Monday, September 3, 2012

Garden Lessons

The garden season is not entirely over (it better not be - there are a lot of green tomatoes on my plants), but I've gotten through enough of it to reflect on things I want to do differently next year. Some of my readers who are more experienced gardeners may say "duh," but this is only my third year of gardening (fourth if you include containers). Hopefully, I have about 50 years of gardening ahead of me. My husband has urged me to write these things down so I don't have the same frustrations next year.

We need to learn how to deal with pests.

Whether flying, crawling, or scampering, this year's mild winter has made every pest invasion more extreme. There are a variety of measures I can take to keep the pests out of my garden.
  • Dig our chicken wire barrier down into the ground.
    • Last year, when I put up the chicken wire along our chain link fence that encloses the garden, I didn't dig it into the ground. I knew I should have, but we had already felled 4 trees, added 4 large beds, hauled in garden soil, and constructed a serious trellis/gate. I needed to get plants in the ground, not dig in the chicken wire—or so I thought. The ground-level barrier worked for a year, but this year I've seen mice and chipmunks running free through the garden. They've definitely learned to burrow. Either this fall or early next spring, we're going to have to invest some serious sweat equity - digging in approximately 125 feet of chicken wire.
  • Invest in some hoops and cover fabric.
    • If the mice do end up getting in, I don't want to let them have my beet harvest again. I know the hoops aren't 100% necessary, but I think I'd like to have them to extend the growing season anyway. I wish I would have purchased some immediately after I discovered the devastation in the beet patch - the entire fall bed (beets, chard, turnips) has had all of its leaves eaten by some type of critter. I dont' think it's going to make it. Hopefully this covering will also keep our plants protected from the bugs that infested our garden this year - at least until they're established enough to need pollinating.
  • Figure out how to outsmart the slugs.
    • We've tried beer traps. We've tried treating with Sluggo (maybe not frequently enough?) The fact is slugs are still decimating many of our crops. They seem to love our soil, and I need to find a way to get rid of them.
  • Pay more attention to my summer squash and cucumbers, and Aaron's hops.
    • I think these need to be sprayed much more often than we did (we use pyrethrin). That, or I need to plan to have two rotations of these plants so I have more maturing after the first planting is lost to the bugs.

We need to make better use of our available space.

  • After harvesting the early bed, most of it stayed empty (except 4 rows of pole beans on 2 trellises) because it was too late to plant the melons I had planned for that bed. I could have, however, planted more summer squash in that space—it would have started producing fruit right as we started severely cutting back our powdery-mildew and squash vine borer infested leaves and stems.
  • Some things can be planted closer together (garlic), while others need to be farther apart (onions, tomatoes, beets).
  • I need to give up on planting in the ground on the back fence line (it's overrun with weeds from all the neighbors) and add a few smaller raised beds back there. They'll be perfect for determinant tomatoes, bush beans, or smaller root veggies like beets and turnips.

I need to build better tomato cages.

  • I have these great tomato cages that store flat (they're made up of 3 poles and 9 connectors/supports each), but I consistently assemble them backwards. I face the supports the wrong way, so as the plant grows it busts out of the cages. Simply snapping on the supports facing the correct direction will fix this problem—yet I've managed to screw it up for 2 years.

I've got to make the basil last.

  • Believe it or not, I think this means planting less of it. I have a tendency to plant too much basil, which results in my inability to keep up with harvests and the premature yellowing of the plants. I need to be ruthless when I harvest so the regrowth continues until the tomatoes are all ripe.
  • Related - when I have a glut of basil, I need to make pesto, even if there is a bunch in the freezer. I'm looking at a pesto-free winter because I didn't make pesto in June when I should have.

It's time to start identifying my preferred varieties.

