Calling All First-Time Gardeners: Q&A with Jessica Sowards

The gardening world has experienced a significant boom since COVID-19 swept across the globe last spring. Everyone is looking for therapeutic and healthy ways to pass their time at home while becoming more self-sustainable in the process. Growing vegetables, or anything for that matter, can be intimidating, and author and host of YouTube’s Roots and Refuge Farm Jessica Sowards feels our pain! Her newly-released and highly-anticipated book, The First-Time Gardener: Growing Vegetables, eases newbies into growing their food with simple how-to growing guides. Read all about garden placement, soil preparation, veggie selection, pest control methods, and more. Jessica promises there are no stupid questions, so we sat down and asked her a few of our own.

Newbie gardeners

Perfection Doesn’t Exist

Have you always been a great gardener, or did you make some mistakes along the way?

I have definitely made my fair share of mistakes. In fact, I’m still making them. My hope is always to encourage new gardeners to turn their mistakes into lessons and refuse to give up. Gardening has too many variables for a person to be successful all the time. However, by learning from our mishaps, I believe we can become better gardeners every year and be successful in the long run.

Black Thumbs Don’t Exist Either

What is some crucial advice you can offer somebody who has decided to try growing vegetables for the first time?

There is no classroom quite like the garden, and when we are submitted to being students, the garden teaches us well. Ask questions, be curious, embrace the process, don’t be discouraged by failure. Seeds want to grow. Gardening isn’t rocket science. Rather, as gardeners, we partner with a process that works, and we do our best to offer the best circumstances possible for it to work optimally. I don’t think anyone has a black thumb, and I think knowing that makes all the difference.

Oh, and mulch your garden. Seriously, whatever you do, save yourself a load of trouble, and don’t leave your soil naked.

Personal Preferences

Seeds or transplants, what’s your preference for the veggie patch?

Let’s just say I could probably use a support group for seed addicts. I love starting my garden from seed. The vast array of beautiful plants we can grow when we start from seed is one of my life’s greatest pleasures. I’d say I actually fell in love with gardening in the pages of heirloom seed catalogs. It’s worth the extra work.

Nice and Easy

What are some of your favorite “easy” crops for first-time gardeners to try out?

I live in a hot climate, and I encourage anyone who lives in a hot climate to grow okra. It’s so forgiving of poor soil and neglect. Sometimes I think okra thrives even more when you’re hateful to it. It’s hard to mess up.

Most people can have success with a good cherry tomato plant. Even if you know nothing of pruning, you’ll usually get a good harvest from a quick-growing cherry tomato (like a Sweetie variety).

Summer squash (a yellow crookneck or a lovely patty pan) are great encouragers when you want to harvest something fast. They produce in as little as 45 days.

Favorite Growing Method

Raised beds, in-ground gardening, containers, vertical gardens; what’s your favorite growing method?

I consider myself a student of the garden, so I hope to try every possible method of gardening before I declare my absolute favorite. I grow the majority of my garden in raised beds, which are terribly easy and forgiving. We had very little topsoil on our rocky ridgeline property. Raised beds allowed me to garden quickly. Combined with vertical trellising, the raised beds are physically easier to maintain.

Don’t Be Intimidated

Growing food can be intimidating to gardeners of all skill levels. How would you encourage someone who has never done it before to give it a go? 

Start small. Grow what you know you want to eat. Put your garden somewhere you’ll be able to see it (so it doesn’t get neglected at the peak of summer). Most importantly, commit to the process of growing as a gardener. The food, you’ll find, is a lovely byproduct of that.

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Catherine Sherriffs

Editor at Garden Culture Magazine

Catherine is a Canadian award-winning journalist who worked as a reporter and news anchor in Montreal’s radio and television scene for 10 years. A graduate of Concordia University, she left the hustle and bustle of the business after starting a family. Now, she’s the editor and a writer for Garden Culture Magazine while also enjoying being a mom to her three young kids. Her interests include great food, gardening, fitness, animals, and anything outdoors.