What’s the Gardening Class Before Remedial?

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Written and Posted by: Lisa Simpson

I am going to show you something that is terrifying and might not be appropriate for small children or people with a tendency to faint or throw up. Okay, ready?

Here it is. It’s my yard.


Isn’t that just Stephen King can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head, afraid to sleep without a night-light scary? All that empty space.

Kathleen lives on a standard Seattle lot, and manages to grow basil, tomatoes and herbs. By Seattle standards, I live on property that should be enough land to qualify as a sovereign nation. I can’t figure out why the tulips don’t bloom. Maybe they’re not tulips. The deer killed the raspberries when they slept on them for a week. I have managed to not kill the previous owner’s rhubarb.

In the first two years here, most of our spare time was spent simply cleaning up the property. Amongst the 50 year-old apple trees was a leftover collection of rickety buildings (one held up by a single piece of lumber wedged in a corner), piles of junk (we lost count of the freezers we found in a blackberry bramble. 15? 20?) and enough rats to convince me that a Disney movie about a rodent with chef-aspirations was not a cute idea. Where most people saw potential we saw another long weekend trying to convince the HazMat dump to accept paint cans that had last been opened in the Truman era.

It’s uncharacteristic of me to be the “yeah, but” person. I want to do something, plant something, grow something. Yeah but… mosquitoes, deer, rabbits, hardpan, wetlands, compost. Yeah, but… slugs, moles, crows, micro-climates, mulch, frost dates, weeds…. People see potential, but like any blank slate it’s intimidating to not know where to start. You want me to organize your office, your house, your life? I can do that. I haven’t a clue how to grow a tomato, much less a slightly overgrown and benignly neglected English/French garden with benches and flowers and a wood-burning oven. How does any of that happen without a staff and groundskeeper and a couple hundred years of heredity?

The East Coast and the Olympic athletes have had a rough winter, but for the rest of us here it’s been a lovely early spring and I keep looking out my window at this stretch of green grass and I keep thinking I oughta do something with it. I thought about what I buy most at the market (herbs, potatoes, collard greens, lettuces) and I think I can grow that stuff. So I’ve sent off for a seed catalogue and I’m thinking about, you know, gardening, in general because I’m so inexperienced I don’t even know specifics to consider. Listening to Real Gardeners talk about soil prep and amendments, temperate zones and compost composition is like listening to adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. Waahh Wahwah wahwahwaahh.

My mother and grandfathers have green thumbs that I hope are laying dormant within me and I think I have a gardening book from Sunset magazine somewhere. Maybe I’ll discover my inner farmgirl. I’m hoping to get some thyme out of it.

Any suggestions on the tulips?

About katflinn

Kathleen Flinn is the author of "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry," "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School" and "Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good." All are published by Viking/Penguin.

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  2. It's the weeds! I can't abide wasting my time dealing with weeds. I have property in Maine that looks a lot like yours…sans the little outbuilding. And I too spent months just clearing the yard of years of accumulated junk–oil drums, tires, broken lawnmowers, oh I forgot, there was a crummy shack I had to take down. Once I got it cleared, I ripped out the ragged grass and had the whole yard reseeded. I'm proud of my lawn, and I love my restored 1870s farmhouse and barn (took two years to bring that back from the near dead). I mow weekly. But garden? No way.My dad was a dedicated gardener. He claimed it was in his Illinois roots. My sister got his genes. Not me. The problem is that I love to look at beautiful gardens, and I love the idea of having fresh vegetables.I have solved my dilemma. A friend of mine needs to get a re-start on her life. Too much trauma and tragedy to describe here. I've invited her to come stay at my home for 6 months. She loves to garden, and I've described my large yard as a blank canvas, just waiting her touch. I can't wait to see the results.

  3. I too will add my voice. My property is not large, city lot size, but we've just gone through a reno and the grounds took a beating. I'm basically starting from scratch. I'm not a gardener, but like you come from farming stock on my mother's side. My grandparents owned a farm in Manitoba where my Mom grew up. She in term always (and I mean always) had a backyard garden, flowers/vegetables. I did have chores of digging and weeding, but never actually had a garden of my own. I'm now should how to start or what to grow. It will become this year's project, besides getting another job (but that is another story).I wish luck with your project.Janet

  4. Oh my gosh, it's so easy. I have killed plants my entire life, but somehow, when I started with vegetables last year with no experience, it just worked.My advice would be just to start small with a little area that's fairly sunny and already clear/clean and close to your back door – don't worry about the rest of the property. Start small and easy and manageable, or you'll never do it. Get some wood planks from Home Depot or Lowes in whatever size you want, nail them together in a rectangle, and fill it with some real dirt, some garden soil in bags, a bag or two of compost from the store, and a bag of organic fertilizer. I built mine against a fence to save some $ and effort on the fourth wall. Mix it all together and spread it out evenly in the box, and you've got a raised garden bed. Plant your seeds according to each packet you get in the mail. If you don't want to build a bed, just pull up the grass, loosen the soil with a shovel about a foot, and go to town with your compost/fertilizer and seeds.I'm not so good with growing stuff from seed, so I buy some seeds and some little plants already started. Put them int he ground, water every day, and it's pretty foolproof. I've got several posts on my gardening adventures on my blog, if you're so inclined. Good luck!! You can do it!! 🙂

  5. Oh my gosh, it's so easy. I have killed plants my entire life, but somehow, when I started with vegetables last year with no experience, it just worked.My advice would be just to start small with a little area that's fairly sunny and already clear/clean and close to your back door – don't worry about the rest of the property. Start small and easy and manageable, or you'll never do it. Get some wood planks from Home Depot or Lowes in whatever size you want, nail them together in a rectangle, and fill it with some real dirt, some garden soil in bags, a bag or two of compost from the store, and a bag of organic fertilizer. I built mine against a fence to save some $ and effort on the fourth wall. Mix it all together and spread it out evenly in the box, and you've got a raised garden bed. Plant your seeds according to each packet you get in the mail. If you don't want to build a bed, just pull up the grass, loosen the soil with a shovel about a foot, and go to town with your compost/fertilizer and seeds.I'm not so good with growing stuff from seed, so I buy some seeds and some little plants already started. Put them int he ground, water every day, and it's pretty foolproof. I've got several posts on my gardening adventures on my blog, if you're so inclined. Good luck!! You can do it!! 🙂

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  11. Ok.. I'm a few miles south of Seattle (Lewis County)… but I can tell you, if the deer are sleeping on your raspberries, they are also munching down on the tulip buds. Tulips are like CANDY to them. I gave up and planted daffodils, SUCCESS!

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