So this weekend I became the proud owner of a new pair of garden pruners. My old pruners were purchased in August of 2009. I believe I bought the cheapest pair they had. And that’s why they only lasted eight months. Of course, it didn’t help that my husband left them outside in the rain, but the rust wasn’t actually the problem. My new pair was only $10 (on sale, I think. You can’t always tell at Home Depot), but already I can tell they are vastly superior to my original pruners. I already knew this, but this little adventure reinforced the notion that it pays to invest in good garden tools.

Why It Pays to Invest in Quality Garden Tools
The blades of my pruners were slightly dulled by rust, but they still cut. The reason they broke was the spring. The pruners had a flimsy spring between the handles. After one afternoon of heavy cutting, it fell off. I reattached it a couple times, but I quickly realized this would get frustrating. When I went to Home Depot, I looked for a sturdy pair that didn’t have a visible spring. The new pruners are titanium. I don’t really know if that means they’ll lost longer, but titanium is a pretty strong metal.

When I was at Home Depot about three months ago, I grabbed a pair of gardening gloves that were only $1. They lasted precisely one day and made my hands pruney. So, this weekend I was at Costco and spotted a five-pack of gloves in different styles and materials for $17. Now I can test them all and see which I like best. I’ve already tried two of the pairs and they did a great job. Sure, they cost more, but if a $1 pair only last 1 day, I’d quickly spend far more buying replacing gloves every weekend.

Keep All Your Tools Together
This will be my next project: organizing my tools. Right now my shed is a mess and half-full of empty moving boxes. I also didn’t bring all the new tools and supplies I bought directly outside when I returned from the store. Instead, I spent a lot of time running back into the house every time I needed another tool. Not a very effective use of my time, let me tell you. I also mounted a new sprinkler box this weekend, and that required three different trips into the house to get the necessary tools because I didn’t inspect it when I read the directions.

Once I get the shed cleaned out and organized, finding my tools will be quick work. Now I just need something to carry them down from the shed when it’s time to garden. I think one of the many baskets I’ve accumulated will be just the thing. Best of all – it will be free.

Accumulate Slowly
Since we bought a foreclosure with a dying yard, we took our 20% Lowe’s coupon on a shopping spree soon after we moved in. We spent a lot of money, but also bought a whole lot of tools that we actually needed right then. That trip involved several calls to my dad for input. We bought pruners, loppers, an extendable trimmer, and a few other garden essentials. As time has gone on and we’ve started to work in the garden (as opposed to clearing it), we’ve slowly built up our tool collection to include new items, like a hose and gloves. Now I’m thinking I need a wheelbarrow. I expect to buy a compost bin this month.

I’m glad we took our time to figure out what we really needed, because we could have spent a fortune on stuff we thought we’d need. For example, we never got around to buying a lawn mower. The lawn was mostly dead and then it was dormant. Just when it was time to buy one, we hired a gardener instead. No need to buy a mower now!

I’ve already collected a few gardening tools, and eagerly borrowed several gardening books from the library to start planning my garden. I’ve settled on Square Foot Gardening for my vegetable garden, but will also have to do some flower planting this fall to prevent our hill from sliding during the El Nino rains. I’ve pretty much worked out what I plan to grow on the hill, but I need more ideas for our vegetable garden.

Square-Foot Gardening Made Simple
The All-New Square Foot Gardening book explains in detail how to make raised beds and then plant different crops in each square foot. That way you avoid over-planting one particular crop. Since I’ve never grown vegetables before, I plan to start with one full-size box and then a few smaller boxes. I’ll expand as needed in my second growing season.

Potential Crops
Remember, I live in Southern California, so I’m both blessed and cursed. I’m blessed because my growing season stretches from March to December. I’m cursed because we have severe droughts, constant water crunches, and flooding roughly every seven years. That’s one reason I’m waiting until March to plant veggies – I don’t want to drown the poor dears my first growing season.

My current plan is to build one four-foot by four-foot box (sixteen squares) for veggies, one one-foot by four-foot box for climbing vine plants, one one-foot by four-foot box that’s a foot deep for long veggies, and a one-foot by one-foot box for herbs.

4 x 4 Box
My plan is to put the following in the 4 x 4 box:
Red lettuce
Green leaf lettuce
Yellow onions
Red potatoes (2 spots)

1 x 4 Climbing Box
The climbing box will contain:
Green peppers
Red peppers

Deep 1 x 4 Box
So far I’ve only decided on one crop for this box:

Herb Box
In addition to the herb box, I’ll have separate pots for mint and rosemary to keep them from taking over the whole box. The herb box will contain:
Italian Parsley

As you can see, I have way more space than I have crops. So, this is where you come in. What else should I grow? I’ve got eight open spaces in the big box, one open space in the climbing box, three open spaces in the deep box, and probably a lot more room in the herb box. I’m thinking of putting snow peas in the fourth climbing spot, even though I won’t see results until the following year.

