How Do I Know What to Grow?

Autumn might seem like an odd time to start thinking about a new garden. Although we aren’t even halfway through October, my friend in Colorado told me they saw their first snow last week.

Even if you’re lucky enough, like me, to live in a subtropical climate where the growing season more or less doesn’t stop, autumn is an excellent time to start planning next year’s garden. Depending on your weather, you might still be able to clear ground and start a brand new plot by making a lasagna garden – basically, layering browns and greens (say, cardboard and grass clippings) that will not only block the weeds, but will compost into rich food for your new baby plants.

But how do you even decide what to grow? Even when limited by the selections of local stores, there are still racks upon racks of little green producers competing for your attention, leaves waving in the breeze and blooming appealingly.

Start with a book.


The first time my mom visited my new house, she bought me a great gardening book. It’s called Month-by-Month Gardening in Louisiana and is divided up into types of plants (shrubs, trees, herbs, vegetables, etc.). Basically, within each section, two pages are devoted to each month. You’d be surprised how much information they can pack into those two pages.

This book guides readers beyond just plant selection, including what should be transplanted vs sown as a seed, when certain plants should be trimmed back, and what pests a gardener might expect to see (and how to deal with them).

Month-by-Month is as close as I get to a gardening bible. There are a ton of really excellent gardening books out there, but if you don’t know where to start, I’d recommend finding a book in this series. A quick search shows me editions for most southern states, a few that cover regions, and some that cover multiple states.

Check out free resources.

Of course, check out your library to see which books they carry!

But aside from books, there are many free resources to help guide your plant planning. One of my favorites is the local agricultural extension service. Almost every state has one through partnerships with universities. My local service is supported by Louisiana Statement University, and they provide publications and guides on their website. I don’t even have to leave the comfort of my couch to learn about gardening in my region!

Talk to people.

If you’re someone who’d rather leave the comfort of your couch (which is good, since you’ll need to do that in order to plant your garden anyway…), another free resource is the knowledge in many of your fellow citizens.

  • Ask around your neighborhood to see what other’s are growing (or more importantly, what they’ve had success with or not).
  • Talk to employees at your local plant nursery. Trying to do the same at a big chain like Lowes or Home Depot will probably be hit or miss, but if that’s all you have, it doesn’t hurt to see what they know. This one might not be free; I’m never able to leave a nursery without buying something. Also, it’s a nice gesture when someone has taken time to share his or her knowledge with you.
  • Seek out clubs and organizations. Here’s a list from the American Horitcultural Society. In my city, various organizations hold free or cheap workshops every other weekend.

Happy gardening! (Or happy garden-planning!)


A Few of My Favorite Writings on Nature

When I was a kid, I’d turning out the light and climbing under the covers at nine o’clock. After a few minutes, the hall outside my door would grow quiet as my parents retreated to the living room to watch TV. Then, I’d reach under my bed, pull out a flashlight, and open the top book of the stack that lived at my bedside. During those years, I probably read more than I slept every night.

Fast-forward a couple of decades to when I was deciding what to pursue in graduate school. There really wasn’t that much debate. I could get a master’s degree that involved reading books and talking and writing about them for several years? Um, yes, please.

There are two things that happen when you’ve fallen into a really excellent tale:

  • you lose yourself, or
  • you become so enmeshed that even after you close the book, the world, characters, ideas, or plot forever reside inside you.

Both are ways of removing focus from yourself, which can be healthy in a world of selfies and constant comparisons to the lives of others through social media. Gardening and spending time in nature offer this same sort of therapy.

