Every year, gardeners around the world feel both excitement and trepidation at the pitfalls that occur when trying to grow your own food. However, both victories and failures are cause for reflection, and truly help us grow as people and gardeners.
2018 was my first year at being more involved with growing and harvesting my own fruit, vegetables, and herbs. Having no previous experience, the learning curve was pretty daunting. However, my thirst to experience and learn more, especially from my mistakes, continually keeps me enthusiastic to apply those lessons to our next growing season in 2019. Below is a list of important lessons I’ve learned in my first year. I hope that you might learn from my rudimentary mistakes, and help you with an even better producing harvest!
Please share some of the things you learned this year in the comments below! Gardening is a life long learning pursuit. The more we collaborate and pool our knowledge, the better our collective harvests will be!
Vermicompost Is King
Since the inception of my passion for gardening, I’ve researched many of the different ways you can amend soil with compost. While there are a variety of options gardeners prefer, I’ve fallen into the vermicompost camp. Worm castings are not high in salt like other composts, so you can apply topically without having to worry about burning your plants. In fact, some gardeners sow seeds directly into the nutritious plant food! It’s rich, highly concentrated, and has some of the most vehement advocators amongst the gardening community.
I purchased my first bag of Vermicompost from a local garden center over the summer. After applying a little to my plants and seeing great results, I was hooked! It was around this time, that I started to research creating my own compost by cultivating a vermiculture worm bin. The thought of being able to save money by not buying compost, reducing my carbon footprint via upcycling food/carbon waste, and amending the food I was growing with the best possible supplements was a no-brainer!
Over the 2018 growing season, I’ve relied more and more on vermicompost. I had ended up purchasing about 3 bags of quality “black gold” over the growing season, and cannot speak high enough of it. Worm castings have become a staple in my process for starting seeds, transplanting plants, and amending my beds and plants for better quality growth.
In late September, I purchased my first thousand red wrigglers, and started my own worm bin. This upcoming year, I’m hoping to keep my worms thriving, using a 3-bin vertical migration system, and harvest my own castings for my hungry garden. Worm enthusiasts, and the lauded Mary Appelhof, seem to set the bar at harvesting castings every 3 months or so. I should have my first harvest of castings in the beginning of the year. I’ll be including you along on the journey to my first worm casting harvest, so stay tuned!
For any gardener out there, I’d highly suggest applying some vermicompost to your garden this year, and test it out for yourself. I have no doubt that you’ll soon be itching to create your own worm bin, and start on your own worm farming adventure!
Thinning Is Essential
This year was the first year that I started growing seriously. The goal was to eat more organically, reduce our dependence on the supermarket and save money, but it was mostly driven for the pure joy of growing. In my exuberant excitement, I tossed seeds into my containers, patiently waiting for the sproutlings to start reaching up into the sky.
The resulting mess wasn’t surprising. While I was able to grow and harvest some of the jumble of plants, this was extremely ineffective. Many of the plants I grew were extremely leggy, trying to find access to the sun, and didn’t really develop. Other scraggly sproutlings didn’t make it past the few first inches of life, and matted up in a mess of random growth. Of all the leafy greens I tried growing this fall, I was only able to utilize a fraction of the sown seeds. These stunted greens also choked out the other plants I tried planting interspersed throughout, and gave me a stunted harvest.
The one thing I did end up thinning out were my radishes. Unsurprisingly, my harvest of radishes was satisfying and quantifiably more successful than most others.
Lesson learned. This upcoming growing season, I plan on taking more care and attention during the sowing phase of growing, and make sure I give enough space for my plants to properly thrive. In my excitement and my limited space, I assumed the stronger plants would starve the weak out and leave me with an excellent crop. I underestimated a plant’s ability to survive, even with minimal space, light, and water — which ultimately was detrimental to the plants I did harvest from, as those growing resources weren’t best allocated for production.
Tomatoes Are Tough In The PNW
Growing up on the east coast, I distinctly remember tomato plants being an important key in my grandparents’ garden. The plump green/red fruit, the tangy smell of the stems and leaves, and the sheer number of varieties of both heirloom and hybrid plants you can choose from, make tomatoes a cornerstone of any home gardener. However, growing these plants can get tricky in the Pacific Northwest.
I’ve heard from multiple local growers that we just don’t get enough sun for big tomatoes. My west-facing patio only has a short window of sun even in the summer, due to the barrier of tall trees between my apartment building and the neighbors. Despite trying my hardest to get my Giant Belgium Heirlooms to fruit this year, I was only able to harvest 3 before the fall. While I know that it is possible for growers in this area to have a successful tomato season, I struggled to keep my plant producing for me.
One of the big lessons I learned from growing tomatoes was that a tomato cage is not as helpful as I originally thought. I first got the plant at about 2 feet tall, and my tomato cage easily contained it. However, before I could blink and realize what happened, the plant easily outgrew the cage, and it looked like Chris Farley trying to fit into David Spade’s coat.
My Giant Belgium had taken off, and I had no clear path to tame the beast. Luckily, I had learned about the stake and prune method of maintaining tomatoes during the season, and I was able to stake the plant up. It was so much easily managed staked to a piece of bamboo. Next year, I definitely plan to use bamboo stakes to keep my tomatoes up right, and then just prune the suckers so it creeps steadily up. Focusing the growth specifically on the main branch of the tomatoes, and the fruiting bodies, decreases the resources the plant will spend on excessive suckers and leafing, making your tomatoes delicious and amazing!
Another interesting thing I learned about tomatoes are how extremely fertile they can be. Each sucker, I learned, has the potential to become it’s own independent plant. After trimming my Giant Belgium down, and using the cuttings as mulch for the mother plant, I one day noticed a sucker had taken to root! Just sitting on top of the soil, the little cutting did not want to give up trying to thrive. This raises some good prospects for next year. When I start my tomatoes, any plants that are performing particularly well in the beginning of the spring, I should be able to propagate a clone of the main plant, and get an even better yield of tomatoes later in the summer.
While I’ve heard Giant Belgiums can be a little bit more temperamental to growing conditions, I haven’t given up on them just yet. However next summer I want to focus on trying a few more varieties, including cherry tomatoes.
Radishes Are Rad
I have to confess that before this year, I had never really tried radishes before. However, now that I’ve grown them in my garden, I’m extremely excited to start growing them more regularly! Radishes are super easy to grow, and one of the more satisfying crops I cultivated. While the rest of my plants were a bit of a mess due to not thinning things out properly, I had planted my radishes later in the season, after I had learned more about growing food.
The great things about radishes is that they only take 30-45 days to reach maturity! If you time it, you could grow radishes most of the year, especially in the Pacific Northwest where the cooler weather is preferable for the plant. The longer you let them sit past maturity, the spicier and woodier they can get. While the harvest I got from my garden wasn’t profound for a number of reasons, they were a tasty and satisfying reward for my efforts and attention.
While they weren’t giant, they were still spicy! Radishes seem to get spicy from the point where the tuber meets the leaves, depending on maturity. I’ve read that the leaves are edible and delicious in salads, though I didn’t get an opportunity to try, as I learned that tidbit after my radishes were harvested.
Next year, I’m hoping to have a bigger, separate container for my radishes to grow. I believe the limited size of the bannister planter that they lived in, stunted their growth. As I mentioned, I also learned the importance of thinning with my radishes this year. I plan on starting my radishes early next spring, and take advantage of the fact that they love the cool weather of the Pacific Northwest!
Infinite Strawberry Glitch
Strawberries have quickly become my favorite plant and food to grow! I envy all the stories of gardeners growing up picking strawberries out of their parents or grandparents garden. When they’re in season during the summer, I usually spend quite a bit at the supermarket buying these delicious little treats, so adding them into my garden was a no brainer.
Plants are very interesting. Before this year, I was not aware that some perennial plants grow out from a central crown, that stays dormant during the winter, and propagate themselves by means other than fruiting/seeding! While you can take the challenging path of starting strawberries from seeds, there is a much easier way to exponentially multiple your patch, and growing more strawberries than your family could ever need!
Strawberry plants grow from their central crown, and shoot off 3 types of growth stalks: leaves, fruiting bodies, and runners. While leaves and fruiting bodies are pretty standard, runners are an interesting way of self-replicating that many berry plants utilize. Runners are basically long stems that “run” out from the mother plant, with a small set of leaves. The idea is that they reach a spot of dirt, and start setting down roots, using the stem as an umbilical cord to sustain itself. Once fully rooted, this little runner has become it’s own independent strawberry plant.
After purchasing an older strawberry plant from Lowe’s late in the season, I obtained 6 propagated runners from a local grower. These 6 plants soon took hold and started replicating like mad! The first year of a runner’s life, it’s encouraged to cut all fruiting bodies and runners that each crown might produce. This ensures that all the energy the little plants have, are focused on producing leaves to photosynthesize, and developing a stronger root system. This ensures the plant will overwinter well, and survive into its second year, where berry production will really start taking off!
After stewarding over my little runners all summer and fall, my plants are ready to start seriously producing fruit for me next year. However, they should also start sending out a good number of runners as well. While I will again moderate their growth, to make sure enough of the plant’s energy will focus on fruiting, this is where the compounding effects of growing strawberries comes into play!
Those 6 plants will come out of dormancy in the spring, with the solid root system they developed the year before, and will be strong enough to grow both fruit and try to reproduce via runners. If each plant produces 5 runners that survive implanting, by the end of next season I will have 30 individual strawberry plants, each capable of producing lots of fruit. At the end of the next year, using the same numbers, I will have 150 strawberry plants. The year after that, your individual plants would number somewhere around 750.
The potential for growing enormous amounts of fruit is staggering! With such simple maintenance on a perennial plant that propagates relentlessly, all you need is a little patience to truly get an infinite amount of strawberries!
Next year I plan on cultivating my older strawberry plant,, making sure it stays happy and healthy, and ensuring my 6 mature plants will successfully produce an abundance of fruit for both myself and my girlfriend. Keeping these little wonders healthy can ensure a continual harvest of propagated strawberry plants for myself, and to share with friends and family!
Mammoth Sunflowers Are Fragile Giants
Sunflowers were the first plants that I started caring for in my journey into gardening. I received a few sunflower seed starter kits as a gift the year before, and quickly became enamored with this bright flower after sowing them in some dirt.
This year I decided to double down on my newly found love for Sunflowers, and I purchased some Mammoth Sunflower seeds. The package said they can grow up to 8 feet, which was pretty impressive at the time. I popped 5 seeds into my giant container on my patio, and soon they were climbing out of the dirt and reaching for the sun.
What I was not prepared for was how mammoth-Mammoth Sunflowers really are. By the end of their lives, their stalks were almost as thick as my wrist, reached anywhere from 8 to 12 feet tall, and had fully matured flower heads that were nearly as large as my head!
However, despite how delightfully enormous these plants get, there are pitfalls to growing these flowers.
We live in a pretty sheltered apartment area, however we still can get pretty high winds sometime. These top-heavy sunflowers were not a fan of the wind. We had planted 5 sunflower seeds in the spring, all of which sprouted. The first very windy night, we lost 2 having had snapped in half. Another had folder over, but was able to eventually mend itself. This happened again twice more over the season, and got worse as the flower heads formed, bloomed, and grew to full maturity. The more weight the flower held up, the worse the wind affected my gentle giants. By the end of the season, I ended up staking up all 3 remaining flowers with a thick, 6-foot support bamboo.
As I’ve researched other growers, and their tips and lessons from growing Mammoth Sunflowers, I’ve learned that this is an extremely common occurrence with these plants. While they are fantastic for cultivating sunflower seeds, their thick stems don’t seem to support their full weight well.
Next year, considering I have limited space on my patio, I may forgo growing these titans in lieu of more space to grow edible plants. However, I still love sunflowers dearly, and may still try another smaller variety in a smaller container.
Mulch! Mulch! Mulch!
As I began learning about growing food and how to maintain a functioning garden, I came across the YouTube channel of James Prigioni — who created a beautiful food forest in a 65 foot by 55 foot section of his backyard over the better part of the last decade. While watching his videos and taking detailed notes, I was introduced to the Back To Eden method of gardening. Back To Eden gardening is mainly attributed to Paul Gautschi in the self-titled documentary, where this highly spiritual gardener conveys his no-till, all natural and organic, method of growing focusing on mulching.
Applying layered mulching in your garden has a great number of benefits in many different types of growing situations. While the Back To Eden method has its detractors, projects like Greening The Desert by the Permaculture Institute lead by the esteemed Geoff Lawton, easily demonstrates the power of mulching and the principles of permaculture. Mulching has a myriad of benefits to your garden:
- Retains Moistures Leading To Less Watering
- Insulates Soil Temp During Hot/Cold Months
- Minimizes Weed Growth
- Prevents Soil Compaction For Healthier Plants
- Amends Soil As It Breaks Down
After learning about all the benefits of mulching, and how it helps maintain the ecosystem of plants within a garden or forest, I knew I had to implement mulching in my container garden. I applied mulch to my beds, which immediately made them look aesthetically pleasing. Aside from looks though, I immediately noticed a drop in the evaporation to my plants. I went from heavily watering them daily, to every few days or every week, at the height of the summer.
One of the biggest benefits of using mulch in your garden, is that aside from all the great advantages listed above, the mulch itself is food for your plants. Consider the life of a tree starting from seed. It spends it’s life photosynthesizing, using energy from the sun to make itself grow larger and larger, and able photosynthesize more. The tree itself is a culmination of all that stored energy. When a tree dies, and it chopped up into wood chips, and each wood chip is a small concentration of that energy. When added into your garden, these wooden solar batteries break down from the weather, microbes, and fungi, and compost down to become humus for your plants. All of the converted nutrients and energy are then recycled into your garden to help produce food. This is one of the basic premises of Back To Eden garden, and the practice of food forestry.
At the end of this growing season, I made it a point to amend my containers, and prepare them to overwinter for next year. This process included chopping and dropping any organic material that was left over and laying it down. Next, I added a layer of vermicompost, crushed egg shells, and coffee grounds, to seep down and enrich the soil further during the winter. Lastly, I added a new layer of wood chips layered on top of everything. As the winter progresses, the bottom layer of wood chips will break down into humus, and the top layers of mulch begin breaking down. By the time spring arrives, the soil in my containers will be rich and ready to feed my vegetables and fruit all next year.
Next year I plan on continuing to keep my containers well mulched, and only pull them back in the spring to sow and transplant. This way the mulch prevents any weeds from taking root, the soil will be able to keep a consistent moisture level, and will keep my plants very happy!
Growing Herbs Is Extremely Fulfilling
Once I caught the gardening bug, I ran out and purchased a few plants to get me going, one of which was a Lemon Thyme. If you’ve never had the chance to smell this particular thyme species, I’d highly suggest grabbing one. As the name suggests, the smell of citronella or citrus is strong on it, and has a distinct taste compared to common thyme.
I’m not a cook in the slightest of terms, my girlfriend went to culinary school and is amazed at how little I know in the kitchen. I’d never used fresh herbs before while cooking meat, only dry seasoning. My mind was blown! It added amazing flavor with chicken, beef, or pork. I’m excited to experiment and find other uses in the kitchen.
One night in the late summer, my girlfriend prepared an amazing steak dinner with fresh rosemary, and I immediately went to the store to pick up my own plant. There’s something about the Tuscan Blue Rosemary that is so aromatic and flavorful. We’ve (she has) since infused olive oil with it and some garlic, and used it in various dishes with excessive success.
Kitchen use aside, the first and last thing I do when out on my patio garden is to always run my fingers through my rosemary and get that smell in the air. Fresh rosemary has a way of soothing and relaxing you like no other herb I’ve encountered thus far.
We also have a Lemon Balm plant we received as a gift in the spring. This little plant has an amazing capacity to bush out to get as much sun as it can. It’s tiny little flowers are great for attracting bees, and the plant has a very lemony smell to it. It’s used in potpourri, teas, and even made into infused syrups. Be sure to keep your eyes out for my upcoming post How To Make: Lemon Balm Syrup. It’s an amazing herbal sweetener for teas or coffee!
Next year, I’m hoping to expand my herb garden to include basil, mint, and dill. Ideally, I’d like to be able to grow most of our own herbs at home, and dry them for use over the winter. Herbs are expensive in the supermarket, which is odd considering how simple most of the commonly used spices are to grow. In fact you can regrow almost all of the fresh herbs available in the supermarket. Keeps your eyes out for my article on regrowing kitchen scraps!
I’m already trying to grow some basil cuttings on my window sill over the winter, and have some ginger leaping up every week. By the summer, my garden should have a good variety of herbs that I’ll be both using, and drying to store for the winter months.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed this list of things I learned in my first year of growing. Please feel free to share any victories or defeats, and the lessons you learned in the comments below!
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