Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started Gardening

I’ve been gardening on my own for about 12 years now (I also dabbled as a kid, begrudgingly helping my Mom in her garden, but does that count?). Anyway, my first year or two of gardening on my own was pretty easy – I lived in a rental that already had a huge area ready to go for planting whatever I wanted, I just had to pull a few million weeds and plant some seeds. Another bonus about that garden was that a previous dweller of the home had left behind a bunch of big plastic planters that I filled with soil from the garden (I’ll touch on this more below), so I was pretty lucky since I had little to no disposable income at that point in my life. And although those first few years were very easy for me, I didn’t know a lot about gardening. Then we moved to our current residence and it was a whole different story – a dog-stained sod and concrete block nightmare. I wish I could say we had a clean slate, but we really didn’t. We had what years of previous owners had left behind. Sometimes I’m envious of people who move in to new builds with total clean slates. Anyway, now that I’ve had a few years of gardening experience under my belt, I thought I would share a few tips that may be useful to the just starting out gardener, or that may even serve as a reminder to the experienced gardener – these are all definitely things that I learned along the way from that first garden to our current garden.

1. There is a lot of information out there and everyone has advice for you. Start off by checking out a few gardening blogs and acquiring a book. My favorite gardening blog is You Grow Girl (Gayla Trail has a ton of resources for the new gardener) – also check out her first book with the same name. The first gardening books I owned were by Lois Hole who was a Alberta specific gardener (these are still the ones I refer to the most), so my recommendation is to look for a book that is specific to your climate (you can also search online for gardening blogs in your area). While I do value the advice from experienced gardeners, it can be a bit overwhelming to the new gardener. Accept and be thankful for the advice and then take it with a grain of salt. You really won’t know what it going to work for you unless you experiment.

2. Your soil is the most important thing. If you’re going to spend any money in your garden, spend it building up your soil. Spending money on dirt may seem pretty silly, but trust me, it makes all the difference. A good combination of healthy garden soil, manure and compost will be your best bet – it really depends on what you’re starting out with. My soil has quite a bit of clay naturally, so ensuring that I’m adding in materials that will provide the soil with sufficient drainage was important. The best thing to do if you’re starting fresh is to purchase a truck load of dirt or get one of those really, really big bags delivered – it will be much cheaper than buying individual bags from a garden center (I made this mistake as a new gardener). If you don’t think you’ll use a big load of dirt, you actually probably will – worst case you can spread a thin layer on your lawn to provide a boost of fresh nutrients.

3. Speaking of soil, don’t do what I did and just shovel dirt from your garden in to pots – this soil is probably way to heavy for your pots and the drainage will be terrible, causing your roots to rot. Your potted plants will also be competing with weeds for space and nutrients. If you only have a few pots to fill, you can absolutely get away with buying the individual bags of soil from the garden center.

4. Another note on potting soil – you do not need to replace the soil in your pots annually – I rarely do. The only exception for me is the smaller pots – I always replace the soil in those because most of the plants grown in them have become root bound by the end of the season, so I just throw the plant and the dirt in the compost pile. But with your bigger planters, it is totally okay to just refresh the old soil by removing the top 6 inches of old soil and replacing it with a mixture of fresh soil and compost. I do follow a couple of rules when it comes to replacing pot soil – the first I mentioned above (small pots), but the other is that I ensure not to plant the same types of plants in my pots the next couple of years in order to prevent the spread of disease. So for example, tomatoes will never be planted in the same soil twice. Healthy soil = healthy plants. The third exception would be that if any diseased or sickly plants were grown the year prior, that soil would go right in my trash bin and be replaced with fresh soil (always make sure those pots have had a good scrub as well before getting fresh soil).

5. You don’t need many tools. You need a good hose with a good nozzle, a shovel with a sharp edge, some gloves (if you choose, I know lots of gloveless gardeners), a sturdy bucket, and a good trowel (my favorite is the hori hori because it does double duty as a trowel/knife/murder weapon). I have lots of other tools like rakes, a hoe, a pitch fork, various hand tools, and so on, but I rarely use them.

6. Don’t get too ambitious on your first try. Start off with a tomato plant in a pot, some herbs, some lettuces, and a few other easy plants. And don’t be disappointed if you only get a handful of tomatoes or if everything dies. I still kill things and I still sometimes only get a handful of tomatoes – that’s just part of the game. Half the fun is learning about your climate and growing conditions, making mistakes, and thinking up ways to try again next time.

7. You don’t need to buy the biggest plant. The biggest plant will also be the most expensive. I almost always opt to buy the smaller version of a perennial because I know it will only be a year before it is the size of the large one – the key is patience. Also, if you know you’re going to have to fill a larger area, you can always purchase a couple of plants and wait until end of season sales where you can often get plants for next to nothing (about half of my garden is discount plants). Instant gratification is no fun when it comes to gardening – experience it fully and watch tiny plants grow in to unruly monsters!

