I was asked to write to a group of students at an inner-city residential treatment center, who are going to start a garden. This is the letter I wrote to them.
Hello – I hear you are going to start a garden. Congratulations. When you start a garden, you are also starting an adventure. And like all good adventures, it is a journey where you start in one place and sometimes end up where you expected and sometimes you end up someplace very different than you thought you would. Starting a garden is an act of faith, joy and, to be honest, a bit of an act of insanity.
Let me explain. Gardening isn’t easy. If anyone tells you there is a foolproof method, plant or fertilizer, well then, they are the fool. There are no guarantees with gardening--you can do everything perfectly and still fail. The good news is that you can also make lots of mistakes and still succeed.
When you depend on the weather, you are gambling. Mother nature can be a witch. She can hurl down too much rain, droughts that will make you weep and winds that will shred your tender plants. Sometimes she even sends a plague of locusts. That said, she can also send the perfect gentle rain that will water your seedlings just the right amount and feed your soul. She can send the sunlight that will dazzle your eyes and delight your tomato plants. In a word, she is unpredictable.
I will be honest with you. Gardening is hard work. There is no getting around it. You will sweat and get dirty, sore and tired. Gardening is also a commitment. If you forget to water something or want to take a long break away from your garden in the middle of the growing season, chances are your plants will die and your garden won’t thrive. It’s that simple.
Then why garden, you might ask. There are of course the practical reasons. As Ron Finley, a gardener from South Central Los Angeles says, “Growing food is like printing money.” It truly can be. You can buy a packet of seeds for a few dollars and get a ridiculous return on your money. Fancy greens sell in stores for huge amounts of money, yet they only cost pennies to grow. Like lettuce and cucumbers? You can grow pounds and pounds of them, and they will be the best you have ever tasted. Hot peppers and cilantro? You can grow buckets full and have them to eat without ever going to the store.
People aren’t born with green thumbs. That is a ridiculous myth. People who are good gardeners pay attention. They have learned what plants need and they give it to them. Anyone can be a good or even a great gardener. It is truly equal opportunity endeavor, because you know what: plants don’t care who you are. They don’t care about your past and they don’t care about your future. They don’t care if you have issues or if you are rich, poor or pretty. They only care that you are present and will care for them.
I garden for all of these reasons, but here’s really why I garden. It’s one of the few things I do where I get to help create small miracles. I plant a tiny dry tomato seed. It germinates and turns into a fragile seedling. With a combination of effort, patience and good luck, it turns into a huge, sprawling plant and starts to flower. The bees and pollinators do their thing and tiny tomatoes appear. They grow and ripen, and when I pick them off the vine and eat them, it feels like I am eating magic. It seems impossible that the seed at the start of the season became this juicy, spectacularly delicious tomato that I get to eat.
And finally here’s some advice. You will kill plants. Even the best gardeners in the world kill plants…and that’s fine. The good news is that if you pay attention, you will learn from killing plants. Maybe you over-watered a plant and it keeled over dead or maybe you forgot to water it enough. Maybe next time you will do it right. Or it might take a few tries, but one day, more of your plants will survive than die and that feels great.
Gardening is a something you have to learn--it is not something you are born knowing or can be instantly good at. It requires knowledge and experience, which you can and will get with time, and practice. You can also ask for help. I have found that gardeners are some of the most generous people in the world. Ask them questions and most of the time they will either give you answers or help you find them. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you don’t know something. If there is no one around to ask, look it up online or in books. There are huge resources of knowledge available to you for free.
Gardening isn’t going to be for everyone, but for those who embrace it, it can change your life; give you something to be proud of and who knows, at the end of it, you might even like eating kale.
Here are some links to get you started with your container gardens: