On Starting a Garden

truck garden

Our garden is big. Yours doesn't have to be to yield lots of great food and flowers

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)

High Return Vegetables

Tips for Success with Vegetable Seeds

How to grow Garlic

How to build simple, easy trellises for tomatoes, peas and beans

* 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.

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  • Ali Said,

    Good heavens. I can absolutely guarantee that my house is rarely all that clean, but I can grow quite a bit of delicious food, and some pretty flowers, too.

    As a matter of fact, I think Ms. Favreau has it backwards. My house is dirty BECAUSE I garden. And I am OK with that.

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Ali! I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a messy house is in fact the sign of a good gardener.

  • deb Said,

    OY – Sounds like Ms Favreau “has issues” – HA! As soon as the weather is warm enough, I’m outside mucking about in the dirt and the house still somehow remains habitable.

    I couldn’t agree more – control freaks in the housework department probably aren’t really gardening material!

    Hi Deb,

    Glad to have you at the party! Last time I checked, everyone who has commented on the interview, not just here but also on the piece itself at NPR, has agreed with us.

    • Dona Fellows Said,

      If they are control freaks in housecleaning, I’d bet their homes are too sterile to enjoy…just sayin’.

      Hi Dona,

      I think you’re “just sayin'” something many of us suspect: a spotless home may look good in photographs, and/or give the housekeeper a sense of a job well done, but it’s not likely to generate feelings of warmth and welcome.

  • Suzanne Favreau Said,

    I think you should have listened to the interview instead of reading the synopsis. The comment about housekeeping and gardening was one small part of the interview, and was a response to a question by Tess. In context, the comment was humorous and made sense. The general tone of the interview was not discouraging about starting a garden in any way. There were many good and encouraging suggestions for those new to gardening. You can hear the interview on the NPR website, and if you listen to it, you’ll understand that no offense was intended toward gardeners, messy people or anyone else. The picture of your garden is lovely.

    Thanks for visiting, Suzanne,
    And for what is, under the circumstances you describe, a very mild response! I should indeed have listened to the whole interview (or at least laid the remark at the feet of NPR’s synopsist), and, ironically, I would have if I hadn’t understood Bill to say the comment was what might be called “the real thing.” Thank goodness at least I provided the link so others have been able to be more diligent than I, and now I have provided an update, which I hope will increase everyones’ understanding

  • Suzanne Favreau Said,


    Thanks for clarifying, and I would like to do the same. The Ms. Favreau who did the interview with NPR was not me but my daughter Meg. It’s been so interesting to see how one comment (for some taken out of context) can stir a huge debate!

    Good heavens, thanks again! Too funny … Or should I say too embarrassing? Reading carefully is obviously as important as listening carefully, so I get double demerits. Right now,though, I’m sorry to say there isn’t a huge debate, only a multiple much-deserved correction of yours truly. So far all the commenters both here and at NPR are in complete agreement about the analogy; I’m still waiting for the super-tidy housekeeping gardener(s) to weigh in.

  • Susan Scheid Said,

    Bravo for debunking the bunk! We are SO not in control of our tiny little garden, it would be fatal to think we could be. Just the other day, we tried the teeny weeny endeavor of adding some edging plants to a spot where the hemlocks used to be. First of all, digging each hole through the rocky what passes for soil was unprintably difficult; second, I stepped to the edge of the stone wall as I was raking out the mulch and lo, it started to cave. Hollers of help, as I nursed my grazed shin, brought out the mate, a Brit, after all, so surely she must know about dry stone walls. She did enough, though it will never look the same as it once did. BUT, we now have some pretty little variegated vinca, woodruff, catmint, and some sort of sage that will take the shade, settling in. None of this would have resulted from tidying the house (which is why we are not so bothered about being tidy there, either . . .)

    Wow, that’s quite a story! Glad to hear the shin wasn’t bad enough to be the primary focus of the mate’s rescue mission. Hope all the new plants prosper.

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