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Goodbye, Black Thumb: How I Learned to Grow a Garden

As a kid, I remember my mother having a garden every year - some more carefully tended than others, but it was always there in a corner section of the backyard. Well, until the ants took it over - I think they won that one.

Or maybe it was the four children who kept her too busy to garden. Either way.

Once we were all grown though, she returned to gardening. Sparked by my mom's joy in bringing life to seedlings and tending to them as they grew, I was inspired to try it myself. I started with herbs in containers, I was told you couldn't mess it up. When my sickly little basil plant died within a week, I tried a simple flower pot. You guessed it: that wilted right quick. I even gave seedlings in the ground a shot, despite bouncing from rental to rental, and not knowing if I'd ever see anything come of it.

Nothing ever survived.

For most of my adult life, I just assumed I was cursed with a black thumb. Clearly, this growing your own food - or even taking care of a plant in Mother Nature's place - is way harder than it looks.

A Small Potted Plant in our Tiny House School Bus

Yes, this plant died. Duh.

A couple of years ago, I bought some succulents for my studio at work. I hadn't slowly and torturously killed any succulent plants yet, and a friend had informed me that they were ridiculously easy to keep alive.

I wish I could say those died, too. But I couldn't honestly tell you. As I was closing in on celebrating two weeks of keeping a plant alive (yes, I mean celebrated!), someone stole them right off our patio.

The nerve. Who does that?!

Despite my failure-filled past with plants, I decided when we purchased our property in 2018 that I would conquer the gardening beast.

I started in the fall of 2018 with some raised beds. Despite cramming plants into beds late in the season, dealing with water restrictions and severe drought, and generally having not a clue what I was doing, I pulled it off. We harvested a handful of carrots (out of at least a hundred I planted). The kids ate their daily fill of green beans for a few weeks before the first frost hit. And the bok choy was so abundant, I was feeding it to the chickens.

Now, the broccoli never formed. I had three-foot tall broccoli plants with no heads. And only one cilantro plant survived. And the green cabbage... well, I don't really know what happened there.

But moving on...

Over the winter, I read, researched, schemed, drew up plans, and ordered seeds. I started a slew of plants throughout February, March, and April.

And when the ground thawed in MAY (because the midwest hates us this year), we got to work following through on the plan...

Roots & Dreams 2019 Garden Plots

One of our two gardens on the homestead.

Yup. That's my big 30 ft x 40 ft main veggie garden which sits across from my 16 ft x 20 ft secondary garden.

Collectively, 1520 square feet of garden space.

I snapped this photo with so much hope for this year. If you had soil vision, you'd see the carrots and the corn and the cucumbers and the peas and green beans and... so much more.

And while many things are growing phenomenally, I've had plenty of failures so far. Instead of throwing my hands up and assuming that I must carry some kind of plant killer gene, I've learned to take those failures in stride and use them as learning opportunities.

Going from "lethal touch" to "hey, sometimes, things don't die"

It's occurred to me as I share our homesteading journey on Instagram that I am not alone. Turns out, there's a whole ton of peeps out in the world who think they're destined to only getting their food from other more talented folks. 

So, while I'm no Garden Goddess as indicated in the title, I have managed to eat food I've grown myself and that's a freakin' feat of strength for a reformed black thumb. Here's what I did to get where I am:

1) I focused on my soil.

Turns out plants are finicky about the ground they're planted in. Yeah, dirt isn't just dirt. Mind. Blown.

Here in the midwest, we have so much clay that in the dead of the dry hot summer, it feels like walking on concrete. But if we get any rain, you get to experience what quicksand in the movies looks like. Obviously, that's not going to work great.

First, I tested our soil with a Luster Leaf Rapitest Soil Test Kit. Surprise, surprise - our soil sucked.

So, last fall, I used raised beds with a mixture of coconut coir, perlite, compost, and raised bed soil rather than trying to fight the current condition of the ground.

The First Garden

The simple raised beds we put together the first year.

After the season ended, we dumped the beds into the garden, spread it out, and threw down some cover crop seeds.

In early spring, we turned out all of our compost onto the garden alongside Dr. Earth fertilizer I got on the end of season clearance last year and a very generous amount of chicken manure from our flock. We tilled everything in. Then, we got more snow and everything froze again. A month later, I was able to test our soil and see that I had made a LOT of progress already.

Moving forward, I'll keep testing and making choices for what to add to the soil to get where we need to be. 

2) I researched and planned my plants.

Between all of the seed catalogs, there is SO MUCH conflicting information. You would think the people who sell seeds would be the most reliable, but no. I have no clue who to believe.

So, instead, I compiled a spreadsheet of averages and means using extension offices, seed catalogs, and gardening websites.

I planned out the garden based on sunlight, water runoff, ease of moving around, and companion planting. I also made sure that I was paying attention to soil in each location and what the plant will do to (or need from) that soil.

Then, I wrote out a calendar of when each plant needed to be started, transplanted, sown in the ground, reach maturity, and wrap up harvesting. I didn't stick to it 100% and of course, Mother Nature had other plans. But having a plan helped prevent me from trying to grow plants willy nilly all over the place.

For future plans, I'm making sure to rotate crops to help improve the soil, regularly test the soil, and planting cover crops between.

Starting Seeds Inside

I also chose to leave the garden overgrown with clover, vetch, and other nitrogen fixers, only weeding back what seems to bother the veggies I'm growing. I like the thought that a plant is only a weed based on it's growing location. I get to say I don't have any weeds... because I want them there.

Besides, who has time to weed enough to keep up with 30 inches of rain in a month? Not me.

3) I surrounded myself with people who knew way more than I did.

The great thing about the internet is that there is a ton of information and resources available. Since I've been documenting our homestead journey on Instagram, I've started following some amazing fellow homesteaders and gardeners.

Just by constantly seeing content about growing plants and tending to a garden, I have learned so much. Plus, I started to develop and find my own style when it comes to our garden. (Remember, I don't like weeding. Maybe that's wrong, but I like it.)

Here are some of my favorite gardening accounts to follow on Instagram:

And if Instagram isn't your thing, there are magazines, books, TV shows, blogs, YouTube, and who knows what else. 

4) I realized it's okay to mess up.

 As a small business owner, a soapmaker, a mama, a wife, and so many other things, I already knew that people aren't perfect. And that includes me.

I'm not going to have all the answers. Plants will die. That doesn't mean I'm broken or can't do this gardening thing.

And sometimes, what someone else might consider a mess up, I might not. Because like everything else, there are a million and one philosophies on the "right" way. 

When you stop looking at gardening as a right way and a wrong way or a green thumb and a black thumb, you realize it's a spectrum of success, failure, joy, hard work, and frustration. And that makes me happy and inspires me to keep going.

Besides, it wouldn't be any fun if it was easy.

2 comments

  • I love what you guys are doing! Growing food is addictive! We have a very small block of land, but it’s amazing what you can get in a small space. And you’re right about soil health! It’s really everything. I follow these peeps near me; https://goodlifepermaculture.com.au – maybe there might be something of interest there? All the best wishes for your wonderful family and farm, Kenna.

    Luisa
  • The only reason why I founding weeding therapeutic when you were growing up is because you kids hated it so you left me alone! Solitude is a slice of heaven when you’re a mom of 4.

    Mom

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