Food & DrinkGood Growing

Gardening Advice for Newbies From an Ex-Newbie Turned Pro

France and the Beanstalk

I feel like it’s time for an introduction column. Why would you want to listen to my advice, after all? Maybe I just pasted it from some Buzzfeed-like gardening corner of the web.

Well, I didn’t. Though I’m not as well-versed as some other growers, most of the advice I like to give and write isn’t for people who have a decade of gardening under their belts—it’s for newbies. I love talking to people who are excited about growing, trying different techniques, conducting experiments in their backyards, thinking about what would work best for their soil or climate. You don’t have to be building your first garden to care about that stuff, but I find that most folks who have done things a certain way for a certain amount of time like to continue to do things that way—gardening the way their father or grandmother did. I don’t have much advice for those people. They have much more experience, equipment and land than I have. 

My cultivated plot is about a quarter of an acre, and I don’t use a tiller. I can relate to the backyard gardener more than the commercial farmer. Some would say I’m not a farmer because of the size of my plot and the equipment I don’t use. “Farmer” feels like I should have hundreds of acres or at least one tractor. Honestly, I like the British expression of “plantswoman” best. It reflects my plant knowledge without the “farmer” expectation of an operation covering thousands of acres feeding America or the organic, pastoral multi-generational family-led business. I am neither of those.

Some readers may know my byline. I am a former reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald and editorial adviser for The Red & Black. Some readers may know my face. I catered Athens-area weddings for one long summer, served at a popular downtown restaurant and poured and packaged beer at Creature Comforts Brewing Co. I had several years as an inveterate barfly. I’ve probably packaged your beer, poured you a drink or drank beside you if you’ve lived in Athens for more than five years. 

I found agriculture and horticulture after falling out of love with journalism. I wanted to be the boss going forward. I was tired of watching company leaders make mistakes I couldn’t affect. I wanted to make decisions, assess their success and pivot quickly when necessary. Agriculture appealed to me because entrepreneurship is so prevalent in the industry. It’s possible to start a small-scale farming business without a bank loan. And I love food. Eating locally grown food is such a pleasure. Grocery store produce doesn’t compare.

I began attending Athens-Area Master Gardener classes. I completed the volunteer hours and decided to look for some green-collar work to see how it would feel. I got a part-time job on a small farm using organic practices in Oglethorpe County. I loved it. I learned a bunch. My partner and I bought a house and land, primarily because we wanted more dogs, and I wanted space to experiment with different agricultural businesses. 

Next, I found a horticulture job as a full-time grower at a non-organic, typically ornamental, speciality plant business. I learned even more. After 18 months, I began seriously considering my own prospective venture. Spring, as you might imagine, is busy for growers, and I was looking at a six-day work week with little time or energy to take baby steps on my own business. So I landed a job as the produce manager on a certified organic farm. The five-day work week guaranteed enough time to attempt selling plants and produce on my own for the first time and learn more about the business end of running a farm.

Then my father died. Six months later, I stopped working for other people and filed the paperwork for my own Troublesome Creek Farm.

Altogether, I’ve been a plantswoman for five years now. During that time, I learned about big farms, little farms, organic operations, non-organic businesses, vegetables and ornamentals. I worked with people who have horticultural degrees and people who are self-taught. I learned from native Georgians, immigrants and even transplanted Northerners who talk about sweltering in 80 degree heat. 

This column is, in part, a way to make money writing while I blunder through learning how to be a better businesswoman. But mostly, this column is to show new and struggling gardeners how to grow plants. I’ve been where you are. I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from my friends, co-workers and bosses so we can grow better together.