First Year with My Big Girl Garden

The days are getting longer and the weather is starting to warm. That means it’s time for me to talk about my garden.

In the spring of 2010 we moved to from the DC suburbs to central Virginia, where your hard-earned money gets you a lot more real estate. We were excited about the additional space that our new place afforded us and looked forward to making some improvements to the property. At the top of my husband’s list was a garage and at the top of my list was a garden. Our second child was due late that spring and, hard as I tried to talk my husband into it, putting in a garden that first spring or summer just wasn’t realistic. However, I was determined to get a head start on the garden the following year!

The contractors broke ground on the garage late in the fall and, since they were making several deliveries of building materials, we took advantage of the situation and ordered some additional supplies for our future garden… namely a truckload of topsoil and several lengths of 16-feet-long 6″x6″ boards, so that we could make a raised bed. The soil here is laden with red clay and doesn’t have a lot of organic matter, so bringing in good topsoil was essential. While Shane watched the construction of the garage out the side windows of our house, dreaming of the fun he’d eventually have in there, I stared out the back window at the giant mound of dirt in the yard, dreaming of the fun I’d eventually have in there.

I couldn’t wait to get started. My husband got annoyed at me on several occasions because I had big plans for putting the garden to use as soon as we were past the average date of last frost which, around here, is April 15th, and I kept insisting we get to work on the garden bed… ASAP! He finally gave in and in early March he installed the 6″x6″ boards for the raised bed frame and we began spreading the topsoil. (I know that it looks from the photo below that he was doing most of the work, but I assure you that I was out there getting just as dirty!)

If we expected to have a good garden, bringing in good topsoil was a must! (Note: From what I've read--after the fact--we should have removed the existing sod before spreading the topsoil in order to minimize weeds. Chalk one up for the weeds.)

I was so excited to get a head start on the garden that I bought a heated germination station so that I could grow my own plants from seed. (This is really just a covered seed tray that acts like a mini greenhouse.) I thought it would be a fun project to do with my son, so we planted the seeds in the tray together in early March, the same time we started prepping the garden. Unfortunately, I decided to start with tomato and pepper seeds, which I now realize aren’t the easiest to grow. I had six varieties of tomato and two types of peppers in the tray. Most of the tomatoes grew, though not very vigorously, and only one of the two varieties of peppers grew. Nonetheless, the majority of the seeds did actually sprout and we had fun watching them grow.

tomato and pepper plants sprouting in the germination station (Another note: I used regular potting soil here. Apparently, to start seeds you should use a seed-starting mix, which doesn't have fertilizer in it. My seeds still grew, but they might not have been so "leggy" if I used the seed starting mix.)

Once mid-April rolled around, I was ready to start planting. We got some cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli plants and put them in first, along with some yellow and red onions. Then we sowed some rows of seed: spinach, kale, arugula, and some mixed lettuces.  Next we planted three rows of yukon gold and red potatoes. In the middle of the garden we put in a row of posts and ran some string between the posts. There we planted sugar snap peas, which would climb the posts and strings. Next we sowed two rows of carrot seed. After the carrots we planted two rows of tomatoes, both the six varieties we grew from seed and four roma tomato plants we bought. We also had some pepper plants (bell, jalapeno, and poblano) in with the carrots and tomatoes. Lastly, we planted a couple of rows of green beans in among squash (yellow, acorn, butternut, spaghetti, and pattypan), pumpkin, cucumber, and melon (watermelon, sprite, and cantaloupe) all from seed. There were also a couple of patches at the far end of the garden where we planted some sweet corn and some strawberries.

I didn’t really lay out what would go where before sowing and planting. We basically just started from one end of the garden and kept sowing and planting until we got to the other end. This was all over the course of several weeks, based on what was appropriate to plant at particular times. As the growing season went on, I found it helpful to refer to the Mother Earth News website. They have a section titled “What to Plant Now”, where you select your region and the month and it lists which plants are good to grow at that time and how (sowing, transplanting, or growing indoors).

We also spread some compost into the garden from our compost bin. We hadn’t had a compost bin for very long, so there wasn’t a lot to spread. However, the compost we did spread gave us numerous “volunteer” plants from seeds that must have been in there. We grew several tomato, squash, and melon plants in random spots in the garden, based on where we put compost. If they popped up and I recognized what they were, I left them there, while a little voice in my head cheered “bonus!”

