Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Garden Planning: Learning From the Plants

As I'm planning for our upcoming garden this year, I'm taking time to reflect on my garden successes and failures from last year.  I will take what my garden was trying to teach me last year and make changes.  It's important to learn from the plants.

Our family was committed to working hard for a garden last year.  We enjoyed the fruits of our successes like the homemade V8 and salsa we canned; the garden tomatoes, tomatillos, carrots, and potatoes that fed us through the end of that year; and who could forget the delicious chard and leeks in our pastas and soups?

And as was to be expected, we also learned plenty from our garden fails.  Maybe you can learn from our fails too, or offer us some advice how to fix the failures!

Garden Disappointments:
  • Onions- they just didn't grow big and they weren't worth the space they took up.  It's my second year trying them and they never developed a large bulb.  I'm done with those.
  • Garlic- they died off completely.  I had never grown those before, but they were given to me as an Easter gift, so I stuck them in the ground and hoped for the best.  Later, I came across an article that said they should be planted in the fall and be harvested the next year.  Oops.
  • Beets- our seeds were getting old, and only about 20% germinated, but my kids count that as a win, since they didn't care for the beets that did grow.  When I was their age, I LOVED beets, so I'm hoping their tastebuds will change because I still love beets and plan to eat them the rest of my life.
  • Parsnips- these seeds were brand new, but only about 10% of what we planted germinated!  I think we got 2 or 3 parsnips, but what we did get, we loved and would definitely try growing them again
  • Bell Peppers- I sowed these seeds directly into the soil as soon as it was warm enough and they just didn't mature fast enough.  I read online that it's a good idea to plant them closer together than what is listed on the seed package.  I'm not so sure that was wise.  The only peppers I got that matured were a handful of jalapenos, and that was from 26 pepper plants (5 different varieties) in a 4x4 foot area. 
  • Snake/Swan Gourds: We grew these for tame dame #3 and planted 12 seeds in a hill, only to have one germinate (and these were brand new seeds as well).  The one that germinated looked ill, but surprisingly a couple months later was actually growing.  Unfortunately it got too late of a start and none of the fruits matured enough to be used, even as decorations.
  • Butternut Squash- These were old seeds, maybe 6 years or so, and I got 2 plants to germinate, but only got one good squash to eat.  One.  From 2 plants.  I'm not sure why?  Any ideas?
  • Spinach- these seeds were as old as the butternut seeds, but some still germinated, not many.  And just as we'd get ready to pick some, the plant would bolt.  I needed to start these earlier and sow heavier.
  • Green Globe Artichokes- I was hoping and hoping for a good harvest of these, so I started the plants indoors before spring even set in, but it turned out that they needed longer.  They all died before they produced any fruit, plus, they probably needed more cold days than what I gave them.

Garden Successes
  • Leeks- these were also given to us as an Easter gift, and they were so easy to grow.  They just did their thing, and we harvested lots.  They took up very little space, and they were a nice variation in our meals.  I'd use them in place of onions in a lot of recipes for pastas, sauces, salads, etc.  Our favorite was the potato and leek soup.
  • Chard- what can I say?  This plant always does well with little to no effort.  It is a substitute for recipes using kale.  My hubby and I like it roasted with olive oil and salt, but we also like it in soups and sauteed with a little garlic.  My kids will hopefully like this one someday.
  • Radishes- we sowed seeds heavily because they were so old, and we got excellent germination.  We started thinning seedlings every few days after 2 weeks and ate the immature bulbs (Tame Dame #2 loved these dipped in homemade ranch dressing).  Radishes are great for young gardeners because they grow quickly.  You've got ready to eat veggies by the end of the month.  

