Home & Garden: The Budding Gardener Home & Garden

April 5, 2007

BY LAUREN WISEMAN - SPECIAL TO WASHINGTONPOST.COM

Lauren Wiseman:
When I was growing up, my mom had a lush kitchen garden sprawling with green scallions, juicy tomatoes and gigantic zucchinis. In the summer she used her well-tended crop to make gazpacho soup and zucchini bread. She loved cultivating the land and growing food for our table. Her garden and her pleasure in it was something I have always admired. I envisioned that one day I would have one of my own.

Suburban dreams fell to the wayside when I moved to Manhattan after college. A job as an assistant at a fashion magazine left me with just enough money to rent a converted one-bedroom with two roommates. The only light for our tiny living room came through a narrow window in the kitchen, a space we used for shoe storage rather than cooking. The only greenery in the place was a lone African violet we kept in an oversize coffee mug on the window sill.

So when I met my husband four years ago, he persuaded me to leave behind a decade of urban living and move to Washington. We bought a house with a yard and an abundance of trees in a neighborhood bordering Rock Creek Park. Although I still sometimes yearn for city life, our first house, spacious yard and proximity to nature have stirred new interests, and memories of my mom's vegetable garden.

I became intrigued with the idea of creating my own garden, but had no idea where to begin. What did I know about gardening? I don't own a shovel and can hardly identify the overgrown plant life in my over-mulched dirt patches.

I decided I would need to enlist the advice of an expert, someone who could help me navigate my way through a completely foreign and unfamiliar process. Because I work for The Washington Post, I knew there was only one person to ask: Adrian Higgins, the newspaper's longtime horticulture columnist and gardening guru.

Now I am about to embark on a new adventure guided by Adrian. I'm not certain what I am getting involved with or whether I will enjoy the process. I wonder if I will be enamored of the aesthetic appeal of the finished product rather than the work itself? How will I find time between my full-time job and weekend getaways? Or will I just give up and pay someone else to do it all for me?

At least my new leopard-print wellies from J. Crew will help get me started as I stir up the soil and learn what it means to be a gardener.

So, Adrian, where do I begin?
-- Lauren

Adrian Higgins:
Lauren, the first thing is to resolve to keep outside help to a minimum. If others do the work, you won't get any of the pleasure or knowledge.

I want you to think about what you like about your garden, what you don't, what problems need fixing and how you envision using it. We cannot wave a wand and make the entire yard fresh and beautiful, but by reducing the work into small projects, we can form a manageable strategy of gradual improvement.

For now, I want you to think about the soil. (Gardeners cringe when people talk of the earth as dirt.) Most garden plants exist in two environments: above ground and below ground. We cannot see the underworld, so we have less of a regard for it, but it is the most vital half of a plant's domain. Chop the top off a forsythia bush and it will regrow. Chop away the roots, and it will not.

In good soil, plants not only grow more vigorously, they are healthier.A healthy plant, like a healthy person, is less prone to maladies and pests. Unfortunately, few gardeners inherit enriched soil, especially in the Washington area, where the native soils tend to be clay-based.

When houses are built, the builder usually removes a lot of the topsoil, and much of what is left has the life squeezed out of it by construction machinery. The owner then must spend years rebuilding the oil with organic matter such as mulch or compost before it can support healthy plant life.

The value of moving into an older home like yours is that previous owners may have done much to improve the soil. One way to figure this out is to take soil samples and send them off for testing.

Your wish list will help us determine what to tackle first. Perhaps the first task will be making a cage for those leopard-print wellies.
-- Adrian

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Lauren Wiseman lives with her husband, Dave, in Chevy Chase on an 8,000 square foot lot.

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