As you are wrapping up the gardening year, I hope you have recorded questions you might have had over the season. Maybe you have a crop that just never performs as well as you would like or maybe you would like to expand your activities to grow something different or grow your usual crops in different ways. Just maybe, you are looking forward to using a cold frame, building a low tunnel, or putting up trellises in 2015 but you don’t know much about those things. This winter would be a good time to set yourself on the path of self-directed education.
Having questions of your own is the best first step. Searching for the answers is the next. Observation in your own garden is a good place to start. I hope you have taken notes over the course of the gardening year about what puzzles you in the garden. Then, hit the books and see what others have to say. I know that people have become accustomed to searching the Internet and YouTube for information and I don’t mean to discount that. There is a lot of good information out there (including this blog) and there is a lot of not-so-good information. Pay attention to the source.
When I produced the cover crop and garden plan DVDs I had people like you in mind. The DVDs would be used in the classes I taught at the community college where they are still part of the curriculum, but are also available to anyone wanting to further their gardening education. Not everyone can fit a college class into their schedule, even if one was available to them. My DVDs can be used by individuals or with groups and can be watched over and over. They are a great way to bring everyone into the same understanding of the subject to start discussions.
My book Grow a Sustainable Diet takes the garden planning and cover cropping further by including planning to grow a substantial part of your food and the cover crops to feed back the soil, while keeping a small footprint on the earth. In the first photo you see me working on that book. During the writing of each chapter I would get out books for reference and they would pile up beside my desk. When I finished a chapter, I would put the reference books away and start a new pile with the references for the next chapter. (By the way, I bought that wonderful desk at a church yard sale.) Whether I am writing a book, working on my garden plan, or researching something new I want to do in my garden, the scene is the same. I check the resources I’ve developed from my garden myself, refer to books on my shelf, refer to books from the libraries (I frequent several) and check out what is on the Internet.
Sometimes when I am learning about a new crop, or fine-tuning what I know about something I’ve been growing awhile, I will write a paper about it to put in my garden notebook. It would answer all the questions I have about that crop and include some ideas for the future. In the paper I document where I found the information in case I need to reference it later. If you were taking a class somewhere you would have to write papers—maybe on things you have no interest in. You are the director of your own education here, so all the papers you write for yourself are relevant and timely.
I learned to garden before the Internet was a thing. With a limited budget I learned from the experienced folks who wrote the books that I found at the library, primarily the ones published by Rodale Press in the 1970s and 80s. Then Chelsea Green came on the scene with New Organic Grower. Since then there have been many more good gardening books published, including the ones by my publisher, New Society. All the while I was reading those books, I was trying out the authors’ ideas and coming up with my own. The learning is in the doing. Get out in your garden and just do things. Encourage your library to stock the books you want to learn from. If you are going to buy them, try to buy from the authors themselves. Some good books are out of print, but thanks to the Internet, you can find them through the used book websites. Used book stores are some of my favorite places to shop. When you find something particularly helpful, buy it for your personal library. Put the books you would like on a Christmas Wish List. If someone asks you for suggestions, you will be ready.
When the opportunity arises, go to programs and presentations that are offered in your community and regional conferences. Something might even pop up at your local library. This photo shows the publicity that the Washington County Seed Savers Library gave to their upcoming gardening programs in April 2014. There is a poster to show that I would be speaking there and a brochure that listed all the spring programs. These programs were free to the public!
There will be a cost involved for conferences, but you can recoup that in the knowledge gained from the experience—and from the connections you make through the people you meet. Sometimes the best thing to do, especially if you are new at this, is to spend your time listening to what everyone has to say. You can even learn a lot listening to the discussions going on over lunch. I just returned from the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, Kansas. I enjoyed meeting people following my work and those who just discovered it. I also enjoyed spending time with other authors, editors, and the Mother Earth News staff. Although we email throughout the year, it is good to meet-up in person.
My next adventure is to attend Seed School in Buhl, Idaho both as a student and as a presenter on seed libraries. That’s where I’ll be when you receive this post on November 4, 2014. I am looking forward to sharing what I know and to learning from everyone else who is there. Take control of your own gardening education and plan to spend this winter learning wherever you can. Fill your garden notebook with your customized garden plan and with information specific to you.