My Gardening Journey, by Mr. Black Thumb Turned Green

Planting a garden is a sure way to find out about yourself.  Are you impatient and reckless?  Are you detail-oriented and methodical?  If you haven’t figured it out yet, you will when you till up some soil.  Three years ago at this time, I hadn’t ever planted a garden.  The last time I was even in a garden was when I was 10 years old at my grandma’s house many seasons ago.  I found out that year that I didn’t like gardening as my experience with it was mostly weeding.  Sure, I got to eat some carrots or turnips out of that garden, but they sure weren’t worth all the time spent scorching in the sun crawling around in the dirt.  Looking back, I should have learned all I could from my grandma about gardening—right or wrong. 

Many years later I began to enjoy cooking and one thing I learned was, if you had some quality spices, you could take some mediocre food and make it really good.  I would plant an herb garden!  But as often is the case, the best laid plans…  I never did plant an herb garden, but a few years ago I decided it was time to try my hand at growing my own food. 
What prompted me to start this journey?  A lot of things really.  One, I thought it was a good outdoor activity for me and my family.  I want my kids growing up doing outdoor activities that are productive to them and beneficial later in their lives, not wasting time with video games and television like I did as a child.  Each year I look forward to more of their contributions in the garden—even a two year old can help by retrieving something for me while I work. 

Another reason to plant a garden was the economy.  Things aren’t getting any better out there.  I could save a bundle by growing a lot of things myself.  I was without work for almost a year and the garden really helped out a lot during that time.  And, if things get really ugly, it will help me feed my family or possibly help others by teaching them what I have learned. 

However, the biggest reason for me to start a garden was that I know what is in a lot of the food we buy in grocery stores.  One of my hobbies is fitness and nutrition and when it comes to nutrition, ignorance is bliss.  If you knew exactly what it was you were eating, you may not eat that particular item ever again.  Not only is processed food terrible for you from a macronutrient standpoint, but the chemicals and processes used to create it are downright evil.  We have an epidemic in this country with fat children and diabetes.  I wonder if it is because everything has corn syrup in it…  There isn’t enough money in Obamacare to fix all of the problems these kids are going to have down the line.  My rule is, the further away the final product is from its initial state (the more processed it is), the less I want to eat it. 

The first year I wanted to start a garden I didn’t really know what I was doing.  Fortunately, I had a good friend that was an expert in gardening and he had recently moved into a condo, so he had no space to garden himself.  He gladly showed me the ropes.  He ordered seeds for me and even started them in planters.  After laying out the plot, we used a sod cutter to remove what we could and then tilled the mostly clay soil with some peat moss, chicken droppings, bone meal and blood meal.  I rented a big 8.5 horsepower tiller since it was the first time the soil had been disturbed and the clay made for a real mess.  I put in the contractors edging (deeper than standard edging) around the garden to keep the burrowing pests out.  Then I put up some wooden posts and a plastic fencing.  After smoothing soil, we planted a raised bed down the middle and a few mounds for the vine vegetables. 

I watered ever day waiting for some green sprouts to pop out of the ground.  When they did I was like a kid in a candy store.  I was amazed that you could take a tiny seed, put it into the earth, water it and watch as God made a plant emerge from the dirt.  Sure, I had to weed plenty—I did it every day in the morning before work.  And I had to check the broccoli leaves for green cabbage worms twice daily.  These worms were tiny but had ravenous appetites.  They would wreak havoc later on if not eliminated immediately.  I even started a compost pile and religiously put every appropriate scrap, no matter how small in the pile. 

The harvest was amazing.  I remember that first spinach salad.  What was that funny taste?  I don’t use any chemicals so it couldn’t be that.  I triple washed it, so it couldn’t be dirt.  Then we figured it out—it was the lack of any kind of processing.  No sprays applied by the harvester or at the grocery store to keep it looking fresh.  The funny taste was nothing at all. It was natural food.  It’s what spinach should taste like.  I was amazed.  And hooked.  That summer we ate like kings.  We canned dozens of jars of tomatoes, froze a years supply of shredded zucchinis and peppers and ate enough salad to feed a herd of cattle.  As fall came and went, I looked forward to the next growing season.  I remember feeling a tinge of depression as my green slice of paradise, dried up and blew away with the winter wind.  I also learned that using wood posts was a fools errant—they mostly rotted out and the plastic fencing was eaten through by varmints. 

