And we slept that way for nine depressing months until we found this home (which has its own set of problems, but at least there’s plenty of room to spread out and no mold). When we moved in during the fall, I immediately began making my plans for a garden the next year. I had been eagerly studying gardening for all the years we rented, unable to put it into practice except for a few potted vegetables. But now was my chance to go wild.
And I did!
And for the past 6 years, I have been learning about gardening through the trial-and-error of doing it. And it’s way different than just reading about it.
. . . dealing with a neighbor’s moldy garage that is feet from my garden and that blows all over us all summer, leading to a deep depression over the years when it seemed like everything was going wrong. We just left a moldy place, only to find ourselves surrounded by mold again, and it isn’t even our mold! See the garage right there, just feet from my garden (This is a picture of what my garden looks like right now. No snow. Sad.) . . .
. . . and a giant dead tree from my neighbor’s yard (the one with the moldy garage) falling on my garden in 2015 at the height of summer and ruining everything but the tomatoes. And I was so discouraged that I didn't bother to try to salvage the few other plants that it didn't hit. . . .
(Did you notice the newly-assembled cedar garden beds that we had just made a few days before and neatly stacked in a pile until we could place them around? Did you notice the creepy scarecrows that my husband made, the ones that look like zombies emerging from the woods? They scare nothing but me. I can't tell you how many times I will be gardening out there, nice and quiet, minding my own business, when I get the sense that someone has been standing there watching me because I can just barely see their legs with my peripheral vision. And it'll startle me and my heart will skip a beat and I'll look up to see "zombie scarecrow" standing over me. Gets me all the time.
You know what? I'm surprised that I haven't thought about this until now, but I should name them. I mean, they've been with me a long time, watching me as I garden. There's actually three of them. The third one likes to jump out at me when I'm in the blueberry bed. And so I'm going to give them first names: Bobby, Johnny, and Tommy. Bobbie Zombie Scarecrow in the blueberries, Johnny Zombie Scarecrow at the back of the garden by the neighbor's garage, and Tommy Zombie Scarecrow in the last picture there wearing the superman shirt. There! Now that we're on a first-name-basis maybe they'll be nicer.)
. . . and deer eating everything before I put a fence up (and then deer jumping the fence and eating the beans even after I finally did put one up). This is them eating my dormant roses last year. They will eat anything. . . .
. . . and squirrels climbing every barrier and rifling through everything in the garden (and then one turning and jumping at me when I cornered it while trying to shoo it out, scaring the daylights out of me) . . .
. . . and a raccoon getting in one night and walking through the onion bed, knocking them all down when they were just the size of large marbles . . .
. . . and pill-bugs nibbling down every bean plant from my first round of planting last year . . .
. . . and then there’s early blight, late blight, and verticillium wilt ruining the tomatoes. The last one kills them basically overnight. You walk outside one morning and there’s your previously-healthy-looking tomatoes “knocked over” and laying on the ground, looking like they decided in the middle of the night that life was just too exhausting to go on. . . .
. . . and . . . well, I could go on and on. Just one season of gardening will give you many stories of your own.
There is one row of 5 beds that I rotate with itself, to the far right in the picture. It is the shadiest part of the garden because our garage blocks the morning sun and because there is a giant silver maple tree overhead. (The tree is in our neighbor’s yard. It’s so big that it would cost $3,000 to take down. These are good neighbors, the ones we share a driveway with, not the one with the moldy garage behind us. Oh, it just makes me so mad! Don’t get me started.)
There are two permanent beds of day-neutral strawberries (Tri-star and Seascape).
And then the rest of the beds – 14 of them – rotate in an L-shaped pattern. The reason I did it this way is because I wanted to follow a concept that God Himself presented in the Bible: letting the land rest every 7th year. That is why there are two compost beds in that 14-bed rotation. Every seven years, it gets fed with compost and takes a rest from production. I just feel that this is more honoring to God and that He will (hopefully) bless it with better over-all health and harvest. It’s still a work in progress. And not every bed has been composted yet, so some crops aren’t producing their best yet. Maybe in time, as all beds get fed, it will produce better and better.
And since there are only 5 beds in the shadier column (right side in the picture), I will have to have a compost bed every 5th year, instead of 7th. But that's okay.
In the picture, I could only write the main plants that I put in the bed. But in this list, I will include some of the minor plants that I intend to plant with those main ones.
(Peas will be gone by the time the rest takes over. Melons have never worked for me, but I try a couple every year. The only time I successfully grew a melon – Cantaloupe – was in a pot on a sunny driveway. All that heat and sun grew a juicy, wonderful-smelling melon. Just one. But it was one beautiful melon.)
