Saturday, November 19, 2016

Garden Reflections 2016: Three mistakes I made

This year was a challenging one, both for me and for my veggie garden. Weather in particular was challenging, plus I took a second job for the end of the summer that left me only one day per week free to do all my chores, writing, gardening, butterflying, etc. Yikes. I think it wouldn’t have been quite so bad though if I hadn’t made a few key mistakes:

1. Letting my spring crops take over the summer
Lacinato kale turns into monsters if you let grow from spring all the way through fall!

I was so proud of myself this year for actually fulfilling my plan to have some “shoulder season” crops in the ground when it wasn’t yet warm enough for things like tomatoes. However, when it came time to swap them out I just couldn’t bear to pull plants that were still producing. I didn’t harvest my beets until mid June, and my spring Lacinato kale is actually still in the ground! (I haven't gotten around to harvesting the kale yet partly because of a whitefly infestation which I keep hoping will die down once we get frost.) So several summer direct-sow crops never got planted: cantaloupe, shell beans, summer squash and winter squash.

My Red Ace beets, delicious despite the late harvest. Definitely a good keeper variety.
  • Next year I need to either plant less of my spring veggies (so they’re gone by the time I need to replace them), or not be so ambitious with plants to reuse the same beds for both spring and summer crops.
  • Also I may want to look at planting even earlier in the spring: the beets and carrots in particular were slow growing so didn’t seem ready to harvest when I needed to pull and replace them.

2. Setting out peppers and tomatoes late

We had some really cold, wet, rather miserable weather late this spring. I used this as an excuse to procrastinate planting my tomato and pepper seedlings. I told myself they’d get stunted if I planted them at the usual time—each weekend I looked at the weather forecast and saw chilly temps. But in the end I planted them so late it wasn’t until October and even November that either variety of tomatoes (Amish Paste & Cherokee Purple) or sweet peppers (Red Snapper & Quadrato Giallo D'Asti) really started bearing significant amounts of fruit. I have a couple dozen green tomatoes on my kitchen counter right now that I’m trying to ripen. I know I wasn’t the only gardener in the area to have this problem-- it really was an unpleasant spring for warmth-loving veggies like the tomatoes. But in Grow It Eat It’s season wrap-up post I read a great suggestion for next year—stagger the plantings. I usually grow at least two plants each of each tomato variety. So rather than putting all my eggs in one basket, next year I’ll try putting half out on time, and half a couple weeks later. That would spread out the harvest, as well as protect against losing everything to a late cold snap.

The first really decent batch of tomatoes from my garden this year, harvested on November 11.

  • I may also want to check the days-to-maturity on my chosen varieties, for that matter. If I’m choosing all tomatoes that have a long time to vearing the first ripe fruit, I may not be able to get much before August even with a staggered planting. I’ve been trying a lot of heirlooms the past few years, enjoying the connection with previous generations. But I’ve come to think maybe that shouldn’t be my top criterion for selection.  Rather, I need to focus on what’s both tasty and productive for me & my garden. 

3. Finally, I think the biggest mistake I made this summer was not mulching the garden at all. 

Look at all those weeds creeping through the fence on the right! Arrgh.

We were very tightly budgeted so I had to cut somewhere. The usual 13-17 bags of mulch were one big and easy thing to cross off the "to buy" list. However, that meant the garden suffered more than usual with drought, and worse, the weeds were rampant. When mid summer came and I tried working a few summer camp sessions to get extra hours, I just didn’t have the energy let alone time to keep on top of weeding. When I did get around to it, I would end up pulling huge armloads of grasses and other weeds. I have two composting areas—one to make compost for my veggie garden, one to make “weedy” compost for filling in other areas. I put weeds, especially ones gone to seed, in the latter area so I’m not reintroducing more pests and weeds seeds to the garden when I turn in compost. Anyway, that area is way overflowing now, in fact there are mini haystacks of dried grasses beside the compost bins. Our cat Caleb has actually decided they make quite a pleasant bed in the sunshine. Hooray for silver linings, I guess?

  •  So next year I definitely need to find the money to buy mulch. If we’re still really hard up I should at least get a few trunkloads of the free stuff given out by the county—when I could afford it I’ve skipped that source, not knowing what’s in it. Would I make matters even worse by incorporating weed-ridden mulch in my veggie garden? But after the lessons of this year I think maybe it’s worth the risk.

  • I had also hoped to try a cover crop this winter to help cut down on spring weeds. But I never got around to ordering the seeds so that fell by the wayside. I’d still like to try it next year though, so stay tuned.

What lessons did you learn from your garden this year? Share in the comments so we can all learn too.

Also, if you’ve ever tried community compost sources, what were your experiences? Am I right to fear weeds and other contamination, or overly cautious? Let me know what you think.

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