Lessons from last year's garden

Last year was the first year I planted a garden. Oh, I've grown container tomatoes and had beans and cucumbers in raised beds, but last year's garden was a REAL garden. Like many of my endeavors on this farm, I learned a lot from it, and I've tried to implement my new knowledge in this year's garden plans. Here are some of my problems and how I fixed them.

Seedling Survival

I like starting my garden plants from seed; it's more economical than buying plants from the garden center. I have a couple shelves in my laundry room outfitted with fluorescent shop lights that provide a happy place for seedlings to mature. Last year, I found that I didn't have enough shelf space, so I put some flats outside on the deck. Since it was a warm spring, I figured they would be fine.

It wasn't the temperature that gave the seedlings problems; it was the wind and rain. We experienced numerous rain storms and frontal systems, which alternately drowned and dried out my seedlings, and I lost a lot of the little guys. The tomatoes were fine--those guys are tough!--but the squash and melons in their small pots couldn't handle the extremes in moisture levels.

So Tom built me a cold frame.

The 4-foot square window had been left behind by the previous owners of the farm. The wood framing is all scrap wood we had lying about. The shiny-on-one-side insulation sheets forming the sides of the frame was left over from constructing the new barn. The big window is hinged at the top for access into the frame.

It has given me the additional space I needed, and the little plants seem to love it.

Too Many Tomatoes!

Another problem we had last year was tomato overload. Tomatoes are so easy to start, and the plants stay tiny so long, that it's easy to lose track of how monstrous a single plant can get--especially a sprawling indeterminate variety. Last year, I planted about 80 plants. The tiny things looked so sad and lonely in the garden, spaced 3-4 feet apart from each other. Some were in tomato cages; most were staked. I had such good intentions of tying the plants to the stakes as they grew, and maintaining a neat and orderly tomato bed with passable walkways.

The tomato plants had other ideas. The cages and stakes were all inadequate, and fell over promptly. The plants quickly covered the ground like kudzu. The heavy fruit grew on the ground, and picking in that jungle was hard with all the necessary stooping. I ended up removing a few perfectly healthy plants just so I could get into the thicket. Some fruits rotted on the ground--but that's okay, because I had so many plants....

This year, we've put up sturdy trellises of unused fence scraps supported by T-posts. I have a good feeling about this year's crop--even though I don't have as many plants, I expect to get plenty of fruit.

Weeds

Last year, I planted the garden--and then ignored it (except for watering) for the next week. Unfortunately, the fertile loose soil that was meant to benefit the garden plants also provided luxurious conditions for the dandelions, dock, and creeping Charlie. And the wild carrots. And the buttercups. And the lamb's quarter, purslane, and everything else. We never did catch up with the weeding, and one edge of the garden that had been newly tilled reverted to sod by the end of summer.

This year, I'm keeping ahead of the weeds. The kids are out with hoes every evening after dinner. We're hand-pulling the Johnson grass even before the beans and kohlrabi come up, and we've clearly marked every squash plant so even the most plant-averse kids are comfortable hoeing among them. It helps that we cleared so many weeds last year, but, of course, we're still getting an aggressive crop now. But we're going to continue to keep up, until our garden plants are big enough to out-compete the weeds!

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