Saturday, November 12, 2011

Lessons learned from my first garden

My garden is done ... almost. The cilantro went to seed. I pulled the basil. The tomatoes died. I picked the lettuce. The green beans finally died when they were covered in six inches of snow. The sugar snap peas are miraculously not only still alive, but still producing. I heard they were frost-resistant, but this is really impressive!

Anyway, it's time to look back and see what I learned this year. My goal for my 2011 garden was not to grow a lot of food, but to learn as much as I could. The bumper tomato and green bean crops were bonuses.

Lessons from 2011:

1. Cherokee Purple tomatoes are THE BEST for our climate. They grew like weeds, weren't touched by the blight that crippled the beefsteaks, and were still producing when the snow killed them. They also taste delicious.

2. Tomato cages are completely insufficient. Those tomatoes outgrew the cages in July. By November they were sprawled all over the ground looking sad and getting eaten by slugs. Next year I want to construct some kind of trellis -- basically just two two-by-fours at either end of the row, with a twine fence between them, so that I make an aisle where the plants can grow without toppling over. I think they will have to be at least seven feet high. These are some serious tomato plants.

3. I read that tomatoes will grow a taproot if they are direct-seeded in the ground. Considering our high winds and feast-and-famine rainstorms, I'm going to try it with a few next time.

4. You can plant green beans whenever. It really doesn't matter. I missed the ideal time, planted them two months later, and I still got too many. Next time I'll do it earlier so that when I'm sick of green beans, I can let the rest mature into dry beans. This time I didn't get many dry beans because they all wanted to rot off the vine in the fall rains.

5. Plant fewer green beans. I had eight plants, and they produced way too much.

6. Do better green bean trellises. The light string tied to a fence that I used was pretty pathetic. Because it was at an angle, the beans kept trying to go elsewhere. And then they started breaking and dumping my plants on the ground. And, since they were against the fence, I couldn't get behind the plants to pick the beans. Did you know beans like to produce on the non-sun side? I didn't, but now I do. I should leave room to go behind and pick, because bean leaves are pretty scratchy and irritating.

7. Pick beans every couple of days and process (can or freeze) right away. Otherwise you end up with nasty beans at the back of your fridge all the time.

8. The younger you pick beans, the better they are. I like them best when they're five or six inches long.

9. Peas are really a spring crop. They sprout and grow best when it's cold. Mine didn't survive August very well ... less than half sprouted, and then half of what sprouted died. It was after I'd written them off as a loss that five plants suddenly started growing like weeds -- right as the weather got cold. During the past month, the hardiest two plants have actually been producing pea pods for me! I get maybe two pods a week, so it's not exactly a success, but they are sure delicious.

10. Don't pick sugar snap peas too early. They're not like beans that way. I was picking tiny ones and complaining they were bitter, but today I picked a three-inch-long pod and it was like eating dessert!

11. Ditto on the pea trellises. They didn't grow up them at all, despite all my encouragement. They sprawled out of the bed and onto the lawn. Some grew up the bean vines.

12. I have no idea when the right time to plant lettuce is. I planted several times and most didn't turn out. I think the one that did was planted in early September. I only got five lettuces out of the whole bed, too. But I suspect they will grow better in the spring.

13. Plants planted in the spring may not need water in late summer and fall. But plants planted in the fall definitely do. They're weak and have small roots, and there's way less moisture than in spring. I had to water my lettuce daily, which was annoying because I'm used to watering once a week if at all.

14. Sow lettuce very shallowly. They really only need a sprinkling of dirt over the top of them. Once you've done that, TRY to keep the dog and toddler out.

15. Herbs are hard to sprout in the garden, but they grow great if you transplant them in.

16. A bit of nitrogen mid-season is a good boost if the leaves go yellow on any plant. There are lots of natural sources ... some of which may be in your own diaper pail. :P

17. Don't neglect going out to pick every day or two. It's easier than going to the store, you just have to remember to do it.

18. The backyard is probably the best place for the dog. And the toddler. It is just impossible to keep them both out of the garden beds.

19. A toddler will happily eat any vegetable if you pick it off the plant and hand it to him to munch on outside. But if you put it on a plate indoors? Not likely.

20. Turns out my backyard, which is "partial shade," will not grow anything. My green beans and raspberries back there died a pathetic death. The front yard is it for gardening.

21. Composting is great, but you have to remember to empty the bucket often! Otherwise you will dread doing it as the stuff within gets progressively nastier.

22. The veggies grown in your own garden will spoil you for storebought stuff forever. There is no comparison at all. Especially for tomatoes. I can't make myself spend $2.50 for a little plastic carton of tomatoes that taste like nothing.

22. Gardening doesn't actually take much work at all unless you want it to. The hardest part was digging the beds. Then planting or transplanting the plants takes a little time. For the rest of the season, you just check them for ten minutes a day or so, watering if you need to water and harvesting if you need to harvest. I didn't even have to weed much once the ground got all baked and hard ... nothing would grow there, but under the crust the soil was moist. Mulch would probably do a better job, though.

23. Green tomatoes that you pick at the end of the season will ripen indoors if you leave them long enough. Or make green enchilada sauce ... yum!

24. The parts of the tomato and green bean plants that were smothered by mulch or grass survived the snowstorm. In other words, you can protect plants from an early snow or frost by using mulch or other coverings. With our long growing season, I doubt I'll be too tempted, but you never know.

25. The veggies grown in your own garden will spoil you for storebought stuff forever. There is no comparison at all. Especially for tomatoes. I can't make myself spend $2.50 for a little plastic carton of tomatoes that taste like nothing.

What did you learn about gardening this year?


Emily B said...

It's not something I really learned from my garden, but I wanted to share that you an also pickle the green tomatoes. If you like dill pickles, these are delicious as well!

CatholicMommy said...

We planted romaine lettuce in the spring, once there was no danger of frost. We had a good month or so, but once the hot weather came they "bolted" (shot up a stalk with seeds) and stopped producing good lettuce. So early is better.

Sheila said...

I think you can plant lettuce before the last frost. I may start it inside this next spring just to get as long a lettuce season as I can.

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