Man in Overalls - It's Like Washing Your Dishes

I often hear folks joke, "Yeah, I had a garden once. I put in all this money & effort, and I only got a handful of tomatoes. Each one of them cost $27!" And they usually end by saying something about not having a green thumb.

My first tomatoes of the season
I smile and think about a mental model I've been working on: Growing your groceries is like washing your dishes.

While they're raving about how many plants they've killed, I'm thinking, "It's not your thumbs. I bet you don't have a sink. And if you do, are you using decent soap or that garbage from the dollar store? And did you mention you've never washed dishes before in your life? And you're surprised you broke a couple wine glasses with no more experience than a four-year-old?" My eyebrows furrow involuntarily belying my thoughts, "Really? That doesn't seem all that surprising to me." But, of course, not only would saying all that confuse people, it'd kill the moment, so I just smile some more, nod, and say something like "It's all about the soil."

But since we're not, actually, in the moment, let me explain.
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When I was three or four, my mother started expecting me to carry my dishes from the table to the sink. When I was five or six, I was taught the basics and put into the dinner dish-washing cycle along with my sister & cousin. We had dish washing weeks, 7 days in a row, then on to the next kid. My development as a dish washer was a step-by step process:
Yes, that's me. Can't believe I found this picture!
For the first few days or weeks (I don't remember exactly), when it was my turn, my mother washed, and I rinsed. I was taught how to look for dishes that were still dirty and give them back to the washer. "Haha!" I'd exclaim. "That one's still dirty! It needs to be washed again," and back into the dishpan I'd put it. Then, in short order, now attuned to what clean looked like, my mother had me wash, and she rinsed. Not too long after that - perhaps some weeks or months later- she faded out as my regular dish washing friend but would return to help on days when- as a young child- I was too tired or overwhelmed.

For the first year or so, I was only responsible for the plates, bowls, and silverware. At some point, pots and pans were added to my responsibilities - all except the "big caste iron pot" along with occasional items needing to be soaked. When I was around 9 or 10, those too became my responsibilities along with wiping down the stove, and thus I learned what "elbow grease" was. When I was sixteen, I got a job washing dishes in Glacier National Park for a summer, but that's another story entirely.

These days, I no longer wash dishes professionally, but I do wash dishes daily without much thought to it, just like most adults. The majority of dishes I wash by hand because I err towards washing them as they're generated, but when we host a party or otherwise generate a big pile of dishes, I call in extra support in the form of our dishwasher or recruit my wife as a dish washing friend. Washing dishes is tedious at times, but, in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn't take much time- or thought for that matter. It's just part of my routine. You could say it's second nature, a life-skill that I take for granted. I know what I'm doing; I have the tools & supplies to do the job, and backup should I really need it.

This is where you want to get to as a food gardener.

In the same vein as washing your dishes, to successfully grow your groceries, you need to develop your skills, cultivate habits, be well supplied, and have backup support should you need it. Let me share a few examples:

  • Like our parents teach us to wash dishes, find a garden friend to guide your food gardener development, someone who will help you pick a spot for your garden, assist you with getting started, of whom you can ask questions, and who will remind you about when it's time to replant and things like that. (If you'd like me to fill this role, don't hesitate to reach out. It's what I do.)
  • Just like I started learning to wash dishes by just washing plates, bowls, and silverware, begin your gardening education with a handful of seasonal crops that are relatively common and easy to grow-- maybe not 37 different types of obscure medicinal herbs from a seed catalog. Wrap your head around a few crops, then progress to the equivalent of pots and pans; for example you could try starting a type of heirloom tomato you saw at the farmers market from seed.
  • In the same way it's much easier to wash your dishes in a sink than outside in the hose, make sure you get started growing your groceries with the right infrastructure- like a raised bed - or at least in well-developed soil. (Not to belabor the point, but if you need help, give me a shout; helping people grow their groceries in raised bed food gardens is my specialty.)
  • Just as you invest in good soap, perhaps even environmentally friendly to boot-- invest in good soil along the lines of my Magic Mix, not "whatever was cheapest." You will thank yourself for the entirety of your gardening career. Trust me.
  • If you know that time is a commodity in short supply in your life, get the gardening equivalent of a dishwasher: automatic micro irrigation. (A convenience I offer all my gardeners).
  • Even experienced dishwashers break dishes from time to time, so don't judge yourself too harshly should you kill a few plants. Fall 2016, I killed every plant in my garden, but that's a story for another time.
  • To stay ahead of the dishes, you need routines: whether you wash as they are made or in day-end batches. Being regular with your weeding is the same: pulling them early and often as the below video demonstrates, means it'll take a few seconds of time instead of a few hours to pull the same weeds once they're bigger, bolder, and more established.

In the same way that you are probably competent as washer of dishes, you can become practiced as a grower of groceries. And, should you need backup, whether for a quick troubleshoot, a new "ready to plant" raised bed, Magic Mix topdressing, replanting assistance, monthly maintenance, or other support, I've got your back.

Granted, I know many of you reading this are not local to Jacksonville, and I'm exploring how I might could be a garden friend from afar to you as well. If you'd like to explore this with me, please shoot me an email, so we can develop the idea.

In closing let me just say: give your first season's tomatoes some slack. We certainly don't evaluate whether or not washing our dishes is "worth it" by adding up the costs of the sink, dishwasher, plumbing, soap, and sponges as well as all the broken dishes, but for whatever reason, this is how we do things as beginning gardeners. Yes, there are start up costs and a learning curve, but it gets better. Growing your groceries is worth it.

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If I can support you by helping you choose a spot for your sink, running your plumbing, and coaching you on how to most efficiently wash your dishes, or rather...
If you'd like to support me...
in freely sharing my stories & expertise, please consider passing along this article to a friend or sharing on social media. Each of my articles take hours of resource gathering, writing, and editing, so I want to make sure they don't just sit on the digital shelf.

Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Itinerant Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL. Connecting Globally.
(904) 240-9592
Email Man In Overalls at Gmail dot com
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