Things I learned in My First Year of Gardening

My mom had a garden when I was growing up from about 10 years old when we bought a house until I went away to college (I think she gave up for a few years but is back into it now!).  My grandmother always had an AMAZING garden (huge, like 30x30ft or more!) with raised beds, a sturdy fence with human hair hung on the posts to deter deer (which I always thought was so creepy).  So, before I began my own garden venture I knew the importance of reading seed labels to know where to plant (shade/sun) and how deep.  I knew that you plant squash in a “mound” of dirt and that peas and beans (unless they are the bush variety) need something to climb on.  I also knew that squash, peas and beans were the easiest things to grow.  But that was about it.

When I decided that 2011 was MY YEAR to get going on a garden I had no idea how hard it was to START a garden.  Okay, I made it harder than it had to be by trying to use certain methods–I have a bad habit of wanting to do everything “right” the first time around instead of starting small.  We enclosed a huge 22x28ft area for our garden and, as you can see in my previous post, it didn’t come along as well as I’d hoped.  I knew I wanted to use organic methods to grow my food.  I didn’t want to rely on pesticides or fertilizers that could taint my veggies, after all I was going to be feeding them to my babies!!!  I planned on growing a ton of food and learning to preserve through canning and freezing.  I contemplated drying too but thought I was good with 2 things this year–ha!  Little did I know I was already in way over my head! As a birthday treat to myself in February I went on and bought some great books: The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith (a gardener in VT, I wanted “local” because the climate in New England is very different from climates in other parts of the country), the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving and Put ‘Em Up by Sherri Brooks Vinton.  Wow, these books taught me A LOT and I started getting super excited for the Spring!

So, how to get started when there is snow still on the ground (because that year there were FEET of snow on the ground still in March)? First, I used Smith’s book in conjunction with the recipes in the preserving books to decide what I would grow.  Smith’s book includes a huge amount of information on how to start a garden, build raised beds, compost, pests and a detailed and beautifully illustrated section on multiple types of vegetables (more than I’d ever grow!).  Next I ordered seed catalogues.  Oh, they FLOODED into my home taunting me with beautiful, succulent vegetables just waiting for me to grow them!  I read through the catalogues carefully and discovered something: almost every single catalogue was full of seeds that had been genetically modified (GMO: genetically modified organisms).  These plants were altered to be disease resistant, hardy and produce lots and lots of fruit.  Most would not produce seeds that were fertile (and large scale farmers are banned from harvesting their own seeds to replant because it’s “stealing technology”).  Okay, what does that matter, right?  I mean it’s not like I’m harvesting seeds from my plants to plant next year (yet, it’s on my list of things to do in the future–that’s why we HAVE heirloom varieties, because normal gardeners collected their own seeds year after year!).  Well, I decided, along with many other organic farmers and gardeners, that I wanted all non-GMO seeds.  The company I found that posted its Safe Seed Pledge right on the inside cover of its catalogue and when I discovered it was the same Maine based company my grandmother always bought seeds from I was sold!  The company is called Pinetree Seeds and you can find them at .  Did I forget to mention that non-GMO seeds have been bred for their TASTE rather than mass-producibility, a characteristic I highly admire in food.

For a “safe seed resource list” check the Council for Responsible Genetics website.

Smith says he chooses seed catalogues based on the descriptions they give of the seeds.  For example Pinetree usually gives a factoid (where and when the seed originated from) and extra information on how best to utilize the seed.  My first year I just tossed the catalogue after I’d ordered my seeds but this year I actually cut out the descriptions, mounted them on index cards and filed them along with my seeds envelopes in a little bag.  As I began planting I referenced the cards and envelopes AND wrote down the date I planted each seed (didn’t do that my first year and had NO IDEA when things, especially the underground ones like carrots, were due to be “done”!).  I LOVE the extra information the catalogue gave me and I’ll definitely be a garden nerd from now on and continue to organize all the info possible about each type of seed I plant.

Okay, wanna know the other super nerdy thing I do?  I drew a picture of my garden (all nine beds!) and, before I even bought ANY seeds, I sketched out where I thought I wanted things to go.  That plan changed as I actually got out into my garden (with the finished beds and the ones that are still not quite done). but it gave me a good idea as to how much I should buy to fill the garden without wasting.  I ended up actually buying three extra (and very different) packs of seeds after I planted my first batch!  I then “finalized” my drawings as I planted, adding in dates that the veggies should be “done” by using the dates on the seed packets ( you know, where they say 100 days or 53 days, etc.).  I didn’t use any kind of markers in my garden except rocks (of which I have an abundance and keep finding more!!!) to delineate where I started and stopped rows.  The nice thing I’m finding about the raised beds is they divide themselves quite nicely.   My 4×4 beds hold one or two plants quite well (cucumbers and bush beans, trellis beans and carrots, or just strawberries) while my 3×6 beds hold a variety of things (tomatoes, marigolds and carrots at each end with rows of lettuce and a single row of beets in the long middle section).  Last year I got mixed up very quickly with what I’d planted when, when it was going to mature and sometimes where on earth I’d put it (I used fat popsicle sticks with the names on them but they were always getting broken, usually by my feet–another benefit to raised beds). This year is beautifully organized!  As the season progresses I’ll make notes about things that seem to do well or not well, when the plants mature, etc. (frankly I’m sure I’ll jot things down that I haven’t even thought about yet!).  Smith suggests including notes about when you fertilize and with what and the results as well but since I have yet to do more than mulch the lawn into the ground I won’t have much to say this year.

