Farm Your Yard: Garden Lessons

Mar 2, 2017

Gardening season is right around the corner. Carrie Hargrove from the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture shares her most important recent lessons learned in the garden on a recent episode of Farm Your Yard.
Credit Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture

I think there’s a book out there called Everything I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I think that is a great concept, and I think there could be a book written, or at least a saying that goes something like Everything I Really Needed to Know in Life I Learned From Gardening. And today on Farm your Yard, I would like to explain what I mean by that. Let’s talk about what gardening can do for you.

When I was 20 and first started thinking about how neat gardening was, I didn’t really jump into the hobby feet first. No, it’s more like I went into it intellectually and then in the kitchen. I read books about gardening, thought deeply about our modern food and agriculture systems here in the United States, I made omelets made with zucchini and green onions that I shyly purchased from local vendors at the farmer’s market. I was excited to meet anyone who tended a plot at a community garden. In short, I liked the idea of gardening and local farming, but was kind of intimidated by it all at the same time.

The big reason I was intimidated was because reading all of those gardening books did clarify some things for me, but really was just too much information for me to absorb which led to the unfortunate outcome of me becoming possibly even more confused than I was before. The problem, which I only understand now in hindsight, is that I was making it too big in my head. I should have just dove in and been open to any mistakes that I was bound to make and learn from them. At the time, though, I was more interested in knowing everything I needed to know before I even started gardening, to minimize the chance of failure. Fast forward 10 years, and if there is one thing I have learned about gardening it is that it teaches you to get right back on the horse every time you fall. Let’s face it, failure to some extent is inherent in gardening. No year provides the perfect environmental conditions for every plant you want to grow in your garden. And that’s the thing, sometimes failure is out of your immediate control, like the incredibly wet summer we had in 2015 that straight up killed all of my heirloom tomato plants in early August. I got only a few Brandywines that year. Coming to terms with the fact that our best laid plans as gardeners might not work splendidly depending on what mother nature throws at us is a humbling concept that teaches you to stay on your toes and to not dwell on mistakes or failures.

Now other times, failure is totally the blame of the gardener, like when I chose not to thin my carrots but never got any carrots bigger than my pinky because they were all growing too close together. Failure can be hard to swallow for many of us, but I would argue that learning to own up to your role in a situation that failed and turning that into a positive teaching moment has been great for my character. Also, And I’ll tell you this much, I definitely take the time to thin my carrots now.

When you put your heart into something that doesn’t go right, you have two choices, you can give up, or you can learn from that moment and vow to act differently in the future. Reading about the importance of thinning carrots in one of my gardening books didn’t drive the point home as much as did pulling a handful of carrots out of the ground only to find them to be nothing but stringy unformed roots. For me, there are things you can learn from a book or in a classroom, but some things you just have to experience to really understand. It’s the mistakes you make that you learn the most from. Gardening has taught me not to fear making a mistake, but to embrace it and learn from it.

Something else that was hard for me to deal with in my early days of gardening was this concept of patience. I was really hard for me to accept that you can plant a seed in the ground, and it could take a week or more for anything visible to happen. A week was simply too long for my need for instant gratification. But now, I have patience for days. At work, what I call “gardener’s patience” is evident when a coworker and I will be talking about how certain crops are doing at our Urban Farm, and we say things that I think most would be surprised by like: “That head lettuce matured in 50 days?! Dang that was so fast!” There is something so important in cultivating patience in yourself, and I feel that these days there are fewer and fewer moments that teach patience so why not take up gardening as a hobby, if just for the reason of cultivating your patience.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that gardening has taught me to eat vegetables. I grew up in the 1990’s when iceberg lettuce was king. Even when I was in my 20’s and really got into cooking, there were some things that I just steered clear of, like beets. But what’s wrong with beets? They’re sweet, and beautiful, and you can do so much with them in the kitchen. But I’ll tell you what’s wrong with beets: it’s that I wasn’t exposed to them apart from the canned or pickled versions of them that I had grown up with. It wasn’t until I tossed some beet seeds in my garden, grew beets, and harvested them that I finally decided that I should try them. I can’t quite explain it, but something profound happens to you when you spend time growing the food you will eat, it’s like that time I spent growing those beets in my garden made the possibility of eating a beet not only seem not gross, but seemed like something that I very much wanted to do. Watching the beets grow put beets into a context for me that canned beets never did, and just like snapping my fingers, beets became delicious to me. I experienced that same phenomena with sweet potatoes, okra, kale, chard, and leeks.  I tell you, I am a changed person. There are numerous peer reviewed articled that show that getting to know vegetables by growing them will affect how you want to eat, and will inform your dietary choices for the better. And I think that especially after the holiday season, we could all learn to eat some more veggies.

As a new year’s resolution, why don’t you choose to grow a garden this year, for all of the personal benefits it will afford you? Just, unlike every other new years resolution, really stick with it. And we at the CCUA are here to help you with that. That is my full time job: helping and encouraging people to get outside and better themselves through gardening. If you want to learn more, visit the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture's Facebook page or the group's website.