Wednesday, June 5, 2013

My Gardening Mishaps

I've been gardening year-round for the last three years. I started out completely inexperienced but full to the brim with enthusiasm. When I first got started, I thought, "How hard can it be? Plant the seed, water regularly, maybe sing a little, and harvest!"


I thought it would be fun to sit down and innumerate some of my gardening mishaps, with the hopes that someone else might be spared one or two. I'll sometimes add how the problem might be corrected. If you have any ideas, please chime in!

Here I am mixing my first garden soil, blissfully unaware of the difficulty to come. (Yes, I do shudder at that pelvic tilt... no wonder that pregnancy was such agony!)

I built seven boxes total (check out Ariel's pretty boxes). Sammy helped.

When I put Mel's Mix together for my Square Foot Garden (SFG), I didn't yet have homemade compost and I was not vigilant enough choosing the richest compost mix possible, even though I included a good variety of organic items.

To illustrate, let me tell you a little story about corn. I thought it would be nice to grow my own corn, so I planted 16 seeds in my first garden. They sprouted beautifully.

And they grew beautifully! For a while.

Turns out, they were severely malnourished, as evidenced by my happy harvest:

In fact, that first year, I got a whole crop to match!

Onion, bean, spaghetti squash, pepper, corn, 2 cucumbers(?) and carrot.
I was crying and laughing.

My first compost experience was a pile in the corner of the backyard, which I turned with a shovel.

The mistakes I made composting were really just delayers of the process, namely: not turning it often enough and not always keeping moist enough. Nature will do it's magic regardless, but if you keep it moist and turn it often, you can get a batch of good compost in two weeks. For the last two years, I've been using a tumbler, and I just love it!

The degree to which my plants flourish is directly related to the richness of the compost. I'm still learning!

One of the concepts that drew me to SFG was the idea that you don't have to feed your plants once they're growing because they draw what they need from your amazing compost. Once I realized my plants weren't thriving, I still didn't want to add nourishment because I believed the process should work! Turned out to be my loss.

I now feed my plants as necessary with amendments such as liquid seaweed, blood meal, and magnesium sulfate, to name a few. True that the ideal is to build and nourish the soil a couple weeks before planting (not during the growing), but you gotta do what you gotta do.

I've heard it said that if your plants are strong and healthy, all nutrients in place, pests will not bother them. As someone who believes this principle for human health (building immunity to resist illness), this rings true. But since I don't have plant health down pat, the bugs come. And they ruin a lot of hard work.

Ravaged broccoli

I've tried sprinkling diatomaceous earth (food grade) over my soil. It scratches the insects' skin as they travel across it and they get dehydrated and die. Takes care of most kinds of pests, while being plant, people, and earthworm safe (more info here).

There's also the friendly garden bug trick. This definitely helped when aphids took to my strawberries earlier this season.

I also regularly hand-pick bugs off my plants. You have to keep a pretty close eye on them to notice any new holes in leaves or disturbances.

Many plants attract friendly insects or deter unwelcome pests (e.g. marigolds and nasturtiums deter pests while dill attracts friendly bugs). But that's another post, maybe for when I figure out how to get rid of the opossum that sneaks around my yard at night!

When I first started planting, I definitely under-watered those hot little seeds. Newly planted seeds can't dry out or they won't sprout. Once I got the hang of it, I found I had to water at least twice a day. Just make sure the soil drains well, as seeds don't like to be water-logged.

The more room those roots have, the more they thrive. Here is one of my current cayenne plants in a 10" pot. I gave my backyard neighbor a little cayenne plant a few months ago, and she planted it in a 4" pot she had on hand. My plant is now literally 5 times larger than hers, just because of that extra wiggle room. Okay, her mistake, not mine (but I'm sure I've made it, too).

In fact, I have another cayenne plant in a 6"-deep box, and it is not quite as tall as the one in this deep pot. Same story with my anaheim pepper plants (1 in a pot, 1 in the box). I also have tomatoes planted both in boxes and straight into the earth, and the ones with more room to expand have a slight upper-hand. Those roots really like to stretch!

During my first year, I ordered four strawberry starts from Azure, excited to start a strawberry patch. Those plants did not thrive. Later I realized it was because I didn't free up the roots when I put the plants in the ground. They were stuck in a root ball, and couldn't expand. The next year, I started a strawberry patch from bare-roots.

SFG soil is very friable, and I've found that on the hottest days, water evaporates from the soil fairly quickly, leaving the plants looking wilty. It definitely helps to mulch around the plant a little to keep from having to water as often. Conserves water too. I'd love to explore subterranean watering sometime.

There's a host of things I've learned along the way, sometimes from not doing them:
  • Companion planting: Most plants have both friends and foes in the garden. For example, tomatoes love to be near basil, carrots love peppers, but melons hate potatoes and cabbage hates pole beans. This book looks like a great resource on companion planting.
  • Rotating: Plants should be rotated around the garden to maintain soil health, avert disease, and to confuse those sneaky pests.
  • Loose soil: I have watered away little seeds before because the soil was too loose (even when I used a very light flow of water... though I have made the mistake of using too heavy a flow).
  • Packed soil: On the other extreme, I once packed the soil so tightly in my boxes (to avoid washing the seeds away) that after the seeds sprouted, the roots couldn't expand properly.
Stuck little leeks

I read an article yesterday that made me reconsider the trouble with the box I thought I packed too tightly. That box is located about 6 feet from the wall where my router is located, and apparently (but not surprisingly), it can affect plant growth. Maybe it was a combination.

