Sunday, September 8, 2013

Lessons Learned From the Vegetable Garden

“The more you know, the more you know you don't know.”(Aristotle)

I'd like to paraphrase Aristotle just a little:  "The more I learn about gardening, the more I realize how much more I have to learn." I've often said that I still consider myself somewhat of a newbie gardener. Just when I'm feeling rather smug that I have acquired enough knowledge to call myself a true gardener, I learn some new things that make me realize how little I really know.  In thinking about lessons learned this past season, the most memorable lessons came from my vegetable garden.  That's rather ironic considering I have been growing vegetables far longer than growing flowers or other ornamentals.  It just goes to show that learning never stops.

Photo taken in early July when everything still looked green!

Lesson 1:  Newspapers and straw make an excellent mulch.  My vegetable garden isn't very big--somewhere between 120-150 square feet--but it's big enough to produce enough for us, and it's as much as I can handle.  This is probably the only time you'll see a photo of it, because usually by mid-summer it's a weedy mess.  (Yes, I know, you can spot some weedy grass in the foreground, but let's just ignore that for now, shall we?)  I vowed--once again--not to let it get out of control this year and put down a layer of newspapers between all the rows, and then covered that with straw.  Most years I put down straw around the tomatoes, but this was the first time I used both coverings in the whole garden.  Weedy grasses are my nemesis here, and they still managed to find a place to grow in the rows of vegetables.  But I would pull them out as I harvested beans or greens, and I was pleased that they didn't pop up between the rows as usual.  Both the straw and newspapers eventually decompose and add more nutrients to the soil, an added benefit.  Using this type of mulch is certainly not a new idea, but I finally learned my lesson that taking the time to put down mulch immediately after weeding is well worth the effort in the long run.

Lesson 2:  Squash bugs have won the battle in my garden.  See this pretty blossom and baby yellow squash?  This was early July; fast forward two weeks, and this pretty picture had turned into wilting leaves and shriveled fruit, telltale signs of a squash bug invasion.  Sure enough, those nasty little creatures were swarming all over the leaves; I sprayed them off with a diluted soap mixture, but the damage had been done.

Years ago, I would have sprayed these plants with Carbaryl at the first sign of these pests, but since I've gone pesticide-free, that isn't an option anymore.  I've tried several organic methods of pest control, though admittedly not very diligently, but nothing has worked.  I've learned that some adults can overwinter in the garden; because of this, it's a good idea to rotate placement of cucurbits from year to year or even to avoid planting them the following year.  So, I'm waving the white flag in surrender--no squash in my garden next year!  These little pests will have to find a new place for dinner . . . I just hope it's not in my friend's garden. You see, if a friend has a successful harvest, you don't have to worry--she will be more than happy to share all those extra zucchinis and summer squash with you:)

'Golden Guardian' marigolds, touted to be especially good at keeping insect pests away.

Lesson 3:  Pay attention to spacing recommendations and heights given on seed packets.
Hmm, this seems to be a recurring theme with me . . .  whether I have 100 square feet or 1000 to plant in, I always seem to want to pack in more plants than I should.  Aside from the green beans which sprawled over the gap between rows or the cucumbers that sprawled everywhere, the specific problem I'm referring to here were the marigolds.  I usually plant a row or two of marigolds at the front of the vegetable garden, partly as a pest deterrent, but also for ornamental purposes.    But this spring I did a little research in companion planting and decided to plant the marigolds in the middle of the plot, nearer the squashes and other plants they were supposed to protect. 

My first--and only--pepper just now ripening.

Obviously, they didn't discourage the squash bugs one bit.  But they also grew so tall and spread in width that my few pepper plants were lost beneath them!  I reluctantly pulled a few of the marigolds to give the peppers some sunlight, but it may have been too late.  Only one of three pepper plants has gotten big enough to produce some fruit.  Next year the marigolds are going back to being a front border.

