A Year Of Gardening: What I’ve Learned

Kitchen Gardening

Now, I know a year isn’t that long, especially when you’re talking about a pursuit with so many layers of knowledge, but I’m hoping I’ve at least had the worst of the rookie mistakes, so I can move on from there. Following, a few things that I’ve learned in my admittedly limited experience.

1. Don’t Start Seeds Too Early

I touched on this a little the other day, noting that impulse control is so important this time of year. For if you get too excited, and start things too early, you’re likely in for trouble.

What could possibly go wrong, you may wonder? Well, the main problem — in my experience, at least — is light. When you’ve got seedlings growing for a long time indoors (because it’s too darned cold outside, still), they’re inevitably start to grow leggy. Leggy means tall and thin and weak — they’re groping upwards for the light they need (most veggies are full-sun types) and they’re not finding it, so they keep stretching. Not good.

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Now, perhaps this could be remedied by a serious grow-light operation. I’m trying a mini-greenhouse this year so I can put things out just a bit earlier than I could before. But it’s still important to avoid jumping the gun. This NOAA web page can help you figure out when to start in your area — you find the nearest weather station to you, and look at when there’s only a 10% chance of frost (or more, if you’re a gambler).

And speaking of resources…

2. Go Local With Your Research

I could read “The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible” (an amazing resource) all day long, and still make hundreds of mistakes in my Central Texas garden. Why? Because the author is in Vermont, and has a Vermonter’s perspective on growing and varietals. When you’re looking for advice about your garden, find the most local resource possible — probably your county extension service.

Around here, even looking at info from across I-35 could steer me wrong. We’re on the rocky Edwards Plateau (aka Texas Hill Country), while over there, across the now inactive Balcones Fault, the eco-region is called Blackland Prairie — it even SOUNDS like a better growing area. Heck, even my county is split in half, but the county extension service is still my best bet.

Examples of resources include: best varieties (PDF) for your area, a planting calendar (PDF) tailored for your area, and even classes (like this one on how to start a farm), many of them available at no charge. Your tax dollars at work — take advantage.

I have to add a little about one of the unexpected pleasures I’ve found in gardening, and in gardening research. I get to learn about geology, the prehistoric events that shaped our area, and imagine the giant beasts that used to wander hereabouts.

Even more recent events I’m learning about are fascinating. A couple of examples: “Its distinctive physical features, especially its lack of deep soils suitable for farming, cause the Edwards Plateau to be an outstanding grazing region of Texas.” Hm, maybe it’s time for some goats. And I’ve learned that the lack of surface water — still a serious problem — was a major barrier in pioneer times. “Even in 1950 no railway line crossed the entire region,” says the Texas State Historical Association.

Somehow it’s comforting to me to know that the struggles I’m dealing with (terrible soil, lack of water) have been faced by many others in the past. Embrace the things that grow well and easily in your climate — such as sweet potatoes and tomatillos hereabouts — and don’t spend too much time babying the things that just don’t fit.

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3. Be Vigilant, And… Row Covers Are Your Friends

These days, we’ve been going from 70-degree days to 28-degree nights. It’s a little disconcerting. But it just goes to show that you need to use all the tools at your disposal to minimize the effects on your plants. Last year, we invested in some row cover/cool frames that have made a tremendous difference.

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But they need to be tweaked, and often. Mine basically had four settings: closed up, opened up a little but netted in, open but netted in, and wide open. I’ve tended to open them wide during sunny days, to let the plants get the benefits of sun and pollinators.

But when the weather forecast indicates a dip in temps, even just a normal night-time dip, I’d close them up securely. Every night, I’d go out and close up the “plant tents” to keep them toasty. Even one night of neglect can be disastrous. It’s a total pain, but not as painful as losing the garden.

4. Beware The Squash Vine Borer

It’s gardener-lore that zucchini are prolific producers. So, why did I only get two zucchini last year? The dreaded squash vine borer. The plants were looking amazing, then, all of a sudden they started to wilt. When I did a surgical procedure, looking for larvae in their stems, I found the wiggly creatures.

I’d almost decided to give up on curcubits entirely (except watermelon, which I could never give up on), when I heard about Reemay — a “blanket” that you place over your plants to keep the evil creatures from laying their eggs. It lets in light and water, and it isn’t that tough to hand-pollinate if you go and check on them every morning. So, we’ll see… One of the varieties I’m trying this year is called “cube of butter” squash — and I am dying to taste it.

5. Don’t Let Yourself Be Limited By The Garden Stores

If I only went to Lowes, Home Depot or the H-E-B garden center, I’d have a very skewed idea of what kinds of plants it is possible to grow. You see the same old standard varieties — as plants and even as seeds.

And don’t think it grows well in your area just because you see it in your local garden store. When looking for a peach tree for our garden, I cross-referenced the available in-store varieties by the ones recommended for our area — there was only one match. Refer to those local resources, and talk to other gardeners in your area — either at a garden club (our neighborhood is starting one) or in online forums — to find out what’s growing well for them.

After all, you can often get those standard varieties in the grocery store, so why not grow something unusual and tasty that you can’t get otherwise?

Well, that’s enough for today. Perhaps more lessons another day. I started my first seeds yesterday and the whole learning process is beginning again.

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