Growing Food: Lessons Learned

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Sungold Cherry Tomatoes

In the midst of my third summer vegetable garden I’m realizing it’s going to be a long road ahead before I’ll truly “get” the hang of things. So far I’ve learned a lot each season, but when you only get one shot at trying out your summer garden each year the learning curve feels pretty steep. Maybe it would help if I had somewhat of a “green thumb,” but other than cutting our grass I have almost no skills when it comes to caring for plants. That hasn’t stopped me from trying though, and since I’ve had some success – and even more failures – I thought I would share my lessons learned (so far!). And by all means if you actually know what you are doing when it comes to growing vegetables I would love to hear your advice in the comments below.

Lessons learned from my garden…

  • Take notes: Last year, I remember thinking “Oh I’ll remember to do this differently next year,” but let’s face it – we forget things over a long and cold winter. Thankfully, I at least drew myself a diagram of where I should plant things this year, but I realize I could have done so much more. I’ve heard of others keeping full written journals about their gardening experience, and I think they might just be onto something.
  • Things change: Right when you finally feel like you know what to expect with the plants you are growing, things change. Whether it is the unseasonably warm heat, or the rain (or the lack thereof), or where you got your seeds/plants this time, or even what weekend you planted them…there are so many variables that change the way things grow from year to year. So be flexible and consider each season to be a new learning experience.
  • Use (organic) fertilizer: My first summer garden was basically a flop. Come to find out most other gardeners were using fertilizers to give their plants a boost and other concoctions for bug control…oh that’s what I forgot to do! So I learned the hard way by not having very much yield the first year. Then I finally got on board with using an organic fertilizer last year called Plant Tone. And hello plants! They went crazy. Almost too crazy. I could not believe the difference a little TLC made!
  • Careful planning: Once my plants started actually growing last year (with the help of the organic fertilizer) I realized the layout of my garden was all wrong. Pictured is my new and improved layout.
    My Summer Vegetable Garden 2011
    • Vines: I learned that some plants like pumpkins, fall squash and watermelon are actually vines that need lots of room to stretch out. So this year I put them in a garden box with an open space on one side and have been “encouraging” them to grow in that direction where there is plenty of room.
    • Tomatoes: I’ve learned that cages for tomatoes are a great investment and the bigger the better…apparently some say the bigger the cage the bigger the tomato plant! Also, put the cages in the soil right when you start the plants because they can grow fast and you’ll end up breaking stalks trying to put a too-big plant in a cage after the fact (not that I know that from experience or anything).
    • Bell peppers: Bell peppers work well with a smaller cage for support and my favorite thing I learned about peppers last year is that they continue growing much longer than most other summer garden plants. Late last summer the tomatoes looked like they would keep producing, but all the green tomatoes just stopped turning red and the plants were “done.” Peppers on the other hand just kept on going and going almost through October (here in the South)!
    • Strawberries:Last year we planted two small strawberry plants in a rectangular box with raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. Over time (and to our surprise!) the strawberry plants multiplied and basically took over the whole vegetable box. So we had to move the other berry plants into a new spot. The other berries needed a little more room as well so we bought a few more of the round barrels pictured below so they could really spread out.