  • Tomatillos- we grew these just for fun and I had no idea what the plant was going to even look like when I stuck these seeds in the ground.  It was so fun to watch it grow and I learned so much.  The seeds and sprouts were so little, that I thought the seed package was exaggerating a bit when it said to allow 3-4 feet between plants.   So, I kept my 2 plants 2 feet apart.  After they grew up, they got big alright.  I didn't realize I needed to cage these to provide support, and the main stalk totally split, and half the plant was laying on the ground.  This plant also got attacked by tons of little beetles, I sprayed it hard with some water one day to get the little larvae off, but that was all the effort I put into pest control for this plant.  Surprisingly, the plant did awesome despite it's hardships in life, and it set forth these fancy little air balloons that eventually filled with the firm, sticky fruit.  As far as preservation goes, it's fairly simple.  They will last in their husks for a month or more in your fridge, or you can remove the husks, rinse the film off, and store them in gallon plastic zipper bags in your freezer.   I make Rachael Ray's "One Hot Pot" (Chile Verde) recipe with them and we eat it in burritos.  I'd like to try making a tomatillo ranch dressing that I've tasted before.
  • Tomatoes- I grew 8 plants: Romas, Baby Romas, Italian Paste, and Yellow Pear.  The Yellow Pear Tomatoes endured harshest wind and got some disease, and I ended up just pulling the entire plant.  The rest of the tomatoes thrived (except another one that got snapped at the base in the wind).  Our determinate plant did the best and every fruit was perfectly formed and large.  I missed the flavor of a good slicing tomato, though, so this year I'm going to grow an heirloom Brandywine variety as well.
  • Pumpkins- these were a chore to grow because of the squash bugs we were constantly fighting.  I tried diotomaceous earth, and then again.  But we finally won the war with my grandpa's advice of a little dish soap in water solution in a spray bottle and grooming each leaf and handpicking off the bugs and eggs.  We had to do this often- every few days or so.  Can I just say, thank goodness for garden gloves?  It was hard, nasty work, but we got a good harvest.  I grew too many, though.  2 hills with 2 plants each was more than we needed.  Also, I think I'd like to grow a different variety, like a Hubbard next time. 
  • Zucchini- 1 hill, 2 plants, and we fought the squash bugs here too, but we got a good harvest.  Next time, I'd keep just 1 plant to a hill and give it room to get bigger. 
  • Cucumbers- we grew 4 plants on one hill and grew them up a tomato cage.  They did pretty good that way.  The squash bugs didn't bother these ones as much.  We love cucumbers, so we really should've grown more.  We eat them all year long, and I wanted to make pickles, but I grew the wrong variety.  This year, I'm going to grow a pickling cucumber in addition to the other. 
  • Volunteer Cantalope- apparently my brother threw the remains of a cantalope into our garden beds last year, and I noticed the little sprouts when I was planting bell pepper seeds.  I didn't know what they were, but I transplanted them where they'd get water and have room to grow, since I thought they were a squash of some sort.  Then near the end of our harvest, we had a few ripe cantalope.  Those were the sweetest, juiciest melons I've ever sunk my teeth into.  I was sad we didn't have more ripe ones, but maybe we'll have more volunteers this year from the ones I left on the vines over winter?
  • Red Potatoes- a dear friend and neighbor gave us leftover seed potatoes and we buried them a foot apart and in trenches a foot deep and covered with 5-6 inches of soil.  Then as the plants got 6 inches tall, we covered them with more soil.  The prairie dogs burrowed through, and I thought that half our plants wouldn't make it, but they surprised me.  These were the favorite vegetable to harvest from the garden.  The kids loved it when I would dig up a dead looking plant and they could sift through the soil to find the potatoes.  I loved that they kept for awhile in my cool pantry.  I bet I could've kept even more in my garage and had them a few more months if I had grown that many.
    One of our potato patch vandals
  • Carrots- these were another fun to harvest veggie.  Each carrot would surprise us.  Some would be tiny, some would be big, some would have legs or noses.  Carrots are a dream for tired preservers!  They keep so long in the fridge.  We filled a gallon sized zipper bag and some of another with our harvest, and they were gone by mid-December.  I'd definitely grow more of these next time. 
  • Strawberries- our strawberry patch produces the tiniest berries that are so very sweet!  We never get enough of them.  If we could get a berry patch that gave us enough to preserve, that would be awesome!

I'm glad that last year's garden provided us good food and that it was a good teacher!

What are your plants to plant?  What have your plants taught you?