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Posted on Mon, May 27, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

My first vegetable garden: Trials and triumphs of my newly discovered hobby

By Lizzy Alfs


I prepared my first garden bed and hope to have vegetables and flowers this summer.

Lizzy Alfs |

It’s an unlikely place to find flowers and vegetables.

My apartment building’s lawn isn’t exactly the picture of gardening perfection with its overgrown weeds and scattered cigarette butts.

But as I started to savor warm weather days, I wondered: How could I spend more time outside this spring and summer?

It occurred to me on a walk around my Old West Side neighborhood that gardening is a wildly popular hobby in Ann Arbor. The residents in the houses surrounding my apartment building spend hours perfecting their yards each week.

Want to start a garden?

Here are some resources

And it’s not just Ann Arbor: According to the National Gardening Association, about $2.5 billion is spent annually on U.S. home gardening. The Garden Writers Association reports that the number of U.S. households growing edible plants is expected to increase by 11.3 percent in 2013.

Growing up in Metro Detroit, I always questioned how my dad could possibly spend so much time working in our yard. I would get home from school and he’d take me on “tours” through his vegetable garden. I usually just rolled my eyes.

But I decided this spring that starting a small vegetable garden would mesh with some of my other new hobbies; I recently fell in love with the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and I started cooking in response to a money savings plan I started last year. So why not garden, too?

First, I had to conquer my severely neglected “garden” area outside my apartment’s porch. But let's be real, picking up a gardening habit with no background knowledge isn’t easy.

I got the OK by my landlord to move forward with my gardening plans, and then I did some online research. (Oh, and called my dad about 20 times for advice). Mother Nature Network has an online guide for first-time gardeners where I learned a key piece of gardening advice: You'll learn as you go.

I started by purchasing the least expensive gardening supplies I could find, only to have my trowel break on my first day in the garden.


The first sprouts in my vegetable garden.

Lizzy Alfs |

While I was weeding and preparing the soil, I discovered some frustratingly deep — and dead — plant roots that I could not unearth.

Slightly desperate-looking but still determined, I knocked on neighbors’ doors and borrowed a spade (if you’re like me, you have no idea what that is), and put some serious elbow grease into removing those tangled roots. Someone said they might be hostas, but I still have no idea. (You can sort of see the uprooted plants on the left-hand side of the picture at the top)

I quickly had to get over my fear of worms and slugs, and I dealt with the fact that it was freezing and rainy. My hands and knees hurt and I got weird stares from my apartment building neighbors.

Still, after three hours of work, I had prepared the perfect little garden area.

Since that first weekend, I’ve put cute flowers around the edge of the garden, and I planted green onions and lettuce. Like a proud mama, I’ve been showing everyone a picture of my sprouting lettuce. (I’m fairly certain I planted it wrong and it won’t grow to fruition, but I’m still happy)

I prepared pots with herbs, including basil, cilantro, mint, lavender and rosemary. I planted tomatoes, cucumbers and a few peppers.

Spending time taking care of my garden is definitely work, but I always feel accomplished and I love knowing that I’ll eventually be able to eat what I’m growing.

As it turns out, my dad was right to be proud of his vegetable garden. And I just discovered an incredibly rewarding hobby.

Lizzy Alfs is a business reporter for Reach her at 734-623-2584 or email her at Follow her on Twitter at



Tue, May 28, 2013 : 8:49 p.m.

Flowers are a smart choice to mix in. I usually plant some to help attract bees but I actually forgot this year. Quite a few fruits and veggies need to be pollinated so bees are your friends. Slugs not so much. The trick with those is just to put out a shallow bowl of beer. City growing is definitely a challenge with the critters. Bunnies are everywhere. I also get chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons and worst of all.... skunks. Some things they don't like and others there's plenty to share. I don't mine if they take a tomato when there's 20 on the bush but when they pull them off the vine and take one bite out them then toss them away half a dozen times it gets old in a hurry. I've never been able to successfully grow a watermelon or strawberries at ground level. As soon as they get have a little color (smell) the critters take them away. Nothing worse than nurturing a watermelon for a couple weeks only to find it in your yard with claw and teeth marks on it. Anyway, have fun and good luck!

Kellie Woodhouse

Tue, May 28, 2013 : 4:38 p.m.

Lizzy, nice work on your garden. I've enjoyed gardening outside my place as well, but it has been a challenge to maximize my small garden plot without going overboard. I did create an herb ladder and I'm growing pole beans up the back of it, which gave my garden a vertical element and was a fun, crafty space saver. I like this blog: Your lettuce is looking awesome!

Patricia Lesko

Tue, May 28, 2013 : 3:33 p.m.

What a great piece! Good for you. One tip, however, would be to have your soil tested for heavy metals and lead, particularly if it's near a street, and it looks like it's near the house and a painted porch. If the house you live in was built before 1980, could be that lead-based paint was used on the outside. Michigan State University does soil testing, I think. @Vivienne pointed you to the best group in town for new gardeners. As for compost, Ann Arbor residents can get up to two free cubic yards from the MRF. The Ann Arbor Freecycle list is always a great way to track down gardening tools and even veggie starts, particularly this time of year. Have fun! Always remember that mulch is your friend. :-)


Tue, May 28, 2013 : 3:09 p.m.

You can put wire around and across the top to deter critters and (like someone else warned) neighbors who help themselves. My dad has strawberries in his backyard and wired them off. They're still easy to get to, just takes a few seconds to get the top wiring off, but you wouldn't know that to look at it. It is enough to keep critters out and looks like too much work so neighbors haven't attempted. You can use those climbing clips, I don't know their real name, to fasten it down on top, just be sure to fold the wire back along the edges or else it can be pretty sharp. I am a 3rd year container gardener and am STILL trying to figure it all out. Just to get started I am struggling this year. Tried using a $20 greenhouse for my seedlings before I put them in their permanent pots and killed off most of them. Squash is doing great but I'm back to square one with tomatoes, spinach and herbs. Good luck to you and please check out Growing Hope, they are a magnificent resource! Become a member for not a whole lot and have access to helpful literature and their tool sharing program along with tons of other benefits. :) OH! and they have workshops too! I'm a fan, can ya tell?