I planned the next season’s garden and ordered my seeds.  This time, I would attempt to do my own “starts” and I would expand my garden size.  This turned out to be a season of learning and errors.  The first error was that I waited until the spring to till the soil.  I am sure the worms weren’t too happy about it.  The next group of errors centers around my potted plant starters.  Since I left heat pad on them after they sprouted, they become gangly and moved towards the sun.  I wasn’t smart enough to remember my 6th grade biology class and rotate the plants so they wouldn’t be at a 45° angle from the ground. 

Another mistake I made was not using fish emulsion to feed the plants the proper nutrients—they were not very green and the stems were not thick at all.  When I transferred the starts to bigger pots, I suddenly became economical and decided not to fill the new pots to the top with dirt.  That was brilliant as I shrunk the available space for the roots to grow—this was not helpful for making the plants stronger.  Not sufficiently hardening the plants to outdoor conditions before planting was another blunder.  I put them out for a few hours each day, but should have kept them out a lot longer.  Maybe start with an hour or two and by the end of the week keep them out there during all daylight hours.  Finally, when I went to plan the starts in the ground, I failed to wet the pots beforehand and likely damaged some of the roots when I transplanted them into the garden. 

After a particularly windy night, almost all of my tomatoes and my eggplant and broccoli were wiped out.  I had to do the unthinkable—go to Lowe’s to buy my plants.  I was amazed at the difference between their thick stemmed plants and the spindly “weeds” I had planted.  The new plants took off and things seemed to be going well.  But then more problems arose.  This gardening was tough!

I had used a section of the garden as the dumping ground for bad produce or produce that had fallen off and started to rot.  I just piled it up the summer before and then it got tiled under that spring.  Well, I was answering for that mistake now.  Volunteers started popping up all over the garden.  At first I didn’t know what I had, but over time, dozens of tomato and other plants were everywhere.  I also had a lot of weeds that I didn’t have the previous season and didn’t recognize at all.  My curiosity got the better of me on this one and I learned that anything that isn’t planted by me needed to go—they basically ruined my raised bed.  I must have had five or six dozen tomato volunteers.  As a side note, a friend of mine didn’t have a chance to plan anything so he took 4 of the volunteers and they produced well for him!  I suppose in certain situations, I could sell the volunteers to people that needed them for food, but as long as my garden is just for me, I will not let them grow in the future.  It was interesting that hybrid seeds from one season’s vegetables produced actual usable vegetables the next season. 

Some of the other lessons I learned, include: 
1)      My red onions did poorly—they need more sun and were partially shaded.  I need to move them to a north side of the garden.
2)      I need to stake my pepper plants immediately after planting.  It seems every year there is a wind storm that ruins some plants and we are in an area that has no shield from wind.
3)      I need to kill the grass on the outside of the edging to protect the onions and other “weaker crops.”  The grass is mixing in with the onions and taking away nutrients and water from them.   My onions seem to get a lot of their water from the surface, so they don’t have deep roots. 
I need to strengthen my chicken cage fence around my garden with a few more posts. 
5)      Here’s an obvious one—I can’t have a tall plant, like tomatoes near my underground sprinkler head in the garden.  The tall plant blocks the water flow and prevents other things from getting watered later in the season.  Plus it gets soaked and over watered as it is basically blocking the water flow. 

This was a hard season of learning, but I still managed a healthy crop of produce and even increased my volume on a few vegetables.  Most importantly, I have acquired a “book of knowledge” which I can use to help me not repeat the same mistakes this season again.  I’ve noticed that as the summer goes on, I get a bit lazy and don’t weed as diligently as I do early on.  Also, I need to plant a second crop of vegetables later in the spring to have a late summer crop and a third planting in the summer to have a fall crop.  I might as well squeeze every calorie out the garden that I can! 

As I desire to become more self-sufficient with my food, I also planted four fruit trees, some garlic, some blueberries and a few other things.  I plan on expanding that more with an herb garden and possibly a raspberry patch in the next season.  I will also enlarge my garden both in terms of size and types of produce.  I am starting to get a feel for what grows well and what doesn’t as well as what I like out of my garden and what is more cost/time effective for me to get at a store.  I will rotate my crops once again and add a few new items to keep things fresh.  I need to do a soil exchange with a friend that has sandy soil to get better balance in my clay dominated soil.  I am hoping more sand will help with my root and vine vegetables. 

I am glad to be learning these hard lessons now, when I can recover, rather than later on, when making these mistakes can be the difference between feeding your children or watching them starve.  There is a lot of start-up work expended in a garden, but not a lot to do day-to-day.  I recommend everyone try their hand at it to see how they do.  Even with all the challenges I encountered, it is still a great hobby and very enjoyable for me.  I just started my peppers and tomato seeds this year with my 2 year old’s help and can’t wait to see them sprout!