Q&A: Am I being lazy? 🤷🏼‍♀️

On entering “experimental mode” and doing easy—plus a playlist for you.

After I wrote you all with a nudge to get growing with seeds this year, my Brooklyn-based friend Reed sent me a response that essentially boils down to: Last year I started a tomato garden on my fire escape and it was too much work, so this year I’m scaling back and buying seedlings instead of starting seeds. Does that make me lazy? (The full question is included below.)

I responded to Reed in an email, but since then I’ve been thinking more about it, and realized that the question contains multitudes. Plus, I suspect that Reed’s situation is likely shared by a lot of you. You’re busy, your growing space is limited, and you don’t want to set yourself up for a huge amount of annoying work.

So! To anyone reading this who’s in a similar boat, I’ve got some ideas for you on how to find an approach that aligns with your lifestyle, space, budget, and level of excitement—all while keeping things fun. Read on for some tips on how to make that happen.

— Willa

PS ~ I made you a playlist! You can listen while gardening or working or commuting or whatever. It starts mellow and then gets funkier, but not too funky. Enjoy <3

Q: I feel like my fire escape garden was so much work last year for such a small amount of space. I’m gonna do it again but scale back. Herbs and maybe a few cherry tomatoes. And I think I’m just gonna buy seedlings because one windowsill with sun is just kind of a pain to work with. Am I being lazy? 

A: No, I don’t think you’re lazy.* You learned a lot in that process and now you are better equipped to grow the right number of plants for your available time/space/needs. I never grow tomatoes from seeds tbh, they always are better when you get greenhouse-started seedlings for whatever reason (same for peppers and eggplants in my experience). And you really only need like 2-3 tomato plants to get enough tomatoes. You’re not being lazy, you’re being smart and the only way to figure that stuff out is to just keep doing it and changing the approach every year!

*(Reed is actually a very un-lazy human in general—and I think it’s cool that he’s gardening despite his busyness!)

The above was what Reed and I chatted about over email, but for the purposes of Imagining a Garden, I wanted to share some more long-winded thoughts about how to make a loose gardening plan that won’t set you up for disappointment, stress, or financial ruin (lol).

So here ya go, more tips about growing stuff—especially for those of you who are just starting out, or who are working with time-and-space constraints.

Tip #1: Lean into ~experimental mode~

When you’re doing your best to squeeze a growing zone into a space that’s not really supposed to be for growing things—while also living a busy life that doesn’t leave lots of wiggle room for observing and tending to your plants all day—it can help to lean into a little mindset I like to call ~experimental mode~.

In experimental mode, you set out trying to be open to anything happening. It’s akin to beginner’s mindset, where the point is about learning and being surprised and internalizing slowly built-up wisdom. It’s not about being the best gardener ever or getting the biggest bounty of tomatoes ever; it’s about taking in the experience and seeing where things lead. (I’m sorry but yes. It’s about the journey not the destination. There, I said it.)

In experimental mode, when you chuck some seeds in a pot just to see what happens, and then end up with a big beautiful plant you get to admire all summer—and maybe also get some tomatoes, or a full bouquet of flowers—you win! And when the seeds don’t grow super well but you spend some time trying to figure out why, and maybe take a different approach next year based on what you learned, you still win—because your experiment helped you grow as a grower.

Tip #2: Play to your growing space’s strengths—and use plants to improve your experience of that space, whatever it is.

Growing things is magical, but it can also be tricky—especially if you’re working with an ad-hoc space such as, let’s say, a fire escape. These kinds of pop-up gardening situations can be challenging for a lot of reasons, mainly because they lack basic gardening infrastructure: a hose, bright sunlight, access to compost and mulch, a pest-deterring fence, etc. Urban gardening setups are also more prone to weird occurrences like, say, pigeons nesting in your containers, or the construction site next door littering bits of insulation all over your vegetables. I’ve been there.

So before you invest a bunch of time and emotional/physical energy into a DIY garden setup, get real about your space and what it (and you!) can support. Does it get strong light all day long, or not so much? Is it going to be a huge pain to keep things watered (if your garden is on a rooftop, the answer to this is probably yes)? Are there a lot of squirrels out there? Do they look hungry? (Uh oh.)

