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Two Top Ten Lists From the Lazy Organic Gardener

In honor of Earth Day, I'm recycling (and updating) some Lazy Organic Gardener tips from last spring. I put in four-plus hours weeding in the garden last weekend, and that was satisfying, but not very interesting to write about. For those five or six of you who've read these tips before — hi Mom — it's probably been long enough that you've forgotten most of them.

With spring upon us, I was recently asked for some tips for people getting started gardening. I hesitated  — giving tips implies expertise, which I've never pretended to have — but I very much want to encourage people to garden, so here goes. In keeping with my "lazy" brand, however, I'm not promising any research or fact-checking here, nor will I refund your wasted time if the tips don't pan out. Caveat emtor and all that — note: that's the last Latin you're going to see from me. I'm not about look up scientific names of plants.

Before I embark on the Top Ten Tips on How to Get Started Gardening, I want to answer the broader question of why I garden, and why maybe, you might consider gardening yourself, if you so choose. (No hard sell here.)

(If you already know you want to garden, you can jump down directly to the tips. But then you'll miss half the fun.)

Why I Garden

1. I like to be outside, doing physical work.

For someone who sits indoors in front of a computer for many hours every day, working with my hands outdoors gives me balance in my life. Walking, hiking, bicycling, running — for exercise, for pleasure, to get from one place to another — those activities are also a big part of my life, but I like being home, partly because I enjoy hanging out in my garden so much.

2. Gardening is meditative/therapeutic.

An hour in the garden might be frustrating now and then, and sometimes it's boring, but it always grounds me, keeps me sane. Sometimes I listen to music, or talk shows, or chat on the phone with my headset on. Just as often, I let my mind wander or percolate over whatever I'm grappling with. Like exercise, gardening almost always contributes at least a little to making my life better.

3. It keeps me tuned into the rhythm of the seasons, the lengths of the day, the angle of the sunlight.

We're now in the middle of "false spring" — fruit trees are exploding with blossoms and wildflowers and weeds are everywhere, but it's cool and the rainy season is still hanging on. Daylight savings has kicked in so, for the first time since fall, I have a block of daylight to garden after work. (Pulling weeds is a good way to decompress from the work day.)

4. It's an opportunity to be creative.

I've been a graphic designer for decades, but that's only two dimensions. Gardening has four, the usual three, plus the changes that come with the passage of time. There are a lot of elements to play with — color, shape, texture, smell, sound. (I don't have a bubbling fountain, but it's on my wish list.)

One of the designs I'm most pleased with is my curving flagstone path:

I have some garden art that I can move around — here's my pal Kokopelli playing a tune for the whimsical butterfly my sister gave me as a birthday present.

5. Food and flowers.

The only thing I'm harvesting these days is chard, kale, and lettuce I planted last fall, but soon there will be berries to pick and flowers to cut, and then later in the summer come the tomatoes, apples, squash, and so on. The two photos below are from last year in late May — the magenta flowers are lavatera and the orange and red ones are alstrameria, a.k.a., Peruvian lilies.

6. Replenishing the soil, giving back to the earth.

By applying compost, both from food waste and from the horse manure I get from Z's sister in Santa Cruz, I've been enriching the topsoil that the planet is losing at an alarming rate. It's part of the cycle of nature as much as the changing of the seasons. I’ve been amending the soil in my backyard for more than 20 years now.

7. Wildlife.

By keeping things organic and leaving more than half the yard somewhat wild, I attract a lot of critters. Hummingbirds, robins, and other birds. Butterflies, squirrels, lots of insects. Even an occasional raccoon.

8. Gardening builds community.

Gardening is something I share with my neighbors. While I grow most of my annuals in the backyard, which is where I get southern sun and shelter, I also have a small patch in the front, and I like working out there because it's more social. I'm surrounded by gardeners who are more serious than me, so I often end up with their leftovers. This year, for example, I may not need to buy tomato seedlings because one of my neighbors planted a few flats of seeds and won't have room for them all.

9. It's an opportunity to learn new things.

There are always new plants to grow. New designs to test. New chances to do things better. Last year, for example, I built garden beds, partly because things were getting too wild and the drip irrigation was getting too spaghetti-like. That made vegetable growing much easier.