When the garden first started growing, it looked very orderly… all of the plants in nice neat rows among rich brown weed-free soil. As the weeks passed, some plants grew better than others, weeds filled many of the spaces in between the plants, and I started to plant little sections of additional crops I wanted to try, breaking up my orderly rows: a few radishes here… some okra there… turnips, chard, beans, etc.  I also sowed marigold, nasturtium, cosmos, and sunflower seeds in  small patches throughout the garden. These flowers would (hopefully) attract beneficial insects that would help control the unwanted insects. By the end of the season the garden was very much a patchwork of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs.

Our garden, mid-summer. That's a 10-foot sunflower towering over everything in the middle and some butternut squash vines trailing out the left side.

If you grew tomatoes yourself this past year, you probably know it wasn’t a good year for them. Most of my tomatoes would begin to rot before they were ripe. We got a lot of rain early in the season, which might have been partly to blame. It was a big bummer, really, because I was looking forward to another garden-related first: canning tomatoes! The tomato plants that did the best for us were the cherry tomatoes we grew from seed and the roma tomato plants that we bought at a local farmers market. I was able to can 8 or 10 quarts of tomatoes, and most of those were the romas. If you want to grow (and maybe even can) tomatoes, you can’t beat romas!

In fact, my 1-year-old daughter’s favorite treat from the garden were tomatoes. I was in the garden daily, even if it was just for a moment after work to simply look at it and enjoy it. My daughter wasn’t walking yet, so I’d often pick her up and take her for a little stroll around the garden. Every time we were out there she would pick a tomato and bite into it right there… red juice dribbling down her chin and all. If we were inside and she spotted a bowl of them on the counter, she’d point to let me know she wanted one for a snack.

At the time my son would have told you that he liked tomatoes too, but he doesn’t. He likes POtatoes. (Only recently has he started to get the names of tomatoes and potatoes correct.) And by far his favorite thing about them was digging them up out of the garden! I would dig the pitchfork into the potato row, turn the ground over and he’d point and yell “There’s more! There’s more!”

Don't let the stern look fool you. He LOVED digging up the potatoes!

Not only was the garden a source of food, but it was also a source of creativity for me. I enjoyed taking pictures of the plants, especially when they were blooming.

onion blossom

squash blossom

lavender

"bright lights cosmos" grown from seed that my dad gave me from his garden

squash and tomato plants making a nice backdrop

I made this one into a 16x20 canvas wrap to hang on the wall. I love it.

It was hard to keep up with maintaining the garden, with two small kids keeping us busy. We pretty much took a plant-it-and-let-it-go approach. I don’t like to spray for bugs or weeds, so there were several times over the summer when the weeds got out of control…. especially around the onions. I’ll try to do better with keeping up with the weeding this year.

Nearing the end of the season.

Now that we’re heading into spring, I have a couple of goals for this year’s garden, most of which involve better planning. First, I’m going to lay out (on paper) what I’m planting where, with the aim to rotate the location of my crops every year. I also plan to orient my rows perpendicular to the way I had them last year to better take advantage of the sunnier and shadier parts of the garden, and I’m going to try to use the garden space more efficiently, probably by planting more in blocks or double rows, rather than in single rows.  Next, I need to keep track of when I plant certain plants, thin them to avoid overcrowding, and harvest when they’re at their peak. Last year several of our plants stagnated as they grew because they simply ran out of room; I sowed them from seed but didn’t thin them like I should have. Others did well, but I was afraid to pick them too soon, and before I knew it, it was too late. I had a beautiful row of spinach that I was happy to admire, until the weather got too warm and it bolted and became bitter. Then we couldn’t eat it. Finally, I plan to preserve more of the goods from the garden. I did a little canning, freezing, and dehydrating last year. This year I’m going to kick it up a notch and do more. We got a dehydrator for Christmas, so look forward to putting it to work!

I’ll end with a little summary of the “best of” and “worst of” our 2011 garden:

Best Performers:

roma and cherry tomatoes

kale

spinach

jalapeno peppers

bush beans

sugar snap peas

butternut squash

acorn squash

cucumbers

cabbage

okra

herbs (especially chives, rosemary, oregano, basil, and thyme)

Decent Performers:

carrots

onions

lettuce (including arugula)

bell peppers

melons

yellow, pattypan and spaghetti squash

Worst Performers:

cauliflower

broccoli

sweet corn (animals got to the cobs before we even had a chance!)

other tomatoes (it was just a bad year for tomatoes)

giant pumpkin

strawberries (these needed another year before they’d really produce)

sweet potatoes (my fault…. I planted them too late)