Year 14: Onions and Cabbage
So for a simple 3-year-rotation, I’d go compost (or legumes) then heavy feeders then roots/leafy greens.
Or here is a 4-year rotation idea: legumes followed by heavy-feeding fruiting crops followed by green, leafy plants followed by root crops. (And if my legumes included peas, once the peas were done, I would compost it and let it rest. That way, you get legumes and compost the same year in the same bed. Just an idea.)
Or add a compost bed and try this 5-year rotation: Compost, heavy-feeders, legumes, leafy greens, root crops.
There are lots of different possibilities. And I seem to try something new every year.
But I have to make sure that these minor crops are okay in the rotation too, that they won’t hurt the following crops or be hurt by the previous ones. Sometimes it takes a little juggling to get a plan that works. I change mine a little every year.
I haven’t yet canned tomatoes, but maybe someday. But for now, dehydrated or frozen ones work good in soups. I slice them about a quarter-inch thick and dehydrate them in a dehydrator until crispy, no sign of water left. And then to use them, I rehydrate them in bowl of water and blend them in a processor with the soaking water to make a tomato “sauce” to add to soups or chili. Or I just chop up the dry slices with kitchen shears and add them right to the soup.
[FYI: I started my tomatoes really early last year, Feb 28 in zone 5 – about 9-10 weeks before our last frost. And I had huge transplants by planting time, early-mid May. (Near the end, when they started to look really tired of being in pots, I made sure to give them a little natural fertilizer and to water them with compost tea. Just a little so they didn’t go crazy with their growth while still in pots, but enough to keep them from languishing.)
When I planted them, I planted them really deep and buried most of the plant, about 8-10 inches of stem (with a banana peel and Epsom salts in the hole and a sprinkle of Tomato-tone on top of the soil).
When you plant tomatoes, do not dig a hole straight down into the colder depths of the soil. Dig a trench and lay the tomato plant into it carefully so that the stem runs horizontally under the ground, about 4-6 inches deep. This way, the buried stem can still grow lots of roots, but it also stays close to the warmer soil on top. And don’t worry if the above-ground part of the plant is angled; it will straighten itself out.
Last year, I picked tomatoes 2 weeks earlier than I ever did, on July 15. The first-to-ripen varieties – for the second year in a row - were Red Currant, Summer Snack, and Early Treat. And the first to show signs of baby tomatoes forming was Lunchmate.]
Note: Do not compost store-bought tomatoes (and I don’t do store-bought peppers or potatoes either). Store-bought tomatoes can carry blight which could infect your garden.
But my neighbor bought small transplants and she grew some beautiful peppers.
So I will stick to small, nursery-grown transplants this year. It’s not worth the effort it takes to grow peppers from seed for 8 weeks or so, only to have them refuse to produce. (I read somewhere that peppers need consistent, perfect growing conditions while they are very young or else their growth/production will suffer. And since I cannot provide them with enough consistent heat and light in a tiny greenhouse with four grow lights in our cold dining room, I will just buy them from those who can give them the best start.)
And producing and producing and producing. Did I mention that you’ll get sick of them? One day in late summer, you’ll look outside and think to yourself, I can’t go out there and pick one more bean today! And then, when you do get out there to thoroughly pick them, you’ll walk away for two minutes to check on a different plant and when you come back through and glance at the beans, you’ll see a handful of huge ones that you missed. (Or ones that just grew that big in the two minutes you weren’t looking.) I kid you not! My neighbor can testify to this, too.
Another difference is that bush beans hurt your back, but you can pick pole beans while standing up. You just have to give them support to grow up. (My father-in-law resisted planting pole beans for a long time. He’d only known bush beans for decades. But he finally tried pole beans one year and said, “I’ll never go back to bush beans again. What was I thinking all those years!?! Pole beans are so much better!” Although I will say that bush beans are good for filling in empty spaces or for planting when spring crops are finished and pulled.)
For bean supports, I push two 5-foot-tall green fence posts into the ground, 7 feet apart, and run 4-foot-tall metal garden-fence between them (attaching it with zip-ties), with holes big enough for my hand to get through to get the beans on the other side.
Last year, I put two such “fence lines” in two different beds, for a total of four 7-foot-long fence supports for beans to grow up. And although this was in the shadiest part of my garden (no more than 3 hours of sun), I still got enough beans to eat them fresh all summer, to freeze a bunch, and to give a ton away. Even my neighbor across the street got sick of beans. (That’s why I gave the second shady “bean bed” to my co-gardener this year. No one needs that many beans.)
