Friday, January 20, 2012

A Look Back on My 2011 Garden: Learning the Hard Way

As I begin my plans for the 2012 garden, I thought I would post some of the best mistakes of my 2011 growing season.

1. Seed Starting. When you have a long winter ahead of you and dream of nothing but spring, it's easy to go overboard with a seed catalog and credit card. For my little suburban garden, I ordered 4 different varieties of tomatoes, all of which had to be started indoors from seed. I will say that germinating tomato seeds is a fairly easy and rewarding project. That is, until they turn into young seedlings, which you baby for a month until just about a week before transplant to the garden. Then, that day, you come home from work to find them all wilted over. Yes, in less than 24 hours, my entire crop of beautiful, healthy tomato seedlings succumbed to wilting disease. I cried. And let me tell you, men totally don't get that.

2. Tilling. It may seem obvious to the seasoned gardener, but tilling the ground before putting down each new seed is essential. I planned both a spring/summer and fall garden, and my husband tilled the ground in early spring before I began to plant. My early carrots and beans were beautiful, heavy producers. And then came my fall garden. I had planned to plant lettuce, beans, carrots, and kale in places where earlier crops had already been harvested. There was no room for the large tiller among the still-producing tomatoes, peppers, and chard plants, so I thought I would just lightly till with a hoe and throw down some seeds. Well, let me tell you, that went well. What was once a beautifully tilled garden had turned back to earth-packed clay. I managed to dig my holes, add some compost, and plant my seeds, but the few that sprouted quickly became root-bound. Much to my chagrin, my husband was right. I should have created a better succession plan that cleared a large enough space for a fall tilling.

3. Chard. If you take just one lesson from this, let it be this one. You can have too much swiss chard. The stuff grows like weeds. You will barely harvest one serving of leaves before the second is ready to go. A little goes a long way -- prepared in a sautee pan with a bit of honey, it is managemable to eat the stuff a couple times a week and actually enjoy the experience. But, if you are stupid enough to plant 20 chard plants for 2 people, you will do nothing but eat chard every night for the rest of your life. Seriously, it gets old. Plus, it's impossible to give away. No one ever refused my homegrown tomatoes or peppers, but swiss chard -- I've never seen people run away so fast. I'll give my mom credit; at least she tried it once.

4. Zucchini. I was prepared for the pollination problem. In 2010, my little garden did not produce a single zucchini fruit, despite multitudes of beautiful creamsicle colored flowers. Determined to do better this year, I spent hours researching the growth cycle of the zucchini, only to find out that my problem likely stemmed from a lack of pollinators. To counter this, I interspersed flowers throughout the garden, despite my husband's gentle scolding that I was running out of room for the vegetables. I even sustained the displeasure of surface cuts all over my hands and wrists from the zucchini prickles in an ill-prepared attempt to cross-pollinate the male and female flowers myself. Yes, yes, I am a rebel against garden gloves, but I am beginning to understand that they do have their place. And then, just when I was ready to check off my first zucchini success, white spots began to appear on the leaves, and soon they turned yellow, wilted, and died. Yes, powdery mildew hit when I least expected it. I will do my best to guard against this disease in 2012, but I am beginning to realize that a new catastrophe is always around the corner. Or, maybe it's just me...

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