I thought this meant that before transferring starts, you should set them outside for a day or two so they can adjust to the weather. What it really means is that they should be exposed to the weather little by little, not all at once.  I lost several perfectly wonderful plants by doing this wrong.

That yellowing and withery-ness was not there
before I left them in the hot afternoon sun
and overnight (even with plenty of water).

Fortunately, most of the melons bounced back, as did the zucchinis.

Hope the yellow squash is equally forgiving. They're still in their containers! (It's been at least a month and a half since I got them. I know, I know...)

When it comes to individual plants, I've made too many errors to name. But here are a few:
  • Letting strawberries ripen on the soil (better to use little baskets under fruit as they ripen to avoid mushiness... hint from Viola Diva).
  • Allowing tomatoes and peppers to get sun scald (if scalding looks imminent, you can provide some light covering for the growing fruit, or pick tomatoes early and let them ripen in the window).
  • Not letting potatoes "heal" long enough (or at a cool enough temperature?) before planting. Only three of my fifteen potato plants sprouted above the ground this year (though all the eyes had sprouts when I first covered them). Melissa, Idaho potato girl, what did I do wrong?? ...At least they're flowering this year, which they've never done before.

  • Under-pruning tomatoes, which of course resulted in 
  • Over-pruning tomatoes the next year
  • Not knowing when to harvest garlic. Rather, not seeing the signs I was looking for. Mine never flowered. But they sure smell good, curing out in the backyard.

I think of this ongoing experience as exactly that. Experience. It's been highs and lows, peaks and troughs, summits and dumpsters, wild excitement and biting disappointment all the way through. Sometimes I was a victim of the weather or the critters, but mostly of my own ignorance and inexperience.

But-- my enthusiasm for gardening is resilient and indomitable! It comes back with every seed I plant, every sprout that grows, every plant that flowers, and every good thing I harvest. It's been great!! I've learned a lot from books and websites and friends, but more than anything, I've learned by my own (sometimes hard) experience. What keeps me going is the chance to rejuvenate by connecting with the earth every day. If my family can't find me, I'm probably out back staring at my plants.

I wouldn't trade the journey for the best garden in the world. One day, mine will be just that. :)

I'll just keep planting seeds.


  1. That is a world of very useful information. Thank you for compiling it. Forgive me a few chuckles at your tiny tiny first crop! That corn is adorable :)

    I don't know what could have been wrong with the potatoes... What is this potato curing you wrote about? All we ever did when I was growing up was cut them into pieces and throw them in the ground.

    1. Sorry, the word you used for the potatoes was heal, not cure. What is potato healing?

    2. I think it means to let the cut side dry out or callous over to prevent rotting in the ground. The necessity of this step is definitely debated on both sides between potato planters. Maybe next time I'll just toss them in.

      So much trial and error!

  2. I love this! I've done most of the same mistakes! I killed some of my seedlings this year trying to harden them off. I also under-watered my first garden! I had almost no success that year until we had a very wet October, and then finally my peppers started producing like crazy. Last year I think I ruined some of my soil by putting in a bunch of very undone compost. But I love it, I love to try even when I fail, and I try to get my kids involved. I get a toddler garden going with big seeds whether flower or veggies and remind them all season that they planted those plants. It has increased the veggies they're willing to eat... so it's worth it!

  3. Oh, Nonie....we should write a book: "Gardening for real dummies". I think I have a few doozies to add to your list. (Like don't put hot bunny turd compost on an otherwise beautiful strawberry patch because they will all fry. To death.) However, you're right. This year I'll know better how to plant and harvest garlic. Too bad I actually have to make the mistake once before saying, "Well, I'll never do THAT again!"

  4. So helpful!!!

    Also terrifying... For someone who WAS bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about starting to garden this coming fall. Just kidding, I still am, but I am now better steeled for my first failures. Thankfully, I hear everything is easier to grow in VA.

    Any other books you recommend besides SFG?

    1. If you get SFG, make sure it's "All New Square Foot Gardening."

      This year, I've really been enjoying Edward Smith's "The Vegetable Gardener's Bible." I also like "The Backyard Homestead," edited by Carleen Madigan. These two are both published by Storey, who has a lot of similar types of books (don't look at their list on Amazon if you don't want to oogle). It looks like Ed Smith also has a Bible for Container Gardening, which I now want.

      Can't wait to keep up with your new gardening adventures in VA. It will be one of your favorite things.

  5. Terrifically helpful, Nonie. We're SFG fans, too, and still newbies.

  6. Inspiring Nonie. Your enthusiasm, attention and your hard work is totally inspiring. I have been with you when staring at your plants in your garden. I am behind you in vegetable gardens; but my flowers sure are perty.