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Low Expectations for Skillbuilding; Low Expectations for Eventual Success
When people ask me how to get more involved in agriculture, my standard answer is “plant a garden”. Get your hands in the soil, and start learning by trial and error.1
Gardening when you never have before can be daunting. There is a stiflingly huge accumulation of information available. And even if you could sort through all of it—doing so is a fool’s errand. All agronomy is local: everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere, and the actual problem you’re trying to solve is confined to your backyard, so reading other people’s advice is just as likely to lead you in the wrong direction as in the right one.
What do you do to start learning, if everything written is likely to be misleading? Literally just start learning. Set yourself a low bar. Plan to plant 15 crops, and expect that maybe 1 will succeed, and you won’t know in advance which one.
When I give this advice, people respond as though it’s demoralizing. I want you to refactor until it is exciting. How are we supposed to do that—how can a 1/15 success rate feel good?
Make the cost of failure as close to zero as possible. Your entire gardening operation in year one should cost less than $50.
Research: Don’t sink hours of your time reading gardening blogs. I am not sure why, exactly, but gardening blogs are the most-corrupt form of internet “knowledge”—they all seem to be written by SEO experts who have no hands-on experience, and they say all kinds of flat incorrect—provably incorrect things. And even if they’re giving you factual information for their context, the odds are low that they’re solving your problem. (“raise your pH to protect your beets from fungus” → you might not have had that fungus present, so raising your pH cost you thought, money, time, and failed to do your beets any good.)
Site prep: Don’t build raised beds. Don’t buy lumber, don’t buy potting soil. Use what you’ve already got.
Seed selection: Don’t bother starting seeds indoors and transplanting them. Don’t buy lighting setups, don’t buy peat pots, don’t devote weeks of your life to starting seedlings just to have them faint when you fail to harden them off properly. Don’t set yourself up to be demoralized with failure out of the gate. Keep your hours invested low.
Planting: Don’t buy live plants to transplant, either. Those things can be $3 to $5 a piece, and are vulnerable to the same hardening-off failures that home-raised seedlings are. Keep your investment small.
Weeding: Don’t buy tools.
When I say make the cost of failure as close to zero as possible, I mean buy 15 packets of seeds, throw the seeds outside once the risk of frost is passed, and scratch some soil over them. Mentally prepare yourself to harvest 1 of your fifteen crops, and feel successful with that harvest.
Research: I’m going to suggest you read the info text from your seed packet, and nothing else. Everything you need is there: follow the “planting out” instructions. Take the ‘soil temp’ seriously if one is listed, or ‘after last frost.’ The row spacings and plant spacings are just suggestions. Plant some deeper than requested, and plant some shallower than requested, and watch what happens. 2
Site prep: If you have a tiller that’s nice, if you have a rake or a shovel or a trowel that’s fine, but just scrape the sod back from where you want to plant. Try not to spend any money, and not more than 4 hours of your time, preparing your site.
Seed selection: If you’re not sure what to plant, go for variety. Only choose things you like to eat, but after that baseline, get 15 things that are as different from each other as possible, while staying under $50. Things that I find to be especially foolproof and delicious: a sampler pack of radishes , sorrel (which is a lemon-tasting leaf to add to salads), and top crop bush beans.
Planting: Notice that your seed packets have 200+ seeds for $3. If (despite my warnings) you find yourself paranoid of failure, just plant one row one week, and go out and plant a second row the following week. If one fails and the other doesn’t, you’ve learned something.
Weeding: your first year, pull weeds if you find that it makes you happy. If you’re busy, don’t sweat it. You’ll get yield drag when weeds steal your plants’ sunlight and water—but your plants will survive too, and you’ll still learn.
How does a 1/15 success rate feel good? Your most important crop is what you learn. You watched some plants die and some plants live, you learned about your environment and your planting style. You’ll have built troubleshooting skill, and you’ll have built direct gardening skill.
If you keep your expectations low and your time input low, you’ll be able to harvest something, you’ll keep your morale up for the coming year, and you’ll be able to take your current year successes and build on them.3 Next year, you’re aiming for 3 successes out of 18.
Finally, if you are following this garden advice and you feel stumped, I’ve got several years of Fail Gardening under my belt, and I’m very happy to answer direct questions!
This essay is part of a series on rural tech and how it works.
It would have been great if you had learned from your grandmother—my grandmother grew a prodigious garden, but I didn’t start gardening til after she’d passed, so I missed the opportunity to absorb her firsthand lessons.
But I really wanted to do research! If you insist upon pregaming for your plants while you’re waiting for soil temps to get up to 55, I suggest you search “[my state]+Extension+[my plant of interest]” or “[my state]+”Master Gardener”+[my plant of interest]. Extension’s SEO is poor but their writing is fact-based, and getting input from your own state winnows out a good chunk of information that would not have applied to you.
By the time you’re a grandmother, you’ll have plenty of tips to share with your grandkids.