'Rainbow Lights' Swiss Chard

Lesson 4: Don't be afraid to try something new.  With a small garden, I don't have room for everything and have to make choices about what to plant.  Fresh tomatoes are the whole reason for vegetable gardening, in my husband's opinion, and they take up a lot of room. By the time I plant green beans--another family favorite--spinach, leaf lettuces, carrots, cucumbers for my son, and the aforementioned doomed squashes, there isn't a lot of space left.  For the past few years I had some flowering kale that came back each year, but I removed it this year to make room for the tomatoes that had to be rotated to the south side.  Instead of that ornamental kale, I decided to plant swiss chard and a smaller kale, 'Dwarf Blue Curled.'

My daughter was on a juicing kick earlier this spring and brought home bunches of kale to put into her smoothies. Why not grow this new "super food" myself, I thought?  Well, both the chard and kale plantings were a success, but I must be honest that I've only admired the chard for its pretty looks and haven't actually tried to eat it.  As for the kale, I did make some kale chips, which my older daughter recommended, but I don't think I'll recommend my recipe . . .  I did put some in the freezer and plan to freeze some more before the end of the season.  Winter sounds like a good time to try some of the many recipes for kale I added to
my Pinterest board over the summer:)   The juicer, by the way, is collecting dust at the bottom of my pantry.

Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel--taken in 2009.

Lesson 5:  Nature can be cruel. Every year I make sure to leave a little space in the vegetable garden for the butterflies.  Dill and fennel are host plants for the swallowtails, and my grandkids enjoy finding the caterpillars crawling on them in late summer.  Earlier this summer, I was delighted to find many tiny black creatures--the first instar larvae--on the dill one day.  When I thought to check them again a few days later, though, they were all gone.  What had happened to them??  It wasn't until I read someone's blog about raising caterpillars, too, that I realized all these little catts had probably become dinner for the birds.  I like birds, too, of course, and they're welcome to most of the insects they can find here, but not the swallowtail catts!  It made me sad, especially since we've had so few butterflies this year, but unfortunately, that is all part of the cycle of nature. Perhaps next year I'll put some netting over the dill and fennel to protect these delicate little creatures.

One lesson that I learn every year from the vegetable garden, more so than any other place, is that gardening is unpredictable.  One year I have an explosion of zucchini, and the next year the fruit shrivels on the vine.  One year the tomatoes get blight, and the next--like this one--I have so many that I'm making tomato juice and sauce for the freezer twice a week just to keep up with all the tomatoes!  The vegetable garden reminds me each year that some things are out of my control, and that nature has the ultimate upper hand. I've learned to roll with the punches and shrug off one year's disasters--after all, there's always a clean slate to start with next spring.

Finally, I can't resist one last lesson that has nothing to do with vegetable gardening whatsoever.  Though the butterflies have been missing this year, there has been a flurry of hummingbird activity here.  For years I purchased hummingbird nectar mix at a local big box store, thinking the red nectar added some extra attraction for the birds.  But mid-summer I started making my own nectar--1 part sugar to 4 parts water--and the hummers love it!  No more red dye for my sweet little visitors!  I'm glad they're getting fueled up for the long flight south they will soon make.

Thanks as always to Beth of Plant Postings for hosting this quarterly meme on Lessons Learned in the Garden. It's always helpful to reflect on the past season's successes and failures, not only to keep from making the same mistakes again, but also to appreciate and take satisfaction in all that went well in the garden.


  1. Great post, Rose! Thanks for the reminder about the combined newspaper and straw between rows. I usually use Marsh Hay for mulch, but I couldn't find it this year. It's excellent because it doesn't have weed seeds in it. Some of lessons are so familiar. ;-) The hummers have been more active here this summer, too. Thanks for joining in and sharing your "Lessons Learned"!

  2. It's so true having a garden did learn me a lot about nature Rose. Not only the plants but also the insects and influence of the weather on the garden is every year amazing.
    Overhere also less butterflies then other years helas. We are not used to water the garden extra because our summers are always wet with temperatures about 20C. This year the driest summer in years with high temperatures and lots of sunshine. I learned my lesson to watch the drought in the garden.
    Have a wonderful day Rose.

  3. Interesting to read about all your vegie garden lessons. I grow the coloured chards, too. I also eat them - they taste just like the green and white kind - but I grow more than we eat because they look so pretty. The other great thing about newspaper and mulch is that it gets the earthworms working underneath.

