Spring is finally here… Kind of. As we attempt to navigate weather that jumps from low 30s to high 70s, let’s try and remember that warm weather will (hopefully) be on the way soon.
What better way to do that here in the Natural State than to start planning for your summer garden. Whether you’re a veteran gardener or have never gotten your hands dirty before, it’s a great time to be thinking about what you can plant and how to get the results you want.
To get some helpful tips and insight, I interviewed Austin Yockey, an experienced sustenance farmer, and gardener that served last spring and summer as a member of Arkansas Garden Corps at Faulkner County Library. He’s worked on several local farms including North Pulaski and Rattles Garden and was Treasurer of Dunbar Garden in Little Rock for two years. When it comes to culinary and sustenance gardening, there are few local sources more reliable than Austin.
WT: Mr. Yockey, thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.
AY: No problem at all, I’m always happy to talk about gardening.
WT: Good to hear, let’s roll right into it. First off, what kind of advantages do you think you gain from gardening as a hobby? What do you get from it and why would you recommend it over something else?
AY: I think it’s a good way to connect with nature. As digital as our world has become, you really have to look for opportunities to do that and gardening is a great way to unplug. Also, in my experience, cultivating life is a refreshing experience; it really feels like you’re getting something for the energy you put in. It’s never stagnant and you get to see the work you do unfold in a really satisfying way.
WT: What kind of investment should people expect to make when starting the process?
AY: Well, it depends on where you want to save. If you’re willing to put in a lot of time, you can start from scratch and have a full garden for $100 or less. You can hand make compost, soil, pots, planters, and start with seeds [as opposed to pre-started plants] and do everything really cheap that way. Or, if you’re short on time, you can buy a lot of your materials. It’s expensive, but that’s the spectrum: you’re either investing time or money and always a little of both.
WT: What advice would you have for people with limited space, like an apartment?
AY: Get or build a small planter box, even a 3×2 or a 2×1 will hold quite a bit. You also need to pare down what you want out of it. You can do herbs, they’re easy and small and as you add space, you can do some greens, tomatoes, or peppers. For anyone getting started, and especially with a small space, grow in a box, don’t dig up your yard.
WT: What’s the biggest mistake people make when they’re first starting out?
AY: They try to grow too much, that’s the simple answer. A lot of people take on larger projects than they’re ready for and they get discouraged. The more time you have, the bigger you can go, but always start off smaller than you think you can handle.
WT: Do you think it’s easy to get discouraged when you start gardening?
AY: Oh yeah, people get discouraged constantly. It happens most frequently when people go in with the mindset that they’re going to fail; so when failure inevitably happens, they quit. You will kill stuff, some of it will grow back, but a lot will stay dead. That’s just going to happen, there’s no way around it, but you shouldn’t get discouraged because A. You’re going to kill as much or more than you grow, B. When you do, you’re gaining knowledge that will help you in the future, and C. You get compost when you kill stuff, so nothing is wasted in any sense.
WT: Is there any way to guarantee a successful harvest?
AY: You can buy starts instead of seed, those will usually grow since they’ve already started growing. It’s more expensive, but it is probably the only real shortcut.
WT: Are there any myths about gardening you’d like to dispel?
AY: The whole concept of a green thumb. No one is naturally inclined to be a gardener, it’s just whoever puts in the time and energy to learn and get good at it. This isn’t a sport, your body type doesn’t really matter when it comes to doing this, so everyone starts on equal footing.
WT: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a gardener?
AY: Starting small, that’s where I was messing up. I also sort of learned myself that you need to talk with as many people as possible and work with people that already have gardens. Remember that it’s a hands-on experience and that most of your knowledge comes from getting your hands dirty. Reading and research are nice, but you won’t really know what you’re doing until you’re in the thick of it.
WT: What kinds of plants do you think people should focus on for April and May?
AY: Now’s the time to start planning for the beginning of summer. Start planting summer plants. Greens, tomatoes and eggplant, cucumbers and squash, all your staple garden foods are good to start right now. And if you’re brand new and want something easy, again, start with herbs.
WT: Where are the best places locally to get seeds, equipment, and anything else you might need?
AY: Faulkner County Library has a seed library that’s pretty extensive and if you get on Facebook, the Faulkner County Urban Farm Project has good resources up there. You can go to Conway Locally Grown [details online] and they’ll have or know people that have starts. For supplies, I like Tractor Supply because it’s a little more local, but you can go to any big box store for that. There’s a farmer’s association in Conway that has equipment as well. With all that, there’s plenty of ways to get started.
WT: Is there anything else you’d like to say or anyone you’d like to acknowledge?
AT: Sean Ott is the current Faulkner County Library garden programmer, he knows his stuff and should be available all during the week. He would be a great resource for anyone starting out or otherwise.
WT: Thanks so much for speaking with me today, you’ve been really helpful!
AT: Absolutely sir, it’s been a pleasure.
The Faulkner County Urban Farm Project is located at the garden behind Faulkner County Library. They are available to answer questions and give advice every Sunday and Thursday at 4 pm.
Wells is a freelance writer specializing in fiction and narrative commentary. A graduate of the University of Central Arkansas’s English program, Wells spends much of his time at Blue Sail Coffee, frantically writing down articles for this website or editing a novel that’s just one fifteen more drafts from being complete.