Tales of a 1st Time Gardener

By Ayrel Clark-Proffitt, Office of Sustainability

In a few months, I should have an assortment of tomatoes of multiple varieties, tasty okra, tapas and poblano peppers, and enough cilantro, basil, and mint to enhance all of my home cooked meals. That’s assuming I don’t kill them all prior to harvest.

My first sprouts in the seedling tray.

My first sprouts in the seedling tray.

It is my first time ever planting a garden. Food is often a gateway into sustainability, but that wasn’t my path. First, it was air quality because I am asthmatic. Then, it was trash. This garden – my first hands-on introduction into sustainable food systems – is way outside my comfort zone. My mother and sister have separately claimed to have “black thumbs.” I’ve never made such a claim, but I have killed literally every houseplant I’ve ever owned.

The momentum for this garden has been building for some time. My grandfather, who passed away 10 years ago this summer, grew the best darn tomatoes to ever grace any human’s palette. Admittedly, I am a little biased, but they were delicious. Also, I realized last year that I lack the self-sufficiency to survive an apocalypse, or say, the Hunger Games. Yes, I know how ridiculous that statement sounds. If you want a more sane reason, I finally live in a residence where the growing area gets full sun. All of you other gardeners will know by the items I mentioned above that full sun is a crucial component.

But what really pushed my desire to grow my own vegetables was spending just a few days with a farming family in northern Maharashtra, India. My husband and I lived in India for about a year, and I worked at a small NGO in the city of Pune. My boss’s family was so curious about the foreigner working for their daughter that they invited us to stay with them during Shivaratri. So we traveled by bus with my boss Saroj to the village of Pimpalgaon Hareshwar, where we stayed with Saroj’s parents, whom we called Appa and Ai (father and mother). Appa and Ai took us to the family farm, where we walked among cabbage, cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes, and many other vegetables. We talked about climate change and the troubles with monsoon irregularity, and how the previous year they had a bumper crop of chili peppers. For lunch, we had eggplant picked right from the field and cooked underneath the shade of the neem trees. I have never met more self-sufficient people in all my life.

Appa examines peppers growing in his field in Northern Maharashtra.

Appa examines peppers growing in his field in Northern Maharashtra.

It was a transformative experience and a catalyst for change.

During the past few months I’ve learned that gardening takes both knowledge and dedication. I’ve expanded my vocabulary to include a variety of gardening lingo. I am thoroughly versed in the difference between starting with indoor seedlings and directly sowing seeds outdoors. I know you need to “harden off” seedlings, aka let them sit outside for a few days to get used to the outdoor conditions prior to planting. I have a whole new appreciation for Ph levels and alkaline issues, and I’ve learned the difference between “green” and “brown” compost materials. And, when you prune tomatoes, don’t forget to pull off the little “suckers” growing between the main stem and the leaves.

I did a lot of research prior to planting my seedling tray, but the best thing I did was ask for help. My coworkers are a wealth of knowledge with experiences ranging from planting home gardens to running the organic Edible Campus Gardens to coordinating the Sugarhouse Farmers Market.

When in doubt, ask for help! The more I talk about gardening, the more I realize just how many people are getting their hands in the dirt. You can also check out great local resources, including Wasatch Community Gardens and Edible Wasatch.

Michael Pollan, journalist and author of “An Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” likens gardening to writing sentences, which have “an infinitely variable process of invention and discovery.” Cultivating a garden is my new hobby; my garden is a place where I can both think and do. I’ve taken an area where rocks seemed to breed and changed it to a productive space with endless possibilities.

I can’t wait for harvest time.

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