  4. Your veggie garden is larger than mine. :) I like your diversity of plantings. The only things that did well in our garden was the grape plum tomatoes and cucumbers. I think the wet wet and drought didn't make for a great garden. I will try again next year. Isn't that the gardeners cry??

  5. When I first moved out here to the country I did quite a few veggies. But I had so many failures that I slowly refocused on flowers, and now only grow one or two veggies a year --always including tomatoes. The unpredictability is so true --one year it's lots of one bug, the next a completely different pest. I suppose, however, that's part of what keeps us interested :-)

  6. If I were an HR person, I would make sure that any job applicant I was considering hiring is a gardener or at least has experienced it in the past. As you said, gardeners are not afraid to try something new and aren't too discouraged if it doesn't work. They're always forward-thinking, hard-working, and creative people. Like yourself.

  7. I hadn't even realized you had a vegetable garden, Rose--that's how seldom you mention it! I've been using grass clippings as mulch between rows for the past three or four years, and it's amazing how well it keeps the weeds down. Over the winter, I spread a layer of leaves over the whole garden, and that keeps the weeds from popping up in the spring.

    I have oodles of green tomatoes in my garden right now; they're being very slow to ripen! One lesson I need to heed is the need for strong supports. I did stake and cage my plants, but the stakes were too short and a couple plants grew to hearty for the cages!

    It was a good year for green beans, though--lots of those in the freezer!

    As they say, there's always next year!

  8. Unpredictability has been the hardest lesson for me too -- one year I have plants I love, the next year they don't show up, for no reason I can figure out.

    You have learned some key lessons here, especially about encouraging caterpillars only to have them become food for birds!

  9. Being a gardener is a constant learning curve, I learn something new all the time, thanks for sharing your lessons learned! I don’t grow much vegetables as my garden is very small, but I can still relate to most of your lessons. Here in Britain we have had the best summer in decades and seen more bees and butterflies than ever, it’s truly been a fantastic summer and it is sad to see it end – it was very cold this morning, only 12 degrees Celsius!

  10. Plant Postings, Ever since I found a source for straw that is close by, I've been buying it for mulch in the vegetable garden. I'm not sure if Marsh hay is even available in our area. Thanks for hosting this once again--I always enjoy this meme!

    Marijke, You are having the summer we had last year. We had plentiful rain until the end of July; now we're praying for it once again.

    Lyn, The chard is indeed so pretty! I had planned to plant a late planting to use some in containers this fall, but never got around to it. I wonder if it's too late?

    Lisa, I have had grape tomatoes coming out of my ears:) I finally started adding those to the ones I'm putting in the freezer--makes for some sweet tomato juice! I had a plethora of cucumbers, too, because my seed packet got wet, and I decided I might as well plant them all since they wouldn't last till next year:)

    Cassie, I much prefer planting flowers, but the veggie garden gives me some satisfaction. As long as we have tomatoes and green beans, I'm happy.

  11. W2W, If I ever decide to go back to work, I'll remember to put this on my resume! Thanks for the compliment!

    Cosmos, I don't mention the veggie garden much, because I guess I like flowers more. The vegetable garden seems more like work, while flower gardening is fun. I have used grass clippings in the past, but my husband has been so diligent about keeping up with the mowing this year that there aren't many clippings. I've been investing in better tomato cages the last couple of years--worth every penny!

    Laurrie, I think you could create a lot of metaphors comparing gardening to life. We do learn how to live with the ups and downs. I was so sad when those little caterpillars disappeared!

    Helene, I'm so glad you're seeing so many butterflies this summer--I really miss them here and am worried what has happened to them. We're the opposite here--in the middle of a very hot week!

  12. I just saw a monarch for the first time a wee bit ago ( Western Pa ) though I've seen the other varieties of butterflies ...what I have had this year is alot of bees, which is wonderful.

    Your post was so interesting and I love your hummer capture! :)

  13. I'm going to bookmark this post to reference all your helpful tips. I'm sorry about your squash and swallowtails but a natural garden is the way to go.

