It’s been one week. One week since I moved from the suburbs of Nashville to Hickman County, Tennessee.
I’ve moved many times and into various types of places, but this move was the most drastic. I used to occupy a 10 x 9 extra bedroom in the house my cousin and her husband bought a year and a half ago in La Vergne.
Now, I’m living in a roughly 500 square foot A frame cabin that was probably around when Indians killed Edwin Hickman, whom the county is named after, at Defeated Creek in the early 1800s (trust me, the irony isn’t lost on me).
With a space to call my own, it’s like I’ve unlocked a new level of a game. All of the projects I yearned to do can actually be done, starting with gardening.
Let’s be clear, I have no experience gardening. I’m from Indiana, so I grew up on casseroles and pies sourced from the finest canned ingredients you could find half price on a Kroger shelf. During the summer, my brothers and I survived on Spaghettios and grilled cheeses made with the holy grail of dairy blocks: Velveeta.
It wasn’t until I graduated college and moved back home for a year that I got into a health kick which would change my perception of food forever. Every day, I drove straight home from my internship in Indianapolis to the gym where I ran 3 to 6 miles and lifted weights. Then, I went home, showered, and made the family dinner. You could say it was my rent.
I started buying ingredients from the outer aisles of the grocery store, avoiding the inner shelves like the former high school classmates I didn’t want to bump carts with. Whole grains, vegetables representing every shade on the color wheel, and fruits for dessert.
Such is the tale told in every Weight Watchers commercial; I felt better than ever. Processed foods weren’t weighing me down like an anchor tossed over the side of a ship anymore. I felt free.
A year later, I received a job two states south in Tennessee. I met a guy on Tinder who is every bit as weird and health-obsessed as me, and he introduced me to permaculture principles like the Ruth Stout method and silvo farming.
So when I finally got out of the city and into the country, the first order of business was to try this gardening thing out for myself. I’d be lying if I said it was easy.
One weekend in the sun, and I can already say with complete confidence that gardening will test the limits of my personality. Instead of taking a begrudging outlook on it, I’m accepting it as the stage of life I need to be in; the lessons the universe believes I need to learn right now.
1. Patience is your friend.
Building a planter bed is a process. As my shovel grappled with the rocks scattered within the ground, I learned quickly to abandon all hope that this project would be complete in one day.
I’m used to the corporate pace. I’ve sat in many conference rooms while men in tan slacks and women in sharp blazers preached the benefits of “minimum viable” execution. So, I can create something from nothing in a day without too much trouble.
But this planter bed was different. I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to show my friend (and the world on social media) that I could build not just any planter bed, but a Sistine Chapel, masterpiece of a plantar bed.
My hope faded as the tip of the shovel met sturdy roots from the trees on the outskirts of the planter bed. I didn’t know any better, so I took a saw to them, carving a path for my soon-to-be-planted vegetables to sprout. Or so I thought… I learned afterwards that 1) I could have damaged the tree (duh) and 2) the roots actually provide the planter bed with wood that will eventually deteriorate, producing a richer, healthier soil.
2. Perfectionism is the enemy.
I didn’t know while I was building the planter bed that I had already made a mistake with the tree roots. I still believed I was on track for the perfect bed that would knock everyone off their feet.
But, the light was fading fast. The sun was three quarters of the way crested across the tree line. A screen door screeched as my neighbor across the street descended from his mobile home.
“You look confused,” he shouted in my direction.
How did he know? Was I that obvious? Hovered over my iPhone scrolling through the directions my friend gave me in Facebook Messenger, which should have been straightforward, but might as well have been calculus in that moment.
“1st layer sticks, grass, and leaves
2nd layer sod (Upside down)
3rd layer is crumbled up original dirt mixed with some sand (Not too much), peat moss, and compost/manure
Then a thick mulch layer of leaves”
The industrial-sized refrigerator hole in the ground tainted me. “Find the derivative of this patch!”
For the past year, I had been watching my friend amend his soil, construct siding from fallen down branches, and follow the Ruth Stout method like the Ten Commandments. When it came time for me to practice what I had only been participating in the past 12 months, I stumbled over the steps more than I had imagined I would.
Not many factors are consistent in gardening, but failure is a definite outcome. More often than not, you’ll look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Building a planter bed gives you the opportunity to bask in your ignorance. It’s not everyday that you get paid to learn, so don’t allow failures to hold you back in the garden. You’ll earn so much more in knowledge about your land and understanding of nature’s processes the more you fail that it’s worth any feelings of inadequacy.
3. Accept help from strangers.
After I laid down the layer of sod, it was time to pack on some compost and manure. The day before I stopped by Walmart. You can get several pounds for just under $3.
I also bought two 25-pound bags of potting soil from the local co-op, which slouched over the compost and manure bags. As I lifted one bag of potting soil with the underside of both arms, I exhaled loudly, forcing oxygen into my lungs like a baker frosting icing onto a cake.
My neighbor took notice, and he asked if he could help. This is the same neighbor who was chopping wood at 9 p.m. the night before, which I remember thinking was strange at the time.
At first, I declined his offer to help. Then I realized I was in “ask your neighbor for a cup of sugar” country. This new town I moved to was immune to cutthroat commutes and ticking clocks hanging over metal-framed cubicles. Preferred currency was whatever a person might need at any given time: meat, money, or manual labor.
I decided it would be rude of me to reject him.
“Wait one second, I’ll grab my wheelbarrow from the back yard,” he said.
Whether you’re in the country, a suburb, or city, let people who express an interest in helping you, help. If you aren’t going to be the superhero who builds the perfect planter bed in one day anyway, then what do you really have to lose? It would do you well to gain an ally in your neighborhood who might be willing to barter with you, especially when you have perky seedlings growing on your back deck.
4. Systems are nice in theory, but harder in practice.
Have you ever heard the joke that we pack for the people we want to be on vacation, not the people we are? As it relates to your garden, make sure you plan your garden for the gardener you are, not the gardener you want to be.
With gardening, there is a system for everyone: the lazy gardeners who don’t want to do or spend too much, the traditionalists who want to grow as their ancestors grew, and the enthusiasts whose dreams are bigger than the space they have.
Whether you choose a permaculture setup, raised beds, or a traditional tilled vegetable garden, the nature of your garden and lot location will likely dictate for you which systems will work for your conditions.
With gardening, you learn to make sacrifices. Should you use the system that proves most successful according to nature? Or should you tend your land to meet your lifestyle needs and take a few hits to your productivity as a result?
You’ll learn in the first few hours of building a planter bed that systems break down often, and the idea you started with is usually not the product you end up with.
Get Out There and Garden
The journey from planning a planter bed to putting seeds in the soil is daunting to the beginner. As a beginner gardener myself, I recommend disassociating yourself to the outcome and immersing yourself in the process, no matter how long it takes. Erase the limiting belief from your mind that “you don’t have a green thumb.” No one does if they never put their thumb in the ground.
Writer, runner, baker...in that order. On a personal quest to become as self-sufficient as possible. Join me @marathonacres!