Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

Advice for the beginning gardener

Harriet starts plotting

By
February 19, 2008

Now that I have laid my cards on the table regarding my motivation for becoming an urban homesteader (was it ever in doubt?), it’s time to limit my commitment to words in lieu of deeds. Not that I don’t love writing, but planting season is quickly approaching and I am remodeling my very own victory garden.

Actually, the remodel is more of a tweak, since the garden has been going on for some time now. As any gardener knows, garden design and tending is never done in the way “done” is known to be done. Rather, it’s a process of constant re-evaluation and renewal motivated by new interests and practices in gardening. Sometimes it’s as ethereal as a babbling brook (which I don’t have) or as functional as a new raised bed (I have lots of these). Some years, like this one, it’s a big-picture overhaul designed for a little bit of whimsy, a certain amount of function, and a whole lot of yield.

Boxes in winter, produce in summer.

I didn’t start out this ambitious. It took time to build up steam. There was so much I needed to learn. Sifting through the tons of information out there felt a bit daunting. And at times I felt that each book, teacher, or shop owner I encountered only served to confuse me more. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but it’s helpful to remember that only a few of the “experts” are actually growing food (if that is what you’re into) on a regular basis (as opposed to a few tomato plants and some lettuce). More likely, they’re in their shops and/or just a few strides ahead of you in the effort. So ask whoever is giving you information if they grow food and for how long, because knowing and doing are two different things.

Allowing for your own knowledge base to synthesize into action is very helpful to the new gardener. It took me three years before I started getting the barest sense of things, and even now I tend to wing it. And I fully imagine that it will take another five to 10 years before I get it down to a true skill. I say this so that anyone starting out will not get overwhelmed or disappointed if the effort is more complicated or the yield less productive than you first hoped it would be.

On this point I strongly suggest you exercise moderation. A trip to the garden shop or an hour with a seed catalog can fill us with great expectations, but I caution you to consider your true knowledge base and available time. Until you know you have plenty of both, a few tomato plants might suffice. Even that will be a great learning experience, since growing tomatoes (especially here in Portland) can be a challenge. If you want, grow a salsa garden: tomatoes, peppers, and cilantro. (Don’t grow the cilantro until late in the summer, or it will be gone by the time your tomatoes are in.) Or grow some pickling cucumbers if you want to try your hand at making pickles this year. Just be honest about your true interests and time.

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Whatever you decide, please treat the effort with due respect, because it takes more then digging a hole and dumping in a plant. Take the health of your soil to heart and give it the attention it deserves. It is the basis of health for your garden, in the beginning and throughout its long life. Building even the smallest bed augmented with good soil and healthy compost will give whatever you are growing a fighting chance. If you decide to continue in your efforts, you might consider testing your soil and starting a compost pile. But that is not how you must start. Your horizons tend to grow with your skill, which brings us nicely back to the subject of my remodel.

Last year I took up the last remaining frontier of cement on my property in an effort to grow more produce and herbs. Previously a slab driveway leading to a carport, the now revealed expanse of soil was questionable in its sorely compressed state. With little hope of a return, I turned it over to the growing of pumpkins, something that prudence and space rarely encourages. By autumn, my porch and family were rewarded with three giant pumpkins just in time for Halloween. In all ways, the twirling mass of vines and pumpkins were genuinely impressive and gave me hope for the future of those beds.

These days I am busy refining that space. I have been drawing up plans and have since decided to build (or have built) a few new beds and a broken slate pathway leading to my soon-to-be-enclosed arbor and teaching space for Preserve. And in the midst of all the larger design notions are the smaller ones, like what to grow and where. In that way I am like the novice who is dreaming of the possibilities. And while it might not be as important in one’s first year of flight, there is one final suggestion I can offer for anyone considering the growing of food: take out your drawing pencils!

Keeping a garden is a process of constant re-evaluation and renewal.

Making a map of your garden can be a very helpful tool for making decisions for your growing year. Over these last three years I have a history of my efforts in the form of maps. They all start out with a scaled drawing of the available space, the correct directional indicators (north, south, etc.), and the markings of beds, both existing and in design. From there I start working on a timeline of plantings, varieties, days to harvest, succession plantings, and anything else that helps me think through the process.

Each year the map looks a little different, but each one is sweet in its hopefulness and sidebars of commentary. There is “The Story of the Peas” and “The Truth about Kitties” that tell stories I might well have forgotten had I not posted them on my map. These are little narratives of discovery more then hard science, which is what makes them sweet additions to the concept. But there is lots of good information in there as well, such as fertilizing recipes and schedules.

The point is, making a map (and I use a large piece of newsprint) is both helpful and fun. It is like a scrapbook and war plan for gardeners.

And should you have more to say than space will allow on your map, start a journal. I have four garden journals fully loaded with wonderings and wanderings, and they have helped me establish much of the philosophy I espouse to anyone willing to listen. But they’re also my secrets, my truest thoughts, and my soulful ruminations, which, like all journals, offer solace to the spirit. And given that the effort of urban homesteading can use a little solace at times, these maps and journals have become some of my best friends. At least they keep me on course.

So that is what I wanted to share with you before I take off for the growing season. I will return from time to time to post as it is appropriate, but my time is being called to map and journal, not to mention shovel, spade, and hoe. And soon the fruits of my labor will have me in my canning and preserving kitchen, putting up the harvest for the winter and teaching classes to others who wish to do the same.

So perhaps I will see you there or at the farm or at the markets around town. You will no doubt see me with my gray hair flying and my overalls muddied at the knees. But boy, will I be happy. In the end, everything about the spirit and effort of urban homesteading makes me happy, and that’s a good thing. With all the challenges living in this mismanaged universe, happiness goes a long, long way. So go forth, my friends, and start your own backyard dreams. Go slow, go steady, and go with peace.

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1. by anonymous on Feb 20, 2008 at 10:42 PM PST

Wow -- great to hear about someone else successfully transforming a slab of pavement into a garden patch. I have a friend who is currently in the throws of searching for information on this issue. She is very concerned about the chemicals left in the ground from the pavement (asphalt?) and isn’t sure she will be able to use the area to safely produce food. Do you have any good resources I can tell her about that might provide the information she needs about this? I know you probably don’t have time to respond any time soon, but whenever you get a moment, I’ll pass whatever info you have on to her. Thanks. And happy growing.

2. by Fasenfest on Feb 25, 2008 at 6:37 AM PST

Hi Wow,

Sorry it has taken so long to answer butI do have one. Tell your friend to send a sample of her soil (take the sample from three different locations if it is a very large slab) to a soil testing lab. Actually, I’m not sure exactly what those labs are called but if she calls the local extension service they will advise on the best place to send it. The results of the test should give her most of the information she needs regarding setting things straight. But kudos to her for trying. She will be rewarded as will the universe. Thanks for reading and writing.

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