First Year Gardening- Thrills and Spills

Published on October 11th, 2011

I once had my own garden. I planted a few veggies on a rocky patch of land by the sea when I spent the summer living on Camano Island, Washington. I just kind of planted the seeds there and watered them periodically. I had things grow, mostly lettuce, but I also had a lot of things never get past a sprout. It was obvious that I was a city girl who grew up in an apartment where the only plants around me were potted.

It is one of my dreams to have a garden someday, but for now, my friend Robyn Almquist’s garden in the Catskill’s of NY is my learning ground. This year she created a beautiful little vegetable garden and I asked her to tell me what she learned from her first year as a gardener.

“I planted my first vegetable garden this year which was a fun and exciting endeavour. I really enjoyed watching things grow and blossom and eventually turn into something delicious to eat.

I intentionally didn’t spend a lot of time researching; I just wanted to see how things went and learn from my successes and failures. I suppose I didn’t want to get discouraged because I got a lot of negative feedback from some experienced gardeners when I told them what I was up to. They would say things like, “A garden is a lot of work you know,” or “That fence will never work. The deer are going to eat everything,” and things of that nature. I was not going to let these nay-sayers stand in my way.

I’m happy to inform you the deer did not eat anything—except for a few sunflowers and zinnias planted around the perimeter. As annoying as that was, I could live with it. Deer have to eat too.

The sunniest spot on my quarter acre is right next to my 100 year old house, so I had the soil tested for lead before I put anything in the ground. Being so close to the house I was afraid old paint and other chemicals had seeped into the soil over the years. It was worth the $20 I spent on the test because there was twice the recommended allowable lead in the soil for growing food.

I built my beds out of pressure treated wood which also has a substantial amount of chemicals, but I was assured by many that it wouldn’t be an issue (see: this link on how to build raised garden beds. Maybe I should have used teak or another type of weather resistant wood, but I didn’t want to break my budget. I probably built them deeper than they needed to be too (they’re almost 2 feet deep), but I wanted to make sure I gave things the proper amount of space since I was going to plant things pretty tightly.

What Went Well

I had a lot of successes without even really trying. Leafy greens like arugula and Boston lettuce grew so fast and plentiful I had to give a lot away to the neighbors (a vegetable garden is a great way to make friends). I had fresh snow peas for weeks. Both my provider green beans and pole beans were plentiful and delicious. I’ve started to pull my carrots and, so far, they are beautiful and really tasty; they don’t even compare to the ones you buy in the store. Fresh herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme and chamomile also did really well. I even have a little jalapeno plant spicing things up.

I’m still waiting for my brussels sprouts and broccoli to mature. They better hurry up because here in the northeast the cold weather is creeping in fast.

I think planting flowers like cosmos, zinnias, sunflowers and marigolds around the perimeter benefitted the garden immensely. They attracted tons of bumble bees and honey bees. I even had a humming bird come by on a daily basis. Plus, they kind of hid the fence and just added a cheerfulness to everything.

What Went Wrong

Zucchini and Cucumbers

My zucchini and cucumbers started out beautifully. I planted seeds from the Hudson Valley Valley Seed Library because I wanted to support a local business, and I thought their plants would do well in my garden since we’re in the same region. I had so many blossoms on my plants I was making plans to learn to make pickles and inventing zucchini recipes.

Then tragedy struck. After harvesting a few of the most beautiful zucchinis and tastiest cucumbers the world has ever seen, the leaves on the plants started to develop a white, powdery fungus, and the plants started to wither. I did a little research and read that I could brew a strong chamomile tea, spray the plants with it and that would take care of everything. As luck would have it, I had a huge patch of healthy camomile growing a few rows down.

I’m not sure if I started the chamomile process too late, or if I just didn’t do it often enough, but my plants ended up dying. At least I got a few tasty treats from them before their demise. Next year, I will try to be more proactive, spray them before the fungus develops and do it everyday.

Progress #9 Peas

While my snow peas did fantastically, my Progress #9 peas did terribly. The plants grew up nicely, developed a bunch of blossoms and even produced a few pea pods, but then the plants just withered and died. It happened so quickly I never even got a good photo of them. I spoke to other gardeners in my zone (zone 5) and they had the same thing happen to them. Maybe the conditions just weren’t good this year, or maybe I needed to fertilize or treat the soil differently. I really love fresh peas, so I am going to do my best to figure out what went wrong and try again next year.

Beefsteak Tomatoes

Like the others, my tomatoes started out beautifully. At one point, I counted 30 green tomatoes with more on the way. Then the rains came. There was hurricane Irene, followed by a cold spell, followed by weeks and weeks of rain. My basement flooded, downtown flooded and the rivers came up over the banks.

I’m assuming since tomatoes are natives of South America, they may not like all this rain and cold. The plants aren’t dead yet, and I’m still getting a few good pieces of fruit, but they just aren’t looking so good these days. I had read that tomatoes need a nutrient rich soil, so they are the one plant in my garden I have been feeding a healthy dose of compost throughout the summer. I need to find out if it is the rain that’s hurting the plants, or if there is something I can do next year to get a healthier plant. Tomatoes tend to be pride and joy of any grower’s garden. I am determined to get this one right.

Advice for an Amateur

Now that you know my saga, I welcome any advice you might have for an amateur like me. I am trying to keep my garden as pesticide free as possible, so I am looking for all-natural, organic solutions to my problems. Also, I would love to hear from people in northern regions of the country on how they prepare their gardens for winter, any fertilizing tips, how you plan to get the garden ready once the snow has melted and how you rotate your crops to keep the soil healthy each year.”

I was happy to learn from Robyn this year, and nex year I plan to have a garden of my very own…it’s good to have lofy goals 😉

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