For all the years I have grown a garden, at home when I was a kid, on a sunny balcony in containers, in my own little slice of urban yard, I have learned a lot, mostly by trial and error but also through reading and talking to people. And I know there is so much I don’t know, so much to always learn. When I think about gardening and myself as a gardener, it is always as a beginner. 

I realized recently what a gift I have unknowingly given myself. Think for a moment about what it means to be a beginner.

A beginner is someone who doesn’t know everything and is wanting to learn. A beginner is open to learning because they don’t know everything. In being open to learning, a beginner pays attention, takes in new information, continually revises old information. A beginner is flexible and not fixed; willing to try things without expectations. A beginner makes mistakes and knows and understands they will make mistakes, doesn’t get upset over failures. For a beginner, mistakes and failures are opportunities rather than something to be embarrassed by or sorry about. People who know beginners are kind and accepting and willing to share advice and knowledge. 

I always want to be a beginning gardener.

But oh, there is such an allure to “Master Gardener.” I think most places have Master Gardener programs of some sort or other. Here the program is offered through the University of Minnesota Extension Service. It costs several hundred dollars. You have to take a series of intensive classes. Then you are certified as a Master Gardener. To keep the certification, one must volunteer something like 50 hours of their time every year, as well as keep up on their gardening education. Master Gardeners give presentations to community groups. The plant sale I attend every spring has a table staffed with Master Gardeners to answer garden questions. They do programs with schools and have tables at the state fair and Open Streets events, the Monarch Festival, art fairs, and all sorts of other things.

I have for years thought, oh I am going to be a Master Gardener. But the price tag, and the fact that, prior to the pandemic, classes were only in-person in the middle of the day during the week over the course of several months, which, I thought, is why Master Gardeners tend to be retired (white) people, kept me from pursuing it. But the pandemic changed the program and now it is pretty much all asynchronous and online and I could totally do it even though the price tag makes me cringe.

The application period for the next cohort is about to open. But I don’t think I will apply because I am struggling with the whole master thing. It conflicts with always being a beginner. Mastery means I know all the things, that I have achieved a level of knowledge that infers a title that implies I know more than people without the title. And that is a lie. I have not been able to work out how I can be a master and a beginner. Until I sort that out, if I ever sort it out, I will not do the Master Gardener program.

Meanwhile, in the garden this past week, we got a break from the summer heat. Not once did we need to turn on the air conditioning. An entire week of temperatures in the upper 70s and very low 80s F with nights in the upper 50s. If we hadn’t slipped into to severe drought in my area, it would be perfection.

The first flush of bush beans is done and the pole beans are getting ready to be eating size. We harvested all of our garlic on Friday, all but the three I allowed to flower. I grew two kinds of garlic, Spanish red and German music and have flowers from each kind. Why did I allow them to flower? Experiment time!

close up of a garlic flower

I learned that the little bubils produced by the garlic flowers—essentially very tiny garlic—can be planted and grown into full-sized garlic. Each flower has 2 dozen or more bubils that are potentially a full head of garlic. It is a cheaper, faster way to “save seeds” and increase your garlic plants instead of buying heads of seed garlic and planting the cloves (very expensive), or saving your own garlic to plant on the next year, which means cutting deeply into the amount of garlic you actually get to eat. 

Here is what I am trying. I let the bubils fully mature, then pull the garlic, separate the bubils and allow them to dry. The garlic bulb I pull I can eat, though it will be small because it put its energy into making a flower instead of a bulb. Still, no waste! Then I take the bubils in the fall and plant them in their own little garlic seedbed. Because they are small, they will need to grow for 1 -2 years before they are big enough to harvest. But, if I start saving bubils every year from my big harvesting garlic I can have a system in place where every year there will be new bubils, teenage bubils, and bubils that have grown into full-sized garlic for eating. I can have a big garlic patch and eventually not need to buy any seed garlic.

