Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Garden Goodness + 3 Tips for First-Time Gardeners (Like Us)


It's already October (Can you believe it?), and our garden's still kicking out tomatoes, bell peppers, potatoes, peas, and carrots. I'm looking back over the past summer and what I've learned from gardening, and already, I can't wait to start planning my garden for next year. Like, literally, I can't wait--I've been writing down ideas for weeks.

My friend Tayla suggested keeping a "garden journal," which I think is such a great idea for both new and experienced gardeners, to help you remember what you've planted in the past, what you enjoyed, what worked, what didn't, and what you want to do differently next time. And that's exactly what this post is all about--our experience gardening this year and what we're planning on for next year. Plus, for those of you thinking about getting into gardening, I've got 3 quick tips to help you start planning ahead, too.

But first, here's how we got started. It wasn't our first-ever experience with gardening--Ben and I kept up my in-laws' home and garden a few years ago while they were on a mission, and both of our families had gardens growing up--but it was the first time we'd started from scratch on our own. You'd think as common as gardening is, it would be easy. And it's true, it's really not that complicated to plant a tomato or build a garden box, but deciding what to plant and where to plant it and figuring out how to keep it alive can feel daunting.

Planting Our Garden

This was our second year in our home, so it took some time to finally get our garden started (plus I was 9 months pregnant last spring, so planting a garden was not at the top of my priority list). We decided on 4 garden boxes, and we had the perfect spot in mind for them: a sandy, squared-off area next to our garden shed with cement curbing around it. Ben built our boxes by following this tutorial from the blog Chris Loves Julia (they have tons of great DIY how-to's and tips), but, full disclosure, it took him ALOT longer than the couple hours it took Chris. What can I say, we're total amateurs (ha!).

"Helping" Dad build our garden boxes

In the end, they turned out really beautiful and fit the space perfectly. We could've put our boxes at the very back of our yard, too (which we tried before filling them up with soil), and they would've worked well there. The sandy spot made the most sense though, mainly because it was otherwise wasted space in our yard. The point is, you don't have to have (or create) a space like this or build garden boxes to plant a garden--that's just what worked for us. Garden boxes also made it easier for us to control the quality of the soil, since we would've had to bring in soil anyway with all that sand.

Once our boxes were built, we put down landscaping cloth over the sand, placed our boxes on top, and filled them with soil. The soil we used is a ready-made organic compost/manure mix from our local nursery, and we needed about 3 bags to fill each box for a total of 12 bags. That was one big, smelly (van) load of crap.

We'd also decided to fill in the area around the boxes with gravel, so then we drove our our tiny minivan back to the nursery to load up half a dozen storage totes with gravel, drove home (practically dragging our back bumper on the ground), unloaded, then drove back again to load up with more gravel. I mean, who needs a pick-up truck when you can load several hundred pounds of gravel into the back of your minivan by hand? Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. It was a huge pain--there's no doubt about it--but the end result was worth it: the gravel made the whole area neater and easier to maintain, plus it ties in with the same slate-colored gravel in rest of our landscaping.



A couple days later (since hauling soil and gravel took up our whole Saturday), we finally planted our garden. We added some starts as the summer went on, too. In one box we planted squash, lettuce and spinach seeds. In another box we planted seeds for peas and carrots. On the other side, we planted tomato and pepper plants in one box. And in the last box, we planted strawberry starts from my inlaws' patch and potatoes from cuttings. We also planted a few raspberry starts and blueberry bushes along the fence. I'm currently attempting to root grape vines, too, so I'll let you know how that goes. I should mention that our sprinklers water everything, so we didn't have to worry about putting in a watering system. We did, however, water our garden with a hose every day or every other day during the hot weeks to keep it thriving.

A rare moment in which neither of my children are trying to pull up strawberry plants,
stuff green tomatoes in their mouths, or eat leaves, dirt or gravel

What We've Learned and What We'll Do Differently Next Time

Honestly, from the start I was thinking of this first garden as a sort of trial run--a learning experience more than anything--so all the edible produce it's given us is really just a bonus! Our tomatoes, peppers, carrots and peas have done especially well. The lettuce was probably my favorite, but sadly it didn't produce as much or as long as I would've liked.

I could've planted a whole box full of lettuce.

One thing I'd like to do next year is go vertical. By adding a tall wire screen or trellis of some sort, I'm hoping to have room for cucumbers and pumpkins to grow up. I might do this with our squash next year, too, since our huge plant that took up half a box by itself produced just one squash (womp womp). I'd love to use more of that horizontal space for leafy greens like lettuce and swiss chard. I've heard leafy greens can be pretty bitter, and that was definitely the case with our spinach this year--even the tender, baby spinach had too strong a flavor after being cooked into omelets and soups, so using them in salads and smoothies was out of the question. Our lettuce tasted great, though--I'm not sure why it turned out different; it was right next to the spinach. I need to research this a little more, but for now, I'm thinking I might try swiss chard next year instead of spinach.

I'm definitely going to plant onions next year, just because they're so easy and I love onions...I kept wishing I'd planted some this year! In fact, maybe I'll plant onions instead of potatoes--our potatoes did pretty well, but they took up a lot of room in our small boxes, and they're SO cheap to buy here in Idaho. Plus, right now our potatoes are sharing a box with our strawberries, and I'm hoping next summer that box will be full of strawberries. That means we'll have to fit our tomatoes, peppers and onions together in one box, and we'll need some taller cages for our tomatoes, too. Those things grew into monsters even after cutting them back several times!

