Sobering Advice for New Impulse Gardeners

first gardenOne of the few businesses that has and will continue to thrive throughout the Covid crisis is the garden and small farming sector. The sudden interest  in our food security, sustainability and living off the land  is at a level I have never seen before. This is great. It is something that anyone involved in small farming has been advocating and working towards for a long time. I have seen the progression from the early farmers market days, trying to convince consumers what organic meant and  that local was best, to the vibrant markets we have now. It’s been a slow and steady growth, business-wise. Something is different now – maybe self-isolation has give folks time to think about what’s really important in the game of life, how vulnerable and dependent on the system we are.

I would never discourage anyone to garden. Even a few patio planters, home landscaping or a herb garden can bring anyone joy. Warning, it can be addictive. There’s always more to learn. It’s grounding and healthy for body and mind. Do it.

What I’m seeing as the result of the pandemic, is a mad rush to become self sufficient in a very short period of time. People are “panic buying” chickens, livestock, incubators, fencing, potting soil, seeds and any garden supplies as if it were toilet paper. As a side hobby, gardening is awesome, but the reality is you will most likely spend more on retail supplies and work hard for a small harvest. You will have successes and even more failures. You will enjoy the fruits of your labour so much it will seem worth it. Unfortunately, it won’t make you self-sufficient right away. Sorry.

I’m not quite there yet, myself and that’s after 27 years of homesteading, with 5 years of schooling and lots of  related work and business experience. My first veggie garden was in 1994. It was a lot of work. I had mediocre results. There was no Google. I winged it. I decided I would try to live off what I grew. I lost 50 lbs, before I gave in to groceries and meat. Not advisable as a weight loss diet.

I don’t like bursting people’s bubbles, because I have always said I live in one myself. I have learned mostly through trial and error, and it pains me to see others about to make the same mistakes I made through naivete and inexperience. I have the need to explain to those new to this way of life that it’s just not a short term process that can be accomplished in a season. For most small business plans, they say you shouldn’t see a return on your investment for 2 -3 yrs. For small farms change that to decades. Available land, infrastructure, supplies, labour and overhead will eat into any profits. If you plant a fruit tree you might not see a reasonable harvest for 8-10 years. Soil needs to be built up over several years. You need a rough plan, expect slow incremental growth and lots of long term commitment.

It’s all possible with patience, capital, sweat equity and a good team.

Study it as much as you want, it’s endless. The reality is you will inevitably learn from your mistakes and Mother Nature will always throw you a curveball or two.

My advice is to start small with realistic goals and low expectations. Think about by whom and how everything will be maintained, especially if you plan to return to  your regular work in the future. Don’t “put the cart before the horse” by buying livestock before you have fencing and shelters or plants before your beds are prepped. Be patient. Timing is everything. Ask questions. Don’t overspend on fancy tools and gadgets from Lee Valley, exotic plants, and pricey greenhouses. Do a few things well instead of trying everything.  Be efficient. Think about how you can work with nature in the simplest ways.  Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Enjoy, it’s a long ride.