8. Don’t overspend. This is easier said than done. You can garden on the cheap, trust me. The garden centre is great, but it is also really expensive. I can easily walk in intending to buy no more than a bag of dirt and walk out with $100 in plants. Connect with your local horticultural society and see when the next plant swap or plant sale is. Also, make friends with gardeners as most of them are more than happy to divide plants up for you. I also end up giving away quite a few tomato seedlings in the spring because I’ve been too ambitious with my seed starting. Keep your eye on your local Craiglist, Kijiji, or equivalent for free pots and plants. Also like I mentioned above, you only need a few tools to get you started and you’ll really want to initially put your money in to good soil.

9. Build things up over time. I am guilty for wanting everything in my garden now. But the truth is, if I went ahead and did everything at once, I would be in debt and I would probably have a bit of garden regret. Start with a few pots, then a raised bed, and then just keep building up on that each year. Don’t try to do everything in one season, you will probably not get much joy out of your garden and the whole thing will be a chore for you.

I think the common theme here is patience! Do things slowly and as you can afford to. Don’t get discouraged if things don’t happen for you right away. Keep trying and celebrate the successes, even if your Facebook friends don’t get as excited as you do about a truck load of manure. And just in case you thought my garden transformed over night, here is a before/after (it took 10 whole years to get it to where it is now – and I have a million things I’d still like to do with it!):

Garden Before

Before: This was the first year in our garden and we’d just pulled up those concrete blocks and dug the first bed.

Garden After

After: No more grass, lots of raised beds and growing space, and new deck, fence, shed, and greenhouse. It took 10 years to get to here!

New gardeners: what are some of your biggest fears or challenges? Experienced gardeners: What tips do you have for the gardener just starting out?

What I’m Cooking: Meringue Dream Cake

I love to cook. If you know me at all, you definitely know this about me. What you may not know about me is that I have a very large collection of cookbooks (I dream about the day I will have somewhere to store them all in the same place). And you may also not know that I have a mildly out of control obsession with Pinterest. Put all of that together, and I constantly have a unbelievably long list of recipes I want to cook. I like to come up with my own version of classic recipes, like pumpkin pie or boeuf bourguignon, but I also really enjoy making others recipes as they were meant to be made. So with all of that said, I thought it would be nice to start a new series called What I’m Cooking, where I will write about a recipe I found somewhere and my experiences with it (successes, failures, challenges, etc).

The first recipe was roasted potato & bacon salad, but I didn’t really talk much about the series… so I’m going to pretend that this is the real first official post in the series and hopefully you can all pretend along with me! So, the first feature is the Meringue Dream Cake by Sweetapolita. I actually first saw this cake pop up on Sweetapolita’s instagram feed – the next minute I was on Pinterest adding it to my own board. I usually just add cakes to my Pinterest because they are baking porn to me. And I’m often delusional thinking I’m going to actually bake them. But this cake was somehow different – the timing on that post couldn’t have been better because earlier that day my brother had asked me if I would be willing to bake a cake for his girlfriend’s birthday in a few weeks. I guess he caught me at a moment of weakness because I agreed. Normally when it comes to making something in the kitchen, I’m all over it. But baking a cake, or just baking in general, is another story. I am not much of a baker. It’s not that I’m bad at it, it’s that I prefer to cook. Regardless, I couldn’t back out of making a cake. When my brother proposed the idea, I actually had a different cake in mind that I have been wanting to try out for awhile – it’s a dark chocolate salted caramel cake from The Duchess Bakeshop cookbook (don’t worry, I will still make it, just another time). But as soon as I saw the Dream Cake, I knew that was the cake I needed to make. I sent the recipe to my brother and he immediately replied “YES!”.

Meringue Dream Cake

I made the cake over a few days – the baked meringues two days early, the cake and chocolate glaze the day before, then on the day of serving I made the meringue frosting and assembled the cake. All of the steps were really simple and I’m very glad I spread the process out over a few days.

