Tales of a Gardening Wannabe: Introduction and Year to Date

Successful gardeners grow lovely flowers or provide themselves and their families with delicious fresh fruits, herbs, and vegetables to enjoy.

I am not so much of a successful gardener as I am a gardening wannabe.

I appreciate lovely flowers. They add color to your yard and smell nice.

I adore fresh fruits, herbs, and vegetables. Not only do they taste way better than anything I can buy in the store, but they can really reduce your grocery bill.

For the last seven years, we’ve planted something in our yard or on our patio each year. In most years, it’s been money down the drain. While we’ve had some success with basil, mint, and cilantro, we’ve also done a good job of feeding our local deer population and invested a fair amount in plants that shriveled up over vacations or never sprouted in the first place.

Nevertheless, we persist. This year, we purchased a bunch of seeds from the dollar store along with $35 worth of potting soil and plants from Home Depot. In late April, Little Bit and I dragged our various planters onto the patio and kicked off our planting season.

Two months later, we seem to be having some success. And at the urging of Revanche of A Gai Shan Life on our May State of the Blog update, I decided to do some periodic updates on our gardening efforts. Done well, gardening is a hobby that saves you money. Done as I’ve done it, maybe not.

My Gardening Resume

When I was a kid, both my parents had gardens, and my brother and I were encouraged to help out.

Dad’s vegetable garden was huge and rocky. I remember that he had some successes and failures, but don’t remember being enthused about much other than the wild blackberries that grew on the border. After a couple of years, he gave up gardening and used his time on other pursuits.

Mom’s garden was a much longer term project. She planted flowers in numerous beds and had a vegetable garden in the back. She also had a huge fig tree in the back, which provided fruit for preserves for her and a jungle gym for me. Mom composted before composting was cool. On my last visit with her, I remember Little Bit wandering through tall stalks of sweet corn and raspberry brambles, a gorgeous butternut squash plant flourishing out of her compost bin, and the sweet smells of lavender and basil drifting in from her herb garden.

Although I helped out at times, gardening didn’t hold my interest as a kid. I didn’t learn much from my experiences. But as I moved into my own house (and a real kitchen), I decided that having some fresh herbs around would be nice.  I bought some planters and some herbs and decorated the back porch. And I thought about planting other things, but mostly realized that my highly shaded yard wasn’t conducive to most plants.

Tales of a Gardening Wannabe: Introduction and Year to Date

We Buy Our House

My gardening efforts went on hold when I moved into Jon’s townhouse in 2007. We had no yard, and our deck was even shadier than my house. When Little Bit was born in 2010, though, we moved into our current house. Now we had a sunny backyard and plenty of room. We were thrilled when my father-in-law gave us a couple of tomato plants to enjoy…right up to the moment that the deer ate them to the ground. Each time they’d recover a bit, the deer would come back.

The deer have been a consistent nuisance. They ate blueberry bushes, grape vines, and even apple trees. The only plants that survived lived in pots on the patio.

Of those, some thrived and some didn’t. And we learned some lessons along the way:

  • Cute planter sets from Big Lots were a Big Bust. They were cheap, but the plants never sprouted.
  • Seeds are cheaper than plants, but way iffier. 
  • The potatoes Jon dumped in a pot on impulse made lovely plants, even if he planted them too close together to create much in the way of food.
  • Half-hearted composting does wonders for reducing the amount of trash in your trash cans, not so much for creating useful soil.
  • Gardening books don’t help your gardening efforts unless you actually read them.
  • Ditto having a father-in-law who is a retired plant physiologist. For the sake of my garden (not to mention peaceful coexistence), I should probably to talk to him about plants instead of just arguing over politics.

Successful Gardening is Not a Just-Wing-It Activity

I’m a Just Wing It type of person on a lot of things, particularly on hobbies. For the most part, it’s worked for me.

Cooking soup? Just wing it mostly works, if you understand a few basics. Baking, on the other hand, not so much. Get the measurements wrong, or even the humidity too high, and you end up with a cake disaster. Baking mostly requires strict adherence to recipes, if not Betty Crocker.

Other times, just winging it really hurt my ability to succeed. I started this blog with no clue and only a little research into what I was getting into. I was several months in before I found any traction, and even close to two years later, I could benefit from more structure and better strategizing.

