It wasn’t always evident. As a small child I never suspected the impact gardening would come to have on my life and the lessons my gardens have taught me. I cut my gardening “teeth” at the side of my paternal grandmother, Reba Miley. She was one of those intuitive gardeners, not schooled nor well-read. She gardened a lot like she cooked, no recipes, only by what worked for her. And I am happy to report that she excelled at both those endeavors. Though long gone, she continues to be my source of inspiration. She simply made it look easy, natural.

And amazingly my earliest attempts at gardening were just that — easy. My first “garden” was a line of marigolds grown next to the parking lot at our apartment house. I remember that soil vividly. I no doubt had nothing more than a serving spoon secreted from the kitchen for my gardening tool. So it was almost impossible to scratch a row in which to plant that packet of seeds. The “soil” was mostly a lot of cold, hard cinders dumped there after the boiler had finished with them.
Even so, by some alchemy those little plants shot up like mushrooms, and bloomed as if they were bucking for an A+ or perhaps a blue ribbon. In the end they got the A. I remember (me a mini-Martha Stewart) fashioning a corsage from those plucky little flowers all fixed up with a frisky bow of leftover red curling Christmas ribbon which I proudly presented to my fourth-grade teacher for the first day of school. First lesson: To share a garden’s bounty is indeed a beautiful thing.
My second garden was three years later. We had moved to a small house, and while there was no yard to speak of for gardening, there was a very large field behind it. Here too a bit of magic was associated with my next garden as well. But that time it was facilitated by the curmudgeon who lived next door. My pals and I used the quickest route to get to that field and the woods beyond behind the houses for afternoon play which was through his yard. We beat a regular pig-path across the lawn, and I regret to admit that we often snatched stalks from his lusty patch of rhubarb on our way. As someone who prizes her patch of rhubarb, I realize now how thoughtless that was. No wonder the guy was so grumpy. One day he got so tired of our trespassing that he strung a wire about a foot off the ground across the back of his yard.
The next time we stampeded through hell-bent-for-leather, several of us — me first — went sprawling on our faces as we hit that wire. After catching our breath, we rolled around on the ground in hysterics. I can just about imagine the conversation that must have gone on in inside his house as his wife no doubt chastised the old coot for nearly crippling the lot of us. The next day that wire was gone. The incident did not deter us from our route, but for certain we were a lot more respectful as we paraded through his yard after that. Word of advice here: When dealing with adolescents, be specific and leave nothing to interpretation.
But it wasn’t the end of my experience with that neighbor. When spring arrived my gardening genes kicked in with a single-mindedness that foreshadowed things to come. I decided that field would be a great spot for a vegetable garden. I set out alone, my tool this time a small shovel to break the sod for the plot. The grass was already almost knee deep, and no doubt that field had not been turned in many a year. I cannot remember how long I labored at it, several days for sure. But I wasn’t making much headway. One morning I set out with my little shovel only to discover — wonder of wonders — that the “mean old man” next door had used his tractor and plow to cultivate a good-sized garden for me! Second lesson learned: Help a young person garden and they’ll remember it — forever.
Oh the things I grew in that garden. It would be difficult to duplicate the sense of satisfaction and pure pleasure that vegetable patch produced. There were brown paper grocery sacks of green beans, cucumbers and even lettuce. It must have rained just enough that summer, and the insects must have been ignorant of the garden’s presence because it was nothing but success with very little intervention on my part other than planting those seeds. What a way to start off a career as a gardener. I mean how easy could it be? You just put the seeds in the ground and things grow. What’s complicated about that?
Had my early attempts at gardening been complete disasters, I wonder if I would be gardening today. Call it beginner’s luck or serendipity, but those early successes gave me enough confidence to continue. Even so, in the grand scheme of things I was truly clueless. But like that proverbial wire across my path, I have been jerked up short a time or two in the many years since then by various gardens. Weather and insects haven’t always cooperated, anticipated results never materialized. Like anyone who has been gardening for half a century, I have encountered plenty of roadblocks and setbacks, along with plenty of bountiful harvests. I have learned a bit, and continue to discover as I garden on. If I were to give gardening advice to my much younger self, it would go something like this:
• Respect the soil — Study your soil, learn its characteristics and find out how you can improve it. Every bit as important as the plants, the soil needs to be the best it possibly can be. This often means amending heavy clay soils or loose sandy ones with compost. Healthy, rich soil means you won’t need to use harmful chemicals to raise robust plants. Your plants truly are only as good as your soil.
• The right tool can make any job easier — Kitchen cutlery isn’t meant for gardening. Invest in the right tools for the job. It doesn’t have to take a fortune to get the right tools. Try yard sales or thrift shops.
• The plants that grow the fastest aren’t always the best — Yes Jack’s beanstalks are fantastic, but they can take over and prevent anything else from taking hold. Monocultures are always boring and not the most environmentally sustainable choices. Unless you are growing a food crop, slower plants allow you to plan and create attractive ornamental gardens.
• Know your growing zone and respect it, but also challenge it too — Every plant is native to some place. Plants developed all over the world, and grow in their natural states in specific ranges of temperature, shade or sun exposure, moisture amounts with no human intervention. Take them out of that environment and you had better be prepared to makes some concessions or at the very least, enhancements. Growing zones tell us the extremes of temperatures to expect in any given area, which lets us know if a particular plant will thrive in a particular area. Ignoring your growing zone can result in heartache, wasted effort and lost money spent for plants or seeds. That said, there are micro-climates within any given zone that just might support that particular plant you wish you could grow. Within reason (You cannot grow coconut palms in Maine, at least not outside.) pushing your zone can sometimes work out, and with traffic-stopping results.
• Read those seed packages and the little tags that come with plants — Not only do those seed envelopes and tags tell you the name of the plant you just purchased, they tell you how deep and far apart the seeds should be planted, how long it will take to mature, and they and the tags let you know if your new plant needs full sunshine exposure or full shade or whatever in which to thrive. They often also list growing zone preferences for the plant.
• Ask questions and listen closely to the answers — Sometimes we have to be knowledgeable in order to ask questions, and sometimes we just need to admit we don’t know all the answers and that it is OK to ask someone who knows more than we do. But the key to this advice is to listen. I mean really listen. Then ask some more questions and eventually we will understand, and with luck may someday begin to be able to give advice too.
• It’s OK if some plants to die — This is one of the most difficult lessons to learn. Yet when plants die we do learn something. Perhaps it was because it wasn’t watered enough or maybe it was watered too much, or planted in the wrong place, or maybe it croaked because that the plant is an annual that is destined to die at the end of the growing season. It is OK to plant annuals that can brighten up gardens even if they will die at the end of the season.
• Go easy on your back, it has to last a long, long time — Bend your knees, not your back to reach or pick up things. If you have to move something heavy, don’t try to carry it by yourself. But if you do, carry it as close to your body as possible. The human back is poorly designed for all we want to accomplish, but respect it or it will dis-respect you for eternity.
• And last, but not least: Enjoy the process — Sure results are wonderful, rewarding and worthy of pride. But the process can yield all those dividends as well. Take your time. Stop and smell the sweet peas, and revel in your special time with your outdoor environment. Gardens are truly gifts, to be savored and appreciated from their inception to their fruition. In short, have fun. I know I am.

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement for 2012. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: gardeningonthego.wordpress.com or “friend her” on Facebook.