Monday, May 21, 2018


If you're like me, you spend 8+ hours a day in front of a screen. About five years ago, I decided that I needed better hobbies than learning new programming languages and writing code for personal projects. I wanted find ways to learn new skills and connect with people. I've done that by playing board games at local meetups and building a robot, and I've done that with gardening.

Gardening has been incredibly frustrating and incredibly rewarding in a roller-coastery kind of way. I'd like to share my journey with you in an attempt to get you interested in gardening. I'll share some resources I've found interesting and useful.

Why gardening?

I chose gardening for many different reasons. I remember my parents having a garden when I was a kid, and I wanted to have a hobby that my kids could be involved in and excited about. I like to eat things like tomatoes that my wife does not often buy, because no one else (including her) likes them. I wanted to do something outdoors. I wanted to become a little more self-sufficient.

Those are some of my reasons, but maybe you have other reasons. Maybe you'd like to reduce your carbon footprint by producing your own food that doesn't get shipped half way across the world. Maybe you like the idea that food from your garden is essentially tax-free income. Maybe you want to increase the diversity in your diet and/or help preserve and conserve heirloom food varieties that are endangered. Maybe you don't want to grow food but flowers providing you with a vibrant, delicate beauty.

How gardening?

There are many ways to garden from containers to raised beds. One of the things I enjoy about gardening is an entire world of new things to learn. It is a gateway hobby into things like cooking, canning, composting, carpentry, and other words that begin with 'c'.

I have focused mostly on fruits and veggies, since I want to be able to eat from my garden, but I've also grown (and grow more and more) flowers. I've grown some edible flowers and some inedible. It is incredibly satisfying to have some color around the house.

I started small with some containers on my deck. I used a couple of EarthBoxes, then built my own DIY EarthBoxes. I like the sub-irrigated planter (SIP) concept so much that I'm planning on putting in a raised bed SIP in my backyard, automatically fed by rain barrels. If you want to learn more about SIPs, check out

Gardening (like most hobbies) can be as expensive as you let it. You can buy all kinds of gardening gadgets and gizmos. One of my goals is to make gardening as economical as possible. To garden you need:

  1. Plants
  2. Sun
  3. Water
  4. Nutrients

The sun part is pretty easy, since my back yard is south facing. I just need to work around the shadows cast by trees and the deck.

You can buy seeds pretty cheaply, but you can also harvest seeds from your plants, so you don't have to continually buy seed packets. This will only work with open-pollinated (OP) plants. Check out this video to learn about OPs, hybrids, and heirlooms: Often, it is easier to buy seedlings at a nursery or farmer's market.

You can also plant perennials like strawberries and asparagus. These don't need to be replanted every year. You plant them once and you can harvest for years.

You can obviously water your plants with your tap, but rain barrels are a way save money taking advantage of an abundant resource over our heads. You can buy rain barrels, or you can make your own. My water company even gives a $30 rebate each for up to two rain barrels that I install.

Plants need nutrients, and nutrients can be provided by fertilizer. I still use fertilizer occasionally, but I've opted to make my own compost. Unfortunately I don't have many trees whose leaves I can compost. This is usually the easiest way to make compost. However, I am composting what leaves I have along with grass clippings and cardboard boxes from all my Amazon Prime orders. I compost trimmings from my garden, and kitchen waste. I'm even thinking about getting some composting worms! Here is a video about how ridiculously easy it is to compost:

Lessons Learned

I've been gardening about five years, and here are some lessons I've learned.

Time and timeliness.

As a software engineer, I work in a field where I'm constantly learning, and there's a new JavaScript framework every week. I enjoy being more aware of the weather and seasonal rhythms. Plants work on a different timescale. If something goes wrong with the crop this year, I may have to wait another whole year to try again. That can be frustrating, but it can also be an opportunity both to think over a longer timescale and to be very focused on what is happening right now because the stakes are high.

Everything wants to kill your plants.

In container gardening on my deck I've dealt mostly with insects, and there are billions of them. When I moved into raised bed gardening with my strawberry patch, I had to deal with deer eating all the leaves off my strawberries. For the past couple of years it has been impossible for me to grow zucchini or squash, because vine borers have eaten them from the inside out. I'm not necessarily a fan of squishing bugs, but there was nothing more satisfying than digging those buggers out and squishing their fat bodies. It was a kind of anger management program.

The lesson is you need to think about pest management from the beginning. Talk to your neighbors about what pests they've dealt with in their gardens. Or at least be prepared that the first year could be rough until you know what you up against. When you do know what you're up against...research! If you live in the US look up your local cooperative extension website. Virginia's has all kinds of great publications for growing things in my region.

Your plants want to live

Even the sun can sometimes be brutal on your plants. I tried seed starting a couple of years ago. The last step is to "harden off " your plants by gently exposing them to the elements. I was a little less than gentle and nearly killed my plants.

After the hardening off incident I felt like a bad plant daddy, but the amazing thing was my plants came back. They want to live. They are partners in this gardening adventure.

It is satisfying to make things grow

It can sometimes be difficult to diagnose what is wrong with a plant: is it overwatered, underwatered, missing some nutrient, etc? Plants are complicated yet fascinating living things. It is worth the effort to understand them and work with them. One of the most fascinating books I've read is Botany for Gardeners by Brian Capon I really enjoyed Brian's writing style, and it is a very approachable introduction to cellular function, propagation, and the fascinating life of plants.

In the end there is a lot to learn, and it is hard work, but it is so satisfying to nurture a living thing.

It is satisfying to work hard

I have a personal rule for myself that as much as possible I will refuse to have someone else mow my lawn. It saves money. I listen to podcasts and audio books. I like to walk around my house and property (only 1/3 acre but still) and see how things are doing. It can be hard work since my yard is mostly a hill, but I like to get the exercise.

Gardening can be hard work, too. One Sunday afternoon, in addition to mowing and edging, I pulled out two bushes (which if you've ever done, then you know), and planted an apple tree and six red raspberry canes. I was sunburnt and sore, and paid for it the next day, but it was satisfying, and I'm looking forward to the fruit of my labor (literally!).

Play the odds

I recommend starting small, because like any hobby you can get excited and spend a lot of money before you realize it. However, you also have to know that gardening is about playing the odds, so don't start too small. When you start seeds, you put three in each hole, and when they sprout you thin them down to just the strongest of the seedlings. If you buy tomato seedlings from a nursery, don't just buy one, buy two or three. You have to expect that some plants won't survive.

It can also be helpful to plant more than one kind of thing. You may not get everything you want, but you should plant a diverse mix of plants and enjoy whatever you get. If you only plant cucumbers, then horde of cucumber beetles can destroy everything, but if you also have tomatoes, then it's not a total wash.


Have I accomplished my goal of learning new skills and getting to know people? Absolutely! Of the five houses that border mine three are gardeners, and when I'm out early in the morning tending my garden my neighbors are often out, too. I've had chances to get to know them.

I've gotten outdoors. I've gotten plenty of exercise. My kids are involved and excited about gardening. They even eat things they normally wouldn't, because we've grown them ourselves.

If you want a hobby to get you away from the screen and doing something physical in the real world, then give gardening a go.