Are you a long-time gardener? Me too. Like me, you might consider yourself an expert. After all, isn’t that what an expert is – someone who practices the same thing over and over? So you might think that I would have this backyard gardening thing down. But expert or not, each year brings new challenges and insights. The summer of 2013 has been no different. This, in no particular order, is what my garden has taught me this year.
1. Good Compost = Good Growth
We had quite a bit of rich, black compost full of worms this year. It was a beautiful thing! So we liberally added compost to each raised bed, and the results were amazing. The tomato plants were tall and lush a good 3 weeks ahead of schedule. Seed germination for direct plant crops (beans, cucumbers, summer squash, peas) was almost 100% – the highest percentage ever. Lesson number one – keep adding compost each year.
2. Intensive Planting Is Not Always A Good Thing
The backyard garden has always been what I call French Intensive Planting, but what you might call “shove lots of plants into a too small space.” In previous years this method has worked just fine. This year was the exception for some crops, especially tomatoes. Because the plants were so lush (see number 1) the bed interior didn’t receive enough sunlight, resulting in too few actual tomatoes, and many tomatoes that couldn’t turn red on the vine. Lesson number two – sometimes less is more, especially when planting tomatoes.
3. Old-Time Followers of the Farmer’s Almanac May Have Been On To Something
Too many plants in a small space wasn’t my only problem this year, there was also the untimely cold and then heat. We had a cold snap just as the tomato blossoms opened up, reducing the bee population. Then the weather dramatically changed and we had triple digit heat, and still no bees because it was too hot. So winter squash and late tomatoes sat there most of the summer looking beautiful and green, but not producing any fruit. Which made me think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to know what the gardening season weather is supposed to be like before planting?” That’s why old-timers followed the Farmer’s Almanac’s annual planting suggestions. It wasn’t perfect, but it couldn’t hurt and it just might help! Lesson number three – accept gardening help from any and all sources.
4. Mulch Works
Until last year, I hardly ever used mulch. I had tried the red plastic mulch and the silver mulch in the past and was unimpressed. Lazily, I figured my intensive planting and raised beds eliminated the need for mulch. But because we use irrigation water, we get lots of weeds (see my battle with bindweed), so last year I started following the Mother Earth News approach and used newspaper and grass clippings. I continued that method this year. What a relief! The actual vegetable garden required almost no weeding this year. Now if I could figure out how to make it work for the raspberry bed. Lesson number four – save newspaper, brown packing paper, and clean cardboard for the summer garden.
5. Embrace Serendipity
Last year the grandchildren planted a few pumpkins in containers. We didn’t really have much luck. They were supposed to be big Cinderella pumpkins but resulted in about 10 mini pumpkins instead. We used them for decoration over Thanksgiving and then tossed them into the compost pile. We didn’t plant pumpkins this year, yet I have this amazing pumpkin patch with 5 large pumpkins. Apparently the seeds were in the compost that was added to one of our garden beds. The pumpkins got a head start and smothered the dried beans planted in the same bed (maybe they will grow next year!), but the grandchildren are happy. This isn’t the first time I have had a garden “volunteer,” but it is the most dramatic. Lesson number five – treat your garden like an annual experiment and you’ll never be disappointed.
6. Heirloom Tomatoes Need Strong Tomato Cages
If you grow indeterminate tomatoes you know that the plants can get LARGE and need cages for support. I’ve always used an assortment of old, new, and inexpensive cages to support the many heirloom tomato plants that I grow each year. Usually it’s enough, but not this year. Because the tomato plants were so big and lush, they outgrew those old cages in no time. As a result I ended up with lots of broken plants and green tomatoes that would never ripen. Lesson number six – stop being cheap and purchase sturdy tomato cages.
7. Twelve Zucchini Plants Are Probably Excessive
Need I say more? It’s all zucchini, all the time at my house. Lesson number seven – anyone need any zucchini?
What about you – has your garden taught you any lessons this year? Do you have any dramatic plant volunteers? How many zucchini plants do you have this year?