I remember trying to grow a garden as a little kid; we dug three awful little circles in our backyard, planted zucchini seeds, and watered them. As if by magic, they sprouted and grew, but as soon as the blossoms began to show, they were rapidly devoured by the local squirrel population. I think we tried planting other things, but they didn't even sprout so they don't stick in my memory as anything but evidence that nothing green can grow under my supervision.
This was more or less what I expected this year when my new husband and I planted a garden for the first time. Granted, since my childhood, the internet has become an amazing resource for amateur gardeners, so I was able to Google "starting seeds indoors" and "what plants naturally deter pests in gardens" to help us make decisions, but I still thought, in the back of my mind, that my garden would not be successful.
The other deterrent was that people often point out to me how much cheaper, in time and money, it is to buy produce from the grocery store or farmers market. I couldn't argue with them, but I secretly harbored a hope: with my husband's history of working with plants, and my intense desire to eat food I grew in my backyard, I thought maybe we'd be the lucky ones whose garden would yield a bountiful crop that recuperated the money spent on seeds and soil and water.
The garden went this way: we started with many seedlings, a half-grown strawberry plant, and a cherry tomato bush that a friend gave us. We harvested salads worth of greens, a small bucket of carrots, and enough strawberries to make a tasty but small strawberry rhubarb crumble. Currently, our tomatoes are taking over, squash vines litter the yard around the garden, and we're preparing to harvest potatoes. I'd call it a success, because everything didn't instantly die, but I'd also not call it an "investment" – we put money into soil and seeds, and buying the amount of produce we've gotten so far at the store would simply not cost very much money.
However, I think that growing a garden is teaching me important things about food and life. I thank the powers that be for farmers every day now, because all my coaxing and weeding yielded less than half a pound of carrots, and farmers harvest hundreds of times that amount in a few minutes. Their work, including the years of trial and error to learn the best ways to grow carrots, makes me grateful for others who know more about this than I do.
The other thing was that my strawberries, carrots, and even lettuce leaves were... ugly. They weren't perfect diamonds of strawberries or long, thick carrots. Everything grew in strange directions, with blemishes and spots. I ate all of it, even if I had to cook it in something else, because I had so little in my harvest that I needed to use everything. They tasted fine. Sometimes they tasted great!
It worries me that as a culture we've stopped eating things that don't "look" perfect and that much of the food waste in the country is actually wasted before we even buy our produce. I've started noticing the "expired" or "blemished" produce section at the grocery store, things that are almost but not quite out of date, and trying to buy from there; it's cheaper, and it's food that would almost certainly be thrown away if no one buys it that day.
I learned that, like I was told a million times, I would have to weed in order to make space for my plants, but I also learned that sometimes you want to plant more things than you truly have room for. I learned that sometimes you have to thin out even plants you like if they simply cannot all fit.
I was grateful that I took to heart the lesson of "grow things you like to eat," because I know for sure that even if I had grown perfect broccoli, I would have been less than thrilled to eat the stuff. I also learned that all soil isn't created equal, and compost feeds the food you are growing, so it's essential to their success.
What's nice about the lessons I learned is that they aren't lessons of scale; I'm so impressed by Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle experiment where she tried to grow or source locally all the food her family ate for a year, but that is so far from what I'm doing. Because my garden yields barely a few dinners worth of food, total, it makes me think that almost anyone, whether gardening a big yard or a window box, could start to learn some of these same lessons, getting to know their own food choices and learning surprising things about how plants behave.
I am not a patient person by nature or through practice; what I'm beginning to realize, as I now have a garden, is that being patient is something that you have to grow by practicing it. I have pretended, this whole year, that I am a gardener, and the result has been a big, lush, unruly garden that has produced small, ugly, but substantial fruits. I'm excited that I get to try it all again next year, maybe a little wiser than I was when I started seeds this spring.