How NOT to grow a garden

by Jack Hartt

posted August 26, 2021

Our regular Fidalgo Grows blog writer, Julia Frisbie, is focusing on her day job and other responsibilities this week. And other real gardeners are busy doing their gardening work.

I’m not a real gardener or real busy; so here’s the view from my garden, just over a year old now. Don’t read this for advice. It’s more of a “what not to do” story. But still, my garden feeds me, sometimes. And it’s alive. And sustainable, somewhat. So, for an amateurish, honest, and honestly embarrassing alternative post, I bring to you: my garden.


First, I made sure the site was open to the sunshine. That left me only one choice for where to put it. If you only have one choice, that is where it goes. Mine faces the southwest to get the heat of the day but not the early morning sunshine. That way I get to deal with soil that is always dry and plants that have fog sitting on them until well past noon.

And my yard is a place where deer roam or sleep all night and leave their round fertilizer pellets everywhere. This told me two things: I can have free fertilizer any time I wish, and I won’t have any edible vegetables to harvest because that will be their fee for leaving me some fertilizer. Or I can I build a fence. That way, they will come and drool outside the fence, and fertilize outside the fence, but let me harvest my vegetables. Unless I forget to latch the gate one night. Then I got their fertilizer inside my fence. And yes, they took some vegetables as a door prize.

And my site is sloped quite steeply, a pretty good slope so I can start a couple stream beds when I water the garden. Every garden should have a good stream bed or two to demonstrate soil erosion.

Below: the only place my yard has for a garden, just before we started digging.


I had a friend help me build the garden out of soil that is mostly rock, gravel, and sand, the remnants of the ice age, the construction age, and perhaps a drunken rage from previous owners or renters because we found fragments of beer bottles, beer caps, a spoon, a wheel from a chair, and potato chip bags. We found these things because this garden space is below the deck of the house, which makes for a great place to throw things out of sight, out of mind.

We dug and double dug this questionable soil to put the crab grass a foot below the ground, and we then moved the rocks out of the garden and into the flower bed, and the glacial till became the home soil for my vegetables. Of course I added good soil before planting veggies! No, I say that, but I didn’t, the first year. Amazing what glacial till will grow. Along with what I planted, I also grew dandelions, daphne, stinky bob, crab grass, and some things that made me wonder if I should just start a weed demonstration plot instead.

I put a trail through the garden in the shape of a heart, and covered it with cardboard and then sawdust to give me a weed-free pathway through the space.

If you are picturing a spacious, fill-the-backyard garden plot, change your picture. I only had eight feet by twelve feet to work with. It’s small. It’s tidy, sometimes. It’s all I have.

Below: the layout as it was early this spring, with broccoli from last year, and lettuce coming up.





My friend shared some of her leftover seeds from the year before, and I also went to the local hardware store and grabbed some of what they had off the rack. So I had peas and beans and pumpkins and lettuce, kale and some zucchini and broccoli and things. I also had some strawberry plants from my previous house. I also bought two tomato plants; can’t remember their names but they sounded tasty. It was a trick getting them home in the bike bag on my bike rack. This was the first covid year, remember, so there wasn’t a lot else going on around town. And I wasn’t excited about going to the store very often. So these would hopefully become my vegetable garden for the summer.


And then I would water once in a while. I would stand on the deck and just rain down a gentle shower across my little fenced farmlet. And I would weed even less often because every once in a while I would feel guilty if I didn’t. Really, the amount of time I put into the garden could easily be measured in minutes per week. I hesitate to label this paragraph as “care”. It was benign neglect more accurately.

And things grew. And grew. It grew veggies! I had a garden!


How did the garden do? Well, not bad, considering. Most gardeners would laugh, or snicker, or shake their heads, but hey, I got dozens of heads of broccoli, which are still producing this second year; several dozen pea pods; lots of beans and kale but I found out I don’t like beans or kale much; five tomatoes (one plant didn’t do very well, and one looked like a Christmas tree with five green, then red, ornaments); five strawberries (they didn’t like being under the deck); and several large zucchini that I did the neighborly thing with and gave away. And five pumpkins that became ornaments for Halloween. Oh, and lettuce. They did great. The neighbors said I had a green thumb. It was my turn to laugh!

