So you want to start a garden. Congratulations. First of all, I’m really excited for you. And second of all, I can sense you might be a little overwhelmed. There’s just so much information out there in this strange language of gardening that is very hard to understand, and you’re overwhelmed. There’s so many resources. You just want to be told how to get started in plain language. What do I plant? When do I plant it? How do I not kill it?
Well, I’m Lara, and I am an unlikely gardener. I have killed a lot of plants in my day, but I kept trying, and I kept trying, and the lessons I’ve learned and the beauty I’ve experienced with my family in the garden has kept me moving forward. No matter how far from green your thumb is, you can become a gardener, too. Let’s talk.
You know all those things you’ve always wanted to do? You should go do them, the things that last longer than you, the things that run deeper and are more thrilling than skydiving, the things that make you come alive. Welcome to the Cultivate Your Life Podcast where each week we talk about how to uncover what matters to you in the big picture and start acting like it today. Whether you’re feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or in need of some refreshing truth today, I’m Lara, and you are in the right place. Let’s cultivate what matters together.
It’s spring, and I’m so excited about getting started gardening that I wet my plants. I really am so excited, though. I get giddy around this time of year because I see so many miracles happen right before me. I was just outside in the garden this morning and looking at little patches of green in places where there used to be full-grown plants. Then, winter came and I thought, “Oh, for sure that thing’s not coming back.” There was so much snow, and we had frost, I mean hard conditions, and yet plants know. They know that after winter always come spring. I think this is one of the main things that draws me back to the garden is this reminder that all things can be made new no matter how hard your season was.
The other thing I love is being out there with my kids, seeing Josh just tear into the dirt. He likes to plant the rocks and all kinds of things. He likes to take things out of our refrigerator and try to plant them sometimes, too, like potatoes. But you know what? I just go with it. It is the coolest thing to see my heart and their hearts, and anyone that comes over to our house, all of our hearts come alive in a way that is pretty impossible indoors.
So, the garden beckons me to come out and get my hands dirty. And if you’re like me, you kind of have this itch to do something, to plant something, to grow something, whether it’s a physical plant or something in your life. Right about now you start to feel restless. Maybe that’s you, and maybe you literally are feeling like, “I’ve never grown anything before. Seeds scare me. How does that work?” I want you to know I was right there with you. Maybe you feel like you want to garden, but you’re overwhelmed by the amount of resources out there. And again, you just want to be told like, “How do I start this? How do I get started?” I’m here to help you.
I wish someone would have done this for me back in the day. Over the last several years, I’ve helped hundreds of people to start and tend to their first gardens. Nothing makes me more grateful. I’m not a master gardener and, no, we don’t sell plants or garden tools at Cultivate What Matters. But as you probably know by now, if you’ve been listening to the podcast, at Cultivate, we believe the garden has so much to teach us. And it’s only by gardening ourselves that we can learn some of its best lessons.
So, I started sharing what I’ve learned over my last many years as a gardener, which, seriously, as I say those words, I’m like, “What? Me? I am such an unlikely gardener.” But as I have gardened, dead plants and all … There have been many of them. I wrote an entire chapter about all the plants I’ve killed in my book Cultivate as proof. But this year, I’m so excited to be offering a Gardening 101 live class for you for the very first time. It’s going to be on April 16th. Mark your calendar. I really hope you’ll join me. We’re going to have so much fun. And by the end, you will be ready to get started with a garden of your own. The best part is you’ll know how not to kill plants.
But for now, I want to give you the one step that is really the thing that gets overlooked the most. When I look back on my years of gardening and seeing friends get started for the first time and finding so much joy in being out there, whether it’s with kids, or by themselves, or with friends, there’s one step that most people miss, and it is the key to getting started on a garden that lasts.
But first, let me tell you a story. My first year of gardening, I got super excited. I was nervous and excited. I headed to a local nursery here in Chapel Hill, North Carolina called For Garden’s Sake. I love that place. Highly recommend if you’re in the area, stop on over For Garden’s Sake. They’re just the coolest. I started adding every plant that looked fun to my rolling cart, and soon I had multiple carts. The owner, who’s now a dear friend, took a look and said, “Lara, are you sure you’re going to have room for all those plants?” I assured him, “Oh, yeah. Of course I do,” and I took them all home, and I planted them all very close together because I wanted them all.