Also: What do you like to do in your space, or otherwise use it for? Is there something you could grow there that would improve your experience of the space? For example, if you like to host happy hours with friends on your deck, maybe you could grow some snacking tomatoes and herbs that taste great in cocktails? Or, if you could use more privacy, then you could make a simple DIY trellis and grow fast-climbing plants like beans, sweet peas, and morning glories. I like it when gardeners think of what they’re growing in multiple dimensions: There’s the experience of growing it, what it looks like while it’s growing, and then finally, the fruit or vegetable harvest.

As you ponder the above, go sit in (or near) your growing space for a few minutes and really observe it. Make a list of its attributes as well as its challenges. Imagine how different forms of greenery might augment the space, and think about what kinds of vegetables, herbs, or flowers you’d get the most out of growing yourself versus buying at the store. Then, spend a few more minutes googling for ideas given your space’s constraints, and take notes on which plants seem to align with what you want to grow, and what you reasonably can grow and use.

Pro tip: Add the word “Reddit” to your google queries about what plants do well in different kinds of environments, as this tends to pull up helpful Q&A-style forums from people who’ve dealt with similar spaces, versus content-marketing listicles. (This works for everything by the way, not just garden-related searches!)

Tip #3: Do easy. Nursery-bought seedlings are great!

There’s no reason to do things the hard way unless you really want to. For my friend Reed, buying seedlings instead of starting seeds this year makes a ton of sense because, 1) he doesn’t have much space for starting seeds indoors, and 2) he doesn’t have much outdoor space for growing the plants, either. This means he actually doesn’t need very many plants—so why buy 100 tomato seeds, plus all the stuff you need to start them, when you only want 4 tomato plants anyway?

Another thing: When you buy seedlings from a garden center, you can ensure you’re starting the season with robust plants that germinated in a bright, sunny greenhouse versus pallid plants that got leggy while straining for light in your windowsill. (No shade on your windowsill, Reed, your tomatoes seemed to thrive there!)

Unless you’re excited to start seeds inside because you’re in ~experimental mode~ and just want to have fun with it and see what happens, buying seedlings just after your final-frost date can be an inexpensive, easier way to get a garden going. (I also recommend going to the garden center with a friend or two and sharing what you buy, since seedlings are usually sold in 4-packs or 6-packs and when you have a small space, you probably only want 2 or 3 of the same kind of plant. Sharing them will make you less likely to overcrowd your containers or beds!)

Reed’s fire escape garden from last year—all tomatoes he started from seed in his one windowsill.

Tip #4: Don’t let your garden run down your bank account too much.

I keep seeing this Instagram video where a woman jokes about spending hundreds of dollars on gardening supplies just to grow one sad pepper. It’s funny, I concede, but there’s actually some truth to it. If you go big and buy all the gardening stuff in your first year—the seedling trays, the high-quality compost, the seeds, the tools, the extra-large pots, the list goes on—you’re going to spend way more money than you would if you just bought organic vegetables and flowers at the farmer’s market.

This is where it’s important to think about the long game, and ask yourself how likely you are to commit to the ~gardening lifestyle~. If you’re not sure that you’ll want to keep doing it year over year, then please don’t spend much money in those first years, because there are so many ways to keep things dirt cheap. From using toilet paper rolls to start seedlings to making raised beds out of recycled wooden pallets, a quick YouTube search will land you hundreds of free or low-cost gardening hacks, many of which work extremely well.

To make a larger-scale gardening endeavor economically “worth it,” you kinda need to hit a certain scale of production where the value of food you reap is greater than the cumulative value of the time and money you spent. This can be hard to pull off, especially in the beginning. 

