As I promised in my post about my garden successes and failures this year, here I tell you about the lessons I learned from my first big garden. It was a year of gardening experiments, and every thing I tried taught me a useful lesson. So, here we go.
1. Ruth Stout’s method doesn’t always work.
Ruth Stout was a gardener who, back in the 1960s (perhaps a bit earlier), stumbled onto organic gardening without ever having read about it. She just began to question the need to pour all those toxic chemicals all over her garden, and into the soil. By the 70’s, she had written several articles about her newfound method in Organic Gardening magazine, and subsequently had a few books published.
Her method in a nutshell: mulch, and lots of it. She specifically recommended, and used, spoiled hay. She even said that she never had to water during a two- to three-month drought. She just had to water everything well at the beginning of the growing season, and then cover everything with several inches to a foot (even more) of hay. She had few pest problems, abundant crops, and only put a little bit of cottonseed fertilizer down once a season.
That sounded great to me, so last fall we bought six very large bales of hay and spread them over the garden. Did it work?
Not as well as I liked. I still ended up with tons of squash bugs (welcome to gardening in the South – Ruth Stout lived in Connecticut). I did have a lot of production without fertilizing. But I also ended up with a ton of grass and weeds growing in my garden that wouldn’t have otherwise shown up – they were from seeds in the hay.
Worst of all, I found out that however hot it gets in Connecticut during their so-called drought, it must not come close to what we have in the Deep South. This year, God helped me out by sending rain about once a week – an unusual frequency for this part of the country during the summer. So for a long time, I couldn’t really tell if the hay was composting quickly enough to continually add moisture to the soil and therefore eliminate all irrigation needs.
But during the last two weeks of August, summer decided to show up. It was consistently in the mid-nineties and above, and didn’t rain for over two weeks.
And my garden got sad. The soil got dry. The hay was not enough.
HOWEVER…maybe I needed a few more inches of hay around the base of each plant?
I don’t know. Obviously, I’m not going to remove the existing hay in my garden. I’m going to let it turn into nice, rich compost. But from now on, I’m going to source mulch from our property, from grass and weeds that have not gone to seed.
And during a normal summer, I will plan to water by hand.
Which leads me to my next lesson…
2. We need an additional source of water for irrigation.
I’d thought that the two fifty-gallon rain barrels would be sufficient for supplemental irrigation during the summer. But since the hay isn’t doing as well as I’d hoped (and as Ruth Stout implicitly promised), I told J we’re going to need a small pond to catch a few hundred more gallons of water.
3. Solar dehydration is not a reliable food preservation method here.
It’s too humid much of the time. Need I say more?
4. Fifteen tomato plants is more than enough.
I had thirty this year, and had many more tomatoes rot on the vine than I could use. Of course, without an electric dehydrator or freeze-drying system, or the space to store multiple jars of canned tomatoes (until we have a bigger house), I couldn’t put up a lot of them. Then there were the plants themselves – I had to do some serious pruning several times because they grew all over everywhere.
Fifteen vigorously-growing plants is plenty to keep us in fresh tomatoes during the summer, as well as provide us with enough dehydrated and canned for things like ketchup and tomato soup on a cold winter day.
5. I need to plant only two melon plants, and then one month apart.
We ended up with four plants. WAY too many for three people. And by planting one a month after the other, I spread out the harvest so we’re not literally watching them rot on the vine because we can’t eat them.
6. I shouldn’t plant warm-weather crops here until May 1.
I know, I know, we had an unusually cold winter. But I work hard to grow my seedlings. I don’t want to risk them. And because my garden is so large, it would take a lot of work to cover and uncover them in the event of a frost.
7. Two cucumber plants, put in a month apart, is more than sufficient.
See number five. And Beit Alpha fruits are superior to Yamato Extra Long, however prolific the Yamatos are. The Yamatos turn bitter four to six weeks after they start producing. They are also not “burpless”, like the Beit Alphas.
8. I need to spray the cukes for powdery mildew.
I’m happy to say that I can do this with diluted el-cheapo milk, nothing that will bother the bees or anything else. But diluted milk is said to keep fungus off of plants, so I’m going to try it next year to keep my plants healthier longer.
9. Don’t use twine for trellising.
J had more important things to do this spring than build me nice, firm trellises. He did put cedar posts in the garden for my blackberries, tomatoes, and cucumbers, but I said I’d take care of the climbing medium.
I used old-fashioned twine. Not nylon, the natural stuff. They didn’t even last a month.
The next time we go to Lowes, we’re getting livestock fencing to replace the twine.
I’m sure there are a few other lessons I learned this year, but those are the major ones. If you are thinking about gardening, feel free to live vicariously through my experiences and make fewer mistakes. ;)
Take care, and be well! (And don't forget to follow/share this blog if you like the content! :) )