Immediacy and the Novice Gardener

    My little one and my father transplanting a Chinese herb

    by Guest Author Wendy Kiang-Spray
    I had a great neighbor who has since moved away. The first day we met him, he invited us over for empanadas. He and his wife were perfect neighbors for first-time homeowners to have. Old enough to know the neighborhood stories, young enough to hang out from time to time and share a bottle of wine. As we settled in and began to make some changes around the home and yard, the well-intentioned nay-saying began, “The city is not going to take those boards away unless you take all the nails out.” “Every piece of tinsel has to be removed or they won’t recycle the tree.” “You shouldn’t go up on the slope because there is poison ivy there.” “You can’t grow vegetables here because the soil is all clay.” It got to the point where I tried to do outdoor tasks at odd hours hoping I wouldn’t get caught.

    The thing is, we’re stubborn people. My husband didn’t remove the nails or the tinsel, and I both climbed the slope and planted vegetables in the clay.

    Three years ago, I attended the International Master Gardener’s Conference. The sessions have been largely forgotten by now, but there were many parts of speakers Janet Macunovich and Steven Nikkila‘s lecture that were thought-provoking and pieces keep coming back to me in my life.

    One point they made was about IMMEDIACY. As a gardener, if someone asks you for help, avoid jargon.  SHOW him how to do what he needs to do. You want to make it do-able for the novice gardener — and more importantly, for him to feel the excitement of it. Janet shared an example of an inexperienced gardener friend who was suddenly motivated to move a tree. And during the worst part of the year to do it! Despite the chance that the tree might suffer or not even make it, she helped him move it anyway. There’s an excitement that gets into us — you’re a gardener — you know this feeling too.

    This makes me think of my neighbor. It’s true there was poison ivy on the slope. I got a case so bad I ended up in the ER. But when I got better, I got back on the slope and you can bet I was able to differentiate between the English ivy and the poison ivy. It’s true it’s VERY difficult to grow vegetables in clay. But I tried and at the end of that season, I learned all about amending my soil.

    This also makes me think of an interaction I had at work a while back. Some of our students held a plant sale — everything was $1! I bought plants like chives, ferns, parsley. Great deal. Later, one of my particularly exuberant friends bought some seedlings too and was so incredibly delighted about it!  In her box, she had a lettuce seedling and a beet seedling and was telling me she was going to have fresh salads for her family all summer. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the lettuce seedling wouldn’t provide enough leaves for one salad, that the plant would probably bolt in a couple of weeks, and that the one beet seedling she bought would produce exactly one beet. A beet she paid a dollar for. I felt a little bad about not sharing the information, but I thought of my neighbor, and I thought of Janet and Steve.  Instead of nay-saying, I shared in her excitement.  I figured if she gets her hands dirty and does a little experimenting, she may catch the gardening bug — it’s not difficult to do. She may complain that the lettuce didn’t produce enough to garnish a sandwich. She may ask questions. And that is when I’ll show her how to sow her own row of beets and how to start her own salad bed.  

    Wendy is a DC Master Gardener who blogs at Greenish Thumb.


    1. Well said, Wendy! I completely agree with you – more often than not, there’s no good reason to rain on the inexperienced gardener’s parade. If you feel the need to sprinkle, do it gently. After all, just because something hasn’t been done successfully up to now doesn’t mean that it will never happen. Who knows – lightning could very well strike, and won’t that newbie gardener be pumped? And if they do fail, that’s when they WILL start asking questions and researching, and thereby set their feet on the path to becoming a better gardener!

      • Yes, they did take away the boards and the tinsel! We do try to be responsible, but we’re not going to get in there with tweezers – there will likely be some tinsel stuck in the tree. If I can get my family to cut the tinsel habit, that would be a good thing. This is for another post though.

        • Your neighbors sound like my exceedingly safety conscious
          practical parents. Of course you took the nails out so the city workers wouldn’t get hurt. Those nails could be hammered straight and reused. ( Still have baby food jars of old nails I inherited). The boards probably would have never made it to the curb but saved for another use. Of course you hand picked all the tinsel off. Cats like to eat and one might die a horrible death!

    2. Confession – when my older next door neighbor got into gardening (her life had not been easy and she had lost a daughter a few years earlier) one day she proudly showed me the beautiful “mini morning glories” growing on her chain link fence. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was bindweed. I still wonder if that was the right decision, but it was so good to see her smile, caught up in her new hobby.

    3. I live in the Mojave Desert and I get the exact same thing…”You CAN’T grow ANYTHING in the desert.!” Really? Tell that to my very mature olive apricot and nectarine trees…say it to my tomatoes, radishes and lettuce. The mulberry trees that surround my home are laughing every time it hears someone say we can’t grow anything. We compost. We mulch. We use shade cloth during the hottest part of the day. Rain barrels collect water during the rainy season. We work hard on our mini farm…but it’s a heck of a lot better than hardly working.

    4. As a slow learner in the garden myself, I bite my tongue when a novice shoots off in the wrong direction. Experience is often the best teacher. Of course, if I am ASKED how to do something I’m off and running.

    5. Hi!

      Loved this blog, you seem so down to earth! (pun intended =)

      Totally agree, just help a neighbor with their gardening needs, help them, and you’re right, they might just become a gardener themselves. Sometimes I think gardeners (the super high-end ones) can get to high and mighty that you don’t want to ask them questions…..I don’t like that. Approachable is so wonderful!

      I’m better than a novice, have a background in farm veggies as a kids growing up. Now I have a raised bed garden because my yard is just so clayish. Had to bring in my own topsoil or nothing would grow. I

    6. I am sort of a novice. We had a garden when I was a kid but that was a long time ago. Now I’ve finally got a garden. I know I’m doing some things wrong, but it’s how I’ll learn. Thankfully there are sites like yours to shorten the learning curve.

    7. i have to say, when i was a kid, tinsel for the christmas tree was made out of LEAD—–they hung nicely, w/ the weight—–and we used to love to chew on the darn stuff——–so i always wonder how much smarter we would be, if we hadn’t ingested all that lead!!!!

    8. Bravo! It’s true. If we’re so quick with the negative this or that, the seekers/novices are going to think it’s too hard or too complicated. What a shame that would be. I’ve always tried to be careful when offering advice. It’s much more likely to be received if it’s asked for first.

    9. Hey Wendy! So many outstanding points here….I especially liked the part about your neighbors trying in their own way to help you out but in the end kinda not helping you out. This can be found everywhere. The trick is, like you said, is to share in the excitement especially when it comes to the garden. You want people to catch that bug because it will educate and help change the direction we are going. Great work here friend! Nicole


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