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Getting growing: A starter guide to gardening

By Courtney Donovan Smith Translated by Anna Yang
Photos by Courtney Donovan Smith & Taylor Meltor

When asked if he missed nature while on tour, British musician Elvis Costello commented he got enough of nature every time he looked in the mirror. While he was joking, he alludes to a serious point: Most of us get little to no interaction with nature in our busy, urban lives--and that is mostly with other people and pets. Even in the United States--a nation that spends more annually on lawn care than the GDP of many small countries--the US EPA estimates Americans spend 93% of their time indoors. In fact, it is quite likely many spend more time watching nature programs on TV than actually experiencing it.

Getting growing: A starter guide to gardening Getting growing: A starter guide to gardening

Almost everyone can have a little nature in their window or on their balcony. No matter the type of garden one prefers, whether it is beautiful ornamental flowers or veggies and herbs for the plate, there are special moments that all gardeners share, of patience and care rewarded. When a seed sprouts and emerges from the soil for the first time. When a flower blooms, or fruit ripens. There is nothing quite like the smell of a flower you're grown, or the taste of homegrown food.

Every garden is different. Every plant follows its own rhythm, every soil and fertilizer boosts life in different ways and the unique environment of your home--be it the air or the sun available--gives each garden its own character. Change is the only constant, with the seasonal passage of life, death and rebirth now yours to witness and wonder at. And while less cuddly than a cat and less lively than a puppy, your garden isn't likely to claw up your sofa or poop in your shoes.

Getting growing: A starter guide to gardening Getting growing: A starter guide to gardening

I sat down with Donny and Joanne Granger of Taichung City Gardeners, whose passion, enthusiasm and knowledge have inspired me and countless gardeners across the city to take up the trowel and get started. While you will want to look up information on each plant you grow, they provided some general tips to get you started!

1. Soil is the most important element and, for home container gardening, it must drain well. Using dirt from outside isn't advisable as it packs too tight for containers to drain properly and there is a risk of root rot setting in. Most hypermarts, gardening supply stores and some supermarkets carry a range of "soilless" or potting mix that is good for home growing. Common ingredients in a potting mix include peat, compost, composted bark and perlite. Some include nutrients and fertilizer for added growing "oomph".

2. Beginners looking to start quickly can buy an already-grown plant or a seedling. Seedlings are baby plants that will need to be re-potted into a larger pot when you get home. Ask your dealer what size of pot you'll need for that particular plant, or look it up online. Already-grown plants sometimes come in adequate-sized containers but often, if you'd like them to grow larger, you may need a larger pot. Again, ask the dealer or look online.

3. If you'd like to start growing from seeds and you're a beginner, you might want to try smaller, fast growing food plants like lettuce, bok choy, beans, peas, arugula, peppers, basil, chives and loose (not head) leafy greens to get a quick sense of satisfaction and food to table much faster. These kinds of plants are often "succession plants" meaning that as plants are harvested new ones are planted, so over time you always have a supply of plants ready to eat and their replacements on the way.

4. The best type of pot are cloth pots because they retain water well, but they can be damp and can mold--making them less-than-ideal for indoors. While often the most attractive pots, ceramic pots (especially the glazed type) cause the soil to dry faster, requiring more frequent watering.

5. While it is both possible to over and under water plants, three tips cover most plant varieties. The key is to keep the soil uniformly damp, but not soaking wet. First, when watering the plant, keep going until a little water comes out the bottom--that should mean the soil is properly soaked through and is draining properly. Second, to determine when to water again, stick your finger in the soil one or two centimeters. If the soil is dry to the touch, it is probably time to water again. Third, if the plant is wilting and the soil is dry, this means mostly likely the plant is dying of thirst--water immediately. If you caught it in time, the plant will recover within a day. If, however, the plant starts to wilt but the soil is still wet, then it could mean the plant is being overwatered or there is another problem. Keep in mind that some plants prefer a little dry, others more wet--so look it up online for your particular plant. Also, some plants are more thirsty than others and require watering more often--especially if the pot is too small. Direct sun and heat can also dry out a planter, so often in summer you may find you need to water more often.

6. Different plants like different amounts of sun, but generally plants like a lot of it--especially outdoors. One exception to this are indoor plants; sometimes sunlight coming through a west-facing window can be too strong.

7. Different fertilizers have different strengths but most people go for pellet fertilizers. Lightly sprinkle the pellets across the soil about every two months or so.

Getting growing: A starter guide to gardening Getting growing: A starter guide to gardening

The pictures on these pages are largely taken in my garden, and there is quite a variety of plants. However, one lesson I have learned is that there are a few specific plants that just don't grow well at my home but do grow well elsewhere in Taiwan: tomatoes and eggplants, for example. A trick I've learned is to not try to force a plant to grow. If after a few tries a type of plant isn't doing well--dying off, not growing well or is too weak to fend off bugs--don't fight it. Grow something else; there are plenty of plant varieties that will find a comfortable, happy home with you. It's not worth the hassle and the stress of trying to defy the plant's nature. Finally, keep in mind that if you have cats, dogs or infants, keep them away from your plants.

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