Getting the Garden You Always Wanted

The sun is beating down with the unearthly intensity that is early August. Heat comes in waves and I sink into the shade of my adirondack chair, pulling another one close for my friend.

Our kids, of course, are immune to the effects of hot summer afternoons, and their excited voices carry from the garden to the patio. They are making discoveries: drippy red tomatoes, long trunks of cucumber, tie-dye peppers on their way to ripeness.

They are dazzled. Enchanted.

My friend says wistfully that she wishes she had a garden like ours.

I’ll be the first to admit that there is a lot to be envious of in our little patch of garden. Lettuce, tomatoes, parsley, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, radishes, string beans...and during berry season, a flurry of raspberries, strawberries and blueberries.

A glorious harvest that runs from the spring through the hot, hot days of summer and into the fall.

It is a life-giving, peaceful part of our experience as a family, even with our busy schedule. Here's some good news. With a few simple steps, here's all that stands between you and a little family farm of your own.

Beginning

Don’t go crazy worrying about where to put your garden.

Find a spot that is reasonably sunny and unused, clear a little bit of dirt to make sure it’s not too rocky, and you’re in business. One of my favorite memories in our first house was digging up the grass in the back corner of our yard to form a big triangle with a tiny path down the middle.

It was just dirt then, but I could see the garden to come.

You can do some Googling to research what plants you want to use, but your best bet is to visit a local garden center. They’ll have the best plants for your climate, and lots of guidance for care.

Try to pick easy crops for your first season; standards like tomatoes and herbs are great. You can also look for some early harvest favorites (think lettuce, lettuce, lettuce) to get everyone in the family excited about the reward that will follow the watering and weeding throughout the summer.

Make sure that you leave plenty of space for spreading in your garden. You’ll be surprised by what just a few plants produce. Cucumbers spread like wildfire and tomato plants shoot off more fruit than you would ever expect. So be generous with open space.

Lastly, think about planting some pretty flowers around your garden to welcome in the bees. Bees are scarce these days, and there is nothing better for your garden than a possie of buzzing pollinators making their rounds. These days you can easily find a flower mix specifically meant to attract bees.

Middle

The beauty of a garden is that once you set it up, there is very little you have to do in the growing months.

The best thing you can do for yourself is set up a good routine for the few things on your checklist. You’ll want to try to stay on top of weeds and you’ll need to water.

Decide who is going to weed and when.

It will only take minutes if you stay on top of it. And hint—kids love weeding!

Then identify your watering plan. Will you use a sprinkler? A hose? Will you find a way to capture rainwater and filter it into the garden? Just try not to let more than a day go by without that ever-important water.

End

Here is my absolute favorite part of gardening. It is why we do it: the harvest.

There is nothing like getting into your garden, smelling the basil as your fingers rub against it, popping a cherry tomato in your mouth because you just can’t help it, debating if you’ll pick that cucumber or let it go one more day.

This moment of fulfillment, the dirt at your feet and a blue sky overhead, is about as good for the soul as anything I can dream up. And that’s before you even make it to the kitchen.

I bring a colander out to the garden for picking.

Once it is full of the day’s finds, I can plop it right into my sink for easy washing.

Then, I have a handful of easy and dependable recipes stashed so nothing goes to waste. It is a ton of fun to research uses for the contents of your garden on recipe sites in the months leading up to harvest. Have some recipes you like lined up before you’re under pressure to use all the goods piling up in your fridge!

If you’re interested, here are a few of my standards:

• Fresh salsa made with roughly chopped, multi-colored cherry tomatoes and herbs served over chicken or heaped onto a piece of baguette.

• Large, beefy tomatoes roasted on a sheet pan alongside chunks of onion and basil leaves, then thrown in the blender for the easiest luscious tomato soup you’ll ever have.

• Gravy (that’s what we Jersey girls call red sauce) made by simply cooking down tomatoes with garlic, onion, a dash of sugar, and a bay leaf in a large pot on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

• Cucumber salad with red onion, roughly chopped and tossed with olive oil, fresh and acidic in exactly the right way. I could go on.

My husband does can tomatoes, and I love having them on hand, but if it were left to me, it would be fresh food all the way. If you are brave enough to take on those cans, he would say it is easy. You just have to be methodical and wait until you have enough produce piled up to make the effort worth it.

Canning or not, you’ll find plenty of ways to use everything—gift baskets for the neighbors are always a much appreciated gesture; or goody bags sent home with friends after playdates.

Which brings us back to a sunny afternoon in August, where the heat comes through the ground as much as the sky.

Where my girlfriend and I want nothing more than to sit with our glasses of ice water and relax, while the kids are hard at work.

Tomatoes fly out of our garden, landing sometimes in and sometimes just near a large bucket. Four little pairs of feet are dirty. Giggles abound. My kids are familiar with the garden and their friends are discovering a world they never knew existed.

My friend says she wishes they could have a garden like ours. And, of course, I say with complete confidence, “You can.”


Nicole M. Burrell started her career writing for the Newark Star-Ledger in New Jersey. She then discovered a love of all things food while working in Marketing for Whole Foods Market, and took that love home to her family when she moved on to pursue freelance writing work.