Successful gardening is not a just-wing-it activity, and that’s probably why I’ve been stuck in Gardening Wannabe status. Even if plants grow in the wild with no help from humans, it doesn’t mean growing the plants you want

Even if plants grow in the wild with no help from humans, it doesn’t mean that growing the plants you want is easy or intuitive. It takes preparation, planning, and knowledge, and I’ve applied none of these to my gardening efforts. Mostly, I’ve had success through luck rather than skill, and that’s shown in my results.

Now I’m trying to change a few things. I’ve read a gardening book, rather than just skimming or looked at the pretty pictures. And I learned some things I’ve been doing that probably weren’t helping. I plan to at least read through a couple more before planning next year’s garden, and maybe what I read can pay off with this year’s plants.

I’ve been better about paying attention this year as well. Zucchini has been really great for reminding me that it and all of my other plants need to be watered more regularly. The slightest lack and its leaves begin to curl. It’s so big, it’s hard to ignore.

Our Current Garden

This year, I bought a mint plant and two tomato plants. I paid about $5 per plant. The mint has really flourished, and we’ve enjoyed it already. One of the tomato plants has three little green tomatoes, and the other has one.

Tomato and mint

Green tomatoes and mint

Jon and Little Bit spent about $3.50 on seeds at the dollar store at 25 cents a pack. Four of the packs went to Little Bit’s classroom garden. Meanwhile, we planted basil, parsley, carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, onions, and four varieties of peppers.

The basil is thriving, but something has definitely nibbled on the leaves. Whatever likes the basil likes at least one variety of peppers, too. So I’ve tried to split up the plants, hoping to confuse the critters. Maybe that way some of the plants will survive less scathed.

Basil on the left, peppers on the right!

One of the pepper plants didn’t sprout, but the others look healthy. I may replace the lazy plant with some more mint. The green onions have struggled, too. Maybe I overwatered them? At least the carrots and parsley look good.

Carrots and green onions

The carrot plants look good, but the green onions? Not so much

Unfortunately, I planted zucchini and cucumbers together. Not surprisingly to anyone who actually reads the gardening books they buy, the zucchini has overwhelmed the cucumbers, but the squash blossoms are gorgeous!

zucchini squash blossom

squash blossom

We also have a blueberry bush we bought a few years ago. Little Bit and I picked maybe 7 blueberries off it this year before the birds got to them. Oh well. At least we know it produces.

Pretty Plants, But a Good Value?

I still think it’s a bit early to say whether the $40 I spent on plants, seed, and soil this year will pay off when all I’ve used so far are some mint and basil leaves.While buying fresh herbs at the grocery store gets expensive, I wouldn’t necessarily buy them if I didn’t grow them.

On the other hand, I do enjoy having fresh herbs. Having lush green plants on the patio makes it look, feel, and smell a lot cozier than bare concrete. As a means of decorating, my garden is a heck of a lot cheaper than new patio furniture or even cushions. 

We’ll see. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the taste of mojitos, the scent of fresh basil, and the sight of zucchini blossoms.

Are you a gardener or a gardening wannabe? What’s your best gardening reference? What plants have you had success with, and what plants do you struggle to grow?

30 thoughts on “Tales of a Gardening Wannabe: Introduction and Year to Date

  1. I am suitably chastened – I had not-planned to just wing the garden but I also don’t want to lose money, either! Winging it totally works in SoCal where the soil is rich and sun is abundant year-round. I put down a tomato plant in the fall and we still managed to harvest tiny tomatos a couple months later!

    Neither of those apply here in the Bay Area so I will need to be more strategic, starting with understanding what kind of soil we need. I’m told that carrots are actually much more difficult to grow than we’d have thought, and you have to start with soil research. Once I get that done, I’ll start thinking about dividing my one planter up into three sections and see what we can grow!

    I would LOVE some garlic and herbs, and maybe a bit of fruit, in our garden. Zucchini is tempting but maybe just one plant so we’re not overrun?
    Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life recently posted…Life talk: maximizing timeMy Profile

    • Jon bought carrots, but they aren’t something I would have tried because they are so cheap. Peppers, tomatoes, and herbs, on the other hand, are pretty pricey.
      I think one or two zucchini would have been good if I’d started the seedlings inside. But since we started late, and I wasn’t sure which seeds would blossom, we overplanted. They’re gorgeous, though.

