My gardening journey–from a temporary garden, through PPA/PPD, to a bigger garden than I could imagine

Starting a blog post to submit for other people to read can be a daunting task at times. How do you start it? More importantly where to start to kind of backlog at the beginning. With that being said, here is our gardening story:

My husband and I, at the time we weren’t married yet, lived in a rental property for a few months in 2016. This house was definitely a gateway for us–me, especially–for all things homesteading. It was almost 2 acres, and our neighbors were some young Holstein cows that would stare at our every move if we stepped foot outside. Chandler grew up in a farming/gardening family, while I (a city kid from New York) obviously did not. I loved all things baby and cuddly, so these cows quickly became my best friends. That spring I told him I wanted to have a garden, and so he borrowed a tiller from his grandfather and started tilling rows in the backyard of our rental property.

Fast forward a couple of months. We realized that paying $850 in rent for a house that wasn’t ours was starting to wear on our pockets, but every morning after work (we worked night shift 7pm-7am) we’d run out to the garden to peek at what was growing. And so, we had a talk that maybe we needed to look for a house to actually buy. Luckily, it didn’t take too much convincing him and by the end of July 2016 we had our first home.

Unfortunately, that meant we had to leave our garden behind. The garden that we worked so hard for and tended to every morning after coming home from work dog tired. The next couple of years were gardenless. We depended greatly on grocery stores for our produce, leaving our health and wellbeing at the mercy of others. I know, a bit dramatic, but just go with it here.

Three years later in 2019 we suffered two miscarriages and my mental health was declining. I left that draining job in a factory that didn’t really care about family or their employees. I mean, who can blame them–they were making hundreds of thousands of dollars exploiting their workers and taking time from families. I went back to school for nursing to get my mind working and keep myself busy. Later that year we talked about putting in a garden once again, and this time we would be successful in seeing the whole season through. Or so we thought.

The location we tilled the garden this time was under a canopy of trees in our yard so it didn’t get any sun, or a couple of hours at the very least. When you walked down there, you were instantly attacked by mosquitos from the overgrown vegetation. At this point it was summer of 2020, and you can imagine what kind of times we were living in. Not to mention, being a few months pregnant with our double rainbow baby–we finally got pregnant in January 2020 with Nora. So, scary times overall between being cautious of mosquitos, pregnancy, and pandemic in total. I think we harvested maybe a handful of beans, if that. Nothing grew, no onions, no squash, no pumpkins, not even my tomatoes. I did have a small garden box I bought from home depot that had jalapeno and green peppers in it, which I accidentally crossed to make no-heat jalapenos. It was pretty funny when we realized that happened. But in retrospect, gardening is all about learning, right?

The next spring I told Chandler I just wanted a raised bed. Lowe’s was having their spring event and they were giving away tomato plants. What would an emerging gardener do? You get the free plants! In that garden bed I had transplanted said tomato plant, some yellow squash, a couple of pumpkins and marigolds. I also learned the difference between indeterminate and determinate tomatoes. If you don’t know, I highly urge you to look it up and not plant anything within a 3 foot radius. I also tried to grow cabbage, which was a miserable failure due to all of the cabbage moths. To be honest, I was very naive to all of the bugs that can call dibs on your garden. I also realized that I did not want to grow food and spray a bunch of chemicals on my food.

At this point we had chickens again after having half of our flock die after we moved in 2016, and gave the rest away. I took that extremely to heart, but I was ready for chickens since I was a stay at home mom. I also did everything with my garden buddy right by my side–Chandler was still working those long 12 hour shifts, thankfully on days now, but it called for very long days with just a baby.

I forgot to mention that I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and anxiety. Go figure. Gardening was definitely my go-to stress relief, and what better way to have something other to bond with a baby than gardening and nature. I longed for the days she would walk right beside me picking beans and tomatoes, and that’s exactly what she’s done ever since she could hold a water hose.