10. Relaxation.

A garden is a great place to sit and veg out. It's an outdoor room, and, because I have a smallish house, my biggest room is my backyard, with its deck and garden. One of the best parts of gardening is not gardening —  sitting and savoring what I've accomplished, or imagining what I'm going to do next. Here I am sitting on the ledge of my garden beds.

Ten Easy Tips on How to Get Started Gardening 

1. Start small.

Fewer plants means less work. But get enough — at least a dozen or two — so if some fail to flourish, you won't be left with nothing.

2. Ask questions.

Go to a local nursery where there are people who know what grows well in your ecosystem and get a recommendation. Or better yet, ask the professional gardeners who frequent those nurseries. It will keep you from making silly mistakes. For example, where I live, in Berkeley, it's not hot enough to grow melons. I tried, and got one, the size of a tennis ball. But the Bay Area winter is perfect for greens like chard.

3. Get seedlings instead of seeds.

Some plants, like beans and zucchini, are easy to grow from seed, but starting with seedlings is easier.

4. Use garden soil and/or compost.

You can plant directly in the ground, but if you're starting anew, chances are the soil is less than ideal. Where I live, the clay soil is hard as a rock, though it's excellent once amended and loosened up with some digging and compost. (But that process took years.) Dig a hole, and fill it with the soil and compost. You can buy bags or truckloads of both, but there’s a lot available for free as well. Many horse stables will let you haul away horse manure. Some coffee shops will give spent grounds to anyone who’s willing to cart it away.

Of course, you can make your own compost too. I learned the intensive method, which involved chopping and layering and turning, but the pile-it-and-wait method works too.

5. Grow vegetables you love to eat.

In most parts of the country, tomatoes are the best bet. They're easy, prolific, and who doesn't love fresh tomatoes? Kale is easy, too, and I eat it, but it screams "healthy vegetable" more than "decadent pleasure."

6. Build your garden around easy plants.

Right now, in mid-April, my back yard is lush and green, and 90 percent of that is what I would characterize as “easy plants” that grow like weeds. (Of course, many of them are weeds.)

Trees and perennials form the foundation of my garden. I have seven fruit trees — pluots, apricot, apple, lemon, lime, and two plums — and raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries. All those are easy. And then there are shrubs like lavender and rosemary that smell lovely and take hardly any care.

My fences — chain link on one side and wooden on the other two — are completely invisible under ivy and morning glory. (Both invasive, a weed for many people, but they don’t take much work to cut back, and the morning glories are beautiful when they bloom.)

7. Grow natives.

Once established, they act like they belong there, and they will propagate themselves. A few years ago, I scattered California poppy seeds around my garden. Now, every year, around now, they pop up all over. Beauty without work.

8. Water regularly — every day or every other day when plants are young, two or three times a week once they get established.

I recommend a drip system with a timer, but that takes some upfront work to set, so you might want to put that off until later. If you do drip, the easiest is the soaker hose or the hose with emitters every six inches or so. You can set one of those up quickly. If don’t have drip and you're going to be away for a while and not able to water, you might try filing up wine bottles with water and turning them upside down quickly and pushing them into the soil. The water seeps into the soil gradually as the soil dries. Not as reliable as drip on a timer, but free and low-tech.

9. Get good gloves.

You can get the loose kind that fit all size hands, but I like the ones that fit more snugly, with a velcro strap to tighten them above my wrist. With gloves on, I almost feel like a real gardener.

10. Don't treat gardening like a chore.

Gardening can involve a lot of work, but you don't have to treat it like work. I work for a while, then rest. See #10 on the Why I Garden list. Sometimes at a logical stopping point, like when the green bin is full, I take a break.

Sometimes I feel like I'm in a hurry to get something done, like get lettuce in early before it gets too hot, but then I say to myself, "There's always tomorrow. Or next year."

11. And here's one bonus tip, which gives me a chance to link to a memorable column that has nothing to do with gardening — Wear sunscreen.

 — John Byrne Barry, a.k.a. Lazy Organic Gardener

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