It was such a mirror to my life at the time. I tried to grow everything at once in a tiny little space, and you probably know where this is going. You can imagine what happened next. None of those plants had room to thrive. Tending to all those plants … And I still have no idea what I was doing. Tending to all those plants was totally overwhelming. Have you done that? If you gone for a full force with a new hobby, or a project, or something and you just get in over your head and you think, “Why did I start this in the first place?”
But that’s the key, is I did keep thinking about my why. Even though I was doing it all wrong, my why kept driving me forward. I kept thinking how about Grace being out there and getting her hands dirty in the soil, exploring plants, and smells, and tastes. I just had this vision in my head of her imagination coming to life in the garden. It was worth it for me to mess up along the way, because I just wanted her to have what I had as a kid.
I remember my mom had a really big beautiful garden. No matter where we lived, she always had a garden. We were living in Washington DC for several years of my life, and she had raspberry bushes, and beans, and gooseberries. I just remember so many magical memories of being out there in that little tiny garden in Washington DC right on the side of our house, and my fingers being stained with gooseberries, and having so much fun picking mint, and the smells and the tastes. There’s just something that came alive in me, and it pointed to legacy. Why did I want to start a garden? It was about growing something that lasts longer than me.
The garden for me has become a living classroom for my kids, and for me, and for Ari, and for anyone who comes over. It’s a place they can explore, and taste, and smell, and begin to learn some of the lessons that I’ve learned about cultivating that you now know about cultivating. When my why became crystal clear, I made different choices about what I put in my garden and what I don’t put in my garden. I put some things low to the ground so that they can get their fingers into them. I cut out the hot peppers and raspberries because hot peppers are hot and thorns, knowing that little fingers would get poked. I made decisions to choose hardy plants that didn’t mind little feet and tromping on them or shovels or toys being thrown at them sometimes. Then, I bought the most adorable little Elberta Peach trees that produced juicy peaches meant to be picked.
Everything I plant in my garden is about creating an experience. And for me, I learned a long time ago it’s not about having a perfect garden. It’s about having a place where they can play. When you get clear about why you want to garden … And your answer can change over time. You don’t have to choose something now and have it for the rest of your life, so no pressure here. But when you get clear about why you want a garden, it helps you to know what to garden. There are a million reasons to start a garden. Let’s find out which one is calling your name.
I’m going to lay out six possibilities for you. Is it for food, for teaching, for fun, for beauty, for filling vases, or for attracting butterflies, birds, and bees? We’re going to dig into each one of these possibilities and maybe your reason for gardening is something totally different, but I hope that these start to spark your imagination as you begin to dream about your cultivated garden.
Number one, do you want to garden for food? And you can certainly have a combination of all of these possibilities if you like. I know I do. We garden a lot for food. We have lots of herbs that we grow every year that I love coming out to pick right before dinner. As I’m cooking something, I might throw some rosemary, or basil, or thyme, or oregano, dill when we have it, cilantro. There’s so many possibilities. I love gardening for food, for flavor. We love having tomatoes to pick that really end up being snacks because they all get eaten right off the vine before they even have a chance to make it into my kitchen.
People always ask me, I constantly get direct messages, questions, emails about this. They say, “What should I plant?” And I always have to turn it back to you to say, “Well, what do you like to eat?” There are many other factors that go into what to plant that we’ll talk about more in depth in the Gardening 101 class, which you can sign up for at gardeningwithlara.com. But, ask yourself, what is it that you love to consume? And remember that a lot of plants are going to give you far more than you really need.
For instance, if you like mint, maybe just plant one plant in a pot so it doesn’t spread. If you want to start a business making mint soap, plant one plant in the ground and you will have plenty for an army. There are little subtle things that I’ll teach you in the course that will help you to know how much to plant. But for now, just ask yourself, “What do you like to eat? What herbs do you typically use to season food? If you have children, what would they like to pick off the vine to savor and taste?” I mean, we’ve tried everything from stevia to pumpkins, all the herbs I mentioned. We’ve done some weird things, too, amaranth, just things that open up their eyes and their imagination to possibilities and to tasting things in their natural form. We’ve done sweet potatoes and purple potatoes, tomatoes of all different colors. And it has been a taste fiesta for us out in the garden. But for you for now, if you want a garden for food, that’s one of your reasons, just simply ask yourself, “What do you like to eat?”
