Gardeners are among the world’s most charming snobs. Rightly so: As with music and mathematics, the more you know, the more elegant your work. Erudition is valued, and so is a smattering of pretension. Geek gardening guide is for those looking to put down roots, welcome to gardening. We offer you common ground. Think of it as localized terraforming, if that helps.

Before you start, though, contemplate your knees and knuckles, and get ready for hard, sweaty work. As with making babies, people can’t really imagine what they are getting into when they plan to tangle with the trowels and hoses. The sketches and explanations on the following pages will inspire you to stake out, nurture, and defend your tiny patch of Earth, feed your loved ones, and even sequester a bit of carbon. How smart is that?

Before you head outside, let’s get you dressed. No clogs with flowers on them. Look for some skateboard pants at your local thrift shop; they are roomy, with deep pockets and durable fabric, and readily available, given the current epidemic of plantar fasciitis among young skaters, who seem determined to inflict upon themselves the aches and pains of old men. You’ll want white socks, pulled up over the cuffs of the pants—a kind of reverse tribute to the black-socks-and-sandals look of our science-geek cousins—and heavy work boots. You will understand why no one gardens in sneakers the first time you drop your secateurs (note term, more anon) and they land point down in your flesh. Oh, and you get to wear gear on your belt—hooks, a holster for tools. No iPods. Gardeners listen to birds.

Now, the dirt on dirt. The garden is no place for it. Dirt has to do with Tide, Maytags, and Dysons. Soil is what we talk about when we talk about gardening; earth, if you are poetical.

Where Will Your Garden Grow?

  • Balcony Hothouse
  • Urban Plot
  • Suburban Spread
  • Exurban Farm

Geek gardening: SOIL

Soil is about as interesting as anything gets in this life. It’s a mixture of rock particles, water, air, organic matter, and microorganisms—lovely creatures such as nematodes, protozoa, fungi, bacteria, and actinomycetes. O the varieties of being! Only 45 percent of soil consists of minerals, with particles ranging in size from clay (less than 0.00008 inch in diameter) to silt (0.00008 to 0.002 inch) to sand (0.002 to 0.08 inch). Clay makes for terrific soil, owing to its high cation-exchange capacity, a measure of fertility. It can also suck the boot right off your foot.

Soils can be alluvial, colluvial, loess—and it matters. You will need to familiarize yourself with the pore space and texture of your soil and learn to promote aerobic versus anaerobic decomposition. Just repeat: Friable is desirable.


The language of gardens is the Queen’s English. Why say “shears” when you can say “secateurs”? Use a trug for your weeds and a trolley to cart around compost.

The language of flowers, on the other hand, is Latin. It is imperative to swoon over the Umbelliferae, to swan around the Aspidistra, to note the Aesculus parviflora, the Acer campestre, the Acanthus mollis. And that is just the beginning. Far from being a dead language, Latin is the only tongue in which you can suggest to your mate a pairing of Dicksonia squarrosa and Farfugium japonicum, or that the Euphorbia donii should snuggle up to the Dryopteris affinis fern. Latin is the international language of identification, and all other names are just, well, common.

A prodigious memory helps. Or a hefty horticultural app. Anyway, what else is there to do during those frigid winter months but learn Latin? And don’t give me temperate zones. Everyone knows that gardening in Southern California is really more like tending houseplants that happen to be outside.

Your bookcases should be groaning under the weight of resource materials: tomes with copious footnotes, incomprehensible abbreviations, and much cross-referencing. Never mind that the only way to know whether anything will actually live in your soil is to plant it and see what happens. Plants are full of surprises; it’s one of their most endearing characteristics. The best gardeners push them around mercilessly. You could spend years studying soil chemistry; I will just point out that those are years in which you could be digging holes. Your choice.

Your night table, your pantry, your bar cart, and your bathroom shelves should be laden with seed catalogs. Heritage varieties are de rigueur. The latest catalog from the D. Landreth Seed Company, which recently celebrated its 225th anniversary, will become an heirloom. Knowing what to do with those seeds bears study—learning how to germinate, prick apart, repot, plant, transplant, pinch back, sow, and reap. Tired yet? The geek’s kitchen counter is covered with seed trays, the cellar full of tubers, the refrigerator packed with bulbs.