Pests we dealt with (or tolerated):

moles

cabbage worms and other caterpillars (mostly on the kale, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli)

aphids (on the tomato plants)

squash bugs (on the… you guessed it… squash)

whatever animal ravaged our sweet corn (raccoons?)

ticks (on us!)

japanese beetles (though, they mostly ate weeds and the leaves of some morning glories I planted, which didn’t bother me all that much)

spiders (Okay, technically these are the good guys in the garden… but they were everywhere and they were HUGE. We coexisted peacefully, but a little more distance would be okay by me.)

deer

I can’t wait to get our 2012 garden under way! We’ve already started sowing some seeds in trays and I’m following through on my “resolution” to plan out my garden first to improve its efficiency. If you have been thinking of starting a garden–get to it! It can be intimidating, but it’s not rocket science. Really, all you need is soil, water, sun, and some seeds or plants. Pick some that you like, plant them in the ground (when the soil and air temperatures are warm enough) and see what happens! You have  nothing to lose. It’s actually great exercise, it gets you in touch with nature, and it allows you the gratification of knowing you grew some of your own food. And who knows… you may even love it!

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16 responses to “First Year with My Big Girl Garden

  1. What a great story and really enjoyed reading your gardening experiences. It is something you will never forget for the rest of your life and the children enjoyed every minute of the garden I will remember it as well. Those children had so much fun and it is great to see a family doing it all together. I know that was what my childhood was all about I was always with my mother when she went to the garden. Memories I will never forget!! Thanks for sharing this with all of us.

  2. I love hearing about another Virginia gardener’s experiences. (And yes, last year was REALLY wet. I was actually impressed at the way the tomatoes muddled through.) I love your pictures, too, especially the one with baby in front of the squash. It all looks so lush and inviting. Can’t wait to see what you do this year!

    • Thanks for checking out my post, Sharon! I checked out your blog too and liked it! You now have a new follower. 🙂 I too like the contrast of my little daughter sitting next to the huge squash leaves. That was when my garden was at it’s peak!

  3. If you set the tomatoes out too early, you risk “catfacing,” a deformation of the fruit that occurs when the plant is exposed to cold temperatures.
    Water the tomato plants regularly and keep the soil moist to prevent blossom end rot, Don’t let the soil dry out between waterings.
    Apply a layer of mulch to keep moisture in the soil to prevent blossom end rot. Tomatoes that rest on the soil are more likely to rot.
    Protect tomatoes from the hot sun with a shade or row cover, if the temperature is too hot, they suffer sun scald, which appears as a white spot on the fruit.
    Happy gardening

    • Thank you! Yes, I did blame the weather but I’m sure something I did may have contributed to their condition. They grew very tall (over my head), but I didn’t mulch them and I may be guilty of putting them out too early. So, even though they grew into very large plants, perhaps I didn’t give them the best start. I’m going to do much better with them this year! Starting them in trays earlier and leaving them inside longer. I’ll be sure to mulch, too.

  4. congrats and thanks for the pointers! I too just bought a house in the country in October and have been dreaming about starting my own ‘big girl garden’ this year. I’m very anxious, excited, nervous…. I’ll reference your blog again for sure!

  5. Loved this blog…(I would love to give you a helpful gardening tip….but, it’s me, remember)..and what first came to mind…….THIS IS THE SIDE, YOU GOT FROM YOUR FATHER and GRAM AND PAP…..he is ….and they are….very proud of you………… ;)…….me? I, once again, am simply just in awe of you…. xxoo

  6. Hi Jess Really like the pic’s of the garden esp. the one of Delaney at edge of the garden. How do you keep the deer and other critters out. That is my problem with my garden. Good luck with this years growing season, have to keep our fingers crossed with the weather.

    • I think because it was our first year, we were critter-free for a while because they didn’t know the garden was there right away. Our dogs helped scare the deer away sometimes, too, but they definitely got in there. We have a wire fence around much of our yard, so I suppose that creates a bit of a barrier, but the deer can jump over it. I also got some Deer Scram at the garden store to deter deer and rabbits. I think that helped. For the moles I used a castor-oil based repellant that may or may not have helped. They might’ve left for a few weeks. I probably had to reapply more frequently than I did. A guy at my garden store said his grandmother used to put Juicy Fruit gum in the holes. Supposedly the moles eat it, but can’t digest it, so they die. I didn’t try it, though. Seems a bit to me like a mean trick. 😉

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