Tue, May 28, 2013 : 8:36 p.m.

I like using those clear plastic drawers. They don't take much space and work like a little greenhouse. Best of all you can find them all over the city for free this time of year.

sandy schopbach

Tue, May 28, 2013 : 2:44 p.m.

You're going to find it very rewarding, as well as enjoyable (most of the time), and your "crops" will taste far better to you than what you would have bought. Congratulations, and welcome aboard!


Tue, May 28, 2013 : 1:20 p.m.

Hi Lizzy, Good for you! one suggestion tho'. watch out for your neighbors.....there are a few at the apt. bldg. where I live who are not above helping themselves to your yummy produce even though they had no hand in the planting thereof, sorry to say.

Lizzy Alfs

Tue, May 28, 2013 : 1:45 p.m.

I know, @mady! I'm already worried about that. I've jolked about hiring a security guard :)


Tue, May 28, 2013 : 1:24 a.m.

Good luck! Moving to a new house in a few weeks, so we can't garden this week. It's funny, produce from farmers market is still cheaper and usually better than homegrown stuff. But it still ends up being a ton more rewarding when you see it grow. Tho herbs and stuff like that ends up being a really cost-effective.


Mon, May 27, 2013 : 11:19 p.m.

The YDL on Whittaker is going to host a gardening thing on Thursday in June. It is called Gardening Chats, an MSU Extension Service Advanced Master Gardener Carol Brodbeck will host this informal monthly gathering of enthusiastic gardeners. June 20. I plan to be there. Enjoy.


Mon, May 27, 2013 : 11:14 p.m.

If all else fails? Blocks over by Middlebelt has fresh vegetables and fruits that are better then any store bought stuff I have ever had. All grown locally. Good luck.


Mon, May 27, 2013 : 9:46 p.m.

"As it turns out, my dad was right to be proud of his vegetable garden." I have to think that in reading this article that he would be even more proud of you. Good luck with your new hobby and adventure!

Lizzy Alfs

Mon, May 27, 2013 : 10:46 p.m.

Thanks so much, I really appreciate it @1bit!


Mon, May 27, 2013 : 3:54 p.m.

You're the cutest!


Mon, May 27, 2013 : 3:33 p.m.

And thanks for giving those of us with dismissive teens hope for the future:-)


Mon, May 27, 2013 : 2:56 p.m.

Hey Lizzy, I learned a lesson last year when I planted my first pots of peppers and tomatoes. Water them at the base, not at the top, watering from the top can spread nasty bacteria that can eat away at your veggies. Other than that, I say just get out of the way and let the plants do their thing.

Lizzy Alfs

Mon, May 27, 2013 : 10:46 p.m.

Great, thanks for the tip! I finished planting everything today and I heeded this advice..and now it's raining, so hopefully everything is nice and healthy in the morning.


Mon, May 27, 2013 : 1:42 p.m.

Nice article Lizzy. Couple thoughts. A watering can will help you out a lot if you don't have one and it occurs to me that you have made the same mistake all first time and a lot of old time gardeners make which is planting too many things in a small space. These things all grow and get larger. :)

Lizzy Alfs

Mon, May 27, 2013 : 10:45 p.m.

Haha yes, I had no idea that each teeny tiny lettuce seed sprouts and I planted a few hundred seeds all next to each other.


Mon, May 27, 2013 : 1:27 p.m.

Gardening's either a joy or a job. Be careful of how many hours of sunlight you'll get depending where on that piece of ground you plant.


Mon, May 27, 2013 : 1:26 p.m.

Might want to add a taller fence to keep out critters who love veggies too!


Mon, May 27, 2013 : 11:16 p.m.

Blocks sells a plant that repels critters. Not sure what it is called but getting it home with mother sure made the vehicle smell not so nice. Fabreze anyone?

Lizzy Alfs

Mon, May 27, 2013 : 10:44 p.m.

I know, I'm worried about that!

joan hellmann

Mon, May 27, 2013 : 1:21 p.m.

Lettuce doesn't have to become a full head before you use it - just pick some leaves when they reach a decent size and leave the plant. I find gardening is a nice way to feel connected to my great-granparents, whom I never met but heard about their very large garden from my father.


Mon, May 27, 2013 : 10:59 a.m.

Good for you. Nothing like fresh veggies. :)))))


Mon, May 27, 2013 : 10:45 a.m.

Looks like a good start. I see you have a fenced patio. You may want to do some container gardening as well. If you do, remember to check the soil daily for watering and don't forget to feed the plants. There's nothing like that first tomato out of the garden every year!

Vivienne Armentrout

Mon, May 27, 2013 : 10:27 a.m.

Best of luck, Lizzy! I hope that you can meet some experienced gardeners in your neighborhood and see what they are growing. Maybe your childhood memories are coming back, too. Project Grow is the Ann Arbor community gardening group (they use plots on public land or on land donated by churches, etc.). Check out their website for some tips. Growing Hope is more focused on Ypsilanti, but is all about people learning to garden for themselves, as well as producing fresh food for as many people as possible. Hope your garden is rewarding! Don't forget to add compost when you plant.

Lizzy Alfs

Mon, May 27, 2013 : 10:44 p.m.

Thanks so much, Vivienne! I've been admiring my neighbors' gardens and the different things/ways people plant.