I’m convinced that nothing puts more would-be gardeners off the garden than books for beginning gardeners.
They are full of esoteric rules that make gardening sound like being inducted into Skull & Bones or initiated into some Dionysian mystery cult…where there’s a full year of drinking the blood of small animals before you’re allowed to just buy something pretty at Lowe’s and shove it into the ground.
Or they recommend obsolete practices like double digging that never had any connection to reality, except at great English country houses in the first half of the 20th century, where there were paid gardeners who could be ordered to do stupid things.
A perfect example is a book I just picked up at the library, the ironically-titled Spare-Time Gardener by Barbara Hill Freeman. Now, Barbara sounds like a perfectly nice person who enjoys gardening. But in an attempt to pad a rather thin idea, she has probably driven thousands of would-be gardeners into other hobbies with fewer prerequisites, such as motocross racing or iguana breeding.
For example, where do we get to the actual planting of things in the soil? Chapter 27! Chapter 27! This is certainly a tantric vision of what it means to garden.
Plus, unspeakable amounts of spare time would be squandered if you actually followed her spare time plan…on planting containers and creating a gardening notebook and answering questionnaires about "worries and concerns" and a million other things that have absolutely nothing to do with gardening.
Here are a few of the rules beginner’s books often recommend that drive me insane.
1. Keep a journal. Keep a journal yourself. I’d no sooner tell somebody to take up garden-related scrapbooking than I’d tell them to take up drinking games. At least if you blog about the garden, you can expect a healthy amount of sass back from impatient and well-informed readers.
2. Make a plan. Again, make a plan yourself. If there is one thing first-time gardeners are NOT qualified to do, it’s make a plan. They need to learn by trial and error, or they wind up ordering many multiples of things that will not do well in their yards. If you must have a plan, either hire a professional to plan for you—or spend a lot of time considering what does well for the neighbors.
3. Vegetable gardens are for zealots only. Freeman actually has the nerve to title her chapter "Think Twice About Vegetables." Then the double-nerve to say why bother growing tomatoes when Paul Newman does a good job of bottling sauce? Clearly, this woman knows nothing about vegetable gardening or food. But how unfair that she feels qualified to discourage beginning vegetable gardeners! I do know about vegetable gardening, so I can say that it offers absurdly disproportionate rewards for whatever spare time and spare muscle you give it.
Michele’s rules for beginners are different.
1. Get outside and dig. It’s great exercise, it’s a thrill. Put shovel in hand and just begin.
2. Most plants are cheaper than a movie, so buy lots of them and experiment. Try to match the conditions on the tag to the conditions in your yard. But don’t sweat it. If it dies, lesson learned.
3. Compost or manure into the hole when you plant can’t hurt.
4. Enrich your soil from the top. Mulch. Rake fall leaves into your beds. A nice layer of compost in spring, if you’ve got the time.
5. Be suspicious of stuff you read in how-to books. Conditions are always local, and many writers are just full of it.