This is the plan. So far I have flowers that obviously have maturing bubils. When all the greenery has died back, I will pull the garlic and separate the bubils to dry. Probably in a week or two. I’ll let you know how this goes!

Last summer was the hottest summer on record in the Twin Cities. This summer we have had the hottest single day, 101F, since 2012. The hottest recorded temperature in Minneapolis was 115F on July 29, 1917. That is a record I hope we never break. In spite of some extremely hot days, this summer is not going to be hotter than last summer and will “only” fall somewhere in the top 15 hottest. Is this the new normal? I just don’t know. Something tells me normal is going to be a moving target. Nonetheless, it is clear that summers are much hotter than they used to be and this is not going to change. 

Both last year and this year I have had plants scorched and killed in the heat, so I have been thinking of ways to keep them cooler, perhaps by providing a little light shade. I decided that since the cherry tree in the chicken garden died, I am going to get a cherry tree in spring and plant it in a spot in the main garden that will give a little light shade to the garden beds around it. But trees take a while to grow, and filling my entire garden with trees, though appealing, is not practical. What else can I do?

It turns out, there is such a thing as shade cloth for gardens to do exactly what I want to do, kind of like this little canopy thing here. I don’t have raised beds, but I can buy just the cloth and set it up how and where I want. I will be investing in some of this stuff for next year for sure, not all in, but enough to experiment and see what kind of difference it makes.

I need to do something, because the same day I found out about this shade cloth, I got my U of Minnesota Yard and Garden newsletter that had an article in it about the things that heat does to vegetables

Now I know there are cool weather crops and warm weather crops, that fruit trees and shrubs need a spell of cold winter weather in order to fruit at all, that some seeds won’t germinate if the soil is too cold and some won’t germinate if it is too warm. These things I know. But, beginning gardener me was surprised to find out about flower abortion. No, this is neither a liberal nor right wing conspiracy, but an actual natural phenomenon that has to do with excessive heat.

Flower abortion can happen at temperatures ranging from 75 – 95F. Take tomatoes, for instance. Tomato flowers need to be pollinated within 50 hours of opening. When sustained temperatures are more than 85F during the day and 70 at night, the plant becomes stressed, the stress affects the flowers and makes them more likely to drop off without being pollinated. With green beans this apparently happens at around 95F. Who knew?

But that’s not all!

So far this summer my squash have been producing flowers like crazy but they have all been male flowers. This happened last year too. And it wasn’t until very late in the season that I finally got some squash. Rather than a summer of, OMG whose porch can I secretly leave some of these zucchini on, I had a squashless summer and a two-squash early autumn. Very disappointing because James did not get to make me sweet zucchini relish, zucchini bread, zucchini fritters, zucchini chips–there was no begging for mercy to make the zucchini stop. It appears I am setting up for the same thing again this summer. I thought it was drought related. Nope.

Turns out hot temperatures affect the kind of flowers cucurbits (pumpkins, squash, melons, cucumbers, etc) produce. High temperatures over 90F will prompt plants to produce lots of male flowers and no female flowers. I have hope that the cooler weather this past week allowed at least a few female flowers to form, but I won’t be able to tell for a few days yet.

I am glad to learn these things, but sad that I need to learn them. I would much rather not know how to grow vegetables in excessive heat. There is more in the article than I have mentioned. Give it a read if you are having heat-related gardening troubles. 

It’s too late for me to get shade cloth for this year, but I will definitely be getting some in the spring. I wonder though why it is black? Wouldn’t white be better? A quick search says, oh my I am going to have to do some research because the stuff comes in different colors and different densities for different kinds of plants and it all depends on what the goal is. Putting it on my winter to-do list! 

Have any of you ever used shade cloth before? If so, please share the details and how well it worked for you. 

