The 6 Life Lessons I Learned as a First-Time Gardener

When my husband and I moved into our current rental, I looked upon our open yard with great excitement. Living an apartment lifestyle sans green space for nearly three years beforehand spawned a serious desire get in touch with plant life. Potted herbs on the windowsills of my previous rentals held me over for some time, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of wanting to get outside and finally bring a yard to life.

I quickly learned that successful gardening is no small feat. A combination of the right tools, a nurturing aura, and intense sweat equity was crucial to the process; that much I understood. But the most valuable lessons I took away popped up between the beads of sweat and rows of dirt.


Screwups inspire creativity.

I was a tad overzealous when it came to placing my first vegetable seedlings. Before my husband could shift into park in the Lowes lot, I was already in the gardening section picking out tomato, basil, and jalapeno pepper plants, carrying them like my newly adopted children. This was in March.

Pennsylvanians know that the “last frost” can be anywhere between March and May, but that didn’t stop me from plopping my babies into the ground as soon as we got home. Needless to say, I watched in horror as the leaves of my tomato plants started to yellow from frostbite.

A few hours and flying scissors later, I created makeshift greenhouses from recycled gallon jugs. It certainly wasn’t ideal, but those buggers survived three more weeks of frost and ended up being the most prolific plants.

 

Small victories deserve celebration.

When the first few bits of lettuce, beans, and herbs started making their way from the soil to my plate, I figured it was high time to get experimental. On a whim, I purchased a watermelon plant from the local greenhouse and shoved it between my zucchini and broccoli plants.

Weeks went by with no sign of movement from my watermelon. As I scraped my garden for weeds, I almost pulled the watermelon up thinking it was a small, invasive vine. What stopped me was the weight of a marble-sized baby watermelon near the main stalk of the plant. I squealed.

I shared my victory with everyone: Instagram, Facebook, family group messages. Though the watermelon never got past the size of a bouncy ball, nothing could extinguish the pride I had anytime I took a visitor on a tour of my garden.

 

You can’t stop the neighborhood cat.

Cats know nothing of private property, but rather the art of taking advantage of freshly turned dirt. I could be elbow deep in dirt before smelling the overwhelming gifts that Olive, the neighboring feline, buried so close to my herbs. Unexpected lesson here: If you don’t shit where you eat, that does not mean something else won’t.

After several fits of disgust and many failed “shoos,” it was apparent that sweet Olive maintained eminent domain over my plots. Being too cheap to try preventative landscaping measures, I made Olive an outdoor litter box where she could come and go as she pleased. She got to eliminate in familiar territory and I was spared the use of my gag reflex.

The lesson here is that sometimes the best course of action is swallowing your pride and creatively compromising with your enemies.

 

If you can’t destroy it, maintain it.

The furthest corner of my yard was home to a massive pokeweed plant, whose fruitful production of berries ensured that our sidewalk sported bird poop splotches in the brightest of pinks. I made my husband machete the crap out of it in hopes of shocking it enough to die off.

Anyone who has dealt with pokeweed knows that it’s not keen on “dying off,” but the roots were too deep to upheave and I didn’t want to spray weed killer so close to my tomatoes. This beast of a plant managed to regenerate every. Freaking. Week. Instead of angrily chopping it down as I was so apt to do, I took the more gentle approach of slicing away its topmost leaves whenever it got unruly and leaving it at that. I saved myself the stress of trying to win.

 

Your mind is soil.

2016 saw the deaths of two family members. While those two deserve much more than a passing mention, that’s another post for another time. After their deaths, I knew I needed to sift through my emotions before they caught up with me, even though the world spun cruelly on. For me, a clear mind is the result of deliberate distractions. I found that much-needed distraction in my garden, where nobody spoke to me apart from the quiet acknowledgement of my plants.

I dug my spade deep into the earth to relocate the bulbs away from the vegetables and the vegetables away from the shade. As I drifted into the monotony of carve, pry, place, I dreamt of the convenience of burying my thoughts in the same manner.

Cancer: buried.

Surgical slips: buried.

The heartbreak of seeing my grandmothers cry: buried, buried, buried.

I realize now the importance of burying emotions without the intention of hiding them, but rather with the intention of transforming them. Your mind is soil; plant only what you want to grow, and tend to the weeds frequently.

 

When you have more than you need, give.

A balmy July crept into my green space, and with it came a harvest begging to be plated. I picked the first bits of zucchini, tomatoes, and peppers thinking I’d need to stretch out the bounty until the next crop surfaced. As it turned out, I was in the garden every other day, adding pounds of produce to a basket that seemed smaller and smaller each week.

The amount of produce was overwhelming at first, but my friends, family, and coworkers were beneficiaries of this overabundance. I was overjoyed when visitors came by the house and left with a grocery bag of vegetables. Knowing I could provide nourishment to not only myself but to my loved ones made the sunburn and bug bites (somewhat) worth it.


Gardening is like any other form of therapeutic rituals. The repetitiveness aided in clearing my mind while the surprises keep it challenging and new. But unlike some hobbies, there was a tangible outcome besides a clear mind and happy heart. The vegetables and flowers seemed to grow larger and more colorful with the more time I spent on them, as if their beauty was a direct result of my nurturing. For that feeling, I would sacrifice clean nails any day.