The amazing thing about this embarrassment of a garden – it gave me food, real food, healthy food, right outside my door, below my deck, local and fresh. At dinner time I would go down into the garden, cut some lettuce, grab a few pea pods, ignore the beans and kale, cut some fresh broccoli, smile at the tomatoes, pick a couple weeds, not in that order, hopefully latch the gate closed behind me even though my hands were overflowing with abundance, and go back inside and create a salad. Right out of my garden. It was revolutionary.

Below: the daily harvest in early summer










I showed my grandkids, and it gave them a place to browse when they were hungry. Except they couldn’t find any cookies, crackers, or candy, so they had to adapt.


Yes, I added some compost into the soil this winter. I finally did.

And I replanted this spring with some free starts from Transition Fidalgo & Friends and a few more seeds from the hardware store. Once again I had dinner salads right out my back door, below the deck. But no beans this year, by choice. And very few strawberries again. And potatoes that I didn’t plant; that was odd. Where did they come from? And the broccoli kept right on producing all winter and into the spring and is still producing this week.

It’s not much. But it’s what I have. Local, fresh, and flavorful. Small but satisfying.

Reading Peter and now Julia’s blog posts the past couple years, I am inspired to plant a cover crop soon, to go along with the fall lettuce I just planted, and some more peas that just emerged from the soil for a late summer crop. And find more compost to add.

I have a lot to learn. And this blog (when written by real gardeners) keeps me inspired to keep on growing. And please welcome Julia and our other real gardeners back next week when they share the kind of blog post that helps us to grow healthy and sustainable gardens. The kind I hope most of you have in your yard.

10 thoughts on “How NOT to grow a garden

  1. Jackie Anderson

    Hi Jack, I read your entire posting and it gave me some real chuckles. I loved the humor. Sorry to hear that you don’t like beans, they are a favorite of mine but I didn’t get a single plant to grow in my garden this year. Gardening is a challenge. Thanks, Jackie Anderson

  2. Jack Hartt Post author

    Glad you enjoyed reading about my foibles, Jackie! I wonder what happened to your garden this year? It was challenging weather, I know.

  3. Ruth Taylor

    Thank you Jack for letting us view your garden, I think it’s perfect! I also enjoy just grabbing some greens or whatever made it in my garden. I don’t think gardens are easy to start or maintain but they are fun to just play in!
    Julia is inspiring, I’d also like to take out a huge chunk of yard, just so it doesn’t have to be mowed, but not for a garden.

  4. Anna Torgersen

    Hi Jack!
    I loved your column! Having been gardening for almost 70 years, I know all the challenges! BUT you will get better, I guarantee. The older you get, the better gardener you become! And yes! Always start with lettuce—the easiest vegetable of all! Good job! Keep it up!

  5. Herta Kurp

    Love it! Your garden efforts are just as valid as anyone else’s’. Hey, you planted a heart in the middle of your garden, that’s all that counts: the heart in the right spot.

    Some reader suggests you become a better gardener with age, I seem to be one of those who never learn… my garden is a failure this year…. keeps me humble and coming back for more.

    By the way never underestimate the neighbourly gift of a zucchini. I embrace any zuchini that comes my way… it’ s all about connections.

  6. Peter C Haase

    Soundsa bout like our garden – 4 4′ x 8′ raised beds on the wrong slope facing the wrong way but able to grow good potatoes and garlic and dabs of this and that to graze on or to pick snatches of for dinner salads. This year good cherry tomatoes and zucchini and potatoes – lousy garlic, broccoli and carrots. So – so lettuce.

    You may have tossed some potato peels in there .. they volunteer from that pretty well here.

    1. Jack Hartt Post author

      Peter, I wonder if the previous occupants threw the potato peels in there. That would make sense. I mean, sense about why I had potatoes growing, not much sense that they would throw potato peelings out into the yard!

  7. Rosie Wuebbels

    Thanks Jack, that most entertaining. Never underestimate the power of laughing at yourself AND the power of trying. Anytime you get outside whether to hang your wash up or pull a weed, there’s a chance to observe a bird flying overhead. Or a cloud formation ect. Its all good!

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