Number two, is your reason for gardening teaching? If so, to whom? This was my reason. I wanted Grace to experience the miracle of growing things from start to finish. And all the garden has to offer, I just knew that there were so many lessons she would learn. But also, I would learn how to slow down and savor really what’s right in front of me. Because you can’t have a phone out in the garden. I typically have my phone in my back pocket. But if you’re trying to plant things, you have to have your full head, and heart, and hands in that soil, in that dirt, and it is … It’s a magical experience to disconnect from the world and to deeply connect to the soil, and to growing things, and really to the miracles of the garden.
So, number one, is it for food or, number two, is it for teaching? What do you want them to learn or what do you want to learn through the garden? Write that down for yourself.
Number three, for fun. My grandfather, he loved growing really weird things, like we’ve talked about in the podcast. We really love growing pineapple sage at our house. It is beautiful. It’s a beautiful plant. It grows enormous. You get this little tiny herb pot, like at Lowe’s or wherever your garden shop, and it looks like it’s just going to stay really small. It does not. I remember the first year I planted it. I planted three of them, like really close together. They get to be like two or three feet wide. Some get to be like three feet tall. But the reason I love it, is it makes these bright, bright red flowers in the fall, and the bees. Oh, y’all know I have a thing for bees. The bees buzzing across the pineapple sage, and not to mention the fact that pineapple sage actually does taste like pineapple. It can make great tea. Clearly, you can see we love it. It’s a weird thing we grow that we love for so many reasons, and it’s just fun. It’s fun.
We have grown huge tomato varieties, all kinds of unique hybrids. There was one year we did a .. And I don’t recommend this. It was weird, but sometimes weird things are unnatural and they shouldn’t be grown. We had a grafted tree that, I think, if I’m remembering correctly, was grafted to be an apricot, plum, and peach tree in one. There’s a reason why God didn’t make those things. It died. Maybe you have better luck than I did, but I did not. But I will say it was really fun to try it. We have loved growing things that we wouldn’t normally be able to buy in a grocery store. That is one of the unique creative advantages of growing things from seed, is you get to try things that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
So, number one, is it for food, number two, for teaching, for passing on legacy, or, number three, for fun? And again, you can have a combination of all of these. I certainly do.
Number four, for beauty. Maybe you love the idea of creating a garden space as an environment to enjoy. We’ve talked a lot about vegetable gardening and herbs, but I know I love having big patches of flowers, too. And for me, it’s about so much more than creating beauty for us to enjoy. I grow the flowers I grow for us to give to other people. I think of so many opportunities that we’ve had in the past to bring a bouquet of flowers to someone that might’ve been hurting or needing some encouragement. I mean, you grow two or three zinnia bushes, and it’s just prolific. The flowers just keep coming and coming. You’re almost forced to give them away. There’s so many. That’s one of the reasons we do it. I do it so that my children will step outside and say, “Wow. Look what God did.”
I sit in the deepest heat months of summer where it’s just sweltering outside. I sit by my window. I strategically have planted zinnias and lots of other flowers right by our living room windows. The kids and I sit in the mornings, and we watch. We just watched the flowers, the bees, the butterflies, the gold finches. Makes me take a deep breath just thinking about it. But, we’ve done this year, after year, after year. We sit with our little field guides, and we look up the names of different butterflies that come in. The beauty, it is captivating. So is that it for you? Maybe you want to create an environment to enjoy or to share.
Number five, for filling vases. Along this note, like I said, we love being able to fill vases to give to other people. And maybe that’s it for you, a way of making connections with others. We have a assisted living nursing home right down the street from us. That is one of my favorite memories, is teaching our children about generosity and about loving others, about delighting other people through us taking flowers from our garden in little mason jars, just tiny little humble arrangements. We bring those over to our friends across the way. I mean, you would’ve thought we dropped a bag of money on them. Seriously. It just lights their face up. So, it’s so much more than just pretty flowers. They are opportunities for loving others and for connections.
And last, but certainly not least, number six. As you can tell, I’m very into our pollinator friends, so maybe that’s it for you. Maybe you want a garden to attract pollinators, meaning butterflies, birds, or bees. This is why we plant zinnias. This is why I planted what’s called bee balm, because it attracts the bees. I love the honeybees. I love seeing the bees around here for so many reasons. Just environmentally, having the bees helps us to pollinate the flowers, helps the farmers near us. They’re just so fun to watch.
I love sweet little Sarah. She gets really close to the bumblebees, and they really don’t sting. You get really up close to them, and she just watches them on zinnias. I remember one day she had this hot pink jacket on. She went up to a hot pink Zinnia, and there was Mr. Bumblebee. She waved to him and she goes, “Hi, bee. Hi, bee.” It’s just the cutest thing.But, it really has helped us. And for me in homeschooling Grace, it’s helped us to learn about the garden, learn about plants, learn about birds, learn about life cycles to be able to watch these amazing creatures, the company that we keep in the garden.
