No matter how much we try to advise, change, coerce, convince, or cajole one another (and ourselves), real change takes its own sweet time. I see this in world affairs and I see it in myself at home. When I started gardening, I flat-out ignored a lot of very good advice—advice that would have brought me what I wanted a lot sooner—had I followed it.
So why didn’t I? A whole bunch of reasons. Impatience. Feeling overwhelmed. Contradictory opinions. Endless possibilities. The need to process information in my own way, at my own speed, and learn from hands-on experience. And did I mention being impatient?
Here’s some examples of garden advice I now follow and share but could not embrace at the start:
1. Improve the soil first.
- When I started gardening, like many people, I wanted it all and I wanted it now. In reality, my budget was $100 a year and I was determined to stretch it as far as I could.
- To me, that meant buy as many plants as you can and hope for the best. But every experienced gardener who saw my horrendous (clay, clay, clay, slope, clay) growing conditions told me otherwise: before you put one plant or seed in the ground, you’ve got to improve the soil first or your plants will not thrive.
- Use every penny you’ve got to add compost and more compost, then you can think about adding plants. In other words, the health of the garden is all about the health of the soil.
It took me years of struggle with unhappy plants to see the practical wisdom in those words. But looking back, there’s no way I could have summoned the patience to just plump up my soil for the first year or two without adding any plants. So, excellent advice—for other people who don’t need physical proof to believe something. My early plants died, ironically providing expensive compost with their corpses, and things gradually began to thrive. Today, I compost, compost, compost.
TIP: If you’re afraid a compost bin will attract rats, this one by Mantis is a good solution.
2. Focus on the natural diversity of your garden, rather than treating specific pests.
Many of us start gardening in new subdivisions where nature has been stripped away to build houses. When the houses are ready, topsoil is dumped down over the builder’s rubble, sod is rolled out, and they call it a yard.
We start introducing plants and wonder why so many ‘pests’ attack our few plants. What else can they do? We’ve taken away their entire habitat!
Early on, I would see a shrub struggling or insects all over a plant and my reflex was to eradicate the pests. Thankfully I was strong-armed by someone who suggested I stand back and look at the bigger picture. Until you re-build some diversity in the garden, there will be gross imbalances. I can endlessly treat symptoms with pesticides/herbicides/insecticides (that kill not just the “pests” but the beneficial insects as well), or accept that some plants don’t have what it takes to survive and focus on practices that build a stronger garden (again, good soil, plants that tolerate my environment, diversity).
Thankfully I listened to that one, probably because it required buying plants.
TIP: Find a good resource on organic gardening to learn how to manage your garden in a sustainable and environmentally-beneficial way.
3. Encourage native plants.
The three biggest foes of nature these days are climate change, pollution, and the invasion of non-native plants and animals. Removed from the food chain or life cycle of their natural environment, non-native species can be extraordinarily invasive and destructive.
When you have a garden, you are already tampering with nature, attempting to control, cultivate, and convince plants to do things in un-natural ways. As consumers, we have access to a lot of plants that are not native to our areas and in some cases hazardous. It takes time to learn which plants benefit one’s garden and which ones do not. Native plants are great choices because they thrive without invading or requiring coddling and provide essential habitat.
While my new garden is still low on native plants, I’m very cautious with my plant choices, doing my homework to prevent any regretful bloopers like I did with these invasive plants when I was just starting out.
TIP: Local extension offices and conservation authorities are excellent resources to find information on plants native to your area and invasive species to avoid.
4. Use raised beds to escape bad soil.
I don’t know why I resisted this one for so long. I wish I had a dollar for every person who suggested it. Raised beds solved a number of problems at my old garden. When I finally installed them on the sloped front yard in full sun and was able to grow vegetables for the first time. You only have to add enough soil and compost to fill the box, they stop erosion, they protect the plants, and nibblers like rabbits won’t jump into them if they can’t see over the top.
Now I’m a raised bed fanatic. I’ve got eight of them. I use them for year round vegetable growing, adding lids for cold weather protection. You can also create a pond in a raised bed.
TIP: Your choice of building material for raised beds is important. See The Best Wood for Raised Beds for information on sustainable choices.
What took me so long? I don’t know. But I’m here now, probably ignoring a whole bunch more good advice—in gardening as in life.
Let me know if you have any to share.