On Monday, I was chatting with my sister-in-law (who is angelically patient with my gardening obsession), and she asked me what I had learned last year from my garden. I hardly knew how to answer. Um, everything? I remain an absolute gardening novice, and I know that, but when I compare what I know now to what I knew then, I feel positively brilliant. So I thought I’d share some of what I learned from my very first garden and hope that maybe you all will share what you’ve learned, too.
1. Be aware of your own limitations. This is one of the few things I think I did well last year. Looking at seed catalogs, I want to grow everything. Red okra? I must have it. Who cares that I don’t like okra. But I knew that if I tried to do too much, I’d get overwhelmed and likely fail (I was also due to have a baby in July, so there’s that). So I stuck with tomatoes, greens, and herbs, each a mystery to me, but none of them terribly difficult in their own right (Yes, tomatoes are easy to grow. The preponderance of detailed, contradictory tomato-growing advice you can find online will convince you otherwise. They may be difficult to grow perfectly, but not to grow or even grow well, especially if you stick with cherry tomatoes.) This year, I’ve got some eighty plus seed packets in my little container, so obviously I’m having a harder time following this advice.
2. Don’t be too afraid of your own limitations. Maybe that sounds contradictory, but it’s true. I killed many plants last year, but more things worked than I could have imagined. Go ahead and try.
3 Go buy some seeds. Seriously. Just a couple packets of things you like. Once you have the seeds and some potting soil, you can salvage all sorts of containers from your recycling bin and just see what works.
4. Wait until your soil is ready to work it. It should be unfrozen, obviously, but also not too wet. You don’t want to be able to squeeze it into a ball that sticks together.
5. Learn how to harden off your seedlings! I got amazingly lucky with this last year. I didn’t harden off anything, but the seedlings survived, I think perhaps because I had kept them in an open window and they’d had some experience with wind and direct sun. But don’t risk it. How sad would it be to nurture a bunch of little tomatoes and peppers only to have them die because you forgot to get them used to the outside world?
6. Some herbs are hard to start from seed. It’s way easier to get plants from the farmers’ market or garden center. Thyme, oregano, rosemary, and tarragon are among these. It’s not even that expensive, considering that these are all perennials. Some varieties are said to survive northern winters, but I think I’ll just take cuttings next fall and root them inside.
7. Set up your tomato support system at planting time. I waited until they needed staking, and I think I damaged the roots. Also, invest in something decent for them. Tomatoes take a long time to grow, and they deserve some quality support. Last year, I stuck some green garden stakes by the plants and tied them up with twine, over and over, all summer long. This resulted in bruised stems and poor plant growth. I don’t recommend it.
8. Big beefsteak tomatoes, like Brandywines, have a very limited shelf-life once fully ripe. It is not difficult to miss their window of ripeness and let them rot on the vine. This is even more frustrating with these types of plants that give you so few fruit anyway. Go ahead and pick them a couple days early and let them ripen inside. I had two beefsteak plants last year, a Brandywine and a Cherokee Purple, and I got harvested exactly one not-rotten fruit between them.
9. Tomatoes don’t need as much water as you’d think. (Remember this, Sarah. Don’t over-water the tomatoes this year). Too much water when the fruit is ripening can make them mealy. They do, however, like calcium, so give them a crushed eggshell or two at planting time. I tried this last year on my mom’s recommendation, and I had absolutely no problems with blossom end rot, which is supposed to plague tomato-growers.
10. Learn about succession planting (but don’t obsess too much). I let the same kale plants grow all season last year, and while they produced just fine, they were crawling with mealybugs by the end of summer. I think younger, healthier plants would have held up better. This year, I’m going to plant three separate crops, pulling out the previous when the new ones are ready. The same holds true for lettuce. Flowering lettuce is an amazing, otherworldly sight, but there’s no reason to let it happen unless you want to save seeds. Plant another crop a couple weeks after the first, and you’ll have no gaps in your delicious lettuce consumption. I add the last bit about not obsessing as a reminder for myself this year, ha.
11. Cilantro bolts like crazy, which is great if you want the seeds (coriander), but not if you’re going for fresh cilantro. Succession plant, succession plant, succession plant.
12. You can use more basil than you ever thought possible.
13. READ. Seriously, nothing (except maybe experience) beats reading for gaining skill and information. Obvious, yes. But oh so important. Square Foot Gardening taught me I was right to question the notion of “row spacing.” Grow Great Grub said I could grow more indoors than I thought possible (I’m experimenting with some of this right now). Northwest Edibles (I know I mention this blog in every post, and I’m sorry, but I love it and I can’t help it) explained the differences among hybrid, open-pollinated, and heirloom seeds, and taught me that you plant garlic in the fall (who knew?). The internet (and the public library) are your friend.
13. Plants want to grow. They’re on your side, so long as you don’t kill them. I didn’t do anything right last year, not really. I turned our soil when it was way too wet (Turning is too generous a word, really. What I did was move it around a bit and break up the bigger clumps). I didn’t fertilize much at all, except what the community garden provided, which was fortunately a giant heap of leaf humus – a great soil amendment. I treated my tomatoes terribly and got my garlic in too late. But nature can be very forgiving, and I enjoyed my delicious tomatoes, herbs, and greens all season long, and my trip to the plot yesterday revealed little garlic stalks poking up above the soil.
All of this will be obvious to anyone with vegetable growing experience. But it was all new to me, and it’s the sort of thing experienced gardeners don’t share because they forget that they ever had to learn it. Have you had any similar garden-related revelations?