8 hard truths about city gardening for newbies

Guestpost by Sultana Khan on May 9th

City Garden © by Michael_Lehet, used under Creative Commons license.

I'm gonna give y'all some city vegetable gardening tips that might help you save some cash and beef up your summer dinner menu at the same time. You see what I did there? Food pun!

Let's look at some truths.

You must choose your plants carefully.

Browsing through a Burpee catalog without having your vegetables already picked out is like going to the grocery store after a fast. It's a terrible idea, you'll buy way more than you can possibly eat (I'm looking at you with the Chubby Hubby container in the trash), and eventually you'll refer back to this article and wonder if I'm psychic. I am.

Also, I go through this every year. I buy too much and have to give away plants, or I stuff them into the garden anyway, and everything suffers.

Try picking out only the essentials the first year. Lettuce varieties are cheap, grow well in pots, and you'll actually use them throughout the growing season. Herbs are equally easy, and if you decide to grow traditional ones like rosemary, basil, and dill, throwing in more exotic spices like tarragon or marjoram will add major flavor factor to your meals. Beans and peas are also versatile, and there are plenty of varieties that pot well if you're short on space.

Remember that gardens take time.

If you're growing from seedlings, which I don't recommend for beginners, or even if you've bought established plants, it's going to take most of the summer. Your rewards are only going to come after some serious time and investment, so while the "watched pot never boils" metaphor is annoying, it's probably pretty spot on.

As with any time-consuming venture, the bragging rights you're working toward are going to be freaking awesome come August at the annual family boozy barbecue. "Who has two green thumbs and grew everything in this salad? This girl." Yeah, you can use that — and you don't even have to quote me.

It's best to let go of asparagus.

It's not gonna happen. And here's why: it's crazy overpriced to buy, like, 10, year-old crowns which basically means you're buying delayed gratification. I'm telling you up front, it's going to disappoint you. Paying 20 bucks for plants you can't even harvest until next year is ridiculous. If you're a long term planner, I still wouldn't recommend asparagus for you because you'll still only get 25 spears out of that first harvest (NEXT YEAR) and cost-wise, it'll be cheaper and more satisfying for you to suck it up and walk your butt down to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's or wherever purple asparagus is sold these days.

You're probably going to have to touch poop.

Compost, humus and most organic fertilizers incorporate nature's greatest plant booster — crap. When you're getting your garden ready, mixing any one of these options into the soil is essential to having truly happy plants, and that means your green thumbs are going to be brown for a short time. Get over it. It smells bad for about a second and then you remember that you've probably touched thousands of public handles where somebody else has touched something worse than poop and left remnants for you to touch afterwards.

You shouldn't bother if you're not going to water.

Seriously. Save yourself and your CSA-happy friends some time and anticipation. This is a commitment like any other, and unfortunately, while it's not on par with kids or pets, it's still a daily chore. Weeding, watering, fertilizing, picking off bugs — all this will be yours, and it's most needed on those hot, humid days when you want to tell the garden it's over. It was you, not the garden, I know, but suck it up or don't even get started.

You must invest in decent equipment.

Buy yourself a trowel, some knee pads, a few pairs of breathable gloves, a shovel, some clippers, and decent sunscreen. Gardening is hard work, but having tools that are of at least mediocre quality will not only ease your burden, but also lessen the number of hours you spend in Home Depot wondering why your cheap trowels keep breaking every time you barely graze a pebble.

You should challenge yourself to experiment.

Peas and beans and spinach seeds

Choose a vegetable that you don't eat very often to kick your meals into a new gear. Or pick one you don't love, but want to eat more of because Rachel Ray just mentioned that it was a super-food. Eggplant, okra, cabbage — whatever it is, when you grow your own stuff you're more likely to eat it after all that effort, and it can be a great way to trick yourself into om-nom-nomming some broccoli.

You can use more than you think.

See what different plant parts taste like at different stages! Fried Green Tomatoes may have been one of Kathy Bates' best movies, but it's also a tasty summer appetizer. Squash and zucchini blossoms are delicious when added into a salad or lightly fried in tempura batter. If you have space for climbing plants, brined grape leaves can be incorporated into a variety of Greek appetizers. Lettuce leaves… are lettuce leaves.

Follow these rules and save yourself from graden heartache. Now go get 'em, tiger!

What hard lessons has your home taught you?

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About Sultana Khan

Does awkward robot with charming frequency. Sometimes snorts when laughing. Judgmental in a cute way -- cut your hair, hippie. Not a fan of uninvited hugging.