Clueless Gardener: from a litany of failures to getting a clue

Published as a guest blog on organic gardening guru Claire Mummery’s Grow Inspired.

Gardening and I have always had a gnarly relationship. As a kid, Dad made me weed our wild beast of a garden every Saturday, which I suffered through resentfully. You could find me sobbing and sniffing over the endless overgrown flower beds, burning that all my mates were roller skating while I was covered in dirt and worms and being stabbed by rose thorns. Gardens were for idiots, I fumed. I’m never having one when I grow up.

I was always happier in the kitchen, where I could cook and eat the beautiful produce that comes out of gardens. My cooking role has seen me work as a chef and become a passionate home cook, and brought myself and others great pleasure. But in the last decade or so, I’ve become deeply disturbed by the unsustainable way that food is grown and distributed, and increasingly disgusted by what our local supermarket offers up as ‘fresh’ produce.

These concerns drove a few more half-hearted attempts in the garden, which ultimately only produced a few manky, bitter-tasting lettuces in pots. My failures, always caused from lack of attention and dedication, have been a source of great shame. Some people are green-fingered and have the knack of growing things, I told myself. I am clearly a clueless gardener.

In my efforts to live as sustainably as possible, I have made lots of other changes in my life – including reducing, reusing, recycling, cooking from scratch, making cleaning products, and buying more secondhand items. But living sustainably inevitably leads back to the urgent need for us to start growing our food again. Buying produce from the supermarket that is wrapped in plastic, potentially grown thousands of kilometres away from GMO crops and tastes of disappointment is no longer acceptable to me. I know that by growing my own food, or as much as is possible and buying from other local growers, is the only way to go for the health of our bodies and the planet.

Back to the future
In my soul, I know the art and science of gardening art is an essential life skill that humans have had to have in order to survive. Mass food production techniques may have made this art redundant and lie dormant for many in the past two generations, but it is still part of our DNA. I see my clue-gathering exercise as an awakening of consciousness for me and my children so we can heal the damage we have done from mass food production and artificial, processed foods, for both our bodies and the planet.

This is not my garden. I’m not called the Clueless Gardener for nothing. But dreams are free, and you have to dream big, someone said. Photo by jens johnsson on Unsplash

Memories of my grandparents’ gardens also fuel my desire to get back to the earth: the beautiful mounds of rich black soil in the back garden; the tender care ministrated to the gathering and nurturing of seeds, seedlings and veges; the backbreaking digging of soil at the end of winter; the buzz of bees in spring, drunk and drowsy from pollen; the long, hot exhausting days of harvest and preserving, with endless peeling, chopping, pots roiling with jams, chutneys and tomato sauces to stack in the garage and grace the table for winter meals. Those recollections are sweet, although nothing beats the heady aroma of brushing up against a basil plant, or the indescribable taste and texture of new potatoes and fresh corn, plucked straight from the garden to nana’s pot, served with love and a knob of butter for lunch. That’s what you call fresh, Countdown.

Enter Claire Mummery, the resident organic gardening guru where I live on Waiheke Island. A friend of mine, I implored her to help me get over my cluelessness and get going in the garden. After showing her around my place (I had grave doubts – ‘it’s a jungle .. it’s too sloped .. it doesn’t get enough sun … it’s clay soil…’), she reported I can indeed grow a LOT of food here, eventually. We worked out the end game – grow as much of my own food as possible – and worked out the stages, backwards, in order to get there. The first step is to grow edible greens in pots, and clear a garden bed full of agave plants, that was frankly, just sitting there, looking like a messy pile of ugly.


Start at the beginning
What I like about Claire is that she gave me JOBS to do, in order to get this first stage kicked off. I learn by doing – not by reading or talking. A stack of gardening books only makes me feel overwhelmed and confused. I need to have clear direction and literally get my hands dirty.


Yossi Ore, my friend and savvy green thumb, to the rescue of the Clueless Gardener.

My friends and fellow gardeners Hadas and Yossi Ore kindly visited with seedlings – chard, parsley, mint and thyme – from their garden, along with some blessed worm wee (seriously, check this stuff out – so gross but nectar for the garden). They help me unearth (yep, I like puns) a pile of old pots, tools and compost I’d discarded from my last gardening project and plant the seedlings. We then worm wee’d it and – lookit, a little garden is growing!

IMG_4770 2
It’s a start.

I’m to keep watering the pots and move them around to catch the sun as the days grow cooler and shorter. I’m also heading to a local ‘crop swap’ to get more seedlings and other gardening goodies. Apparently, I can start swapping with baking or other cooking if I have no crops, which is brilliant, as I love to cook. And this way, I don’t have to spend a fortune at the local hardware shop for seeds and seedlings.

Clearing a bed and preparing soil
Next was clearing the front garden bed. Oh. My. God. This kind of thing just makes me give up before I even start and want to cry. My back is just not up to it and I feel so intimidated by all of those wild-looking spiky plants. But, I get my big girl’s gardening pants on, and refuse to let this send me packing back to the supermarket produce section, like it has so many times before. Agaves, your days are numbered here – make way for lush veges.

Next blog: Planting out my first bed, what compost is, what happens at a crop swap, and why you should never turn your back on an enthusiastic Argentinian gardener.

Copyright Paulette Crowley, 2018.

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