In my two-ish seasons of planting last year, I never found a balance between the whimsical and poetic dreams of my aspirational garden, and the realities of planning and structure. In truth, I struggle with finding this balance in all creative fields, not just gardening: I assume that structure will inhibit creativity and turn my work into something automatic or bland. I also tend to rush the creaky and often cranky creative process along, in gardening and work, perpetually more goal-oriented than process-based. If the goal is perfectly plump Brandywine tomatoes, well then, let’s get there already. If the goal is a field of wildflowers in the backyard, why then, are they not blooming yet? I viscerally yearn for green and lush flowers and vegetables, my camera at the ready. It’s early February now, and as I stare out the window, I can easily picture the muddy ground, the brown mushy garden plots, the hibernating plants changing into something lush and beautiful before my eyes.
I’m still a new gardener, and so last year I wrote off all my mistakes, errors, and successes as part of my ongoing education. Though I absorbed pertinent information about drainage and light and how annoying our neighborhood squirrels are, the main lesson from last year’s garden wasn’t actually gardening specific.
The garden and weather forgave a lot of transgressions last year – but not all of them. I started my tomatoes incredibly late, but we had an exceptionally long and hot summer, allowing me to collect bowls full of various colors and shapes. I put the zinnia seeds into the ground a month after I planned to, and then became convinced that I was going to miss their blooms when we were out of town for three weeks in September. Instead, those beauties stayed in full bloom for an entire month after we returned. There were failures too: I successfully started butternut squash, but I started the seeds too late; by the time the healthy starts were put into the ground, they faced a chilly, wet fall without enough light or warmth to ever fruit.
Though I feel joy and take comfort in any and all garden successes, this year, I plan to balance those ricocheting feelings with actual data and structure. If a plant is attacked by a certain fungus or bug, and despite my attempts to rectify the situation, it succumbs, I’ll shake it off. But if I transplant a certain vegetable two months too late, that’s definitively an error – and one that I’m not planning on making this year.
In January, in between bouts of staring wistfully out the window, I created a garden spreadsheet listing all of the seeds I owned and planned to purchase, broken down by type of seeds, with columns for seeding dates, germination timelines, and dates to maturity, among many others. I then divided the chart according to month, an effective cheat sheet for what to seed when and an answer to the chaotic timelines and misused space of last year. I also drew a garden map, complete with the four new raised beds we’ll construct over the next month, and, with a pencil, deposited all of the various plants into these beds, even calculating the square inches of the bed in relation to how many plants I should germinate.
And speaking of germination, I committed this year, no longer content to rely on a tiny heat mat and the dull window light. I bought a three tier grow light system from Johnny’s and as I type, broccoli plants sit below me in the basement, popped up and green, as well as a number of flowers (delphiniums, hollyhocks, snapdragons) that I plan on scattering throughout the yard and garden.
Structure won’t prevent errors or failures, or naturally lead to successes, but this new system will provide a template to track the positives and negatives and ideally allow even more room for whimsy and creativity.