A Bit About Management

We haven’t even touched on rootstocks, whip-and-tongue grafting, hand pollinating, dividing, double digging, and those old standbys nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Surely you won’t buy fertilizers off the shelf? You need soil analyses (consult your local cooperative extension) for different parts of your garden, and you’ll want to push ingredients for different functions—P to help increase root growth; K for fruit formation. If you’re noticing interveinal chlorosis, reach for Mg (magnesium), check pH for acidity, and so on. (See reference books.) A couple of bags of dried blood and bonemeal lying about look, well, sexy, in that earthy, essence-of-musk sort of way.

I warn you: You cannot spend enough time preparing your soil for planting—an entire year of tilling organic matter into the ground is probably not long enough. I did not take this seriously, and as a result I may have to sell my house and start over somewhere else.


You need to know about the birds and the bees. And the worms, compost, and water. You want compost, a nd compost tea for fertilizing. No industrial black plastic bins for you, even in the city. Better to build wooden structures for stuff that you’ll fork over, and then over again. For the rest of your life. Better yet to dig a hole in the ground, start making heaps, and train your squash vines up their sides. Into the compost will go almost everything your children refuse to eat. (And if you get rats? So what?)

Worms are your best friends, your biggest helpers. You will develop a fondness for their pleasant little ways when you look over your beds at dawn and see the elegant mounds of poo they have left behind during the night. They never stop working. Unlike children.


The first time your spade cuts through a gorgeous wriggling pink body, you will tell yourself what your mom probably told you: That’s how they reproduce! Now you have two worms! Like most things your mom told you, that is what is known in the trade as a white lie. Just have a good cry and move on. You’ll grow used to the ruthless killing field that is a garden. Besides, worms are hermaphrodites and have a lot more fun than you do.

Remember the apiaries.

No bees, no food. No you. Worse, no flowers. The true geek cultivates his royal jelly. So don’t touch those pesticides. A working knowledge of beneficial insects is also important. Do not swat away those yellow jackets. Welcome those aphid midges.

Capture your gray water.

Irrigation is the ne plus ultra of geek cred. Hoses and siphons snaking out your bathroom windows, buckets under your trapless sinks—all that water you think has already been used is just beginning to be useful. Pay no attention to the residue of cooking oil, food particles, and chemicals from your cosmetics and toothpastes. Just remember that wastewater is alkaline, so don’t throw it on acid-loving plants. Bleach and soaps containing chlorine, boron, and sodium-based compounds are a no-no.

And I almost forgot: the garden itself.

Understandably, it’s often an afterthought. Even after language acquisition and soil preparation, there is more to be done. Mainly, watching the sun. That takes at least a year. The garden geek will know where sunlight falls on both solstices, where shade, dappled or deep, is cast at all times of the year, including the dead of winter.

Geek Gardening: GARDEN DESIGN

Finally, a word about garden design: nice. That about sums it up. Design is irrelevant to many gardeners, who would rather go deep—up to the ankles in alpines or to the armpits in Leguminosae—than wide. Or grow food. Three sister types of plantings (say, corn supporting beans, which are fixing nitrogen, and squash acting as mulch at their feet) are about as designer as it gets. Many geeks gravitate toward horticulture; consider simply pitching a greenhouse and propagating Schizophragma hydrangeoides.

This kind of thinking comes from the part of your brain that remembers all that Latin. And it’s not exactly wrong thinking, either. Those neural pathways are the ones that understand you are not merely gardening. You are tending a carbon sink. That meadow of Panicum virgatum (OK, but only this once: switchgrass) is sequestering atmospheric carbon in stems and leaves and belching out beautiful, pure oxygen. And underground, things really get cool—or rather, hot. The roots associate with mycorrhizal fungi and produce gluey stuff called glomalin. Not only does it hold soil together—a property known as tilth—but it’s full of carbon.

Geek Gardening: AESTHETICS

A different part of the brain is activated by aesthetics; it is the most human part. It bears keeping in mind. Beauty matters. You can be a garden geek and still not be a gardener. Some geeks can gaze into the fractal depths of Cynara cardunculus and see nothing but a Fibonacci sequence. The true gardener appreciates the vagaries of life. No matter what you do right—eat local, sink carbon, prepare for the zombie biker apocalypse by learning how to pickle your veggies—things will go wrong. This is the hardest lesson to learn, but also the most important. Gardens die. And then they are reborn.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *