As a child growing up in North Texas, my family was of the Depression era. We raised beef for the freezer, milked our cow for milk, raised chickens for both meat and eggs, raised a hog occasionally but always had a huge garden. I can’t tell you how many times I spent a summer day picking green beans on what seemed like the endless rows of the ½ acre garden. Of course, as I grew older, being the typical teen, I couldn’t wait to leave the country and move up in the world to the big city, which I did.
Fast forward to the 21st century – now as a more mature woman, I yearn for all the forgotten wisdom that was passed down to me. I’m not sure now if it was lack of attention on my part or if it has just faded away with a lot of other memories from that time, or maybe a little of both. However, in the early 2000s, I began to realize that to really take care of my family, I really needed to start growing my own garden for fresh vegetables and to can, freeze and dehydrate as much as I could for long term storage. This is the story of how I began the journey to attempt to return to my roots and the adventures and lessons learned along the way.
I began by researching vegetable gardening. I had moved from North Texas to where I currently reside in Central Texas. I was amazed at the difference in gardening lore and planting between the two areas. Identifying your USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Planting zone based on their Plant Hardiness Map is an important part of planning a garden. I was originally in zone 8A but now am in 8B (really on the border of zone 9). The planting times are much earlier, the range of plants that can be planted are greatly expanded and with care, gardening can be done year-round, as opposed to the traditional spring/fall garden.
While I remembered the basics, I needed to determine watering, lighting, the plants that would produce the most, best times to plant, etc. If possible, reach out to your older family members or become acquainted with older members of your community who garden. They will have a wealth of knowledge and will appreciate your interest in gathering their wisdom! In addition to speaking with experienced people, research on the Internet for vegetable gardening. A tip: Be very careful about video sites. While I used this method before, I have found it is best to stick with reputable sources and not necessarily individuals, especially when they post “ideas that are short cuts”, “no work gardening” or seemingly “too good to be true” methods (which they normally are).
Some Useful Websites & References
Some of the reliable websites I have found include:
SurvivalBlog archives – they have a very good selection of articles and practical how-to articles regarding vegetable and herb gardens
Your specific Agriculture Extension Office – They will have such information as the basics, a “recommended plant list” for your specific area, planting time tables based upon last frost and first frost dates and estimated amounts to plant per person and for canning/freezing.
The Old Farmers Almanac – this usually has good articles on planting different plants and the best time to plant based on the moons and the signs. As an interesting side note – this is also a lost piece of knowledge from my past that I am trying to re-educate myself on. My grandparents followed the dates in this book when planting all of their crops. I have attempted to follow this but Mother Nature always seems to have other ideas such as when the exact date that is perfect for planting it’s actually raining cats and dogs!
The Mother Earth News – Disclaimer: I stick with the gardening articles and some of their DIY articles. I am not a follower of some of their ideas regarding other matters.
Most Seed/Nursery Catalogs have a “how-to” section, especially for specific plants.
While I do like the Internet for quick fast searches, I also rely on a vast library of hardbound books. I guess I am really old school as there just seems to be no comparison to holding a good book in your hand. A few of the books which I have that are my primary “go-to” resources are:
- The Encyclopedia of Country Living, by Carla Emery (50th Anniversary Edition is now available.)
- Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth
- Grow Vegetables, by Alan Buckingham, Jo Whittingham, consultant
- Vertical Gardening, by Derek Fell
- Texas Organic Vegetable Gardening, by J. Howard Garrett and C. Malcolm Beck
- And my worn and tattered copy of Joy of Gardening, by Dick Raymond
As with the Internet, you must use your own judgment/common sense when purchasing and reading books on gardening. While a technique might work in the upper Midwest, it is highly unlikely it would work down here!
If you have the available room and want to have a more “traditional” garden, then site selection is a critical step. Ideally, the perfect garden spot is one that has enough light far enough away from trees/shrubs that do not cast too much shade, enough drainage (slope), and good soil. Unfortunately, as in life, perfection is very elusive. Most often, you must do a careful evaluation of the area you do have available.
In my situation, our property is mostly trees, except for an area fenced in by 6-foot privacy fencing approximately 30 feet by 50 feet which attached to one side of the house. The “top” part of the garden nearest the house, would have shade most of the time, while the “bottom” part would have full sun. I determined I would plant my traditional row garden in the “bottom” part.
I mowed the area I was planning on cultivating approximately 30 by 20, basically scalping the lawn as low as possible to prepare it for tilling. I purchased a small 4-cycle Mantis tiller and proceeded to till up the grass and weeds. Before I was halfway finished, I was already beginning to doubt the logic in my idea of putting in a garden, but I was never brought up to be a quitter.
I continued on with the arduous task stopping every 30 minutes or so to clean the tines of Bermuda grass that had wrapped itself tightly around the blades. This “should have been simple task” (had I purchased the right equipment) took almost two full days to fully till the soil. Then came the task of adding soil additives. We have very sandy soil so I proceeded to add bagged organic topsoil, garden soil, and cow manure to my area, once again tilling it into my new garden area. Once that chore was completed, using the plow attachment on my tiller, I created 28 rows for my new garden! I was so excited! My mind was full of all the visions of my family’s garden overflowing with fresh vegetables, juicy blackberries ready to be made into jelly!
I planted all the “basic” vegetables – broccoli, cabbage, onions, corn, okra, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, squash, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelons and on the last outside row 4 blackberry bushes.
Outcome and Lessons Learned:
- I did not have the right equipment to really till the garden site properly. I should have used the money to buy a full-size tiller (or at the very least, found someone in the area which I could hire to do the job). Very quickly after planting, Bermuda grass and other weeds begin showing back up in my garden. It was a constant battle trying to keep them out and working a full-time 40+ hour week job and trying to keep a garden weed-free is extremely difficult!
- In trying to get the most from the garden area, I spaced the rows too close together. 1 foot sounds like plenty of room, however, once the plants in the rows mature and you need to traverse down the rows for routine maintenance, it is very constricting.
- I bought the cheapest seed I could find (I’m sure you have all seen the little 20 cent packages at a big box store? ) While those seeds were not a complete waste, they would not have fulfilled the necessity of providing food for a family. The germination rate was (at most) 70%. The labeling on the packages was totally inaccurate. What should have been “bush/compact plants” turned into a winding menagerie of vines. My beautiful dream of a “picture perfect” garden turned into the scene from Robin Williams Jumanji when the vines took over the home!
- While I thought I did my due diligence in site selection, I did not take into account another aspect of garden planning: The identification of wildlife threats to your garden. I knew we had abundant deer and wild hogs in the area but the privacy fence alleviated that threat. What I forgot was the constant nuisance of pocket gophers. Before my broccoli and cabbage even had a chance, they were devoured from below! (Think Bill Murray and Caddy Shack, only on a smaller scale). Once I literally had a tug of war with a broccoli plant and a gopher. I maintained possession of the plant but the gopher had already eaten/mangled the roots so bad, it was a lost cause.
- Planting Blackberry bushes in the garden is a bad idea!!!! While I didn’t really get a good crop the first year (which was to be expected) but the second year, I had Blackberry bushes sprouting all over my garden area! Sometimes as far away as 20 ft.!
With all the unexpected issues and the frustration of wasted time and effort, I had begun to once again rethink the whole idea of gardening. My husband (who was primarily a “city boy”) was steadfast in his opinion that it was a waste of time, that our ‘garden site’ would never produce anything which we couldn’t just ‘buy at the store’. Well, I mentioned that I wasn’t a quitter but did I also mention I’m slightly stubborn?
I’m an analyst by profession and know when 1 idea/process does not work, that only opens the door to improvement on the existing process or an alternative process. I decided to do more research, looking into alternative gardening methods. What I found combined both improving the existing process AND using an alternative process.
Challenge to Solution
Challenge 1 – Imperfect site selection for traditional gardening, i.e. soil conditions, size constraints, wrong equipment.
Solution – Expand the area to be a complete “garden space” utilizing raised beds and vertical gardening
Raised bed gardening is great, IMHO! While the initial work is tough, the outcome is more than worth it. I now have 9 raised beds (8 ft by 4 ft) and a hay bale trellis area (16 ft by 3ft). That basically gives me 324 square feet of gardening area.
Raised bed gardening is beneficial in conserving water, cutting down on weeds, fewer pest problems, space-saving and for those of us that find it hard to bend/get on our knees, it is easier to work. Raised bed gardening can be as versatile as traditional gardening, actually even more so with different methods. Some prefer Square Foot Gardening, Intensive Gardening, and/or Companion Planting. I actually incorporate all 3 methods in my raised beds.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)