Newbies share stories about the good, the bad and the growing in gardening
By Natalie Reidford
For some, planting a garden has been a springtime ritual for years or decades. Others around the area decided to try gardening this year for the very first time.
What does a first-time garden look like?
In Knox County, a beginner’s garden looks like a row of five-gallon buckets. It also looks like a 1/4-acre greenhouse. And, it looks like everything in between.
A garden can take up as much or as little space as the gardener uses. Absent a suitable plot of land, plants will happily grow in well-tended pots or containers.
Laura DeBrock, a volunteer at Grow City Gardens and member of the SWCD Education Committee, decided to try planting a container garden for the first time last year.
“I don’t really have a suitable space for an in-ground garden,” said DeBrock. “So, I used three 4’ x 2’ x 1’ metal stock tanks and a couple of terra cotta pots for container gardening.”
Her plans blossomed, and she planted cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, basil and marigolds. But as growers know — especially first-timers — victory isn’t easy.
“I had excellent success with the tomatoes, but the peppers and cucumbers were a total flop,” DeBrock said. “The cucumber plants died, as did all the pepper plants, except for one — it produced just one tiny 1-inch pepper.”
DeBrock was not ready to give up, though.
“The success of the tomatoes was enough to encourage me to try again, and on a larger scale,” she said.
Perhaps inspired by Grow City Gardens to reimagine planting methods, she is experimenting with different containers.
DeBrock has potatoes growing in plastic 5-gallon buckets, 10-gallon grow bags and a cardboard box.
“I’m eager to see which container type will perform the best,” she said. “So far, all are growing well.”
DeBrock reported that the rest of her garden is faring better than last year.
“I’m growing peas, carrots, turnips and lettuce and have been able to harvest them nightly for a fresh salad. That’s been really gratifying and tasty,” she said.
Some of her lettuce varieties grow back when cut, so she will enjoy salads repeatedly.
Other plants in her container garden include bush beans, pole beans, tomatoes, radishes, basil, oregano, parsley, mint, marigolds and nasturtiums.
And she’s trying her hand again at peppers.
“I have one bell pepper plant that was gifted to me by a friend. Hopefully, I can keep this one alive,” she said.
Kristin Cullivan has always been around her dad’s and her grandmother’s gardens, but now in a new home with a large yard, she decided this was the year to start one of her own.
“My grandma had a garden and canned for as long as I could remember,” Cullivan said. “My dad, in the last few years, has had a pretty decent-sized garden that I helped him with. We moved into our current home in June of last year and we have an acre now. It definitely felt like the right time to try our hand at our own garden.”
Cullivan’s in-ground garden started as an 18’ x 20’ bed.
“We had strawberries, green beans, corn and tomatoes,” she said. “But once they were doing well, I decided to go back and get zucchini, watermelon, pumpkins and peppers. We had to add another 15’ x 5’ area.”
She also grows potatoes in a grow bag, and a blueberry bush in the front yard.
“My dad is my go-to when I have questions,” said Cullivan, “or really just for anything garden-related. I remember calling him when my green beans sprouted. I was so excited, and he was my first call.”
She looks for gardening tips online, but Grow City Gardens has helped, too.
“I originally signed up for the Grow City Garden class, but we only got to go to one of those,” Cullivan said, referring to class cancellations due to the pandemic. “They have been sending information still, though, so that has given me some great (advice) to work with as well.”
When starting their first garden, Ashley Hall and Ethan McQuaid decided to go big or go home.
Actually, they went big and went home — Hall and McQuaid watched a movie about a couple who started a permaculture farm, and opened Four Tree Farms, a market garden, eight months later.
“We refer to ourselves as sustainable market gardeners,” Hall said. “Our expectations with our garden are to grow as much as we can, in as little space as possible. We want to provide our community with the freshest, healthiest produce we can possibly grow, all while using methods that build the soil and use no chemicals.”
Their market garden currently covers 1/4 acre.
“Right now we are growing two varieties of lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, carrots and a few different herbs. We are researching different vegetables to broaden our variety,” Hall said.
Fortunately for Hall and McQuaid, advice is readily available online and in books.
“We listen to podcasts that interview multiple market gardeners at different levels, we read books written by the bigger names in the market garden community, we are currently taking a couple different online courses geared specifically toward market gardeners and Ethan got to have a 30-minute FaceTime consult with one of the leaders in the market-garden community,” Hall said.
“We are also members of a couple market-garden groups on Facebook — one has several thousand members, and they are a plethora of advice and knowledge.”
Bumps along the way
While these new gardeners have had hard-earned victories, the path to success has sprouted a few weeds.
“Gardening is capricious,” said DeBrock. “One day the crop can be looking great, and the very next day, some plants may start turning yellow or get munched by some pest. On one hand, it’s really irritating to put so much work into a plant only to have it threatened by bugs or disease, but on the other hand, it’s really interesting to determine what is causing the problem and then devise a solution. Sometimes we win the bug/disease battle, and sometimes we lose.”
Hall mentioned a variety of challenges they experienced in their new garden.
“We have had problems with irrigation, finding good compost, moles, the heat, sandy soil, things not germinating like we expected or getting washed out by rain,” she said.
But she prefaced the list by saying, “The good things that have happened along the way far outnumber the bad.
“On the good side, we have met some amazing people both in and outside of our community,” Hall said. “The response at the farmers market has been overwhelmingly positive and we are so grateful for that.”
My kids are learning about gardening, which is fun to watch. They love being out there just as much as I do.Kristin Cullivan
Cullivan learned that sometimes it’s best to get out of Nature’s way.
I think I got a little obsessed with taking care of (the garden),” she admitted. “We recently learned that you can definitely overwater. So I’ve had to back off going out there all the time.
“You have to focus on the right things,” she said. “I’ve learned to stop obsessing about every little thing. I love being out there and watching the changes every day. But I can actually do more harm. Nature knows what it’s doing.”
Like many new gardeners, Cullivan learned that soil health is the foundation of a successful garden.
“I’ve learned you have to pay attention to the nutrients going into the garden, like putting nitrogen on it. So (we) focus on the soil and not so much on how much water it’s getting,” she said.
The benefits keep growing
All of these gardeners believe the benefits of gardening far outweigh the challenges.
“When we win (against bugs and disease), there is this “Ta-da!” moment that’s really satisfying,” DeBrock said.
Cullivan said teaching her three children has been a vital aspect of gardening.
“My kids are learning about gardening, which is fun to watch. They love being out there just as much as I do. I think it’s important to get outside and get dirt under your nails. It really has so many benefits beyond the obvious harvest we’ll be getting eventually,” she said.
“The biggest thing has been what (gardening) has done for our two little girls,” she said. “They are happier. They get to be outside all the time and they’re learning how to do this right along with us, and they love it. We are literally growing the next generation of growers, and they will be the ones that truly make a difference in the world.”
DeBrock made a point that may be overlooked by those who have never grown a garden: it appeals to one’s sense of adventure.
“Gardening is never boring — there is always some surprise on its way,” she said.