Experiences of a Novice Gardener, by J.B.

I don’t remember how I stumbled on SurvivalBlog.com.  I had a sense that things were going very wrong and I guess it was just a matter of clicking links that led me to this site.  I found a treasure trove of information on prepping, and a world of like-minded folks who shared my sense that something wicked this way comes.  SurvivalBlog helped me get organized in my thinking, and introduced me to prepping concepts I was unfamiliar with.  I have invested a lot of time and money preparing for WTSHTF.  One area I am weak in, however, is experience.  I read over and over how you need to get in shape (I joined a gym), and train and develop skills and put them to practice before you need them.  It was because of this that I decided to try my hand at my first, real garden.
This Spring, I ordered some seeds – both heirloom and modern hybrid varieties.  I put the heirloom seeds in storage and planned to grow the hybrids, since I was really most interested in the gardening experience.  My family likes squash, zucchini and corn, so that’s what I got.  I was also going to grow tomatoes, but planned on getting small plants from the local big box garden center once the weather was predictably decent.  I also order three blueberry bushes.  I figure at $3 per cup at the grocery, having a few bushes will pay off.  I started my seeds in empty egg cartons filled with potting soil, after pricking a few holes in the bottom of each dimple with a toothpick for drainage.  And drain they did, all over our countertop.  The potting soil I got was the consistency of pillow stuffing, with copious amounts of small Styrofoam beads; water ran through it like a sieve.  After a quick cleanup the egg cartons went on a desk with the carton tops underneath to catch the drainage.  Within a few days there were little shoots coming up – yeah! I can’t tell you how proud I was of those little things, showing my wife and daughter and thinking to myself that this gardening this was going to be a piece of cake.   A few days more under a fluorescent desk lamp and my seedlings were really taking off, so much so, I was worried that they may beat the reliable weather I was waiting on.  On about the 10th day, the seedlings, who were stretching toward desk lamp, became a bit lanky and began leaning over.  A day later and they were all falling over, apparently from growing too tall and having too shallow roots, and took on a decidedly less healthy appearance.
Thinking my shallow egg cartons and Styrofoam soil may be to blame, I went out and bought some paper “Dixie” cups and transplanted the seedlings.  I made a mix of potting mix with real dirt from my yard, with a little “wonder grow” mixed in.  This fortified soil was sure to give my fledgling plants the boost they now so visibly needed.  After a few days, it was clear that the seedlings weren’t feeling or looking any better.  Some had begun to die off and others still just wanted to fall over.  My wax paper cups were also soft and beginning to grow mold on the bottoms.  Something had obviously gone wrong, so I chucked out the whole lot, went and bought some 8 ounce plastic party cups and started all over.  This time I started some corn along with the zucchini and squash, and within a week, I was back in business with seedlings.  And in another week I was back out of business with sick plants, except for the corn which had just started to sprout well and seemed okay.  I was wondering about the greenness of my thumbs and decided just to go buy some starter plants at the local Wally World.
Finally it was time to prepare my garden bed.  I marked out a 10’ x 10’ space and began to strip perfectly good sod off my yard.  Stripping sod with a shovel put my out of shape body to the test (I had not yet joined the gym), but digging up hard Kentucky clay was a killer.  I started asking around to borrow a rototiller, but most friends my age were not into gardening and I found only one person with a 20 year old, 150 pound tiller that hadn’t been started in a long, long time.  I decided to suck it up and do it manually.  Thank God for Aleve.  Kentucky clay is just one step above concrete and is practically sterile.  I knew it wouldn’t make for a good garden, so I went and bought 4 bags of peat moss, four bags of composted manure and four bags of something they called “top soil” although it looked like 40% dirt, 30% sand and 30% finely chopped twigs.  I now regretted not borrowing the 20 year old tiller as I chopped clods of clay and mixed it with the amendments I had dumped on my 100 square foot plot.  After a couple days of this, my muscles were sore and I was thinking longingly about the produce section of my local grocer.
Time to plant.  Zucchini, squash and tomato seedlings went in the ground.  I was unsure of the spacing of the corn, but some local fields look tightly planted so I did a grid of plants around 16 inches apart.  A good watering with the hose and my garden looked young, fresh and off to a good start.  I planted the blueberries along the fence.  Each night after I came home from work, I would go out and water my garden, admiring the plants that were beginning to take off.  Maybe this gardening thing would be easy now that the back breaking remediation of my worthless dirt was done.  No such luck.  One morning, I was shocked to discover that something, probably rabbits, had started gnawing the leaves of my toddler plants.  A couple looked like “goners” but I left them in the ground.  I had seen rabbits occasionally, but was counting on my fence and dogs to keep them out.  They continued to sample from my garden buffet until I started sprinkling dog hair around the plants.  I had heard this trick somewhere and didn’t know if it would work, but it really seemed to help.  To my surprise, the “goner” plants recovered.
