Be Not Discouraged (If Your Garden Doesn’t Look Like Erica’s)

Today’s post brought to you by fabulous canine and personal finance writer Sarah, who blogs at Dogs or Dollars. Sarah’s a new gardener, learning the urban homesteading ropes by building her quarter acre urban oasis. She wants you to know that it’s okay if your garden doesn’t look like mine. I want you to know that 99% of the time, my garden doesn’t look like my garden. (“I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford” – Cindy Crawford.) Sarah plots her escape from Corporate Servitude and contemplates life with too many dogs, chicken dynamics and conscientious consumerism in her “spare” time.

Meet Ugly Garden:


Ugly Garden in all her glory.

I’m not a long-time reader of NorthWest Edible Life. I’m not a long time gardener either. Both these afflictions are rather new for me. I started my measly little Ugly Garden in earnest last year, with just two beds and some picket fencing repurposed from the neighbor’s dump pile. One of those beds, I covered in pvc and visqueen late last September, in hopes of having a winter garden. HA! If winter garden, means a whole lot of not-growing, then yay me! Productive, it wasn’t.

So in January, when I stumbled across the photo tour of Erica’s winter garden, with picture evidence of a bonefide harvest, well, I was pissed. Here’s someone, presumably right down the road from me, with brussels, cabbage, chard, beets, and turnips. In fracking January. I knew I was behind the curve. I just didn’t realize how steep the curve actually was.

This created one in a series of several moments I’ve experienced as a new gardener. Moments in which I want my lawn back. Times when I think “WtH was I thinking?” or “I have no effing clue”, only I do not truncate my explatives.

These thoughts arise when I am fighting an aphid infestation on my only successful crop (steadfast lacinato), when mysterious creatures are devouring my spinach, when my ignorance appears to be killing the tomato seedlings I have put so much time into, and certainly when my lone surviving cauliflower succumbs to frost before I ever get a nibble. Having these problems is one thing. Thinking you are powerless against them is worse. Maybe there really is a green thumb, and I just don’t got it.

Yet, here I am. Ugly Garden takes up even more of my backyard than she used to, now sharing her borders with an expanded compost bin, and a chicken coop. How did I manage not to just pitch it all?

Use Your Community

My blog tends to be more personal finance-y than Urban Homestead-ish. I needed to seek out online resources for garden know-how. Hence, my arrival here at NW Edible and on other like-minded virtual communities, captained by individuals with more experience, who are blessedly willing to share.

I’ve done a lot of commenting and googling in the past year. I’ve also talked anyone’s ear off that will listen: co-workers, friends, random peeps at the nursery. If you know how to grow something, I want to talk to you. It was such conversations, and a peek at a friend’s plants that finally made me realize I was definitely, without a doubt over-watering my tiny tomatoes. Oops! That discovery saved my nightshades.


The tomatoes I've not yet killed.

Keep Records

This is where I plug Erica’s beautiful garden journal. The one I wish I had purchased, but didn’t because I’m cheap. I’ve a feeling I will regret that, when I am attempting to decipher this year’s verbosity at some later date. No matter how you do it, take notes. Everyone say’s this, I know. That’s because its true. You will not remember how, why, and when you were successful (or failed miserably) at transplanting those cucumber starts next year.

My recording is low-tech, involving a pen and paper. I did however, adapt the NW Edible Year Round Vegetable Planting Guide to suit my purposes. This has already proven incredibly useful at the beginning of each month, when I think I couldn’t possibly have any planting left to do. A little spreadsheet review reveals my newbie naivete, and provides direction. Journaling, recording, scribbling, spreadsheets, whatevs. It will help you.


Only time will tell if growing potatoes in burlap is actually a good idea.

Soil Quality

I will not claim much gardening knowledge. I struggle to remember what a brassica is. The labels on fertilizers? No idea. None. Nitrogen, something, something. Maybe. If there is one tidbit of technical information I’ve managed to absorb in the past year, it’s that Soil Quality Matters. I may not know all the science-y fanciness behind it, but I will confidently say: Put Your Efforts Here.

If you don’t want your leafy’s getting eaten by mysterious creatures? Soil Quality. If you want to have a harvest in January? Soil Quality. While not the complete answer, it’s an excellent starting point. The moment I realized compost and fertilizer were two different things, and that both should be used? Lightbulbs, angels singing, rays of sunshine.

One truckload of composted goat poop and a trip to Walt’s later, my strawberries look like they are ready for world domination. Strawberries have that tendency. In this case they aren’t alone. My plants are bigger, happier, and growing faster than ever before. This is only the beginning. My dirt is young. I haven’t even dabbled in hugelkulture or lasagna gardening. Yet.


Fear and anticipation of the Great Strawberry Take Over.

Be Not Discouraged

This ‘hobby’ we’ve taken up, it’s not for the impatient nor the feint of heart. Gardeners, especially new gardeners, need to be made of tough stuff. Self doubt can kick your ass. Luckily, getting rid of a garden beds isn’t any easier than putting them in. If it were easier, I would have reverted to grass at least once by now.

The effort involved in making those plans gives me opportunity to remember the delicious fridge pickles we ate for months on end last summer or just how gratifying picking a dinner salad from your backyard is. If I enjoyed that my first year, what can I do this year? And next year? And when is my columnar apple tree going to start producing?

