Although I was born under the earth sign Taurus, and on Earth Day no less, I didn’t start gardening until later in life. My home state Alaska was problematic for planting, given the long, cold, sunless winters and the short burst of 24-hour sunshine in summer.
Beginning a New Gardening Adventure
As a young adult, I was busy with school, then jobs, and my apartments were lethal for all houseplants that came my way. But then the stress of lawyering and city living became too much to bear. I packed up and moved to French Basque Country to write a novel, and it was there my gardener’s heart began to develop.
The Basques live close to the land, and the soil and climate near the Atlantic Ocean in southern France is perfect for agriculture. I moved into a small house with lots of land and soon began getting welcome gifts from neighbors: home-grown vegetables like piments, incredibly delicious tomatoes, baskets of cherries and a wild variety of squash. These came with advice about saving the seeds and planting them, and this opened the doors to gardening to me. It quickly became one of the great passions of my life.
Gardening Tips for Newbies
I received so many gardening tips from my neighbors over the years that I’ve long considered writing a book about them. Some turned out to be invaluable, most were useful, a few were just simply wrong. I’ve selected the top three pieces of garden wisdom I learned from my time in France to share in this article.
Select plants that are native to the region, or at least have been around for decades. At first, I scoffed at this one, considering it an extension of my neighbors’ world view that you couldn’t really trust an outsider. But over the years, I have developed a deep respect for the “grow native” rule. Of all the trees and shrubs I planted on my land in France, only those that were native to the area thrived effortlessly.
Mix crops and flowers for insect protection. I was drawn to the “cottage-style” gardens my neighbors grew because of the happy and colorful mix. But I also found the lack of garden pests remarkable. One year when I was pressed for time and decided to grow only lettuce and tomatoes, I discovered that insect pests really did exist in Basque Country. Even today, I interplant herbs and flowers with my crops.
Avoid buying fertilizer. I thought perhaps the Basque gardeners didn’t use store-bought fertilizers because of the price tags, since Basques have a reputation for being frugal. Instead, they would use manure or dung from their barnyard animals, letting it age first and mixing it in well before planting time. But when I followed their example, my garden quickly proved them right. Today in San Francisco, I use organic compost since sheep and cows are hard to come by.
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