So I’m especially delighted when writer’s take the time to slow down, study, and capture the natural world around us in words. Here are a few that have stuck with me over the years:

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

17934530While the oddness of the story is what initially appealed to me, I didn’t expect to come away identifying so strongly with the main character, a biologist. For a few weeks, I had all but decided to go back to school to earn a BS in biology* – until I came to my senses and remembered how I’ve always struggled with the sciences. This was the passage that initially ensnared me:

“My lodestone, the place I always thought of when people asked me why I became a biologist, was the overgrown swimming pool in the backyard of the rented house where I grew up . . . Soon after we moved in, the grass around its edges grew long. Sedge weeds and other towering plants became prevalent . . . The water level slowly rose, fed by the rain, and the surface became more and more brackish with algae . . . Bullfrogs moved in . . . Rather than get rid of my thirty-gallon freshwater aquarium, as my parents wanted, I dumped fish into the pool . . . Local birds, like herons and egrets, began to appear . . . By some miracle, too, small turtles began to live in the pool, although I had no idea how they had gotten there.”

The biologist goes on to describe how she’d “escape” from her bullies and parents to this developing ecosystem. She observed its changes and took notes on species and life cycles. Rather than learn about ecosystems through textbooks, “[she] wanted to discover the information on [her] own first.”

EdgeOfTheSea“The Marginal World” by Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson was a marine biologist best known for Silent Spring, a book concerned with the impact of pesticides on the environment. However, I first read her in a class on the craft of nonfiction, while we were studying nature writing. “The Marginal World,” first published in The Edge of the Sea, describes a trip to the shore in detail that shimmers with the ethereal.

“Under water that was clear as glass the pool was carpeted with green sponge. Grey patches of sea squirts glistened on the ceiling and colonies of soft coral were a pale apricot color. In the moment when I looked into the cave a little elfin starfish hung down, suspended by the merest thread, perhaps by only a single tube foot. It reached down to touch its own reflection, so perfectly delineated that there might have been, not one starfish, but two. The beauty of the reflected images and of the limpid pool itself was the poignant beauty of things that are ephemeral, existing only until the sea should return to fill the little cave.”

East of Eden by John Steinbeck9780140186390

“John Steinbeck” is a name reviled by many high school students forced to slog through The Grapes of Wrath. I count myself lucky that I didn’t read that heavy volume until graduate school, where I could appreciate Steinbeck’s lengthy descriptions of rural America. Few things make me feel more rooted and patriotic than Steinbeck’s vivid accounts of American countryside, from Oklahoma to California. However, it is East of Eden that Steinbeck described as “the story of my country and the story of me.”

“From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer. The river tore the edges of the farm lands and washed whole acres down; it toppled barns and houses into itself, to go floating and bobbing away. It trapped cows and pigs and sheep and drowned them in its muddy brown water and carried them to the sea. Then when the late spring came, the river drew in from its edges and the sand banks appeared. And in the summer the river didn’t run at all above ground. Some pools would be left in the deep swirl places under a high bank. The tules and grasses grew back, and willows straightened up with the flood debris in their upper branches. The Salinas was only a part-time river. ”

I’m sure I’ve forgotten other fantastic works, but these are the words that I carry with me day-to-day, sometimes ringing in my ears loudly, sometimes faint and soft. Looking back over just these three texts, though, it’s pretty clear that I feel a connection to water. But what is nature without water? Water – and words – are necessary for life.




*This isn’t as crazy a proposition as it might initially seem. I get discounted tuition at the university where I work, and I have several semesters of my G.I. Bill left to use. And I’m a total nerd who loves to learn.


Make the World a Better Place Through Hard Work

What makes someone decided to dig up her lawn and plant a garden by herself?

Or another person sail across the Atlantic Ocean alone?

Or move across the country, away from friends and family, to attend school?


My local library has a ton of audio books available to borrow through Libby. I’ve really enjoyed listening to books while working on Operation: Chaos into Beauty, and recently, I’ve been working my way through Malcolm Gladwell’s repertoire.

