Lessons Learned: Vol. 1

If failure is the best way to learn, boy, do I learn a lot from my garden. It seems like every week there’s something that I wish I’d known sooner. Too often, though, these little lessons slip by barely noticed, and I make the same mistake the next year. I thought I’d start a running series of posts about these “lessons learned,” in the hope that I can prevent repeat errors.

A very small red lettuce plant.
This tiny lettuce has been here for weeks and weeks, and has hardly grown at all.

1. The small garden bed next to the fence on the south side of our yard is too shady to grow vegetables. I hoped that the partial sun would still be enough for cool season crops, like radishes, spinach, and lettuce. In fact, I even hoped the shade would extend the season for lettuce. Instead, everything I’ve planted there is growing at a glacial pace. See that little lettuce start? It’s been there for weeks, and is only a tiny bit bigger than it was when it went in. On the plus side, herbs and partial-shade flowers seem to do well here, so that’s what I’ll focus on from now on.

A plastic label marks the home of marigold seeds.
Finally got my act together and started labeling seeds.

2. Label your seeds! I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but every year I plant seeds and fail to label them, despite knowing that I’ll be searching for lost seedlings in a week or two. I even planted my new rhubarb right on top of some flower seeds I’d sewn earlier. I’m resolving to do better, as evidenced by this marigold marker.

3. Mulch the garlic with straw. I did this the first year I grew garlic, but this year I was too lazy to find straw, and I figured it would be fine. It probably would have been, except for the lousy squirrels. They keep digging around the garlic, displacing the planted cloves, exposing the growing bulbs, and generally wreaking havoc. I’m thinking the mulch might have prevented some of their antics. Next year, garlic, I promise.

Cucumber starts that are clearly too big for their britches.
Cucumbers are bursting out of their start containers, but not ready to go anywhere yet – oops.

4. Don’t start cucumber and zucchini seedlings indoors. This is apparently common garden knowledge that seems to have escaped me. I just learned that cuke and zuke starts don’t transplant well – some people have even reported that their starts produced cucumbers LATER than the seeds sewn directly into the garden did! Of course, I learned this after I started seeds, and now I’ve got eager seedlings with nowhere to go yet. I might start from scratch, or tuck these somewhere I wasn’t planning to grow cucumbers and see if they make it. I’m cursing myself for taking up valuable grow-light real estate for no reason.

5. Thin radishes right away. Luckily, I’ve had some radish success so far this year, but I recently learned that I was thinning them too late. You want to get them two inches apart as soon as their first true leaves appear, to give the roots plenty of time to grow. Otherwise, they might never “radish up.” I’ve become a relentless radish thinner!

Sweet gums ring a kale start. They failed to protect the first one.
Don’t be fooled: Those sweet gums didn’t protect that kale plant. That’s the second start that’s gone in that spot.

6. Sweet gums are not an effective rabbit deterrent. Who knows where I read this – don’t believe everything on the internet, kids! – but it seemed logical to me. If I were a rabbit, I wouldn’t want to step on these prickly things. Plus, we have an abundance in our neighborhood. I picked up a few and surrounded my kale starts. Two mornings later, the starts were munched and the sweet gums undisturbed. Major fail. Of course, I still haven’t found anything that DOES work against rabbits, although I’ve got a couple more folk tales to try out. Have you had any luck? Tell me your secrets!

The Garden Today – August 14, 2015

August 14 garden panorama
The garden as of August 14. Apologies for the wonky panorama – I’m still trying to work out the best way to capture the garden.

One of my goals in this journal is to capture the garden in photos through the year. I’ve admired the way that garden blogger Gayla Trail at You Grow Girl does this, and it’s neat to watch her garden’s progression.

The garden in August is an especially good reminder of why I want to take these photos. In the spring, I never remember that the garden will look like this in just a few months. I always have this naive belief that things will stay neat and tidy, with plenty of space in between…yeah, right.

Then we get to August, and the tomatoes are flopping, the cucumbers are taking over the driveway, and the tomatillos are threatening to take out any other plant in a four-foot range.

Cucumber vines
Cucumber vines sprawling ALL over the driveway.

A few notes on the garden today:

  • The two nearly dead cucumber starts that I plopped into the bed along the driveway wound up going like gangbusters. After our weird weather this year the vines are looking a little rough and the cukes have all been funny shapes, but they’re going strong. I have a batch of relish on my canning schedule this weekend.
  • The tomatoes – in the top far left bed in the photo – are in sad shape. The squirrels have taken every single one. Rather than cope with my distress over this, I’ve just tried to ignore the tomatoes. As a result, they’re overgrown, poorly supported, and just a mess. I think they might come out this weekend to make way for some fall plantings.
  • The basil is going like gangbusters. Time for pesto!


Beautiful basil
Isn’t this basil gorgeous? It’s been my best year ever for it. And we’ve eaten so much pesto pasta.
  • It’s not totally obvious in these photos, but area around the three raised beds was one of my big mistakes this year. We put the beds together in the spring. My plan was to get rid of the grass around/between them and cover it with gravel, but my gardening budget was gone and I decided to wait until next spring. In the meantime, I figured, I could keep the grass trimmed with my weedwhacker. But I forgot to account for the watermelon and butternut squash vines that are now covering those areas, and the grass is wildly overgrown and full of weeds – and I can’t do much about it for fear of killing the good guys! I’m trying to take deep breaths, hope the neighbors don’t mind too much, and plan to get that gravel in ASAP.
  • Either this fall or spring, I’m planning to take out a little more lawn to put four more raised beds in next to the driveway-adjacent flower bed. Those will get gravel paths, too — right away, this time!
The garden today - looking like a jungle!
A closer look at the beds. Look at that jungle!