Growing Season

Growing in Vietnam
Tra Que Herb Village. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Spring is the season for all things green and, in my case, grandiose gardening plans. This weekend, I bought 40 packs of seeds. Now the question is: will I execute this time?

It feels like ages since the last time I had my fingers in the mud. Our trip around the world in 2019-2020 was cunningly calibrated to skip the growing season on three continents. We visited plenty of gardens while we were away but I didn’t have to get my hands dirty in any of them.

In the spring of 2020, when we came home, I was eager to start growing vegetables again. Then Dad died and I dropped everything to be with Mom in Los Angeles. Three transatlantic flights later, all I’ve been able to do with my vegetable garden is clear it out and wait for the spring.


Having grown up in an urban jungle, I have no natural affinity with green things. Countless house plants have died while in my care. When let loose in a garden I will unerringly pull up seedlings and leave the weeds to run riot. Hence the need for guidance.

Growing season books
My gardening books

Being a writer, I start with books. Square Foot Gardening immediately appeals to me. Raised vegetable beds mean that your soil pH is irrelevant. No more heavy duty tilling. Plus, I like squares. But books are static information repositories. No matter how many cool photographs and illustrations they might contain, books never quite match up to my reality on the ground.

I pivot from paper to pixels. My new favorite website comes from the Royal Horticultural Society in merry old England. Since English weather is much like the Netherlands (one day later), I can rely on the RHS recommendations for plants that will in fact grow in Amsterdam. I’ve used the RHS website to diagnose plant diseases, restrain myself while pruning and to decide where to place new plants in my borders.

Manon's garden design
Manon’s garden design 2014

Normally speaking, I don’t have to muck about much in the borders. About 7 years ago, we shelled out the money to have our backyard properly landscaped. Our number one request was for a low maintenance garden.

Manon, the designer, delivered in spades. She created a deck for snoozing in the sun and a seating area for summertime meals. There are hedges in varying heights to create the illusion of depth and flowering borders that bloom at various points during the spring, summer and fall season.

She also left me space for a vegetable garden: that white rectangle to the right. My plan was to harvest an abundance of produce nine months out of the year. Ha!

‘Tis the season?

If books and a brilliant website can’t help me garden, maybe I should volunteer at our tiny local botanical garden. Or hang out more often in Hortus Botanicus Leiden, one of the oldest and largest botanical gardens in the Netherlands. But these are Covid times. Neither volunteering nor random visits lie in the cards. If I want to develop muscle memory, I’ll have to pump it up in my own garden.

The Makkelijke Moestuin (or the Easy Vegetable Garden) is my go-to source. It’s essentially Square Foot Gardening in a Dutch language app. My MM app tells me when and how to sow, water, tend and harvest a wide assortment of vegetables, herbs and flowers. The newsletter offers growing tips by season and the occasional message of tough love.

Image source: The Kitchen Pantry

For example, beginners like me usually make three major mistakes: we think too big, we put our vegetable plots too far away or we overthink the process. I will gladly cop to the latter.

For a while, I tried to work out how to companion plant. Some plants like tomatoes and basil go well together on the plate and in the plot. Tarragon is a nurse plant that benefits young eggplant seedlings. There are plants that fix nitrogen into the soil or repel certain pests or function as green umbrellas against too much sun, wind or snow. It’s hard to keep them all straight even with a gardening journal and a detailed map.

Ready, set, go

So I may be a slow learner with an inability to retain information. But my true flaw is impatience. I don’t want to wait for the season to change or the soil to warm up, let alone for a damn seed to germinate. I want results now.

Growing season seeds
April seeds. Photo credit: Karen Kao

So the minute my MM newsletter says it’s time to sow, I head into the garden. This weekend I planted Swiss chard, New Zealand spinach, kale, marigolds, bok choy, rucola and winter purslane into the cold, cold earth. Hopefully, they’re germinating nicely under the protection of a storm window.

I’ve already set aside the seeds that can go into the garden mid-April: red beet, baby pumpkin, lettuce, radish, creeping thyme and nasturtium. Before I can do all that, I’ll need to harvest more compost to feed my garden beds and build frames (for those nifty little squares).

In the meantime, I’ll tackle the seeds that need to be started indoors: cherry tomatoes, basil and tobacco (for the flowers). By then, my 40 new packs of seeds should arrive. I may be overwhelmed. I may give up. It’s happened before. Wish me luck on the eve of this growing season.