On Starting a Garden
I did not hear this in person. Bill did (on Marketplace Money on NPR last Friday). But he couldn’t resist telling me about it, chortling loudly the while.
As well he might. According to him, a garden advisor – whose name he didn’t catch – had pronounced that “if you can’t keep your room swept, you shouldn’t try to garden.”
This struck me as so wildly improbable I thought he must have heard wrong, so I looked it up.
Sure enough, there in the synopsis:
“…not every budget-conscious person can make a garden grow and save money. Meg Favreau of WiseBread.com says that if you can’t keep your own room clean, most likely, you won’t be able to take care of a garden. Just go grocery shopping. But for those of who (sic) can maintain a clean living space…”
In extenuation (please see update below), the interview was about frugality, not horticulture, and Ms. Favreau was presented as an expert on all things frugal, rather than as an expert at gardening, or, for all I know, housekeeping. But still. There may be a few personality traits that would get in the way of successful gardening – hating the outdoors comes to mind – but a deficiency of tidiness is emphatically not one of them.
A few reasons cleaning the house and caring for a garden have nothing to do with each other
1) No amount of housecleaning will create some new piece of furniture or decorative object that was not there before. But if you plant an inexpensive 6-pack of baby zinnias, you could have great bouquets for months.
2. No amount of housecleaning will create something to eat. We hold this truth to be self-evident.
3. Cleaning what does exist in your own room may improve the looks of that thing, but not transformatively. There is no way that dusting a steel clamp light will turn it into a crystal chandelier. Tend to a little tomato plant, on the other hand, and more likely than not it will become a great big green vine dripping with delicious crimson fruit.
4. Cleaning indoors may be good exercise, but opening the windows won’t make it exercise in the open air. Even the most benign cleaning products do not smell nearly as nice as newly-mown grass or blooming lilacs or the warm earth all by itself.
5. There are degrees of uncleanliness, but basically a room is either tidy enough to occupy pleasantly or messy enough to inspire discomfort. In the garden, no such dichotomy exists. Instead, there’s a huge spectrum of imposed order from maintained-to-the-max to utterly overgrown, and there will be recognizable benefits just about everywhere along the line.
6. With maintained-to-the-max we arrive at the most important reason Ms. Favreau’s analogy is bunk, and (because of what it implies) dangerous bunk at that. The one thing that will doom you as a gardener is being a control freak. Doing the work, yes. Good idea. If you put plants in the right place, weed, water, fertilize and similarly help Mrs. Nature to the best of your abilities, you will greatly increase the chances of reaping rewards from your garden. But you cannot for a minute assume that you are in charge. You’re not.
That’s one of the things that’s most wonderful about the whole untidy, ever changing, always productive process of gardening. It’s always a partnership, and the gardener is always the junior partner.
Some posts that might be especially useful for food gardeners just starting out (try the Garden dropdown menu for more)
* Update: Ms. Favreau‘s gratifyingly mild-mannered mother wrote in (see comments) to point out that the synopsis was by no means the whole story and that she didn’t discourage gardening and I should give a listen instead of simply relying on the retelling from NPR. Fair enough, and I do apologize; you’d think I’d know better in a political season full of dubious out-of-context quotes. So listen I did and so can you if you click the synopsis link. As it happens, I don’t particularly agree with her suggestions for how beginners should get started, but that’s a whole different post and a far less emphatic one.
Yet all that said, post-listen (not surprisingly, she was analogizing room-tidying to weeding) the gist of it remains and I still think the message was unfortunate. There are indeed reasons that food gardening may not be a money saver – again, a different post – and there are crops that will fail unweeded: carrots, onions and others with small tops that are easily crowded out, but one of the great things about gardening is that you can still get a lot of food if you don’t weed very often. For instance, once her recommended zucchini – and other squash – plants get going, their giant leaves will shade out weeds and you won’t have to worry about them.