Also, to get to the point where your garden is truly saving you money, a lot of other lifestyle-related factors need to integrate with your gardening pursuits (you need to have ample time to spend on the garden itself, but also on cooking and food-preserving). I find it very hard to imagine growing enough food to save money on groceries all year long without devoting something like ~15 hours per week to my garden and to other food-preservation-associated tasks, from mid-spring through the fall. In this way, gardening can very easily become a part- or full-time job—which is something I personally need to be careful of, since, uh, I have actual part-time jobs that I need to be doing… and a toddler to take care of… among other responsibilities. 

So yes, it can get expensive and feel “not worth it” if you spend a ton of $$$ and time on gardening and then it doesn’t provide as much as you hoped it would. All I can say is give yourself a budget, and stick to it—and then save those seeds and re-use those seed trays. Eventually, we hope, it’ll be worth it!

Tip #5: Acknowledge that gardening has a learning curve. And weird shit always happens. 

While it’s true that anyone can garden, it’s also true that there’s a ton of knowledge you need to build up before you’ll feel like you really “know what you’re doing.” Growing things can often feel quite easy at first, because seeds are biologically designed to grow, and plants want nothing more than to get bigger and flower and make fruiting bodies. However, there are literally millions of variables that can make or break a garden—and often, luck plays a big part in what happens. Weather, bugs, woodchucks, beneficial insects, soil quality… Gardening is like a soupy ocean of uncontrollable possibilities and you gotta ride the wave.

But! The more seasons you spend trying to grow things, the easier the soup-wave-surfing becomes. It’s exactly the same as any skill set—it takes practice and persistence to develop. And honestly, that’s a big reason why it’s fun. You get to keep improving year over year, and upping your ante as your skillset broadens.

So if you’re just starting out, take it easy, pardner! Keep chipping away at things and eventually you’re gonna know so much. I’ve only been doing this as a hobby-ish thing for about 5 years now, 3 of which I was either uncomfortably pregnant or toting around a baby, and I already feel like I’ve learned so much. The know-how really does seem to build up exponentially.

My last tip: Gardening is a lifestyle that takes a lifetime to cultivate.

At a certain point, if you hit your stride with composting and seed-saving and vegetable-canning and all that real homesteader sh*t, your home might start to feel like its own circular economy. As you cook, food scraps become compost and food for chickens. Compost and chicken poop feed the garden. Fallen branches and leaves from trees around your house become mulch, and because you use so much mulch in your no-dig garden bed, your soil is extremely fertile, and everything thrives. The garden grows food and you eat well all summer, maybe even all year. In the fall, you save seeds so you can do it all again next year—and the wondrous cycle starts over. (If you want to read more about this fantasy lifestyle, check out Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.)

^ BUT THAT IS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN IN YOUR FIRST YEAR(S). I’m not even close to being there yet, and honestly might not ever get there. I’m not even sure I want to get there.

I feel like there’s a real risk of putting gardening on this sort of aspirational-life pedestal. Instagram might be tricking a lot of us into thinking we can just chuck down some seeds and grow a fantasy-esque wildflower meadow, or a sky-high tunnel of squash, without showing all the back-breaking labor it takes to dig up the rocks and prepare the soil and water the sprouts etc, etc. But gardening is literally labor! Even the self-proclaimed “lazy gardeners” are only able to be “lazy” because they spent years honing their approaches and studying permaculture and establishing perennial crops.

So, yeah, I’ll be the first to admit it: gardening can be a real pain. And it doesn’t make sense for everyone to try to grow their own food if it’s not something they’re genuinely excited to do. For me, it all comes back to the excitement of being in ~experimental mode~ and thinking about gardening as a kind of creative, pseudo-spiritual practice. I swear to god that digging in the dirt keeps me sane, and my sanity enables me to feel and do better throughout the rest of my life. Therefore, even though it’s hard and sometimes goes awry and makes me cry, I still do it. I still love it.

So overall, Reed: No, you’re not being lazy—you’re just being an awesome, adaptable gardener making strategic use of your time and space.

The only way to figure this stuff out is to just keep doing it and changing the approach every year. Every garden is an experiment. Over time, the experiments just get better results.

Hope this helps! Send more questions to me at willa.koerner [at] gmail.com and I’ll answer another one soon.

~ Willa