He was the Lance Armstrong of gardening: Unabashedly, boastfully, almost impossibly successful. (The difference? No cheating necessary.) I first met him early last spring, shortly after my neighbor and I joined a nearby community garden in Boulder. After a couple of seasons nursing sad-looking tomatoes on our balconies, she and I longed for a place to put down deeper roots, and this 200-square-foot patch of soil with a view of the Flatirons was our answer.
As we worked our nascent plot, Garden Lance (as I took to calling him) approached from his own parcel a few yards away to inform us that he’d been tending this land nearly as long as we’d been alive—and, “FYI,” the compost we were using was junk. His shirtless, weathered torso testified to the hours he spent toiling beneath the Colorado sun. His overflowing plot spoke of his expertise.
I ignored Garden Lance’s first bit of unsolicited advice. I was too optimistic about our plot’s promise of colorful veggie-laden dinners to entertain the possibility of failure. Our patch will look like his in no time, I told myself. Of course, Mother Nature had her own plans for our garden—but when things started going awry, it was Garden Lance, not her, who drew my ire.
First came the weeds. As it turns out, that compost was junk; it was as if someone had laced it with nutrients to grow exactly what I didn’t want. Later, I planted some garlic cloves that had started to sprout in my kitchen. What a clever idea, I thought. Garden Lance piped up: “Always plant garlic in the fall or it won’t form a nice bulb.” Sure enough, no bulbs for us—no lettuce or arugula either, though Garden Lance, maddeningly, seemed to have no trouble producing a forest of leafy greens. Then, on a warm June day, I arrived to find our newly emerged zucchini seedlings wilting limply against the dirt. Behind me, Garden Lance’s zucchini exploded from the earth, having somehow already sprouted fruit the size of my forearm. In fact, his whole plot was a jungle, so overrun with life that our quaint, orderly rows and spotty patches of green looked pathetic by comparison. I couldn’t win.
And there, I suddenly realized, was my problem. By measuring our garden’s worth against someone else’s, I’d relinquished the pleasure of it—which was, after all, my original purpose. So I stopped comparing. I stopped resenting Garden Lance’s domination. And a wonderful thing happened: When I looked at our garden without the filter of competition, I was able to see its triumphs. Each germinated beet seedling was a victory. Our eggplant stood sturdily under the weight of 20 perfect purple orbs. The salad greens and kale regenerated as if by magic. Our zucchini? Well, it rose from the dead, and by mid-summer, squash was pushing the bounds of my culinary creativity, finding its way into nearly every meal. Each hour spent turning the soil became time I cherished for the simple enjoyment of working with the earth, instead of an hour spent glancing up to see how far behind I was.
This season, I’ll grudgingly heed some of Garden Lance’s advice—most of what he said was true—but I won’t constantly check the status of his land. Whether you’re growing vegetables or pedaling up a mountain, the joy comes from focusing on your own progress—no matter how slow—rather than beating everyone to the finish line. With that said, if you want a ridiculously fruitful garden, I have two words of (unsolicited) advice of my own: fish fertilizer.