Gardening is a complex activity, and easy to out-source at many steps, from design, to installation, to seed starting, to care, to harvest.
Many food growers, myself included until just a few years ago, “outsource” their seed starting, buying nursery starts at various stages of growth (the bigger, the more expensive, but also the more reliable). There are plants, like peppers, onions, leeks, and tomatoes, that you simply can’t start in the ground in a place like Chicago with its late frost date and unreliable late spring freeze danger (well into May). We don’t have a long enough growing season, and small backyards like mine lose the sun to close-in buildings late in the season, shortening it further. Always in the past, I only started the easy plants that will grow anywhere direct from seed– peas and beans and turnips.
So what makes a “real” gardener? Garden walks and competitions often disqualify anyone who has had a professional plan and/or install a garden, except for hardscaping. Can you be a “real” gardener if you let someone else start your seeds? What if you have someone else take care of it, even if you do the planning and management? Do “real ” gardeners know scientific names and whether a seed needs light to germinate? When I started journaling my garden on line at MyFolia I initially developed quite an inferiority complex because everyone else seemed to be a “real” gardener (my definition, not theirs!), despite the fact that I’d been gardening since most of them were in diapers.
In the last couple of years my day job has gotten smaller and my garden bigger, so that I now have enough time to go the extra mile and seed start indoors. I also can’t afford anymore to buy nursery starts. I guess I’m a “real” gardener now due to time and necessity.
At Folia, where this essay first appeared, the consensus was that a “real” gardener gets his or her hands dirty, so I guess I qualify. But I think like our old friend The Velveteen Rabbit, a gardener becomes real, not through her methods or involvement, but through the love she feels for her plants, and the feedback of friends; through the flowers in her vase, and the food she shares.