesn’t plant anything.
This was distressing for me. I went out and bought her a packet of radish seeds, “Just put them in the ground and stand back,” I said. As we talked, I realized how much she wanted to garden, but how fear was preventing her. She was frightened of not being good enough, and isn’t that the most corrosive thing, in gardening as in life?
As I walked back to my own patch of weeds and chaos, I began to compose (or was that compost?) the basic rules of gardening, according to me.
There are no commandments. Just as nobody raises a child by following a child care book to the letter, nobody builds a garden by following commandments. Just accept the cycle of life, death and screw-ups.
Have fun. If you get a kick out of the exotic shape of a cactus, go for it. Like garden gnomes? Get some.
Decide what sort of garden you want. What do you want to do in your garden? Entertain, relax, make love, make mud pies or play backyard football? Make the garden you want, not the one the neighbors think you should have.
Look at your space and your time, and come to some reasonable settlement between reality and the second and third commandments. Then allow yourself to feel OK about this.
Think about your climate. Walk around your neighborhood looking at when the long-time residents plant out their seedlings, and what they plant. Don’t rely on plant labels, which tend to be too optimistic.
Know your soil. No short cut here, I’m afraid. The main thing to know is whether your soil is acidic or alkaline. You can get a cheap soil-testing kit for this at many nurseries. Unless you like self-punishment, don’t try to grow prize-winning camellias in alkaline soil or prize-winning onions in acidic soil.
Look after your soil. Almost any soil problem can be fixed, and usually the answer is earthworms, which means organic matter. Mulch with abandon; you can even use newspaper.
Watch the light. Plan if you wish, but for most of us, garden plans are made to be broken. However, it is a good idea to know where the light falls. Sit in the garden (preferably with a cup of coffee, or a beer, whichever you prefer) and watch the sun and shade.
Remember that things grow. You won’t do this, of course. I don’t know a single gardener who hasn’t at some stage over-planted a big tree too close to something. And be prepared to thin out seedlings.
Trust nature and go softly. Don’t assume that every problem requires panic and massive intervention. Things were growing in the world for a long while before human beings came along. Most things, pushed in soil, will grow. And isn’t that a wonderful thing?
Tip: Forgive and Forget
When you break a commandment, forgive yourself and don’t turn your back on the garden. Remember, you need it more than it needs you.
Jeffery Petersen is an Australian freelance food and travel writer living in Montana.