Reading
  • The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak. Why did I not know there was a horrible civil war that happened in Cyprus? I love the multiple narrative points of view, which includes a fig tree. It’s a story about crossing borders, family, love, and trauma that does not disappear but only transforms.
  • Astonishing the Gods by Ben Okri. An allegory? A fable? In his introduction Okri says people want to call it a fairy tale but I think it is nothing like a fairy tale. It’s very philosophical and premised on the invisible is more important than the visible. It feels kind of Buddhist in many ways in that it is full of seemingly paradoxical concepts, like in order to find something you cannot look for it. This is a short book that has much to chew on.
Listening
  • Podcast: Green Dreamer: Daniel Heath Justice: Indigenous literature and decolonial libraries. This was one of those conversations that really made me think about my reading choices and the books on my bookshelves. It includes interesting insights on storytelling and language in English compared to Indigenous languages. Because English is so noun/object heavy, it affects the way we see the world and tell stories compared to the verb/relationship focus of most Indigenous languages. It made me ponder what is lost when Indigenous stories are translated into English. I also wonder, since English is a pretty malleable language, how can we change it into something less object-oriented? Can we change it?
  • Podcast: The Great Simplification: Aza Raskin: AI, the shape of language, and Earth’s Species. This is a long one and I haven’t finished listening yet but it is making me completely horrified. Raskin is a techno wizard, he’s the guy who invented page scrolling where you can click “see more” at the bottom of the page if you don’t find what you are looking for. He says it was a great mistake. But he’s all in on AI making art and language and is 100% fine with human art becoming an “artisanal” thing. But what the podcast is really about is AI translating non-human languages so we can talk with the animals. Like I said, I haven’t gotten all the way through this yet and am not up to the language discussion. But given how horrific the art discussion is, and his set-up on how AI and language mapping and translation works, I am already pissed off about it and poking holes into how faulty it is before I even know all the details. So I will get back to you on this after I finish it.
  • Podcast: Crafting with Ursula: William Alexander on Writing for Children. Alexander is chatty and prone to digression, which annoyed the host, but delighted me.
  • Audiobook: Wryd Sisters by Terry Pratchett. The plan is to listen to all the Discworld witch books. Unlike Equal Rites, which I had read before, this one I have not read, and have no idea where the story is going, but the beginning has me giggling. It’s Terry Pratchett does Macbeth, kind of.
Watching
  • Lost City. James wanted to watch this and I said ok to humor him, but it turned out to be kind of fun, if predictable. A light romcom adventure story with a middle aged woman, so I suppose that is something out of the ordinary.

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16 thoughts on “Always a Beginner

  1. The way you talk about gardening I would say you are already a master gardener! 🙂 I love your mindset of always having a beginner mind. I love the idea of continuous learning. Glad to hear the weather hasn’t been as horrible and I wish I could say the same. It’s been terribly hot here and I think we’ve broken some records or something. Either way, I’m just staying indoors with the AC on! Ugh. Hope you are doing well!

    1. Aw, thanks Iliana! I think you have heard you did indeed break heat records in Texas this summer. I hope your own garden is going ok. I’m glad you are able to stay cool!

  2. What a wonderful goal: Master Gardener! I love the idea of constant learning and there’s so much to learn in every field. All the best in your endeavour and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the journey, Stefanie. 🙂

  3. I love your beginner’s mind attitude! You’ve given me food for thought.

    I’m sorry about the heat scorching and changing the vegetables. That is not good news. I hadn’t heard of the shade canopies for gardens but I will have to look into that if we try veggies again.

    1. Thanks Laila! Clearly now having to learn about heat and sun scorch in my garden, climate change is going to keep me as a perpetual beginner whether I want to be or not so I might as well embrace it! 🙂

  4. I have never heard of ‘master gardeners’. I think that in the UK we are all happy to keep learning new things about gardening and horticulture as there’s no way we could ever know everything! Even the garden TV show presenters are happy to admit when they have learned something new, every day should be a learning day!
    Some of my plants have got scorched over the last week or so, that has never been a problem before in Scotland.