Meringue Dream Cake

Here are my overall thoughts on this recipe:
– You might be put off when you first look at the recipe and see all the different steps, but almost everything except the frosting can be done a few days ahead like what I did. It is a time consuming cake, but it was worth it for a special occasion.
– I did use food coloring powder as recommended and found it online at Golda’s Kitchen (based out of Canada but they ship to the US as well). I had a bit of trouble with the coloring because since I am not much of a baker, I haven’t had to color anything since the time my sister and I made green pancakes for our Dad when we were younger. The blue was actually perfect, but the green turned out much more pastel than I wanted (I was going for emerald). I don’t blame the coloring, I’m blaming my lack of experience.
– If you don’t have all the ingredients on hand, it can be a pricey cake. I purchased food coloring powder, edible glitter, lots of eggs (the recipe uses 16 in total!), buttermilk, a round cake pan (I did not own one prior to this – tells you how much I bake), and frosting tips. You don’t need to purchase all of these things to make the cake (specifically the coloring and glitter), but since it was for a birthday, and for a person who loves color, I wanted to make sure it was extra special.
– I don’t know much about cake baking. I know that there is this whole big world of cake baking that exists that I am totally ignorant to. So when I discovered that lining the bottom of your cake pan with parchment paper to prevent the cake from sticking is a thing, I slapped my hand to my forehead. Of course, how brilliant!
– I was mostly worried about piping the meringues and them looking like hell, but it was surprisingly easy. My only issue was that I don’t think my mixture was firm enough because the meringues quickly lost their shape. They didn’t look horrible, but they could have been much better. I’ll take it as a baking lesson I suppose.
– Almost half of my larger meringues cracked while baking. I read up on this afterwards and it looks like I wasn’t using the freshest eggs, which is what can cause cracking. Also, I could have baked my meringues too long and I should have turned off the oven and let them gradually cool before taking them out. Apparently meringues are very finicky. It’s not a big deal, I used the good meringues for decorating and the cracked ones got crushed up for the cake layers or eaten on their own – they still tasted amazing.
– You’ll have a lot of egg yolks left over so you’ll want to make Martha Stewart’s Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse (it is really easy & quick to make. And also so good).

So would I recommend this recipe to others? Yes, especially if it is a special occasion. It doesn’t require a lot of decorating skill, which is good, and all of the steps are very easy and straight forward. Not to mention, this cake tastes amazing.

What I’m Cooking: Roasted Potato & Bacon Salad

I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those people that cringes every time I see a cold potato salad drowning in mayo. I get dry heaves just thinking about the smell and the texture and biting down on to one of those barely cooked crunchy onions. Just nasty. I’ve hated potato salad ever since I was a kid. I used to be a picky eater, and I ended up getting rid of most of my food qualms as an adult, but it just never happened with potato salad. That is until a few years ago when I came across a recipe for roasted potato salad, sans mayo. And then everything changed. No longer was I a hater of potato salad, but a true advocate for it. More specifically, this potato salad.

I still hate the cold mayo-based potato salad, so don’t think I’ve completely changed. But the roasted potato salad is something I can really get behind – it is truly delicious. I pull it out for most potlucks and every single time I get excited responses “What is this? It’s so good! Can I have the recipe?”. How can you possibly go wrong with roasted potatoes, bacon, and capers?

Roasted Potato and Bacon Salad

This recipe is from Michael Smith, a Canadian chef who has authored various cookbooks and who has had a few cooking programs on television (I first discovered him through watching his old show Chef At Home back when we still had cable in our house). All of his recipes are always very simple and he also encourages home cooks to put their own spin on the recipes, often times leaving measurements open to interpretation (in a good way!). The thing I love most about this potato salad recipe is that it is a very simple recipe and requires very few ingredients. I’ve included the recipe below written in my own words, but it is almost identical to the original recipe, so don’t give me any credit here, except credit for introducing this wonderful recipe in to your life (you’re welcome).

Roasted Potato & Bacon Salad (original recipe via Chef Michael Smith)

– 1 bag of new potatoes, washed and sliced in half
– 6-8 slices of bacon, cut in to bits
– Black pepper
– Italian parsley (it is fine to use curly parsley as well – whatever is available to you) – washed, dried, and stems removed
– Capers (a few heaping tablespoons – I love these salty little gems so I usually dump a lot in)
– Heaping tablespoon of grainy mustard, but dijon also works.
– A splash of red wine vinegar

– Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
– Fry the bacon until it is barely cooked.
– Throw the potatoes in a roasting pan and toss with the bacon bits, some of the bacon grease, and pepper (the original Michael Smith recipe calls for salt as well, but I find there is enough between the bacon and capers, so I omit this – but I love cracked black pepper, so I add lots of that). Roast the potatoes and bacon for about 25-30 minutes, tossing half way through.
– In the meantime, throw your prepared parsley and capers in a large salad bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard and vinegar, tasting it to ensure you like the ratio. I like more mustard than vinegar, but it is up to you. The dressing will be really tart but the flavors will be balanced once everything else is added in.
– When your potatoes are ready, allow them to cool a bit (I like them still warm on my salad so I don’t wait very long. Plus I have no patience and this salad is delicious so I don’t want to wait for it). When the potatoes are cooled enough for you, throw them in the salad bowl with the parsley and capers, add the dressing, and toss until everything is evenly coated. Enjoy!

What I’m Cooking is a new series where I will feature recipes that are not my original recipes, but that are my experiments with other people’s recipes.