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13 Comments

  1. Seana Turner

    I have, and enjoy, my garden. That said, my biggest challenge is to keep the animals out. We have tons of chipmunks who eat my strawberries while they are still green on the vine, as well as nibble at my tomatoes. They will annoying scratch and nibble off a tomato and then move onto another one- argh! I have a fence to keep the deer away, and I had to put about 18 inches of chicken wire along the inside of the fence to keep the bunnies out. You’d think I live in the wild, but I live in a town in CT… no woods near me! Fortunately, the box turtle, groundhog and snakes haven’t done any damage yet. Sometimes I feel like Mr. MacGregor over here 🙂

    • Nicole

      My husband was just running through our yard yelling, “RABBITS!” the other day, full-on Mr. MacGregor 🙂

      We have also been facing more and more issues with creative critters finding their way into our garden. We lost a beautiful cabbage to one particularly resourceful rabbit a few weeks back. Our best solution so far has been to dig deep into the boarder of the garden and bury the chicken wire, preventing the little guys from getting in under the fence. Even with that, though, we’ve still had some encroachers. We just added some wood at the bottom as well. We’ll see! Best of luck with keeping enough of your garden intact for harvesting later in the summer! Hopefully we both have a good haul, even if we feed a few animals along the way too.

  2. Anna

    I am dying for some berry bushes or a strawberry patch. Maybe next year! Just harvested my first cuke of the season and have some cherry tomatoes turning red. There’s nothing like it.

    • Nicole

      The first few veggies off the vine are just the absolute best!

      And berries- I have to start from scratch since our move, which is a little depressing! Our blueberries at the old place were mature and producing a good amount, and we shared raspberry bushes with the neighbor. A LOT of raspberry bushes. And our strawberry patch. Oh gosh, now I’m getting emotional over berries. We will rebuild! Can’t wait to see what the new house yields. Luckily, our garden is thriving here, regardless.

  3. Nicole

    The first few veggies off the vine are just the absolute best!

    And berries- I have to start from scratch since our move, which is a little depressing! Our blueberries at the old place were mature and producing a good amount, and we shared raspberry bushes with the neighbor. A LOT of raspberry bushes. And our strawberry patch. Oh gosh, now I’m getting emotional over berries. We will rebuild! Can’t wait to see what the new house yields. Luckily, our garden is thriving here, regardless.

  4. Laura

    We love our little garden! Wanted to point out though that the advice to start with something easy like tomatoes isn’t applicable to everyone. For example, you can’t grow tomatoes in Alaska except in a greenhouse because the growing season is too short and cool. So it’s really important to do at least a little bit of research to know your climate and choose well accordingly. Lettuce and peas are great for the whole summer in Alaska whereas here in MD they’re a spring/early summer treat. 🙂

    • Nicole

      Yes Laura, good point! It is always a great idea to check with a local garden center about the best plants for your climate, especially if you are in a more “extreme” one. Thanks for sharing that thought and good luck with your garden! 🙂

  5. Cynthia Stuckey

    Thank you for the tips, Nicole. We live in GA with a backyard full of clay, so we’ve always planted our garden in containers and pots. This year though, we added raised beds and I’m waiting patiently for everything to flourish. It’s really a soothing rhythm to plant, water, and wait but I’m hoping for ton of tomatoes and peppers. 🙂

    • Nicole

      Hi Cynthia!

      Even though we have good soil here in New Jersey, my husband still dreams of doing raised beds someday, just because they are so pretty! And I agree. Oh how I love that rhythm…and the harvest that follows! Enjoy all those tomatoes and peppers…hope you get a big ole crop 🙂

  6. Christine Bailey

    Absolutely love! From one Jersey girl to another 🙂 I grew up with the Star-Ledger on our kitchen island pretty much at all times. Loved everything you wrote – I feel you completely. My husband and I started out in Texas with a few raised beds in our backyard, and now we live in Tennessee and have an entire organic produce farm. Thanks for writing this – everyone has to start somewhere!

    • Nicole

      Hey Christine!

      Yay for Jersey! 🙂 Oh gosh, I love that someone has a personal connection with the Ledger (I too grew up with it as a staple in the house! And I have so many good memories from working there). I love that you have a whole farm now. You’re living my dream! My best friend lives in Tennessee, and from what I’ve seen of her garden, the growing with that nice warm weather is great. Hope you have a fantastic harvest this season and thanks so much for commenting on the post!

  7. Laura Mac

    I envy your naturally good soil. Where I live in Texas, the ground is hard, dense clay. It is absolutely backbreaking to start a new bed from scratch, but even with a rototiller, it takes a huge amount of compost and other matter to amend the soil. The silver lining is that I can cultivate certain plants (especially herbs) into mid-December, but during a heatwave if you don’t have an irrigation system (which I don’t), it takes twice-a-day watering for the garden to survive.

    I love that your kids have such responsibility in the garden and get so much out of it. I don’t have kids, but my neighbors do, and this year I hired some of the neighbor kids to help me establish new beds. They loved it and enjoyed making a little cash, and now I can share the garden’s produce with them so they can enjoy the fruits of their labors.

    • Nicole Burrell

      Wow, Laura! I love the idea of hiring neighborhood kids. And the truth is, things we adults see as “work” often look like “fun” to kids. Watering, weeding…they see those things as gifts not burdens. Which is a good reminder to me 🙂

      I know how frustrating extreme heat can be (although, how lovely to be able to grow into December!). I’ve seen tutorials for DIY drip irrigation systems online, but I have never attempted them. By the time our garden requires two waterings, our kiddie pool is in full use and we just drain that into the garden so the water doesn’t get wasted.

      Love that you are including your neighborhood in your garden. You’re definitely inspiring me to think of new ways to include my neighbors too (other than the fact that my sweet neighbor is watering for me while I’m on vacation this week!). Thanks for sharing!

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