Although Gladwell’s anecdote-heavy style is not my favorite (I’d prefer principles introduced first then explored through anecdotes, rather than scattered or buried throughout), David and Goliath studies how and why underdogs win. A David cannot demand respect in the same way that a physically imposing, battle-hardened Goliath can. So what’s an underdog to do? The answer probably won’t surprise you:  play to your strengths (and against the weaknesses of your opponent), change the game/field, and use desperation as your fuel to worker harder than the norm. I’d like to focus on that last one, but rephrase it a bit into something more akin to seeking out challenges.

Years before listening to Gladwell’s books, I started reading Mr. Money Mustache, written by a guy who certainly isn’t afraid of a little DIY. In fact, he espouses hard work as necessary to ultimate happiness: “Every single second of hard work you perform in your life, will come back and benefit you many times over for the rest of your life – in often unexpected ways.”

Shuttle crews taking the easy way out – slackers!

An underdog (or a David, to use Gladwell’s example) has two main choices:  accept that she is weaker and less capable than her opponent (give up ) or immediately start to plan how to face and surpass her opponent (fight). The former is easier and safer. And it can be the right choice sometimes.

A week, a month, or ten years from now, will this fight matter? Every now and then, the answer is “no.” Or rather, “not right now.” Sometimes you need more time to gather resources, to build your strength, to sharpen your skills. That’s okay, but it shouldn’t be the routine.

If I spend the evening watching The Office for the eighth time instead of doing my laundry, it feels good and easy in the moment. Later, though, I’m frustrated with myself for not using the time productively. I regret the evening spent spacing out in front of the TV. But if I flex a little self-discipline and do the laundry, I don’t regret missing the TV. I don’t even think about the TV. My mind is clearer. An obstacle is out of the way. I’m satisfied with my choice – and I have clean underpants to wear the next day!

All of us are underdogs, in some facet of life. Fiction is the only world where all-around topdogs live. I’ve never liked Superman very much because his vast skills and strength in everything from physical fights to morality make him boring. Acknowledging and challenging your weaknesses – now that’s the current of life!


Last weekend, I was planting marigolds in the blazing Louisiana sun, knees and fingers deep in mulch, when an older neighbor passed by and asked me if I’d done the whole yard myself. He gestured to the fence, the paths, the mountains of mulch. I told him I had, and he smiled and nodded. “And you get so much more than a pretty yard for your effort,” he said. “What you’ve gained will be with you for life.”

Everyone else who passed my yard said something like, “That’s a lot of hard work” (accompanied by a little shake of the head) or “Why isn’t your husband doing this for you?” (cue my teeth grinding)

But that neighbor gets it.

When you force yourself to complete hard work, at the most basic level, you gain or sharpen the skills directly associated with the task. For my yard, this involved learning what to do and what not to do with a tiller. Hard work also forces you to become resourceful, which entails examining yourself and your surroundings and perhaps “changing the playing field.” Another way of saying this might be “thinking outside the box.”

I wanted to add a birdbath to my front yard, but all of the ones that I liked were upwards of $100-200 and not 100% suited to my needs. But I had some pre-existing knowledge:  birds like the pond in my backyard, which is in the ground and flowing. And what materials did I already have? Silicone caulk and leftover pea gravel. I bought a wide, shallow plastic planter, a solar-powered fountain, and some blue glass pebbles for pizazz, and I made a birdbath that far better suits my needs and aesthetics than anything I saw in stores. Total cost? About $60. Frankly, it would’ve been half that if I hadn’t used the glass stones, but ya know, pizazz.

And it has a nice, wide edge for landings and takeoffs!

To top it all off, when someone says, “Ooh, that’s nifty,” I get a little spark of pride and achievement. Something I created received notice and acknowledgement. In some small or fleeting way, it has improved the world by inspiring or bringing an iota of pleasure to someone.

And while money is not a forefront topic on this blog, it is important. Financially, the hard path is often the cheaper one. In some instances it might be slightly more expensive in the short term if you end up wasting materials or decide to take a class. But the knowledge, skills, wisdom, and confidence that you’ve gained will take you much farther than clicking “buy” on a not-quite-right fiberglass pedestal birdbath.