And you know, there are some things, too, we’ve talked about this in the podcast here. There’s some creatures out there that I would like them to not come to my garden. The voles in particular. I was just out there yesterday and thinking to myself, “Good gracious. These roles, they are just … They tunnel diggers. They get right underneath everything, and they just tear up my yard.” So, yes, there you go. But you know what? It all adds to the character of the garden. I’ve had squirrels that have eaten my pumpkin’s before, and my peaches. We’ve had all kinds of pests, and hornworms, and bugs, but it’s all part of the life of the garden.
So, which is it for you? Is it for food, for teaching, for fun, for beauty, for filling vases, for attracting butterflies, birds, and bees? Maybe you have another reason all together. Whatever it is for you, write down why you want to start a garden.
I have a very special picture here in front of me that my mom gave me as a Christmas present this year. It is my great-great-grandmother Irene, who I’ve shared the story of her jonquils in my book Cultivate. And even here on the podcast, we’ve talked about the legacy of flowers and plants that she wove into the fabric of our family. I saw this photograph in my mom’s house several months ago. It just took my breath away. It’s a picture of her in a cornfield, in the cornfield that they were sharecroppers on. She has a huge basket on her arm, and she is picking corn right off the stocks. She just looks happy as a clam.
And I have to tell you, that is also part of why I garden. It is to carry on this legacy of heirloom plants, and heirloom memories, and the humble stories that have been passed on from my grandfather, great-grandfather, and so many relatives. I want their humility to be cultivated in my heart, and I want that same seed to be planted in the hearts of my children. So that’s why I get my hands dirty.
You know, I see all these pictures on the gram, on the Instagram of people with their pretty nails. There’s nothing wrong with pretty nails, by the way. But, I raise you dirt-laden fingers from the garden. To me, there’s nothing more fun or beautiful than hands that have been filled with soil out there pulling weeds. I spent about two hours pulling weeds on Sunday afternoon while the kids were asleep, and I just feel so alive out there.
And let me just remind you, this is so weird that this is coming out of my mouth, from the former plant killer, dirt dodger, no way Jose that I would ever get out there and grow things. Like me, a gardener? It is mind-blowing how God has changed my heart from craving instant gratification to loving tending, loving a little-by-little process of seeing a seed press through the dark earth toward the light and grow and bloom. Can’t get enough of it.
Now, maybe you have not had a history or heritage with gardening. Maybe there is no one in your family that gardened before. This is your opportunity to start something new, to write a new story. I encourage you, whether you have had experience before or have zero, you, my friend, can become a gardener. If I can become a gardener, you definitely can.
So, write down why you want to garden. Why do you want to grow things? There’s no wrong answer here. If you garden, though, based on what just looks or sounds good or on what you see over your neighbors fence, your plants might look good going into the ground. But we don’t plan our gardens based on the way our plants look the day they come home from the nursery or the day we shake them out of a seed packet. No. We, me and you, we plan with a vision for what they will be, for what they will bring to our life and to others. Imagine that garden. Because I made the mistake in the beginning of feeling like it had to be perfect from the get-go, and I remember planting my seeds and thinking, “Okay, now what? I did all this hard work. There’s nothing to show for it.” I was very tempted to run right back out to the nursery and buy full-grown plants instead of waiting for my seeds to grow. Ugh, have you done that before?
The garden’s going to teach you so many lessons, my friend, and so many things that are going to change you from the inside out. But, that’s definitely one of the biggest, is you plant your seeds, you tend to them little by little, and in the wait you cultivate. Now you know the one step that most people miss. The best gardens, like the best goals that really fire us up from the inside out, they have a strong why. There are a million reasons to start a garden, and one that’s just right for you and your unique soil right where you are. You are a gardener.
You can learn everything you need to know about how to make your unique garden come to life right where you are in my Gardening 101 class. I’m so excited. This is second best to having you literally come to my house and get your hands in the dirt with me. I hope you’re going to feel the same thing. Register now at gardeningwithlara.com. That class is going to be live April 16th. And if you can’t join live, it’s okay. We’re going to send you the recording, and you can enjoy that class any time you like. I’m so pumped about this. I can’t wait to see what you grow and, more than that, what grows in you.