Diary of a Neurotic New Gardener: The Best-Laid Plants

Feedloader (Clickability)

Urban "farming" is trendy—so much so that when a friend who lives in Berkeley, California (a hotbed of guerrilla gardening) was recently wandering around Home Depot looking clueless, an orange-vested employee cheerfully, and correctly, guessed that she was trying to build a chicken coop.

Having recently decided to start my own vegetable garden, I guess you could say I'm hopping on the same bandwagon. One difference is that there's nothing urban about where I'm planning to grow: I live in a community of about 300 people on land that once was used to pasture horses and, possibly, cows. But just because I've got fields doesn't mean I have any idea how to make them yield anything edible; only time will tell if my little veggie patch will be transformed into a victory garden or a plot of defeat. Throughout this first growing season I'll be filing occasional reports on my progress, in the hopes that they will be instructional, entertaining or, ideally, both.

This first dispatch (not counting my recent experiment in micro-gardening, or growing sprouts) is about planning. While much of the country is well into gardening season, up here in the Adirondack Mountains we still have lingering piles of snow on the ground and below-freezing temperatures at night, so I won't actually be sowing any seeds for weeks. This extra time means I have been able to do some research, but it also means I'll have to get started as soon as weather permits if I hope to harvest anything before the first frost hits in September.

My research has included reading books and attending a three-part Vegetable Growing 101 series offered by my local office of Cornell Cooperative Extension. In some ways all this information has only served to increase my confusion and anxiety. So many more things can go wrong than I ever imagined—pests and blights and bad soil, oh my!—and no one seems to agree on the best way to do anything. One author swears by double-digging to allow for deep roots, and the next claims that raised beds are the way to go. What's a novice to believe?

Finally, after I had grilled the class instructor about how, precisely, I should calculate the optimum amount of each vegetable to grow, my husband did the verbal equivalent of slapping a hysterical person across the face. "Stop over-thinking it," he said. "It's not brain surgery."

He's right, of course. No one's going to starve if I make a false gardening move. If I grow too much, friends and neighbors will be happy to take some off my hands. In fact, one person in the class pointed out that many local food pantries gratefully accept fresh vegetables, which is a nice incentive to grow as much as I can manage.

If there's one thing all sources seem to agree on, though, it's that beginners should scale back their ambitions so they won't be overwhelmed and discouraged. Taking this to heart, I scratched off about half of the veggies on my wish list (artichokes were a pretty frivolous idea up here anyway), finally deciding on a "starter kit" from High Mowing Organic Seeds that includes lettuce, cucumbers, green beans, basil, beets, peas, carrots and radishes. In addition I'll buy tomato seedlings (without a grow light to start the seeds indoors before last frost, there's no way to grow them in my area) and some additional herbs.

Sun, rain, voles, deer, Japanese beetles and powdery mildew willing, in a few months I'll have an all-you-can-eat salad bar in my backyard—and a new hobby.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.