Post your suggestions in the comments, but keep the following in mind: I don’t want to grow any seriously water-hogging plants. I know the lettuce and tomatoes will take more than other vegetables, so I’m compromising there. Other plants should be able to withstand high summer heat, too. We don’t have much humidity, so they have to like dry air.

Help me grow my garden! I’ll be posting my progress with photos as the season progresses. Right now I’m in the information gathering phase. What are your secrets for gardening success?

Yesterday I talked about setting up a garden share day, for you home gardeners. But what if you don’t have a home? Condo and apartment dwellers can still enjoy the gardening experience. You just need to join a community garden. True, you won’t be able to plant some of the larger items like fruit trees, but you can grow flowers, berries, and vegetables like lettuce and tomatoes in your very own plot. Here’s how a community garden works and how to find one near you.

Garden Rules and Requirements
Most community gardens are either free to join or require affordable annual dues. In addition to the fees, which are used to pay for things like water. Most are city-sponsored, so land rental isn’t an issue.

In addition to the low annual fee, you’ll also be required to work a certain number of “community hours.” These are spent cleaning up the grounds and maintaining group projects. Usually the work is performed on group work days. The hours requirement isn’t excessive – typically 12 hours per plot per year.

Most gardens limit what you can grow on your plot, so that you don’t interfere with someone else’s plot. Things like tall structures and trees that would shade a neighboring plant are usually forbidden. Most other noninvasive plants are permitted.

Finally, and this should seem obvious, you can’t take anything from anyone else’s plot and you must keep your area tidy as a courtesy to others.

How to Find a Community Garden
Community gardens have sprung up all over the United States. You first resource is the American Community Gardening Resource. They list many community gardens and provide resources to people who want to start on.

The second place to find a garden is Google. Just search for your city name and “community garden.” If that doesn’t bring up anything, try the nearest large town or city. That should yield plenty of results. If you still can’t find one, maybe it’s time you started one yourself.

If you’ve always wanted to garden, but your landlord or condo association doesn’t fancy a rooftop plot or a walkway covered in container plants, a community garden is the best option. My old neighbor had one and she grew her own lettuce, potatoes, and tomatoes (as well as flowers.) It cost her more in time and effort than store-bought, but it tasted much better and she earned bragging rights over dinner. How many people can say “I grew this lettuce myself.” My guess? Not many.

If you’ve had an experience with a community garden, share it in the comments. What would you grow in a garden if you could? I think I’d start with herbs, tomatoes, onions, and garlic. Those are the items I go through the most (aside from lemons, of course.)

I don’t yet own a house, but I’m already dreaming of my future garden. At the very least, it will have a lemon tree and an herb patch. I might also try tomatoes and another kind of fruit tree. However, having grown up with several fruit trees/plants in my backyard, I’m well aware of the challenge of growing produce: getting rid of it before it goes bad. You could just foist it on unsuspecting friends and neighbors, or you could set up a neighborhood garden share day (or two or three.)

Poll the Neighborhood for Fruits and Vegetables
Even though most of these crops won’t come in until the late spring at the earliest, you can start doing some planning now. Start by polling your neighbors to find out who grows what. Then look at a seasonal calendar to find the date that bisects most of their harvest seasons. If you have a wide variety, you might need to set up two or three garden share days over the course of the growing season. One in May, July, and September would probably be ideal.

Poll Neighbors for Folding Tables
While you’re at it, find out which of your neighbors have folding tables they can contribute to the day. Being able to set everything out will make it much easier to deal with.

Invite Several Neighbors to Participate
Start small with just a few neighbors, then see what happens as others learn of your plan. The set-up is simple: everyone brings their excess garden bounty to the share day and puts it on the tables. Everyone else wanders around with their bags or baskets and fills them up with the produce they can make use of. That way the neighbor who grows oranges will also get lemons and cucumbers while the cucumber and asparagus-growing neighbor can grab some strawberries and mint.

Donate or Can the Excess
If you have excess produce at the end of the day, contact a local homeless shelter to see if they can accept it. If they can’t, then organize a canning day for the next weekend. Put all that goodness in cold storage until then.

Repeat Again Next Year
If this becomes an annual tradition, it will quickly grow to the point where everyone should be able to find something they can use and can get rid of all their excess without having to tote multiple large bags to work or to relatives for distribution. That will also prevent your friend from starting to hate you after spending days dealing with the giant bag of apples you dropped on her doorstep one night.

Successful garden share days depend largely on the variation in local gardens and the number of people participating. It also helps to have a good growing season. If everyone in your neighborhood grows peaches in the same month, then no one is going to want to take the peaches off anyone else’s hands. But, it’s something you can keep in mind when planning future garden updates – what do you like that no one else is growing? That’s probably something that should be in your yard (assuming it will grow in your region.)

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