  2. I am a gardening wannabe! Just started when our home became an empty nest. This year we bought seeds and started most of our plants. I also bought two beautiful tomato plants for the patio. We also invested in a water barrel and did the engineering with gutters off the garage roof to fill with rain water. So like you, I have a price tag of about $93 into the cost of saving money on my produce! Not sure if it will pay off but it has been an experience. Our water barrel was purchased ($35) locally and the funds went to the Chemung County Water Conservation Society. I will consider that a donation for a good cause.

    • Cool Lisa. I’m sure that over the years, we’ve spent a lot more than $93. If I look at all the sunk costs from previous years, there’s no way I’ve broken even yet, even if I break even (or do a little better) for the year.
      It’s great that your water barrel purchase went to charity, though.

      • Just an update that I just got 4 juicy red tomatoes off my plants….Woot Woot! My rain barrel was almost empty and the beautiful rain fall filled it! I am happy about my garden today 🙂

        • Awesome! We got rain last night. Our plants needed it now that the weather’s inching into the 90s. Enjoy your tomatoes, Lisa!

  3. Because we live in a condo, our gardening options are limited by HOA rules. We have a Fuschia hanging basket and that’s it for our outdoor plants. I would love to be able to grow some veggies on the patio, but we learned the hard way that it’s not allowed. I think gardening when done right can be a money saver and also an enjoyable hobby. It looks like you have a good start this year, so good luck!
    Gary @ Super Saving Tips recently posted…7 Lifestyle Changes That Don’t Cost Much But Have Big BenefitsMy Profile

    • Thanks, Gary. Again, super sorry your HOA doesn’t let you do a bit more. Maybe herbs? A lot of them are pretty unobtrusive.

  4. I used to be a gardening wannabe – now I think I’ve suppressed all gardening desires. I’m glad you’re pursuing it. There is so much good in gardening. Fresh produce, educational opportunities for Little Bit, wholesome activity for parent and child, not to mention beauty if you add some flower plots into the mix. I have no natural talent for gardening though, and I can’t see putting the necessary time into the learning curve that would be involved. Maybe when I retire . . .
    All the best with your own gardening. It will become second nature for you before too long : )
    Fruclassity (Ruth) recently posted…Plugging Financial Leaks When Life Is Off-KilterMy Profile

    • Thanks, Ruth. I’m hoping that if I read a bit more regularly on the subject, some of it will stick. And I do think that having the green plants adds a lot of beauty, too.

    • I may have to try the peppers if we do more yard-based gardening. Since neither Jon nor I eat much hot stuff anymore, that may be the best thing for any hot peppers that grow. (We like spicy, but it doesn’t like us.) So far, though, the critters have stayed off the patio.

  5. Does grass count? We always had a vegetable garden growing up. It was a family event. We’d compost in the office season with coffee ground, eggs shells etc to help keep the soil rich. We always harvested, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, etc.

    Our current yard is not really set up right for a vegetable garden, we do have plenty of flowers, and plants.
    Brian recently posted…Leaving a Legacy: Class of 2030My Profile

    • It helps to have the right yard, for sure. I’m glad we get enough sun now to grow some stuff. Hopefully next year I can try a raised bed to give us a little more room for some extra plants.

  6. Glad to see you moving from a wannabe to a full-fledged gardener! I’ll be looking to you for lessons when we move. If all else fails I can taste-test your mojitos.

    We tried seedlings once but I killed them by exposing them to the sun and wind too early. I’ll try plants next time but I’m not starting up again until we move.

    Have you seen any bunnies? They could be the culprit with the basil and the peppers. My mother-in-law has a resident one in her front garden. It’s not even afraid of people anymore.
    Mrs Groovy recently posted…Paul McCartney Wrote Some Crappy Music: More Trash-Talking from Mr. GroovyMy Profile

    • Hopefully, by then, I will have perfected the mojito. it’s not quite where I want it, but I have plenty of mint to experiment with.

      We see plenty of bunnies, but not on the patio. I think there’s too much human smell/commotion for them to come near. I’m pretty sure what’s getting into the basil and peppers is some sort of beetle. I’ve found several of them in the morning when I’m watering the plants for the day. Moving the plants away from each other has meant that they are only attacking one planter of basil and one of peppers so far. I’m hopeful that they’ll limit themselves to those.