  • This is most important for me in regards to the plants I grow a lot of and put up for the winter—tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, zucchini, garlic.
  • Tomatoes: I started growing exclusively heirloom tomatoes because it seemed the most authentic type to grow. Don't get me wrong - they're delicious. But, I need a large portion of my tomatoes to be suitable for canning. Most of the heirlooms I grow are delicious slicers, but they don't put out the volume to give me enough for canning.
    • This was the first year I grew some determinant varieties, and Polbig (an early hybrid) is definitely a keeper. It put out tons of fist-sized tomatoes that are perfect for canning, sauce, salsa, etc.
    • Blondkopfchen, an heirloom cherry tomato, is definitely a keeper. It takes longer to ripen than some other cherries, but its huge clusters give me an enormous amount of tomatoes at once - they're perfect for roasting, fresh eating, and soon I hope to give them a try in my newly-purchased dehydrator.
    • Moonshine is my favorite slicer, so that heirloom will still find a place in my garden.
    • Amish Paste, however, is on its way out. The huge tomatoes would be great, except they always split on me, and I end up cutting off way to much to get rid of the damaged parts. Also, I only get a few ripe tomatoes a day - not enough at once to put up anything of consequence.
    • Matt's Wild Cherry tastes delicious, but it sprawls way too much for me (the plant is so tall I can't pick the highest clusters) and it annoys me that the fruits seem to ripen in a set order on the cluster - those closest to the stem ripen much faster than the fruits at the end of the cluster. This means more time spent picking, as you can only pick one or two fruits from each cluster at a time. I appreciated that they ripened the earliest, though - so I'm on the hunt for another early-ripening cherry tomato.
    • Heinz was on trial in my garden this year, and it will probably get another year. The fruits are small, but they take longer than the Polbig's to ripen, meaning I have an extended canning/preserving season.
    • According to this list, I might end up with only 5 or 6 tomato varieties each year (assuming I try something new every year). I need to realize that that's ok. I've got lots of other fish (veggies?) to fry.
  • Beans
    • I've only been growing beans for 2 years, but I've learned a variety of lessons. 1) Don't plant a double row in front of the trellis - the leaves will grow so thick you'll never find the beans! 2) Don't freak out about getting them in the ground as soon as we're clear of the last frost. Better for them to get a start to grow healthy stems than to be set back by cold, wet weather. 3) I need to stagger my bean planting. This year I planted up until July and I think I'll get everything harvested before the first frost.
    • Ideal Market tastes delicious, but it's hard to find in the mess of beans. I'm going to stick with beans that have some sort of color to them so they're easier to pick.
    • Using that criteria, I think Rattlesnake and Purple Trionfo Violetto are keepers.
    • I'm going to actually grow my pole beans on poles (teepees) next year. The beautiful trellises my father in law makes keep getting blown over in the wind.
    • I'll likely try growing edamame again next year, although every single seed failed to come up this year.
    • I'll need another year of trials on growing dry beans. The bugs and slugs were so ruthless this year, they didn't get a fair shot.
  • Cucumbers
    • Actually labeling my cucumbers will likely help me determine which ones I like :) I had a hard time with germination this year, then ended up planting them way too close together. Next year will be better. My husband loves pickles, so I need to plant a lot of pickling cucs and just a few slicers.
  • Zucchini & Summer Squash
    • I'll probably just stick with black beauty and yellow summer squash. They're solid producers, I can freeze a bunch, and they're easy to process.
  • Garlic
    • This was the first year of growing garlic, so it won't actually be until the fall 2013 planting that I can make intelligent choices based on their storage qualities. However, based on what I've seen from our Music variety and what I've heard about its storage qualities, it's a keeper. In fact, it might be the only one I plant this fall. We'll see.
I'm sure there's more......but there are another 6 weeks left in the garden season to get it all out of my head and onto the blog, right?


  1. Thanks for your notes. I keep up with my basil by dehydrating it. I have enough dried basil to last until next year AND I ate all I wanted fresh. Please keep blogging - I'm a WI gardner and I look forward to your posts.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Carl! I just ordered a dehydrator yesterday - looking forward to experimenting to see how I can extend my harvest. I've never used much dried basil, but maybe that will change if it's "fresh" dried.

      I had to call it quits on the basil today - ripped out every plant, along with the cucumbers.

      Blogging is way faster than keeping a garden journal (for me anyway), and I get the added benefit of comments from other gardeners. As long as I'm gardening, I'll be blogging :)