  14. I have not done much vegetable gardening for years. I did have a small veggie patch last year before we moved. I learned many lessons from that little patch. The problem is, that gardening can be so unpredictable from one year to the next.

    Your Swiss chard looks so good! I've not seen that variety.

  15. Thanks for giving that type information.That information is so helpful to us.Will be visit again on your website.

  16. I love your sharings on learning, reminders that gardening is filled with wonder and newness.

    We gardeners have realized our unknowingness through the ages; like Aristotle, Jefferson learned and declared: "I am an old man but a young gardener."

    As am I.

  17. I learn something new every day! It may not be garden related but so many things are garden related in my life! I love nature and have trouble keeping balance at times. I know what you mean about the caterpillars but then again, the birds need to eat too. So where does one draw the line?

    I have had the same luck or lack of with veggie gardens. It is too frustrating for me to fail with the veggies so I just stick to tomatoes and flowers now. I hate the thought of spending time in the heat watering veggies that will not produce for me. Sigh.... But we live and we learn!

  18. Vegetable gardening always brings new things to learn. New pests are usually leading the list. I grow parsley, fennel, and carrots each year and never get the caterpillars. I think the good insects kill off the other good insects.

  19. Deb, I just saw the first Monarch a day or two ago here as well. It was just passing through, but what a delightful sight! We've had lots of bees, too, for which I'm thankful.

    Sarah, I'm determined not to use pesticides. Besides, as I said, my friend gave me all the squash I needed anyway:)

    Sally, I'm embarrassed to say I don't know how the chard tastes--it just looks pretty:)

    Estetik, Thanks for visiting.

    Lee, Love this quote from Jefferson! It fits me perfectly, too, except for the gender.

  20. Vegetable garden looks great Rose! I could not garden mine without my newspapers and straw mulch. They are also saving me lots of time on the farm too. On the squash maybe you could net the plants at planting. I heard if the moths can't get to the plants to lay their eggs then you should not have the squash vine borers. I plan to try it once we have a big garden set up. Have a great day. Looks to be cool-woohoo!

  21. Rose, as you say, "gardening is unpredictable"_ our gardens keep us humble. They do what they wanna do and we just have to follow.

    It has been an unusual season for us: not as many tomatoes as last year, but enough to keep us happy. I for one am ready for fall.

    I might suggest doing a pvc hoop over your peppers and covering them some plastic for increased heat; that is the only way we can grow peppers here.

    Have a wonderful weekend.

  22. Rose your lessons sound awfully familiar to me! Too often I have cucumbers wrapping themselves around tomatoes and rosemary lost to the marigolds. All because I don't leave enough space. And every year brings an imbalance of what worked and what didn't. Once again turnips were a bust for me but I picked more peas than I ever thought possible.

  23. The garden is a great teacher and always serves up a good helping of humble pie. My tomatoes were a disaster this year and the bunnies got the swiss chard. Next year I must rethink my whole veggie garden. I think that I should put a hummingbird feeder in the garden too. Making nectar sounds very doable. I sure hope we get more butterflies next year! Have a great weekend Rose!!

  24. Skeeter, I firmly believe that continuing to learn something new keeps us young! I enjoy planting a vegetable garden; in mid-summer when the heat and the bugs come, not so much:)

    Donna, Yes, I've learned a lot about insects from the vegetable garden:) This is the first year that my little caterpillars disappeared before growing up--so sad.

  25. Tina, The netting sounds like a good idea. I gave up growing broccoli years ago because of the caterpillars, but I've heard row covers or netting keeps them away, too. I'll have to try that next year.

    Diana, I think the peppers would have been okay if they had gotten more sun. The heat the last couple of weeks has helped.

    Marguerite, We don't even eat that many cucumbers:) The plants are dying now, but I still keep finding more cukes hidden away.

    Jennifer, The vegetable garden certainly does teach us to be humble. I've seen a few more butterflies in the last week, but I sure hope next year is a better one for them!

  26. My garden always reminds me of how much I still have to learn. Great post! You can also make the hummer nectar in the microwave by sticking the water/sugar in a big Pyrex bowl and cooking for about 5 mins. Fast and easy!


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