Outstanding gardens don’t just happen. Rather, they are ongoing expressions of their gardeners’ love, determination, and skill. The love part is easy — it comes naturally, at least to anyone likely to be reading this. Determination follows naturally — if you really love something, you’ll likely find that you are determined to have it, or to improve it. The skill part, though ... that’s something that’s made, not born. Skill comes from knowledge and experience. A common thread that binds the really excellent gardeners I’ve known is their willingness to experiment. That, coupled with a keen eye, a sprinkling of playfulness, and readiness to embrace surprises develops gardeners who are flexible, insightful and deeply aware of their gardens. These gardeners have both depth and breadth of understanding, and that is what leads to great gardens.
Sure, you can and should learn to grow a particular plant by following instructions. How deep to sow, soil preferences, when to plant — you need the basics to get going. After a couple of seasons, you know that lettuce seed must have light to germinate, that corn needs frost-free conditions, while spinach is planted earlier. It’s a little like cooking, up to a point. Combine certain ingredients in a certain way; you get a very similar outcome time after time.
But it’s different in the garden. Plants are living things, and each one is in some way unique. Plants are also part of a larger, living context: some insects benefit your garden while others are a hindrance. Rabbits and deer cause problems some years; some years they don’t. The weather is never the same from year to year, at least everywhere I’ve lived. You get rain when you don’t want it; you don’t get it when you need it. There is a lot to go wrong; it’s a wonder sometimes that we ever get a harvest at all! The thing is, there are always going to be surprises, and if they’re not covered in the how-to manual, strictly-by-the-book gardeners are going to be at a loss.
Advice from an old farming book I once read cautioned: There is a difference between a man with 20 years’ experience and a man with one year’s experience 20 times. And that difference, to my thinking, is this: one man is working by rote; the other has taken the time to develop a deep, ultimately almost intuitive understanding of the plants in his garden. And when events fail to follow the script, the difference between the two gardeners (and their gardens) is apt to be like the difference between night and day.
A willingness to experiment is the key, and careful observation is the door.
Take watering, which is typically a quandary for beginners. Rote gardeners will say “I water every day,” or, “I water once a week.” They have reached a usually workable solution, yes, but maybe they have short-circuited their powers of observation. The real world is more complicated. Some plants like more moisture, some less. The far end of the garden might have tighter soil, which dries out more slowly, or it might sit slightly downhill, which is where water tends to collect. There’s no one-size-fits-all. Instead, try an experiment: water more (or less!) and watch your plants. See how they respond. With most plants, a little wilting does no harm, so long as water is supplied before permanent damage is done. How do you know where that point is? Simple: you’ve seen it before, and you can tell at a glance whether your plants are there or not.
Maybe you have a lot of shade on your place. You wonder “how much shade can my plants stand and still give a crop?” No book or website can give more than a general answer. There are just too many variables. Sure, full sun is defined as a minimum of 5-6 hours per day. But do your few hours of sunshine come first thing in the morning? Last thing before sundown? Or do you maybe have high, dappled shade all day? It makes a difference. By all means, consult the experts. But then you experiment, you observe, and you learn.
How do you do these gardening experiments? Do you need a lab coat and a clipboard? That would be a definite “no” to the lab coat, but a “maybe” on the clipboard. Do you need a double-blind, randomized, replicated trial? Absolutely not. But you do need to try several different things, while keeping everything else as uniform as possible — you’ll need some sort of a baseline to help you understand the results. In the case of experimenting with shade tolerance, simply grow several of the same type of plant, some in deeper shade, some in better sun. You make a reasonable effort to plant all at the same time, give similar water and nutrition. By the end of the season for that particular crop, you’ll have a much better idea just how much shade those plants can take. Next year, you’ll know what you can get away with, and what’s over the top. In a word, you’ll have learned something.
You can run your informal experiments with any factor that is of concern. Is manure or compost tea worth the trouble in your garden? Apply it to half your cabbages, withhold it from the other half, and watch what happens. Not sure whether you need inoculants for your beans, peas or peanuts? Same story — you try it and see. Your plants will let you know.
Sometimes the most revealing experiments happen completely by accident. Midway through planting your tomatoes, you realize you’re going to run out of room before you run out of plants. Instead of discarding the extras, tuck them in a little tighter. Maybe the closer spacing works out, maybe it doesn’t—there’s only one way to know for sure. Or you overlook a row of parsnips at the back of the garden and they go to seed. Toward the end of the following winter, you learn that parsnips will sprout far earlier than most gardeners give them credit for. Bingo! You learned something! It’s all useful information, and you never know where the next insight will come from. Wisdom is at least as likely to result from chaos as from some great master plan.
So don’t be afraid to experiment. The result may surprise you. Will there be failures? Sure there will. But every time, you will learn something. And that’s the whole point.
Keeping Garden Records
It should go without saying that keeping some sort of record of your activities and the results is tremendously valuable, but too often in the rush and excitement, gardeners neglect this simple expedient. (Guilty as charged. “Physician, heal thyself!”) Record keeping needn’t be elaborate, but it should be consistent. Planting dates, varieties involved, maybe an occasional notation about unusual weather events, what the pivotal factors were, and results. In other words, record the facts that you will need next year to try to repeat your successes and avoid the failures of the past. Jotting notes on a calendar will do, or use a spreadsheet if you’re so inclined. Or what about shooting an informal video tour of the garden once or twice a month? What matters is preserving a little useful information, the kind you know from experience you’re likely to forget. And make sure it’s in a form and a location where you’ll be able to access it later, when you really need it.
Randel A. Agrella has overseen rare seed production at Baker Creek since 2005. He writes and lectures extensively, and owns and operates AbundantAcres.net, which has grown and shipped strictly heirloom, chemical-free veggie starts and plants, since 2004. He has recently relocated to Maine, and you can follow the development of his organic micro-farm, Parsnippity Farm, on Facebook.