  7. I love this: “Mom composted before composting was cool.”
    Kudos to your mom 😉

    We also have a garden but it’s much better if I see it as healthy entertainment than a way to save money. We’ve spent way more on it than we’ve saved in groceries, but it gets us outside and gives my husband something with which to tinker, so it seems like an overall win.

    • There are some definite non-monetary benefits to gardening, Julie. Since we’ve stuck with container gardening, we aren’t getting a lot of associated exercise, but that’s a good benefit. I’m hoping for fresh organic veggies that taste way better than store-bought ones, and herbs in the garden last way longer than cut herbs and taste better than dried ones. And the plants look pretty and smell nice. So I guess even if I don’t make this year’s money back in grocery-reduction costs, my gardening has provided good value this year.

  8. We have a big flower garden and also plant basil, thyme, rosemary & mint. We’ve had success with zucchini, snow peas and green beans. We also have raspberry bushes. If we lived somewhere warmer I would plant more things but we have a shorter growing season.

    • Jealous of your raspberries, Holly! It’s too hot for raspberries and cherries here, but we love them. On the other hand, we do get a nice long growing season to enjoy.

  9. Every year, I give carrots a go. I’m mostly too impatient and end up with “baby” carrots. Our experiments this year are raspberry bushes (they’re glorified sticks) and sunflowers! Otherwise, we pretty much stick with what we know we can grow. Oh, and we do have a watermelon and a pumpkin growing way out back.

    I definitely don’t think gardening saves us money, especially because now is the time of year when veggies are so inexpensive! Though I guess technically our garden is organic, so maybe it saves us some there. Either way, it’s one of my very favorite parts of summer!
    Penny @ She Picks Up Pennies recently posted…3 Reasons I Should Turn in My PF CardMy Profile

    • We had fun with sunflowers a couple of years ago. We liked them as decoration, but never used them. I do think it’s good to add a couple of new things at a time, but not too much. There seems to be a lot of trial and error to our efforts.

      And I’m getting my head around the other non-monetary benefits as I answer the comments. Food quality, activity, aesthetics, memories, the satisfaction of learning a new skill and growing your own food…gardening brings up a lot of feels.

  10. Best of luck with your garden this year. I enjoyed reading about your history of spending time in gardens. It reminded me of my Uncle’s garden, with abundant, delicious raspberries.

    I would say we’re still gardening beginners. My brother-in-law did all of the research and set up our garden three or four years ago. We do well with tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, and green beans. However, it’s only because we follow his instructions.

    Even with buying plants instead of seeds, we do save money on vegetables – especially because of the tomatoes. We grow enough to jar a bunch of sauce around the end of the summer.
    Harmony@CreatingMyKaleidoscope recently posted…200 Blog Posts & A Couple Of Years Later: Our Financial ProgressMy Profile

    • Aw, it’s sweet that your brother-in-law set it up for you, and you’re probably absorbing more than you think. Do you get the kids involved? Little Bit has a lot of fun playing in the dirt and watering the plants, sometimes to their detriment.

      I’m encouraged by your tomatoes. I think as often as we eat tomatoes, we won’t have any leftover to freeze. I’m having enough success that I’ll probably try more than 2 plants next year so we have some extra!

  11. We have large gardening area. My Grandfather was a farmer, so naturally, my interest in gardening grows. I love to have organic food and this leads me to grow my own vegetables in my backyard. Then I expanded my gardening to flowers, fruits, and a variety of other trees. It is an awesome feeling to be connected to nature. I can also smell your love for gardening.

    • My grandfathers both grew up on farms, but by the time I came along one was a lawyer and one managed rental properties. But it’s great that gardening connects us to our family’s past, yet another benefit!

  12. I’m also a gardening wannabe, luckily my mom who moved in with us last year is becoming quite the gardener! Last year her and my husband managed to grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, spaghetti squash, romaine lettuce, and kale. This year we didn’t get vegetables planted but she does have fresh herbs and pretty flowers going strong.
    Amy @ Life Zemplified recently posted…Get Over Yourself, Stop Procrastinating And Get Things DoneMy Profile

    • Aw, that’s great. I love having fresh herbs and flowers around, even if we passed on the flowers this year. Gardening really does add a lot of value to your quality of life, no matter what you grow.

  13. Hello Emily, I have a lot of plants and love them. Everyone should have at least one. The garden gives us lovely flowers and fruits to eat. You have shared an awesome blog. I loved it. Thanks for your blog and keep sharing.

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