    • Cucumbers (pictured): I realized that having cucumbers in the same garden box as tomatoes last year was a bad idea. The cucumbers have little “curly cues” that like to grab onto (and take over) everything. Think Kudzu for those from the South! And the cucumbers were so intertwined with the tomato plants that by the end of the summer last year I couldn’t even find the cucumbers anymore so I just gave up on them. Plus I decided I didn’t really like cucumbers all that much so there was no reason to have more than one of those plants anyway. So this year we planted one cucumber plant (from seed!) in a barrel all by itself far away from everything else. PS – Next year we will give it a trellis to crawl up instead of a cage
    • Okra: I decided I also don’t like okra that much either so why was I growing that in the first place? No okra this year. :)
    • Corn: Who doesn’t like corn, but it takes up way to much room since you have to grow either two rows or a circle so it can be pollinated or something like that (don’t ask me I was horrible at biology). So I decided to just leave the corn growing to the farmers and buy it from them at the market.
    • Green beans: I learned that having two or three green bean plants was practically worthless. If you can only harvest a few beans off each plant at a time that doesn’t exactly constitute a proper meal! So this year we planted almost two-dozen plants of both a green and purple variety because we all actually like beans.
    • Zucchini and yellow squash: These plants need quite a bit of room. They are vine-like and get longer and longer as time goes on, and their leaves are huge! So this year I’ve finally given my squash plants plenty of space.
  • One step forward, two steps back: Just because you have a great garden one year unfortunately doesn’t mean things will only get better from there. At least that’s what I’ve learned from my experience. As I mentioned “things change” so be prepared to experience some setbacks as new and different variables have an affect on your plants.
  • Don’t be afraid to grow from seed: As I mentioned you only get one shot a year to grow your summer garden so who wants to “roll the dice” by trying to start too many plants from seed? What if they don’t grow and then it is too late to buy starter plants instead? I admittedly haven’t grown a lot from seed, but what I’ve found is that the plants I have started from seed have worked great. This includes two different types of green beans, cucumbers, and corn. My daughters also planted some tomato seeds on their own, which are growing beautifully! So next year I am (going to write myself a note) to save some money on plants and buy more seeds!
  • Unanswered questions: I’ve experience some unusual things this year that I am still trying to work though because again…this whole gardening thing is turning out to be an ongoing learning experience!
    The Non-Growing Squash
    • The non-growing squash (pictured): We were out of town for the first week and a half of July, and I thought for sure I would have a ton of zucchini and squash waiting for me when I got home. I was utterly disappointed to find nothing…absolutely nothing! But the weird part is the plants look exactly like the plants did last year when there were ton of vegetables growing. And there are flowers too, but they only appear to be the “male flowers” attached to a stem. There are no “female flowers” which are the ones attached to the vegetable. I know…here we go again with the biology stuff! So according to my local nursery I can pollinate the flowers with a q-tip myself or I can put out a can of coke out (which I of course don’t have LOL) to help attract bees. The weird thing is my other plants seem to be pollinating just fine so I am not sure what the bees have against my squash plants!
    • The late tomatoes: We went on the same trip at the beginning of July last year and before we left I had a ton of tomatoes that were already ready to eat. In fact, I remember bringing a bunch of tomatoes along with me in my suitcase last year. Now here we are in the middle of July and I’ve barely had any tomatoes ripen yet. Since I didn’t take very good notes last year I don’t know if I planted them a great deal later this year or if it has something to do with the crazy heat this summer or the fact that we are growing different varieties this time. Either way, it remains a mystery
    • The bug infested strawberries: Since this is the first year we’ve had any strawberries to harvest (which were also ready later than everyone else’s) I didn’t know how much the slugs and earwigs would like our berries too! Almost every time we went to pick a nice ripe berry there would be holes in the bottom or if we were really lucky half a slug was hanging out of the hole too. Strawberries are pretty much done this season, so for next year…I need to make myself some notes to figure out a solution for the slug problem!

      Children’s “Surprise” Flowers

Despite all the ups and downs that have come with gardening it has been a fun experience that I’ve especially enjoyed sharing with my daughters. I know I genuinely shared their excitement the first time I saw what broccoli looked like growing on a plant! Not to mention how fresh and nutritionally dense our homegrown veggies are. If you are interested in trying to grow your own veggies consider starting small with one or two pots in a sunny spot on your deck and go from there.


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136 thoughts on “Growing Food: Lessons Learned”

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  1. I have had a garden for a couple of years but have struggled getting any veggies because the squirrels get to everything first! I live in Florida, so I’m limited in what I can cover my garden with due to potential for winds during hurricane season. Any suggestions for keeping these critters at bay?

    1. We haven’t had trouble with squirrels, but I know that my friends over at Renfrow Hardware would tell me the best solution is probably to take them out. :(

  2. I enjoyed the article. Very informative, and it is nice to know I am not the only one struggling with trying to grow veggies. :)

    One thing you might try with the tomatoes…late in the season, to prevent having green ones that won’t ripen, you need to “top” the plant. Basically, cut back as much of the main stem as you can without cutting the fruit off, and then prune as much of the other branches as you can, again without cutting fruit off. This will encourage the plant to put its remaining energy into ripening your fruit, rather than trying to support stems/leaves that are going to die soon anyway. Hope that helps. Good luck!

    1. Margie Stephenson

      I always put crushed egg shells around any plants that the slugs go after (that seems to be anything green). So put them everywhere. I crush them all fall and winter so as to have enough. Coffee grounds are good for keeping cats from using the garden for a litter box. These two things are good for the soil. I buy any plants in starter pots if I only want one or two. Pkgs. of seeds can be pretty pricey and they might not grow next season. You seem to have a handle on gardening. One more thing, we always plant too much! Realize how big each plant will get and don’t crowd them. Ditto on the corn.

  3. Love your blogs! I found a lot of helpful info in this book and others similar to it. Answered some of the questions you asked. I found mine at a home improvement store for about $5. Also, Google for sites that tell you what grows with what. There are so many plants that grow better if planted near other vegetables, flowers, or herbs that make pollination, fertilization, bug and disease control so much easier. You don’t have to do all the experimenting when other people have done some of it for you and it is easy to access but the fun of it is that there is always some left for you to experience.

  4. Can you comment on your decision to do raised planter beds? I’d like to build one (only have room for one ) but my husband is advocating for just planing in the ground. Can you help me justify it?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. We do not have the best soil quality here. We have a lot of clay. Raised beds are just practical. They are also easier to manage with weed control and such.

