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Musings From a Novice Gardener, by Mike in Western Pennsylvania

Last year I planted my first home garden in my adult life. I am 46 years old and grew up most of my years in suburban America so I had little experience with the nuts and bolts of a family garden but I did spend twenty years in the Marine Corps so I do have a level of self-sufficiency that I garnered over the past 20 years during my service in the Marines.

I will also add that my Dad did a little family gardening in the 1960s and 1970s but by the 1980s we were a complete suburban family relying on the modern food chain supply of commercial America. My Dad’s grandfather definitely was a master gardener as he had 12 children (my Dad was the oldest), and did not make a lot of money so he had what I would consider a huge family garden. I helped both my father and grandfather during my youth so I had a small amount of ability but almost 40 years of gardening regression made me pretty much a novice once more.

That did not stop me one bit. When I retired, I announced to my wife that I was “cutting” a garden in the backyard last year as soon as the snow melted. She thought I was crazy as I used a motorized sod cutter to cut a 40’ x 30’ garden in the backyard. She said I had bitten off more than I could chew. Well, I just took that as a challenge and went at it with some gusto. My production was varied and I had some winners and I had some losers (more losers I would say) but what I learned last season was invaluable and I am eagerly awaiting this season to apply hose lessons.

Lesson #1: There is no substitute for good soil. If you have crummy soil (like I did), augment it with some kind of compost. At the end of the season, after my less than bountiful harvest, I had a local soil company dump four tons of mushroom manure on top of my garden and I tilled it in. I live in western Pennsylvania where there are more rocks in the soil than there are stars in the universe and it is hard to get a good garden started with just a thin layer of substandard soil. Again, get some augment and build up your garden height so your seeds and plants have a fighting chance.

Lesson #2: Check with the local agro stores and find out what kind of soil you have. Take a few samples and have them analyze it. If you buy from them, they probably won’t charge you for the service either. Most veggies like a particular soil PH so find out what it is and add the proper augments to your soil to get it to a particular acidity or non-acidity.

Lesson #3: In my regular crummy dirt garden, I planted everything I could find, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers of all kinds, squash, corn, onions, garlic, potatoes, carrots, beans, and some spices.  Some did ok, others were pitiful. Again, soil is everything if all else remains the same. On a couple of smaller circular plots, I planted some tomatoes according to a group of bio-dynamic gardeners in Bradford, Pennsylvania. They have a web site (just search for biodynamic tomatoes and it will take you to their web site) which I found and I did exactly as they told me to do in my little circular garden and wouldn’t you know, I had cherry tomatoes growing out of my ears. I started from seeds they sent me and planted three small plants in my little mound and I had mutant tomato plants by mid-summer. They got to a height of 9’ (that’s not a typo) before they fell over from the weight of the tomatoes. I harvested around 2,000 cherries from the plants; it was simply amazing. The secret is in how you prepare the hole in the ground. 3’ wide by 2’ deep and start filling it with table scraps during the winter and spring and add equal parts of manure and dirt until you get a 2-3’ high mound of dirt that has 4-5’ of depth due to the original hole. The plants “feasted” on the garbage through the season and the results were amazing. I’m not advertising for these guys but the process can be applied to pretty much any plants you want to use.  Remember, you don’t have to compost the garbage, just dump it in the hole, cover with dirt and manure and repeat until it is a big round mound, plant your desired crop on top and watch the miracle happen. I had small rows in my crummy garden last year but I am going to do more mounds in it this year and do the same thing with my other plants and see what I can produce. I had tomatoes in the crummy garden as well as they super plot and the ones on the crummy side did crummy so I know it was soil and compost that was the catalyst for the mutant yield in the “super” plot. As I said, I am excited.

Lesson #4: Potatoes! I had a great start to my spuds and then did something very stupid. I got attacked by Colorado Potato Beetles and used some insecticide on them. The first dose took care of 50% but when I did it again, it pretty much wilted the plants and they never recovered. I still managed to harvest decent size reds and whites mid-summer and even replanted some more seed potatoes and got a second smaller harvest in October. Bottom line, don’t use store bought chemicals to deal with your bugs. Find out what natural solutions work and use them. I have read that planting different plants next to each other is symbiotically beneficial and I plan to do more of that this season.

Lesson #5: We get pretty good rainfall here in western Pennsylvania but I am going to add a few rain barrels, dig a small trench for some PVC piping and run it from the barrels to the upper side of the garden with soaker hoses attached at the intervals I have my garden rows set. Since my barrels are above the level of the topside of my garden, gravity will do the trick for water distribution.

Lesson #6: Save every bit of food scraps from your table and start composting today. The feeling that my wife and I get from knowing that everything we do not eat will make it back into the garden makes us feel so much better than throwing it out in the garbage. In a spiritual sense, I think this is what God intended us to do from the beginning so we don’t need to add fertilizers or any other miracle growth stuff since our soil will be rich with organic nutrients year round. We saved one of the plastic containers that the kitty litter comes in and since it is made to keep the smell in, our little compost bucket in the garage never emanates any odor; until of course I bring it out to the garden, did my little hole, and dump it in. I realize that there are tons of folks that have composting down to a science but garbage is garbage and it will decompose under the soil, trust me. On those occasions where I have dug up a small part of a prior load of garbage, it has been quite odiferous.  If you want to compost, have at it. If you want to do it the simple method, it works too. Just give it enough time to decompose in the soil before you start tilling for the spring plant. I try to have a ready-to-go hole into which I can dump refuse during the season so it will be ready for the next year.

Lesson #7: As low key as you can, get your neighbors involved in starting their own garden as well. Invite them over when you are out and share with them what you have produced. You will be amazed at the communal feelings that start to develop over the sharing of food. My neighbor and I started doing this at the same time, and although he has no idea of my prepping beliefs, he is “in training” whether he knows it or not! We share our veggies and have a lot more in common now than just golf! My other neighbors are getting into it as well. I let them borrow some of my tools to get them started and then the eventual list of questions start getting asked. “How big should I make my garden? What should I grow?” This is really all it takes to get your neighborhood on the road to self-sufficiency.

These lessons learned are by no means a complete or comprehensive list of “how to’s” but I hope that by sharing what I learned as an evolving home gardener will help you in your gardening adventures down the line.