[FYI: Bush beans are rude and they will smother things. So don’t interplant them with small crops or delicate, leafy things like lettuce. Bush beans will swallow them whole. I found that bush beans are best when they are all by themselves. They’re a bit anti-social that way. But pole beans that are trained to climb up supports can tolerate having smaller crops near them.]
I don’t have a favorite shelling pea yet, but I do plant a small amount of those for my 10-year-son who likes to sit on the yard-swing with a pile of peas in his lap, eating them straight from the pod for an hour. I couldn’t bear to deny him that delight, so we do plant some shelling peas.
But, unfortunately, the only good place for them in the rotation is following the snap peas that I grew the previous year. I don’t like to plant the same plant in the same spot two years in row, but I don’t have much choice right now. So I will take my chances. Besides, I am just planting a small amount of shelling peas (and I will plant them in a different spot in the bed from where the snap peas were planted). And the snap peas from the year before will have finished in early summer and the bed would have been taken over by squash for the rest of the season. So I think that would give the bed some time to clear out of “pea problems” before the shelling peas go in the following year.
One other note on peas: The more sun they get, the better. My neighbor’s peas had a lot of sun, and the plants were much shorter and stronger than mine. When they get less light, the plants grow a lot lankier as the plant reaches for the light, so they get really floppy and messy.
And be thoughtful about where you plant them in a bed because they will lean toward the sun and the whole floppy mess will fall over in the direction of where the most sunlight is. This may lead to them smothering small plants in front or falling over into the paths. So put some sort of support around them to contain them so the whole mess doesn’t gobble up more space than you want to give it.
And if you plant them with crops like squash that will grow up and take over the bed after you pull the peas, remember to plant the baby squash on the sunnier side and the peas in the back, or else the tall peas will shade the squash too much for too long.
This year in one of the beds, I will put peas in half of it and root crops in the sunnier part of it so that the root crops (radish, carrots, beets) don’t get shaded. It might not be the best to plant peas by root crops, but I will leave a little space between them. And the root crops don’t take long to grow. So I hope they will be out before the peas really get going. By summer, I’ll know if it was a huge mistake or not. I have never had luck with beets or radishes anyway, so I don’t have my hopes set on them or have much expectation for them to begin with. This is a “let’s just throw caution to the wind and see what happens” plan. A plan I love to utilize often. I’m a bit of a “renegade gardener” that way.
Last year, I grew my squash and cucumber plants from seeds inside the house, 3 weeks or so earlier than planting time. I had hoped to make them good and strong before planting them out so that the bugs didn’t find nice tender plants to eat. And when I transplanted them, I surrounded them with foil to give them more light.
And the darn pill-bugs ate every plant.
But my neighbor waited until the proper time to plant her squash (she didn’t do cucumbers), putting the seeds right into the ground. And her plants did beautifully. Not one was eaten by a bug. This taught me that it’s not worth it to rush it. Don’t even bother planting the seeds 2-3 weeks early inside. I think it just makes weaker plants that are “easy pickings” for the bugs. Even the volunteer seedlings that grew in the garden did better. And the cucumber seeds that I planted in the ground after the bugs ate the first plants did well, too. It’s just not worth it to rush it.
This year, I will wait until I can plant the squash and cucumber seeds outside, right in the ground, at the right time, with no foil around them. (As I said, the pill-bugs lived under the foil and then came out at night to munch on the conveniently-located baby plants that were only two-inches away. I basically provided them with a home and a buffet dinner. And they thanked me by destroying all my baby plants. Ingrates!)
(But so far, my onions have been pitiful, barely growing larger than a walnut. I’m still working on it, but I think they’ve been in beds that have never seen compost yet. So maybe as the beds get fed and built-up, they’ll do better over time. I’ve been working with onion transplants, but maybe I’ll throw a couple sets in there to compare.)
Oh, and I don't grow corn either. The raccoons will find it the day before you harvest it, and the bugs will get what the raccoons don't (if you grow things organically, like I do).
12. Keep notes about what you plant and where you plant it. And write down what varieties you plant. You are going to want to remember what worked well and what didn’t, so that you can create a better and better plan every year.
Phew, now we all feel better, don’t we? Even if you’re not neurotic, I bet you still felt a bit of unrest and uneasiness when I pointed out that the list stopped at 11. Come on, admit it . . . I’m right, aren’t I?