  5. I have a question about the corn, werr you able to find non-gmo seeds?

    Also do plant marigolds in your farden to help keep bugs away?

    1. The corn should be planted in blocks not long rows. It is wind polinated. Its also nice to grow as a shade plant (one that will male shade for a shorter, shade needing plant). You can also plant it for certain companion plants to climb on, like cucumber or beans.

  6. I was also going to suggest diatomaceous earth for bugs. Square Foot Gardening has a plethora of information about what and where you should plant which plants. My children and I really miss having a garden :(

  7. Crushed dried egg shells put on two of your soil will kill the slugs. As a bonus they add calcium to the soil as they break down. Tomatoes will really appreciate the egg shells. Calcium prevents blossom end rot.

  8. Another “cure” for slugs is beer. You take small cups of beer and “plant” them in the ground. The slugs will drink it, and they can’t process the bubbles. They explode and die. You can use paper cups, and they will break down after the slugs are mostly gone for the summer. If you don’t like the idea of planting them, then you can use a plate.

  9. Last year I mulched my strawberries with some pine needles, and didn’t have any more slugs! Give it a try if you have access to any. Just be careful when you go to pick the fruit… My needles were quite sharp!

  10. Diatomaceous earth is a natural product made from seashells or something like that. You sprinkle that in a ring around your plants and any soft creature will die after crossing it.

  11. Hey Lisa,
    I checked out your blog and enjoyed it!
    I’m just starting out in making my own veg. garden. Have learned a lot. Divided not to over do it and check and see how it goes.
    We have clay dirt here at home. So I’ve been diving and creating my own mulch… It’s s lot of work but I love it!
    I have read everyone’s responses and they are also helpful.
    Thank you

  12. I read your post. I really enjoyed it. You know, the zucchini and squash thing happened to me too this year. I moved into StrawBale gardening for the first time this year. Things are still growing… though mostly I’m down to herbs and tomatoes. But, that’s good. I had a great cucumber plant… you are so right about the Kudzu philosophy. They pretty much squelched lots of other stuff. I had the bush type (good thing!) and they still went crazy with the curly vines.

  13. The last 2 years our garden struggled. We live on the border with SC, and our soil consists of sand and pine straw. So we have acidity. That’s it. Organic fertilizer helps, but it just can’t help the consistency of our sand and its inability to hold moisture. This year we dumped ALL of the compost we had, some that was perfect, and also the stuff that wasn’t ready yet. Just because we were determined to not have everything dry in 2 days. I also planted everything from seed, all organic & heirloom. (Ordered online from Burpee, totally worth it!)
    Awesomeness is what we have. Perfect, no. We have funny shaped peppers, pumpkins that popped up and climbed everything, tomatoes that are tall & scraggly… But it’s all ours, it’s organic, delicious, and other than elbow grease, it’s free! We had TONS of green beans, although they have slowed, they’re still producing. We have 5 pumpkins that are nearly ready to harvest, and we ate our fill of cantaloupe, peas, and strawberries.
    Another useful tip- plant a winter cover crop! We found one at Burpee, it was peas, I think a barley? Anyhow, all nitrogen-fixing stuff. It was extremely low maintenance, and survived the frosts we had. This spring it was about 4′ tall. We hacked it off, & used the greens to mulch in the garden. We also did not till the garden. We only folded in the compost gently to keep all the good stuff in the soil from getting fried by the sun.

  14. Hello Lisa, I see you wrote this in 2011 and maybe you have figured this out already but i figured i’d give my two cents. for the strawberries and slugs, try surrounding your garden with pennies. apparently slugs dont cross copper. I havent had to try it myself yet but have heard it works.

  15. Check out Singing Frogs Farm website. They’re in California. His no-till farming method has him harvesting crops constantly year round. Huge improvement in soil quality and it would follow (hopefully) more nutritious food. (For all the reasons outlined In Defense of Food). I’m trying that this year. Brought in 3 yards of organic compost for the raised beds.
    Also planting tons of flowers for companion gardening. Check out some of the many companion gardening sites. Which plants help other plant to grow AND which don’t!
    Finally…TRELLIS your vines. Huge space saver. Doing cucumbers, yellow squash and giving trellised pumpkins a try.
    Have Fun!!

  16. One of the things I love doing in my small planter boxes is combining plants. I love growing corn but hate the space requirements due to the wind pollination. So, one way to increase my yield is the 3 sisters method – grow tall corn with short squash plants (like zucchini or yellow squash) down below. You can also grow pole beans and have them grow up the corn stalks. You get three crops from one area.

  17. I live in the Dallas area and just bought a raised garden box. Can anyone give me suggestions on what I can start growing this late? This is my first time gardening. Thx!