As I wrote early this year, I knew one of my greatest challenges as a new farmer and a new mother would be figuring out how to get in the garden with a little one in tow. To not get overwhelmed by this prospect, I gave myself three major goals:
- Can my own tomatoes.
- Grow my own medicinal herbs.
- Enlist weed help.
I can very humbly report that I succeeded in accomplishing exactly zero of these goals. My tomatoes were not bountiful enough to can. Few of the herb seeds I started germinated, and the ones that did germinate died after transplanting. And I never laid mulch to block weeds—I don’t even have an excuse for that one; it just didn’t happen.
While I’m tempted to think of myself as a complete failure in the garden this year, I will say that I’ve learned quite a lot—if not about the gardening process, then about myself. Admitting my shortcomings isn’t always easy. In fact, I find it downright excruciating. But if I want to improve at this farming thing, I have to reflect on what didn’t go as planned and then tweak the process to work in my favor in the coming years.
So here are my lessons learned. I’m sure I’ll get many rounds of “Told ya so!” and “Been there, done that!” from those with more experience, but bear with me. This learning curve is sharp, and I’m slowly making my way around the bend.
1. I Don’t Love Growing Vegetables
Wow. It took me a long time to come around to this realization. I learned this year that I just can’t grow produce as well as the market farmers in my area—at least not with the current time and resources that raising a family has allotted me. When I lived in town and had a small raised-bed garden, growing my own vegetables was a novelty to supplement my farmers-market purchases. For some reason, I believed that moving to the country included the need to grow a significant portion of my food myself. First, that’s just not true, and second, I just don’t enjoy it that much. In the case of vegetables, growing less brings more joy.
What I do love, however, is growing herbs that I use to make homemade teas, salves, tinctures and more. These are things I can’t buy from others in my community, and therefore, it seems like a more worthy investment of my time. Plus, I simply prefer herbs—they’re more forgiving, they’re prettier, and they’re great for the bees. Will I grow vegetables in the future? Probably. I might even attempt a large kitchen garden again once I’m not carrying a little one on my back. For the near future, though, herbs are where I’d rather focus my time.
2. Smaller Is Better
I know, I know. The No. 1 mantra for beginning farmers is “start small.” I foolishly thought that because I’d done it small in the city, I could go bigger when I got more land. That’s just not so. For one, this is a new piece of land we’re working with, so we have a lot to learn about it. The process of getting to know a new place takes time. It makes sense that we should get to know it in small chunks, not all at once. Second, raising a child takes a lot of time. The garden is no longer my baby—my baby is my baby—and I don’t have the attention to give to a large, needy garden right now. Next year, we’ll scale it back a bit.
3. Closer Is Better
One of my favorite things about our property? It was formerly owned by market gardeners, so it came with an amazing irrigation setup. A solar-powered well pump pushes water into a huge cistern at the top of the hill, which then gravity feeds down to the garden. The problem? It’s 1/4 mile from the house. When I want to garden, I have to gather up all my tools, load up my baby and make my way down to the garden. With the garden so far away from the house, there’s no picking weeds when traveling from the car to the mudroom door, or watering plants while the baby naps or harvesting basil when in the middle of cooking dinner. When I do visit the garden, I need to spend a significant chunk of time there. That doesn’t sit so well with the little one. She usually hangs out for about 20 minutes before it’s time to eat or get a nap or snuggle. (Pretty much all things with this one involve snuggling.) As much as it pains me not to use the really cool resource we have, for the next few years, I need to do my gardening closer to the house.
4. It’s Not Cheating to Use Containers
I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to garden the “right” way because now we have our place in the country. We no longer need to bother with patio gardens and raised beds—we have land! Humph! I can now look back at this attitude and understand how completely naive I was.
Soil needs to be built up.
Weeds need to be dealt with.
Deer need to be fenced out.
All of these things require time and tools. Yes, we can start working on them and accumulating our arsenal of equipment, but it might be a little while until we’ve fully arrived. Right now, when I have a little one constantly on my hip, I need to admit that it’s not cheating to grow some things in containers. (I’ll call them my “pet plants.”) Doing so will help me keep my green thumb in shape until I can feasibly do more.
5. It’s Not Cheating to Let Someone Else Start My Seeds
One of the biggest bummers this year was losing a good portion of the seeds I started. I don’t know whether my seed-starting soil was bad or I didn’t give the baby plants the attention they needed. Whatever the reason, it was a huge hit to my self-esteem. While I’ll continue to try to hone this skill, next year I won’t put all my seeds into one basket, per se. Maybe I’ll buy some starts or ask a more experienced friend to start some seeds for me.
I learned a lot this year with not much to show for it. Hopefully, in the coming years, these hard lessons will pay off.