Lessons from our first season in the new vegetable garden

When I was eight or nine years old and living in Switzerland, I asked my parents if I could dig up a patch in the garden to grow things. I’m not sure where the idea came from, but the response was “of course!”. Somehow, my idea of growing vegetables morphed into a little rectangle under the kitchen window. Half was planted with basil, and half with mint. The basil died, and the mint took over (knowing what I know now… duh).

Last year, I finally got my wish!

Starting our brand new veg garden

Once we decided on a spot, we covered it with a black plastic tarp to kill anything growing there. That helped, but clearing out the area of grass and ferns was a lot of work. It felt great though, and was an intense workout.

With the whole area clear, we focused on creating a few beds at a time. In each rectangle, we broke up the soil a bit and added dried horse manure as well as powder limestone to give it a boost. The limestone was to balance out the acidity hinted at by the number of ferns growing in the spot we picked.

After a few weeks, I decided to use long pieces of wood to outline the beds to make sure I didn’t keep stepping in them. That not only worked, but it also made the whole garden look much more put together. Double win. (See photos below.)

Year 1 vegetable garden results

Our first season went well. The results were not amazing, but they were also not terrible.

Here’s an overview. In case you’re not interested in the details, I’ve put the things we were growing in bold so you can get a sense of the variety by just skim-reading.

I put the tomatoes against the stone wall so that the rocks could provide some heat at night. Ok in theory, but I forgot to factor in the giant cherry tree that threw a bit too much shade. Some of our tomatoes also suffered from tomato rot (the bottom goes black and ruins the taste) until I added some powdered limestone to the soil.

Our zucchini plants… two killed it, one did ok, and two grew a few big leaves but that’s about it. The bigger plants all developed white splotches on the leaves, apparently a common fungus issue in very wet and humid summers. I never tested the “wash the leaves with milk” solution, but cut off affected leaves and fruit to avoid contamination. It worked reasonably well. Zucchini plants are some of my favorites – they produce so much and look so cool as they grow to one side!

Other than that, basil did well but never grew very big, spicy peppers thrived, regular peppers and eggplants didn’t get very far (we got one green pepper that I was excited to eat, but a goat beat me to it!). Beets did ok but stayed small, same for onions. Salads thrived, though some went to flower rather fast.

Spinach didn’t get past the small shoot stage, chard did ok, and beans were underwhelming though we did get a handful of absolutely delicious peas (peas are SO GOOD fresh, I don’t understand why you can only ever buy them in cans in supermarkets). Broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and cabbage had potential until goats came through and annihilated them.

Corn grew tall but failed to produce any fruit – one ear appeared but never fully matured. Luffas, melons, and watermelons grew a bit but petered out before they even flowered, let alone produced any fruit.

Turnips did great, except I realized I don’t like them much even when homegrown. Plus, there were a ton of wild ones in front of the houses, and they were just as good as the sown ones! Lesson learned.

Carrots could have done great, except I failed to cull them properly. As a result, many of them stayed small. Make that tiny. It was cute, but not very kitchen-friendly.

Artichokes seemed promising but the three seedlings died before they could grow much. Asparagus I started from seed because I didn’t know where to buy the crowns. At least 3 of the 8 seedlings are growing new shoots already, so I am ever hopeful. We’ll still add to the crop with crowns, as we now know where to source them.

Rosemary did fine, unlike dill which never even progressed past the seed stage. Chamomille and oregano started growing then stalled, and nada with cumin or tarragon.

Believe it or not, that was our “let’s take it slow and not try to grow everything at once” approach.

Lessons from my first season of growing things

Some things I learnt along the way:

  1. No matter how many books or blogs you read about gardening, real experience comes with dirt under your fingernails – but research is useful.
  2. There is such a thing as overzealous application of research, like when I had A Master Plan for companion planting. We ended up with beds that had 4-10 different things growing in them. This made weeding challenging, and almost impossible to delegate when we had someone willing to help. Oops.
  3. It’s not enough to label things in pots – you should label them in the beds too, so people know what to look for. And what not to weed (see point #2).
  4. Culling carrots was much harder than I expected. Emotionally. Yeah, go figure. I will do better this year because tiny carrots may be adorable but they aren’t ideal for eating.
  5. Starting the day by watering the garden and checking on all the seedlings is brilliant. Witnessing things grow is magical, and the daily ritual was a wonderful way to give rhythm to my mornings.
  6. Some people find it weird to talk or sing to your plants, go figure.
  7. Seeds will do their thing, and may or may not grow/blossom/fruit as expected. That’s ok. (This inspired my article on Holstee’s Mindful Matter blog.)
  8. There’s no such thing as perfect conditions.
  9. Goats and chickens, however cute and wonderful, are the enemy when it comes to a productive vegetable garden.
  10. Always mulch (a method where you cover the soil with straw or woodchips or cardboard, and make holes to plant seedlings in). It will reduce weeds and increase the nutritional value of the soil, keep the soil moist, and protect your precious plants if there’s a cold spell.

Gearing up for Season II

There are quite a few things I will do differently this year. I will start planting seeds earlier (now/mid-Feb instead of April), and I will plant more of every kind of seed. I’ll try to do better in terms of planting things in a spot where they can thrive. We will mulch from the get-go. When watering, I will try and pace myself to make sure there is enough water to get past the superficial layer of soil.

This year we are almost doubling the size of our vegetable garden and built a fence to keep goats out. I think there’s still one hole that needs fixing, but that will definitely get taken care of before I transplant things into the garden.

I am so excited to see how it goes! I’ll be sure to share updates on Instagram and here.

 

Do you have your own vegetable garden (or pots on a terrace, either way)? What lessons have you learned over the past years of growing vegetables? What do you struggle with? Any tips or suggestions on how to optimize my approach? How do you keep track of what you plant, where, and what works?