This year had a lot of firsts for me, especially in the garden. In the past I've had tiny container gardens or did lazy-man's guerrilla gardening on a small scale. This year was my first year to go full scale in the garden and dig up a huge chunk of my backyard to grow veggies. I grew tomatoes (4 varieties), peppers (3 varieties), cucumbers, peas, runner beans, radishes (8 varieties), carrots (two varieties), basil, lettuce (10+ varieties), eggplant, beets and pak choi. Phew. Just listing that is tiring.
I learned a lot this year and am very excited for next year's garden (I'm planning on doubling my garden space in the backyard and putting in some edibles in the landscaping in the front yard).
Here are a few of the beginner's mistakes and lessons I've learned to hopefully help other newbie gardeners have a great start.
* Pick varieties based on flavor over yield. One of the tomato varieties I grew produced fantastic yields, but tasted flat. If I wanted flat tasting tomatoes, I'd continue to buy them. I grow tomatoes because homegrown tastes better. These tomato plants made up 1/4 of my tomato plants, so I now have a lot of kinda-bland dehydrated tomatoes that I guess I'll just smuggle into chili over winter. I can't throw them away because I worked so hard to grow them, but I'm really disappointed in them. Grow the varieties that taste awesome and that the grocer never carries.
* Tomatoes and beans go well together. I planted my scarlet runner beans next to the tomatoes in one bed. They kept wanting to climb up the tomato plants instead of up their trellis and I kept gently moving them over to the trellis. When I didn't check on the garden for a couple days, they swirled all around the tomato plants. I left them this time, and I'm glad they did. The pretty little red flowers looked lovely against the dark green tomato leaves. The beans got a free trellis, but the tomatoes really benefited. The mortgage lifter tomatoes I grew got to be about 10-12 feet tall and were falling all over. However, the tomatoes that had runner beans growing up them stayed off the ground and stood tall. Next year I'm planning on intentionally mixing my tomatoes and beans together. I'm thinking of planting purple podded beans so they will be easy to find and add more color to the garden.
* Go for free gardening supplies when you can. All winter long, I looked out for items thrown to the curb that could be repurposed in my garden. I found a baby crib and an old bed. I took apart the crib and put it sideways into the ground and used it as a trellis for my peas. I planted the headboard into the ground and used it as a trellis for my runner beans. When the beans got too be too tall, I stuck some tree branches from the brush pile into the ground behind them and they grew up those just fine (one plant grew into the tree on the side of the yard). Next year I'm going to use branches to trellis all the beans and peas and use the bed and crib sides for cucumbers.
* Have a plan for succession planting. When the first of the lettuce, carrots, beets and radishes came out of the garden, I planted some more crops. However, I didn't have a good plan in place, and so parts of the garden were empty for a few weeks. Over winter I want to make a good solid garden plan so I can avoid those empty times. Radishes are perfect for filling in gaps since they grow so quickly, and I can never have enough radishes.
* Don't panic when things don't go perfectly. In late summer I planted more radishes, but half of them quickly sent up flower stalks. I was disappointed but let them grow. Now I'm harvesting lots of delicious, peppery seed pods. I'm getting several from each crop, so I'm really not losing anything. They are perfect in salads and stir-fries. Bonus: Trucker doesn't particularly like radishes, but it turns out he loves these seed pods. Next year I'll plant radishes throughout the growing season and plan on getting a harvest of seed pods during the heat of summer.
* Be ready for preserving because once the harvest comes in, it comes in strong. I underestimated the amount of produce my garden would dump on me all at once, so now my dehydrators have to run around the clock to get it all put up. Wouldn't you know that the main harvest would start mere days after I bought 2 bushels of apples to dehydrate?
* Plan for success as well as failure. I have a bit of self-esteem issues (don't we all), so I expected quite a bit of failure on my part in the garden. I planned to make up for my shortcomings. I decided to grow tomatoes from seed, but expected that I would kill most of the seedlings before they could get out into the garden, so I planted a lot. I guess I did something right. Next thing you know, I have 200+ tomato seedlings, 100+ pepper seedlings and 50 eggplant seedlings taking over the laundry room. I refused to throw them into the compost heap, but didn't have the space for all that. I gave 1/4 to my parents for their garden, then took more into work to give out to coworkers and customers, really anyone who I could pressure into taking just one seedling. This time I'm going to be a bit more reasonable in the number I plant. And if I fail and kill them all? Well, I'll just buy my seedlings for the year.
* Talk with anyone and everyone about gardening. I was amazed to find out just how many people in my life have green thumbs of various hues. I got so many great tips from them.
The best thing of all about gardening is: "next year..." I love that gardening is a never ending source of learning. There's always something new to learn, a new variety to grow, a new recipe to try.
What has the garden taught you this year?