Stephanie at Keeper of the Home is hosting an Organic Gardening Carnival and has asked for reflections on gardening from this past season. This year was my first real garden. Last year we had two tomatoes in pots, some herbs, and a few flowers. The year before that we lived in the desert.
When I started planning for this year, I used the book Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. His garden approach is designed to grow plants efficiently with little waste or excess work. My husband and I built two raised bed that measure 4×4 feet, as Mel recommends, so that plants are accessible on all sides. We also inherited a bed from some neighbors when they moved out. The three beds gave us about 48 square feet of garden space and the various pots provided another 10 to 15 square feet. Mel’s system is to plant only the amount you need instead of planting a whole packet of seeds. I think I focused a little too much on not over planting, and instead I didn’t plant enough! I focused almost entirely on vegetables and herbs with too few flowers, which left our garden void of color amidst the rainbow of colors in my neighbors yards. There were several bare spots left from my conservative planting that we filled in with plants a little too late in the season, resulting in a garden full of plants that did not produce any vegetables. My plan for next year will still be based on the square foot system for the vegetable plants, but I will fill in the empty spaces with companion plants, herbs and flowers, in an intensive system (more posts on this to come!)
As I started to plant for this year, I didn’t want to set my expectations too high and then become frustrated. Instead I set a goal of making at least one salad entirely from the garden. I met the goal and beyond, enjoying my harvest at many meals. When measured against my modest goal, this year was a huge success. However, I made many mistakes. Here’s what I learned:
- Starting plants from seed indoors is very easy. Killing them when you try to harden them off is also very easy. When you set your seedlings outside to harden off, set a timer so they don’t bake in the sun.
- The frost-free date is MUCH later than the garden can be worked. I waited until all risk of frost was over to do anything in the garden and started everything late. I didn’t know that some plants (like peas) actually like to be planted before the frosts are over. Next year I will plant early and have back up seedlings just in case.
- Squirrels are corn devouring pests, preventing any from growing in my garden. One mischievous squirrel must have buried his corn in the back and forgotten about it because we had a corn stock start growing up one day. It didn’t survive very long before the squirrels ate it too. I’m going to have to figure out some deterrent methods for next year.
- Cucumbers really like my garden. They grow like weeds. I planted slicing cucumbers, not pickling, and my attempts at preserving them didn’t really work. There is a finite number of cucumbers that our family can eat and give away to the neighbors in a week. My garden produced much more, and I had to toss cucumbers on a few occasions. Next year I will plant varieties that I can preserve.
- I picked a wonderful spot to grow my tomatoes. I had more than I knew what to do with. I had three cherry tomato bushes and while they’re great to eat off the bush or in a salad, we did start to get sick of them. I had three Roma tomato bushes that produced quite a bit of fruit, but not a kind that made a good sauce. I had three golden girl tomato bushes, they didn’t do so well and I’m not sure why. I will try different varieties of tomatoes next year.
- Lettuce! This is my biggest lesson learned. I planted seeds in three or four spots within a square, according to the square foot method. I got nice big lettuce plants and we were able to pick leaves off the bottom for several weeks before the plants bolted. When they did start to bolt the leaves got very bitter, but I hadn’t planted a succession crop so we only had bitter lettuce. Next year plant lots of lettuce and harvest it young.
- I planted banana peppers early, and they did very well. I planted bell pepper a little late and never got much of a harvest. Next year I’m going to try to start them from seed.
- I had several plants just not produce: squash, cantaloupe, strawberries (first year). I think most is due to being planted too late in the season. My lesson here is to just try again!
- Saving seeds is a whole lot easier than I though. I plan to write more in this as well, particularly the lettuce. I’d never seen lettuce go to seed before, it was beautiful!
Plants grow fast, and the garden changes quite a bit week to week. I fell behind on documenting my garden and never managed to recover. My goal next year is to at minimum take and post a picture on a weekly basis. In planning for next year I have read at least a hundred gardening books (no really, I’ve checked out every one my library carries relating to vegetable gardens). I’m starting to develop a pretty ambitious plan that I hope will supply our produce needs through summer and fall and provide at least a few meals through the winter. I will be posting reviews of my favorite books as well as my plan step by step. I hope you come back and follow my adventure.