The combination of the fertilizer and near daily watering did wonders for the zucchini.  In no time, the plants, which I had set about two feet apart, were bumping into each other and continuing to grow like crazy.  In a few more days, they were crowding each other and forming a near impenetrable canopy of leaves.  They grew tall, too, so much so that when I watered them, they would lay over.  I was concerned about damaging them, but by morning they were all perky and tall again.  My tomatoes, on the other hand, were giving me trouble.  A couple of the plants had leaves that were curling up and generally looking strange.  I web searched “tomato leaf curl” and it said something about over watering and cool weather, but said it was generally harmless.  It wasn’t.  The leaves continued to twist and curl and the plant now took on a decidedly mutated look, as if it had been exposed to radiation or chemical contamination.  I decided to cut my losses and pulled them, replacing them with fresh plants from the big box store.  I had staked the tomatoes that weren’t mutating, but within a few weeks, they had grown above the stake and had begun to slump over.  I didn’t have a taller stake so I just let them slump.  The main stem looked twisted, but the plant survived and did produce.  My blueberry’s leaves have turned red as if it were a maple tree in the fall.  Another web search and I find they probably need something to acidify the soil, so I bought a bag for $8.
My zucchini had begun producing, and boy did it produce.  The warm weather and frequent watering was causing fruit to grow fast.  If I didn’t harvest it frequently, a too small to pick zucchini would become too big in just a couple of days.  The squash plants looked healthy, but weren’t setting any fruit yet, although they did have blooms.  My corn wasn’t as high as an elephants eye yet, but it was looking good.  Finally, I had reached the stage where the garden was doing what gardens were supposed to do.  All I had to do was keep picking zucchini and wait for the other crops to produce their yield.  Did I mention that four plants produce a lot of zucchini?  By this time, we’re realizing we aren’t as in to zucchini as we thought, and I’m also getting lax in checking the garden which results in enormous fruits.  I pick one that’s nearly two foot long and probably weighs 4 or 5 pounds.  My wife suggests I consider entering zucchini in the state fair.  Some squash is beginning to come on, but it’s the bumpy kind, which has tougher skins and we don’t like as much.  The blueberry leaves are now greening up and looking healthier, although they haven’t grown a single inch that I can tell.
One morning I look out at the garden and note that the plants aren’t looking as vibrant as they had.  Upon inspection, the combination of planting them too close and watering them too often has led to a mildew forming.  By this time, I ‘m sick of zucchini and don’t care.  The corn has ears big enough to harvest and we take about a dozen ears.  We love fresh corn and can’t wait to boil and butter them.  As we shuck it, we notice that many of the kernels haven’t formed, while others are not in neat rows and have a somewhat “mutated” look; being larger than normal.  Out of the dozen ears, two look perfect – store quality – and we cut the others to come up with a good batch of corn.  I notice that fresh corn is selling three for a dollar at Wal-Mart, but I am in this for the experience and our corn did taste really fantastic.  From stalk to table was less than an hour – talk about fresh!  Still, in the back of my mind I’m thinking about all the time and effort that went into producing about four dollars’ worth of corn.  One of my blueberry plants produces three, yes three, blueberries.  They still are not growing despite healthy foliage.
By this time, I’m not as excited about the garden and have started letting God water it on His schedule.  The peat moss I brought in had some type of pernicious viney grass that is now spreading out into my yard.  I have to pull it up with a rake and still it spreads.  The mildew is really affecting the squash and zucchini now and my wife is suggesting I “clean up” my garden.  I go out to take a look and the plants are now overrun with some type of flat little bugs.  I won’t be harvesting anything further from these plants.  My corn, which hasn’t had constant watering, is showing some stress now.  Weeds are rampant through my little patch as I have lost interest in pulling them every doggone day.  I discover one of my blueberries had dried up an died – oops.  I forgot about that one since it was in a different part of the yard.  The bent over tomato plant is producing, but some kind of bug is boring holes in many of the tomatoes.  My other tomato plants aren’t doing well; I think the lack of daily watering has shocked them.  I really don’t have any idea why they aren’t doing well, they just aren’t.  A friend at work is bringing huge tomatoes to work to give to people.  Mine (those that haven’t been eaten by bugs) are small and often cracked.  The two surviving blueberry plants still haven’t grown an inch, but they are nice and leafy and green.  Alas, neither has produced any berries.
What’s the moral of my story?  I’ve learned a lot about just how hard it is to grow food.  It was toilsome, sweaty manual labor just to get the ground ready.  A back yard full of compressed subdivision clay does not lend itself to gardening.  Rabbits, mildew, bugs all got their share of the produce.  I got a few pounds of squash, too much zucchini, a few decent tomatoes (so far), a dozen ears of corn and three blueberries.  I used a bit of 10-10-10 fertilizer and no pesticides.  What we ate was delicious.  Everything I got could be bought at the store for maybe $20.  I invested more than that in compost and peat moss.  Still, it was fun (at first) and I know more about gardening than I did in April.  If you think you are going to turn your backyard into a post-TEOTWAWKI farm, you are mistaken. 

I am a suburbanite, not a farmer.  Becoming proficient at growing crops is not something you can just luck in to.  Will I grow a garden next year?  I don’t know, probably some corn again.  I really would like to grow plants that come back every year, like my blueberries, blackberries or maybe a fruit tree.  I’m a little discouraged.  This is a lot harder than it looks.