My garden doesn’t look like Erica’s. I might not have much of anything to harvest this January either. A fact I’ll likely still be pissed about. But, I will get better at this, as long as I keep reading, talking, recording and working on my dirt.

I’m not discouraged – are you?

Read more from Sarah at Dogs or Dollars.


  1. Ellen Peavey says

    I really like what you have done with your garden, would like to send some pictures of mine. Ellen from georgia

  2. says

    Yay Sarah, for starting, and Yay Erica for being Encouraging! I think it is funny how the garden that I see in my mind is not the one that you see.

  3. says

    Your garden if far from “ugly”! The best line in your post had to have been the caption, “The tomatoes I’ve not yet killed.” That is the story of my garden!!!!!! I only have a 3′ x 10′ space in a friend’s backyard, and I’m amazed that anything grows at all, yet I manage not to kill things each season!

    It was good to hear that I’m not the only one suffering from pretty garden envy.

  4. says

    LOVED this! All of it.
    A delightful start to my day.
    I clearly remember wondering why my garden didn’t grow, and my farmer/grandfather suggesting that some decent soil would help, and that “not many vegetables grown well in the middle of a forest of fir trees”.

  5. Sue says

    All you backyard gardeners give me garden envy. :) Our garden is relatively large, but ain’t no way it’s ever going to look as pretty as your gardens. No neat raised beds. No tidy plantings in blocks. Just straight rows and lots and lots of ugly things to try and keep the %@%$$% voles from eating everything. Voles are one pest not discouraged by better quality soil.

    • Jenette says

      We went to raised beds with hardware cloth under to keep the voles out :) Good luck, I understand your pain!

  6. says

    Ugly – no way! It’s great. My garden is also young and I am new at this, too. My garden does not at all resemble the bountiful, beautiful masterpiece in my head… It probably never will, but the dream keeps me going… Hope springs eternal, or is it insanity?! :-)

  7. says

    Sweetie, from your pics, your garden is great, add about 6 inches more straw mulch or whatever it is you are using from your area and in one more year, you won’t need another stitch of fertilizer, your beds will have the same consistancy of a double dug raised bed and your pest problems will be reduced..and just remember, plant through the mulch next year and as it shrinks, just add more plowing, tilling, any of that stuff. Cheers!

  8. says

    If that’s your definition of ugly, don’t come over here. LOL Also, “I do not truncate my expletives” is my new catchphrase. I may have bumper stickers made, I love it so much.

  9. Tiff says

    I need to post pics of my funky spot, filled with reclaimed wood of all sizes, my great leaning arbor proudly holding up my Kiwi, my various sizes, lengths and types of stakes holding it all together! Your garden, and it’s order put my ‘ little garden that could’ to shame. Do I ever get bummed out all that I DON’T know? Daily. Maybe someday I wont look out my window and be flooded with this feeling that there something I’m missing and I must figure it out NOW! Thanks for you post, it makes it easier to know that I’m not the only one out there feeling like the mountain of compost feels at times like it’s just too steep.

  10. Sherrie says

    Flowers I know – veggies not so much. This is my first year vegetable gardening. Could be I overdid it – almost 800 sf of raised beds, berry patches and fruit trees (in addition to huge amounts of landscaping, 30 pots & baskets of flowers, etc.). Erica’s blog always gives me encouragement that I will someday know what I am doing. And asking advice from and tossing ideas back and forth with my friend Frankie is helping me to retain my sanity as my garden isn’t looking quite what I was expecting it to look like at this point – either it’s barely growing or it’s bolting! Too cold and wet, I guess. So I covered my tomatoes with hoops/plastic, thinking to give them some extra warmth – and fungus gnats took it from there. Sigh… I WILL persevere. Mine’s not pretty – yet!

  11. vikki says

    I could have written this post. First year of growing a few things in pots more than tomatoes. This is definately an experiment.

  12. says

    My first two years gardening have been a disaster! Last year I didn’t get a single tomato. Not one single tomato. I’ve battled root-knot nematodes, hordes of aphids, tomato hornworms, cutworms, and army worms. The only really successful crop so far has been oregano.

    Still I persevere. I’m constantly learning. Every year the garden gets a little better. And you’re right, just picking one salad out of your little back yard garden, or getting that one tomato… somehow makes it all worthwhile. There’s just no replacing it.

  13. says

    Ahhh I miss my garden so much!! I used to have a beauty but then I moved to the city :( Well looks like your doing very well for a new gardener, keep up the good work!! :)

  14. says

    Your “Ugly Garden” looks 1,000% better than mine and I’ve been at this for years and years so don’t feel bad at all! I’m more along the lines of “just get it to grow and don’t worry about what it looks like.”

  15. says

    When you get upset about not having a harvest in January, remember us poor Alaska gardeners. “Garden seasons” is a laughable term up here, where you plant everything you can as soon as you can and cross your fingers that there are no late frosts (or snows–it’s snowed in June before in my area!) and that the growing season is long enough for things to develop properly. Your beginning garden isn’t ugly at all, it’s just full of character. :) And gardening doesn’t get easier, but you will get better at it.


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