The dates show when the plants will mature.  The sticky notes show what I plan on planting in the “empty” space.  Planting everything at once means it all matures at the same time, I am not sure how I’ll deal with all the beets I get period (beets aren’t something we eat much but I did pick golden beets so we wouldn’t have to deal with that pesky staining) so I am planting a little at time so they mature at different times.  In some cases I’ve written myself a note for when I should plant-based on when I want the plant to mature and when I’m likely to be able to still harvest (peas won’t produce much in the late, hot summer so I’m not bothering to plant anything late for them EXCEPT as a green compost).

So, what did I choose to plant in my garden this year?  Lots of fun stuff!

Mr. Big Pea: I’m not fond of peas in general but fresh peas are AWESOME (I’m talking straight out of the pod) and my kids love peas so I’m hoping to have enough this year to freeze a bunch.

Snap Peas: Almost none of these actually made it to the house last year either so I made sure to plant A LOT of them this year too (the peas are what are growing on my PVC pipe trellis).

Green Beans: two different kinds, a pole bean and a bush bean.  The difference is exactly what it sounds like: one climbs on a pole one is a bush 🙂  I like pole beans (they produce more because of their height) but they shade other areas of the garden.  I am a little worried the amount of shading I have this year might cause problems.

Brussel Sprouts: Do we eat a ton now?  No, but they mature very late, they taste BETTER after a frost actually, so we’ll have fresh veggies long after everything else has been killed by cold.

Beets: as I said above we don’t eat a ton but they’re good for you and I chose a Golden variety because I hate the staining!  I could learn to can them if I am so inclined too.  I’ve heard they are very good when picked small and fresh.

Zucchini: last year I had yellow squash, acorn squash and zucchini and they went crazy (didn’t know you were supposed to only have ONE plant per hill, you thin after they sprout).  We had squash coming out our ears!  This year I planted only zucchini (and only 2 hills) and I’m sure we’ll still have it coming out our ears!

Pumpkin: I chose the Kakai Pumpkin because it has great seeds.  That is my favorite part of any pumpkin and really my main motivation for carving jack-o-lanterns each fall.  I am going to try cooking, pureeing and freezing the pumpkins too (they are just big squash after all!) for our new baby who will be hungry for fresh veggies around Christmas.

More Beans: I chose a bean meant for drying, Vermont Cranberry, because beans are good for you, they store well, and they are SUPER easy to grow!

Corn: I’m really excited about this.  We have so much space (or so I thought) and my whole family loves corn so I thought–why not?  Hopefully it doesn’t prove more than I can handle (I’m mostly concerned about big pests entering my garden, we have raccoons in the area and I’m not about to put up an electric fence).  If we want to do more corn next year we may have to expand, corn is a good rotation crop but I have no where else to put it except where it already is!

Strawberries: One of two perennial plants I planted this year (they’ll come back next year) and in fact they aren’t great producers their first year.  I’ve read that it’s good to prune back the buds during strawberry’s first year to ensure healthy and abundant leaf growth instead of fruit.

Chives: the other perennial.  I didn’t manage to get onions (you usually buy them in “sets” or little bulbs and the ones I was generously given got all moldy before I was ready to plant them–bummer!) so chives were the next best thing.

Carrots, Carrots and More Carrots: Last year we had one crop of regular carrots do really well (the other entire bed was eaten by something).  This year I took Edward Smith’s advice and bought a variety of types.  We have Cosmic Purple, Atomic Red, Rainbow, and two standard orange varieties.

Parsnips: A close relative of the carrot and a vegetable I’ve never eaten.  I discovered that I had extra space and loved the idea of a plant I could leave in the ground all winter to dig up and eat in the early Spring!  You can eat them sooner (though after the frost in fall like brussel sprouts) and I may… but I may also leave some for Spring!

Cucumbers: Two varieties a Long Green which I haven’t tried and Diva which was one of my favorite discoveries of last year!!!  Delicious, smooth skin, almost no seeds, no need to peel… yum!

Tomatoes: No idea what kind.  My father in law brought over plants (so these and the strawberry plants are my only non-non-GMO plants) with no labels.  I know that at least some of them are grape tomatoes but we’ll just have to see what happens with the others!  Kind of fun not knowing.  Last year I had good luck with my Cherry 100s (a Burpee variety, it is GMO I believe) but not with my Big Boys.  Next year I plan to start my own tomatoes from seed.

Lettuce: I got a regular Lettuce Mix and a Winter Lettuce mix (the latter has not been planted yet) I had the regular mix last year and loved the variety.  Fresh salad greens have no comparison.

Cabbage: Again I got Pinetree’s mix.  I tried some cabbage last year only to have it in the mysteriously eaten bed that had nothing grow.  Haven’t seen much popping up yet so I’m not sure I’m having better luck this year.

Marigolds: I bought these (I’ll start from seed next year) and planted them with the tomatoes and carrots to discourage pests.  Apparently certain bugs don’t like the smell of marigolds!

Nasturtiums: I haven’t even planted these guys yet, they are another flower that deterrs pests.  I bought the “compact” variety because reading their descriptions made it seem like they liked to roam.  I’m striving for containment this year after last years wildlife preserve so I thought “compact” was my best bet!

I bought all my seeds from Pinetree Seeds, a company out of Maine that sells ONLY non-GMO seeds.  Visit their website to order any of the same varieties I’ve mentioned here!

And if you’re interested I did post pictures of my “Wildlife Preserve” garden from last year as well as my improvements for this year on the previous post: The Makings of a Beautiful Salad–2012.



One response to “Things I learned in My First Year of Gardening

  1. Pingback: Suckers and other Garden Terrors « Mama Mia's World·

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