I feel like I'm already running out of room in our 4 boxes, so I'm trying to decide if we should build more or just get creative with our space. For example, rather than planting corn in one of our boxes, I'm thinking of planting it along one of our fences next year. I might try some of my favorite herbs, like parsley and basil, in pots, too. And I'm still wondering where to put sunflowers, a plum tree, chickens, and bees (!!). I think I need a farm!

While I'm learning to love gardening, I know it's not for everyone. I guess you don't know until you try! I was skeptical at first, because even though I've always wanted a little farm with some livestock, I saw myself as a "black thumb," who couldn't even keep a houseplant alive. I was fully prepared to leave the gardening to Ben. I think the best thing I've learned from gardening this year is that a little confidence goes a long way, especially when you really care about something. It's inspired me to plant more flowers in my front yard (I planted forsythia and lavendar--I'm hoping to add roses and hydrangeas next year) and bring some green into my home, too (a fiddle-leaf fig and philodendron so far). Maybe I do have a green thumb, after all!

Our typical harvest every 3-4 days

3 Tips for First-Time Gardeners (Like Us)

So if you're feeling inspired to plant your first garden come spring (or if you're feeling skeptical like I was), here are 3 simple tips for first-time gardeners, from a first-time gardener:

1. Just go for it. The best way to learn is just to start (preferably, after there's no chance of night-time frost). All you really need is good soil, seeds, water, and somewhere to plant. Planting a garden can be as simple as filling a pot with soil and following the directions on the seed packet. Chances are, something will grow, but maybe not everything you plant. Relax, the investment is small and the stakes are low. You really can't fail; all you can do is learn.

2. Start small. When you're ready to go for it, remember you don't have to go big. Maybe pick just 5-10 plants to try this year, and ask around or do a little Googling to find out how well those plants fare in your area. (In Boise, we're lucky to have a moderate climate and long growing season, so pretty much anything is game! I've even heard of people growing bananas and pineapple here. And why not?!) Really though, you don't have to plant 20 different things to have a garden--you could have one tomato plant in a pot. And if that's all you ever have, that's okay, too. Container gardening is a great way to start small. You can always add more pots or more garden boxes or more space the next year, if you really want to. 

3. Plant what you eat. One tomato plant is a great way to start, but not if you hate tomatoes (duh). Confession: Even though green beans and zucchini are garden staples, I don't like them, so I didn't plant them. They'd just end up rotting on my kitchen counter, or I'd be giving them away. Even if you do love tomatoes (or green beans or zucchini), don't plant more than you can eat, unless you want to be eating tomatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner or you're willing to learn canning (sorry, can't help you there!). Again, it's better to start with a few plants you know you'll enjoy and add more the next year. 

Bonus: Write it down. Like I mentioned before, keeping a garden journal is a great way to track your garden and plan for the future. You don't have to wait until you have a garden--start writing down ideas now! That way you can start pricing things out and even buying supplies like pots (on clearance right now), then you'll be ready to go this spring. I created a note in my Evernote app several months ago and added ideas whenever I thought of them. 

So to wrap up and summarize, here's what my "garden journal" (i.e. Evernote note) looks like this year:  

Our Garden in 2016:
- Built 4 garden boxes--great fit, but weren't quite deep enough for carrots and potatoes (add more soil next year?)
Box 1:
- potatoes (small but good flavor)
- strawberries (starts, produced some berries--hoping they'll take off next summer)
Box 2:
- tomatoes (1 roma + 3 better boy--out of control, needed larger cages, romas were small like grapes)
- bell peppers (excellent)
Box 3:
- peas (very good, needed taller wires to grow up)
- carrots (pretty good--orange carrots were sweet, yellow/purple were beautiful but a little bitter)
Box 4:
- spinach (bitter)
- green and red leaf lettuce (great flavor but didn't produce much, stopped in early August)
- hybrid squash (produced just 1--go figure)
Along the Fence:
- raspberries (most of the starts survived--hoping they'll take off next summer)
- blueberries (produced a few berries--hoping they'll take off next summer)
- grapes (TBD--we'll see if they root and grow--planted in fall per recommendations)

Plans for Our Garden in 2017:
Plants to add:
- onions
- more strawberries (transfer new starts from the old starts?)
- cherry tomatoes (instead of roma)
- more varieties of peppers (anaheim, banana)
- swiss chard (instead of spinach)
- orange carrots (vs. colorful variety)
- herbs in pots (parsley, basil)
- corn along the fence
- sunflowers along the fence
- plum tree at the top of the hill (combination/hybrid)
Improvements to make:
- vertical lattice for cucumbers, squash and pumpkins
- higher wires for peas
- larger cages/support for tomatoes
- add wooden (cement?) edge around raspberries and blueberries (+ corn and sunflowers)
- start tomatoes, peas, peppers, and lettuce inside in March/April
- try hydroponics to sprout lettuce again (tried twice, didn't work, do more research)
- chicken coop for 2 chickens (per neighborhood covenants--need neighbors to sign permission)
- research neighborhood covenants on beehives (for honey) for 2018

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