Why You Should be a Self-Taught Gardner
by Sandy Swegel
I garden and landscape for a living. I have accumulated a massive amount of information about the best ways to grow things, to take care of the soil, to encourage native plants and bees, etc. When I’m talking to people, they naturally assume I have a degree in horticulture or botany. So it surprises people to learn I have a BA in History and an MA in Theology. I’ve been thinking a lot about this because my friend’s kids are all starting college and trying to decide what to major in. I had no idea when I was 18 that I would one day garden for a living. But studying history taught me to think and analyze and reflect. And studying theology taught me the world is a mystery and it’s important to learn to observe and notice and simply “be” with nature.
So I encourage everyone to become self-taught gardening experts. You don’t have to go to school or even study. You just need to start noticing what’s going on in the natural world. No teacher can tell you as much as your own personal experience will. If you’re just a little systematic about it, you can be a much better gardener at the end of this year. Here’s some homework to learn how to become a great gardener:
Keeping a garden journal of what you do, what you plant and what the weather is like is a great way to learn. You may not know why what you are writing is important (when you planted, when plants started, days without rain, birds and insects observed, etc) but in hindsight, you can figure out when to plant so there are flowers for hummingbirds, or how much rain it takes to have big fungal outbreaks. Even just being able to read the seed packet you glued into your journal when it’s time to harvest will be a big help. Keep notes. Understand them later.
Pick a specialty this season.
One year I decided to learn herbs. I bought seeds and plants of every herb I could think of and grew them in a tiny 4 x 6-foot garden. I learned tansy is a big space hog that kinda stinks and crowds out the other plants, that cilantro and dill practically grow themselves, and that ginger root from the grocery store grows beautiful plants and tons of free ginger.
Take pictures of everything that intrigues you.
Take shots of plants in other people’s yards, wildflowers on walks, blooming containers, weird plants you’ve never seen before. The photos will show you what you like and what really interests you.
Just look and notice everywhere you go. Ask questions of gardeners. Wonder about the weather. Notice creepy crawly things or buzzing flying things. Again. Just take notice with a sense of wonder. You’ll make sense of it eventually.
One thing I’ve noticed about our BBB Seed readers: you notice the natural world. You stand in awe at beautiful landscapes, tiny birds in nests, and clever ways people arrange flowers in a shabby chic decoration. Use these great powers of observation and really teach yourself something new this year.