All the important things I’ve learned about growing, I’ve learned by sinking my hands deep into the dirt and just gardening. Gardening isn’t nearly as complicated as some may think. The only prerequisite to be a successful gardener is a love of plants. Plants are resilient and I’m a believer that a garden should evolve over time. If something didn’t thrive in a spot one year, dig it up and grow it somewhere else the next, or try a different crop. I’m not ashamed of my mistakes—or as I call them, experiments—in the garden. Many times these were the moments in which I learned the most.
In the winter, when I’m planning my garden, I want it all. I have fantasies about fruits trees, vegetables and herbs in excess, and flowers blended seamlessly together in a way that evokes English cottage gardens, something both beautiful and productive. My notion of what a kitchen garden is, is eclectic, following the lead of its gardener. Mine is meant to provide food, flavor and beauty for me and my family. What you need to ask yourself is, what should it be for you? Grow what you enjoy. There is no greater waste than raising Brussels sprouts when you have no intention to eat them or flowers you won’t cut.
And don’t be fooled into thinking you need lots of space to grow. Most crops can be grown in small spaces or containers if they’re the right size. Bad soil? Improve it. Then there are ways to make the soil work two—or three—times as hard throughout the season by succession sowing, plant stacking and companion planting. These are a few of the growing practices which have been passed down from generation to generation, but are being lost over time. I am encouraged to see younger generations picking up a trowel and digging about the yard, patio, where ever, because it’s so important to keep these gardening traditions alive. There is a reason that my grandmother advised me to follow my peas with broccoli—it works!
While here is no substitute for good ol’ trial and error in the garden, a good garden book can be a wonderful guide/tool. Over the years I’ve discovered that there wasn’t a single book that had it all. Or worse, sometimes the books I read contradicted each other. Personally, my favorites tend to be British. Using organic growing techniques, they employ a holistic approach, which I’ve used and perfected in my own garden. This book is a compilation of everything I’ve learned from experimenting, friends and a great deal of reading. My hope is that The Backyard Gardener speaks to you and inspires you to become a more successful gardener.
I laid out this book the same way I garden. The first couple chapters help the amateur (and even the experienced) gardener learn their way around the garden. They cover the basics: soils, tools, what plants need to thrive and how to propagate them. In Chapter 4, I explain my favorite, and most used, organic growing techniques for the garden, what they are, what they’ll do and how they do it. Then Chapters 5 and 6 are the biggies: fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers. Here is where I take a massive detour from the other kitchen garden books on your shelf. I organized them into sections based on how they should be planted in the garden. (I never understood why others don’t this, when it makes so much more sense.) Most authors simply cover plants alphabetically. I, on the other hand, divided the plants into groups based on their familial relationships and cultural needs: legumes, brassicas, fruits, roots, leaf perennial and other crops, which like to be grown together in a specific sequence. With this book, you’ll learn how to enhance your garden by making it work for you—not the other way around. And finally, the last chapter is a month-by-month garden chore guide. When should I be starting my seeds, harvesting asparagus, planting onion sets or cutting back my rhubarb? These were questions I had when I started my kitchen garden, as it provides a roadmap to tell you when you’re on the right track and when you’re not. Your schedule can always be tweaked and altered, but having a place to start is invaluable.
My garden is still evolving. Each year I try a few new dahlias and basil varieties, but I will always save room for staples like my ‘San Marzano’, ‘Costeluto Genovese’ and ‘Supersweet 100’ tomatoes. The beds will get rotated, but I may try planting comfrey at the base of an apple tree, moving my peonies to a sunnier spot if they’re underperforming or adding seaweed to my compost mix just to see what happens. This is what a garden should be, a place to derive beauty, inspiration and delicious food.
This is not simply a garden reference book, I wanted to tell the story of the garden. I’ve combined scientific facts with personal experiences, anecdotes and time-honored tradition to be your guide.
I think every gardener needs to remember what Anne Shirley, of Anne of Green Gables, one of my all-time favorite literary characters said, “Tomorrow is fresh, there are no mistakes in it.” The same is true for the garden: there will always be a next season. So go out, get your hands dirty and happy gardening!