    1. Master gardeners must be a US thing? See, you have all the garden TV shows, that is something we don’t have here, no US equivalent to Monty Don or Alan Tichmarsh, maybe that’s why we need master gardeners 😉 You’ve had scorching too? I think we cold north folks are going to need to start learning how to cope with sun an heat.

  5. My mom and I want to watch The Lost City! It just looks fun. I also find it interesting that Sandra Bullock is almost 60 years old and keeps playing younger roles. Here, we have her in a romcom. Not too long ago, she played a pregnant woman in Birdbox, which I found odd. I wonder what made her stand out for that role vs. someone in their 20’s, like the character in the book of the same name.

    As for gardening, I kind of hate the idea of a “master” anything, and I agree about retired white folks leading groups because they have the means to live without a job. When I go to library events in the summer, whether it’s a book club or mental health event, it’s always me + several older white folks. Anyway, I had an idea: are you familiar with MeetUp.com where you can create a group and have people (locally or online) find you and join in? What if you started a group telling people about your vast gardening experience but your desire to keep learning, and see if you can’t get some people together to start a community garden. You could all work and learn together, but you would also lead them in many ways with the knowledge you’ve accumulated. Lately, I’ve been more driven to start the group or project I want to see out in the community that doesn’t exist.

    1. Bullock is almost 60? I thought she really rocked the glitter jumpsuit before, but now I’m even more impressed!

      Yes, I have heard of MeetUp but never gone past that. Thank you for the suggestion, I will take a look at MeetUp and see what’s there and seriously think about it!

  6. I like your desire to stay with the beginner’s sense of experimentation and wonder. It seems in line with the amateur attitude, that we don’t have to get so good that we get paid at everything we try to do. It’s a pleasure to do a few things that we’re not in charge of and don’t know everything about already.

    1. Oh yes Jeanne! I also think there are amateurs that are just as expert as professionals but because we make the divide be tween the too we lose out of the wealth of experience amateurs have, and we deprive ourselves too by making our skills into something lesser. No matter what though, I do always want to keep the experimentation and wonder alive!

  7. Shade construction was de rigueur in New Mexico. For obvious reasons, I guess. I used desert willows and fruit trees more than cloth, but I also had a canopy that I could mount on the corner that grew the raspberries and the trellis that grew the tomatoes. Mostly it was ad hoc. I used landscape fabric. The dark is because it gets hot under there if the light is getting in. Greenhouse effect and all that.

    Constructing all that happened over two decades ago now, but back then there was no fabric that was porous enough to tolerate wind and rain and yet keep the sun out. So there was a LOT of putting it up and taking it down, and one canopy just disappeared one June night when I forgot it and there were surprise canyon breezes.

    I think there are more mesh-like fabrics now. Gardener’s Supply seems to be going all in on dark green mesh. But it’s way more expensive for that fancy fabric than for landscape fabric. And it’s still plastic-based stuff that will break down. In fact, theirs isn’t even biodegradable. So I’m thinking it needs to be babied so it will be a very long time before it’s plastic trash.

    As to the Master Gardener thing… did those classes twice. Because the Indiana certification didn’t count in New Mexico, being that’s how ag programs make mad money… I let my New Mexico certification lapse because of the volunteer hours that I did not have…Though these days, you can probably work the help center from your own computer/phone while doing other things at home.

    I still feel more like a beginner than a master, not least because everything keeps changing. I mean, you’re dealing with excessive heat for freaking tomatoes in northern MN… don’t think the program covers that one. It hardly did in New Mexico 20 years ago.

    1. Thanks for the shade cloth information! I’m going to get a small bit in spring to try out. But I am also investigating turning the garden into a food forest of sorts with open spaces for sun, but also figuring out how to prune the trees so they are more open and allow sun through enough for growing veg underneath. Something tells me by your desert willow and fruit tree reference you have experience with this? Any tips or perhaps a favorite book or website? 🙂

      Did you find the master gardener classes worth it? Even if I can do lots of volunteering from home, that’s still a lot of hours when there are other things I’d like to do.

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