Last year was probably the most determining year in my gardening obsession. Is it safe to call it that? The joy that I get from gardening and growing food for my family is like nothing I’ve ever experienced, besides having given birth to my gardening buddy. I have to largely thank Jessica Sowards at Roots & Refuge for igniting the true passion that I always looked for. Luckily enough I was able to meet her at a book signing for Mother’s Day last year as a surprise gift from Chandler.

Now, remember that single metal raised bed I mentioned before? I needed more raised beds if I was going to take this “feed your family” thing seriously. So, *insert super-hero theme song here* Chandler built me 3 smaller ones made from pallets. We filled it with moo-poo and top soil, and used straw as mulch. Needless to say I should have used unsprayed straw without any seeds because we ended up growing wheat in the garden beds with peas and tomatoes. There was still so much troubleshooting that I was doing with those beds and the present me would tell baby-gardener me all the do’s and do not’s. But again, still learning.

The seedlings I started last spring ended up taking over our spare bedroom, sooooo, we clearly needed a greenhouse. Next to the greenhouse I started a small flower garden, this way I can have some color to our backyard. I grew zinnias, cosmos, some sunflowers, and small poppies. To be able to step outside and have freshly cut flowers on my kitchen counter was definitely one of the best feelings. Also, if you have never heard of Greenstalk you will need to check them out. They’re American made vertical planters based out of Knoxville, Tennessee and they have been such an amazing addition to our backyard garden. They are a bit on the pricier side but at certain times of the year you can get great discounts to make it more affordable. I honestly wouldn’t trade their quality for a cheaper version sold elsewhere, and the best part is that they are perfect for people who don’t have a lot of space but have a desire to grow some fun things–I’ve tried broccoli and even okra in them with great success!

Now to the real deal. I guess I impressed Chandler with my dedication and hard work that he decided we really needed a big in-ground garden to do all that I wanted to do without sacrificing any part of my gardening-homestead journey. Here came the addition of our 25’ x 100’ garden. He tilled six rows that were about 3 feet wide with 2 feet allotments for walkways, all the way down until it was about one-hundred feet long. The soil was so compacted with tons of rocks, not to mention we had to cut down two trees that were going to be blocking some sun. The next step was to figure out how we would amend the soil to get it in better shape than it was. One thing I did forget to add is the fact that our garden sits in the back lot we bought with the house, so it’s mostly leveled but would have been more appropriate to build a house–it’s in a subdivision. Our decision to have an abnormally large garden last minute came with some financial strain. Cost of living has been skyrocketing, which also determined our desire to grow our own food, and we couldn’t necessarily afford the higher prices of compost so we did some researching and digging around (see what I did there?) and ultimately settled on getting compost from the Bristol landfill. There, we could get 1 ton of compost for $32. At the end of this journey, we ended up with roughly 14,000 lbs of compost for our 2,500 sq ft. garden, and that was on the thin side. Not to mention hauling wheelbarrows of compost and laying it down was back breaking work, but it’s been so worth the blood, sweat, and tears. The constant fear in the back of our minds of: will this really work? Will our food grow? Would we be saving money in the long run?

Let me let you in on a secret. It does work, and is so worth the hard work. Going out every morning to pick food or just garden snacks while you check on what else is growing is so rewarding. The late summer garden wilderness is absolutely magical. Personally, I’ve found such an incredible release in the garden that I can’t even begin to describe, but honestly I know other gardeners will relate with me. Being a part of the Grow Your Own community has also created even more enthusiasm in me and has allowed me to open up a bit more to talking to others in similar situations with the same love for growing our own food. Whenever I am driving and I see someone’s garden I can’t help but geek out at whatever they grow or even how their setup looks like. If I had one piece of advice for a newcomer, I would tell them to not be afraid of learning and asking questions because there are literally no stupid questions when it comes to gardening. I truly hope my story on how I started out gardening will genuinely inspire someone out there who feels like they’re in a season of feeling helpless, to start off with whatever they have in whatever space they have, and get to growing, because at the end of the day it is so worth it.

– Kayla Dickenson, Grow Your Own program participant