Don't Be Weird About Gardening

Nature wants to happen. Don't stress out about it.

Saplings in plastic trays
Photo: Jordan Lye / Getty Images

I realize I may have gotten a little aggressive about hardening off my borage, but I'm just going to have to live with the consequences. As recently as five years ago, I would have used this failure as an excuse to forensically examine all of my flaws as a gardener and human being and accordingly excoriate myself for the rest of the season but instead, I'm going to plant another seed. This is growth. This is growing.

So what happened five years ago to spur this personal evolution? I got sick. Not life-threateningly sick, but quality-of-life-thwartingly unwell, and I barely had enough wherewithal to nurture my own ailing body, let alone tend to some fragile little seedlings. All the bending down to weed, hauling water from the bathroom out to the leaky tar roof, hissing at squirrels — too much to ask of my constantly aching carcass. For most of my adult life, I've been intensely prissy about sourcing and germinating heirloom seeds, sowing them just so, hand-picking pests off the leaves, and finding extremely crunchy methods to keep the plants well-fed and disease free. That summer, I knew I needed to grow something, because gardening has always been a major link in my mental health armor, but I had to allow myself the grace of failing and not letting that become a thorny branch with which to beat myself.

So I decided to suck at gardening. No one, absolutely no one is relying on the output of my ratty raised beds and motley containers for their sustenance, and also nature is a fickle bitch. To whom was I going to have to apologize if things didn't sprout and thrive, the squirrels and slugs? They're my mortal enemy and do not deserve my puntarelle, so screw 'em.

seed packets
Jake Wyman / Getty Images

It's not easy to push past your own perfectionism (I have a very special gift of turning any pleasurable hobby into an expensive, masochistic freakshow), but I did my laziest best. Minimally tilled the dirt, threw in handfuls of old and unlabeled seeds, as well as the contents of what I call the "yuck bucket" — weird stuff that has sprouted in my fridge, nightshades that have gone off past the point of salvaging in a stew, the seeds I scraped out while cleaning squash and Catholic guilt forced me to dry and save or else the nuns will yell at you for wasting food and oh god, is that where the masochism blossomed? Anyway, I chucked it all in there, abandoning my previous regime of indoor germination, weeks of hardening off (that's hokey-pokeying seedlings in and out of sun and shade, indoors and out to toughen them up), and in some cases, not even labeling or knowing what went where.

And of course, that was the most productive, healthy garden I'd had in years. Tomatoes, radishes, peppers, ground cherries, cardoons, okra, and whatnot for days. There was only really one viable squash — a zeppelin-like Georgia Candy Roaster that materialized on a vine that trailed down an outside wall and eventually Hindenberged all over the pavement below — but man, I grew freaking cotton on a tar roof and corn on my stoop just feet away from a busy bus stop, and I grinned every time I walked past. Sure, some plants didn't work. The dishcloth luffa vined and vined but never flowered. The tray of seedlings that I did start, I completely forgot to shift from the glare of the afternoon sun and they sizzled into oblivion. The naranjilla just said nah and never germinated. No one, save for a vegetable predator suffered as a result, and I made the conscious effort to note and huzzah each bud, blossom, tassel, pod, fruit, leaf, berry, stem, and stalk. It felt like a benediction.

If I'd gotten my usual level of fussy, while I was personally operating at a much lower wattage, I can't swear I'd have even let myself start. I would have taken a look at planting calendars, trash-talked my own soul for not having gotten everything under grow lights by mid-February to maximize the season, and forced myself to stare at the barren beds as punishment all summer. And honestly, who would that serve? Not even a damn squirrel.

So yeah, this year, I cold-burnt some borage leaves, and just now, I walked outside to realize that I'd forgotten to bring another batch of seedlings inside last night, so the Evertender (more like Ever-wussy) okra shriveled in the chill. I took a moment to acknowledge the loss, pushed a new seed into the dirt next to the flopped-over body, and started again.

p.s. While I was publishing this, my girl dog ate some corn and tomato seedlings from my Dirt Pots outside, and my Flashy Trout Back lettuce from an Aerogarden inside. I'm just trying to breathe through it. And my colleagues at Better Homes & Gardens have you covered.

A few items that help me maintain this calmness I am attempting to achieve but seriously, just seeds and dirt work, too:


I fell into the cult of Aerogarden during the pandemic. likely because I needed something to grow inside in the dead of winter (with quicker returns than my citrus trees) that was gonna be relatively foolproof. I started with a six-pod Harvest Elite, nabbed a nine-pod Bounty, and now I'm seed-starting in a Farm 12XL. Yes, these can be extremely pricey, but watch for flash sales where they can often be found for 40%-50% off.

Aerogarden Harvest Elite ($130), Bounty Basic (from $279), Farm 12XL ($599)

Kratky Jars

A thing I learned from my fellow cultists on Facebook is that it's easy to move plants from the Aerogarden to jars filled with a nutrient solution (like Cal-Mag) to mimic the conditions. These chalkboard-coated jars block algae-enhancing light, and let you scrawl and erase info about when they're due for a refill.

Darware Chalkboard Mason Jars, set of 6 ($19)

Cal-Mag Plus Plant Supplement, 1-quart ($16)

Seed Starter Trays

I over-plant to minimize the heartbreak of loss, so a 72-peat-pellet tray feels reasonable to me. The Aerogarden is generally quicker, but also sometimes I like to listen to songs on vinyl rather than streaming.

Jiffy 72-Pellet Seed Starter Greenhouse, 2-pack ($27)

Fabric Pots

After my raised wooden beds succumbed to the ravages of rain, snow, and age, I decided to go all-container this year. These fabric pots are portable, durable, drain well, and train roots smartly and it's all great until your dog gets noshy.

Hydrofarm Reusable Dirt Pots, 5-gallon ($8.50), 7-gallon ($10), 15-gallon ($17), 25-gallon ($22)


Look, things got weird during lockdown. I wasn't sure if we were ever going to be allowed outside again, so I bought a 108-pod hydroponic unit to grow lettuce, herbs, strawberries, and greens indoors in sponges and nutrients. I'll let you know how it goes.

Lacond Hydroponic Grow Unit ($135)


None of the aforementioned grow methods work without a blast of light. Aerogarden has it built in (part of my cult fervor could be that plenty of people use them as an ersatz SAD lamp to deal with winter depression), but all the other setups need something external.

Feit 60-watt, 2-foot Grow Lamp ($99.99)

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