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. We grow “bush cucumbers” the plant stays smaller but we get nice big cucumbers from them. Also a coffee can half full of stale beer attracts snails and slugs. After they crawl in they can’t crawl out.

    Strawberries make great hanging plants too.

  2. Strawberries attract all sorts of insects, all of whom enjoy sucking the life out of youR precious fruit (I found earwigs, crickets, red back spiders (an Aussie garden staple!) and leopard slugs (the good guys of the garden)) had all taken over. I pulled out my plants at the end of the season, turned over the compost I was growing them in, and replanted by forming long mounds, covered with black plastic (good quality, thicker than garden rubbish bags), then punched small holes in the plastic through which I planted the roots of the plants. This was quite successful in keeping the bugs away from the fruit, so I enjoyed a far better harvest in my second year. And I didn’t have to resort to nasty chemical sprays to achieve it! Nothing wrong with not gardening organically, but I am keen not to ingest more chemicals than necessary :-).

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      HI Angi. Just don’t plant them near each other or put strawberries where tomatoes have once grown. It has to do with their susceptibility to the root rot that tomatoes and potatoes can carry or leave behind.

  3. its too late to start plants from seeds and I was just wondering if I need to be specific about where I buy veggie plants or the type (brand?) of plant? Would it be ok to buy from a regular greenhouse or somewhere like Home Depot? Thanks for your answer in advance.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. Many green houses will offer organic plant options or you can order them online. You can also buy plants at big box stores and raise them organically. You just don’t know for sure if they have been sprayed prior to acquiring them. I do a little of both but prefer to buy them organically.

  4. To stop slugs from your plants glue pennies around your box at the top…all touching at the sides or you can copper “tape” from your hardware store and do the same thing. I’ve been doing this for years and it works like a charm.

  5. I discovered cilantro attracts bees. So I plant one in the middle of all the blooming things. It flowers attracts bees and I had tons of tomatoes and squash. When the plant finally died and dried up the seeds (coriander) were easy to collect. A few that I dropped started growing in January. The stuff grows like weeds and who doesn’t like cilantro?! Warning you only need 1 or 2 plants they get big. I also heard it deters bugs. Who knows but I had no bug problems.

  6. I hope this comment isn’t redundant since I stopped at page 5 of your comments. Squash doesn’t produce female flowers when the weather turns hot. In July they don’t produce much. Plus zucchini plants start to peter out after a huge harvest. You can pull them and plant new ones in the beginning of August.

  7. We put eggshells around our plants and that keeps the slugs off the plants and the shells are good for the dirt.

  8. Hi, I feel with you regarding gardening work and the questions and problems with it.

    Recently I came across a video from a longtime professional gardener, who does some things differently and has extraordinary success.
    His main issue is “cover” for the ground (leaves, woodchips, needles,… – like in nature there is no bare ground where something grows.
    And he works with mulch/compost to give enough nutrients to the ground for the growing plants.
    I liked this idea and the film very much and will start preparing my garden after his advice in fall.

    His name is Paul Gautschi and the film is named “Back to Eden”.

    Perhaps you like the film and his ideas, too?

    Greetings from Germany, Petra

  9. Hi! Try pinching off most of the male flowers, but let some strong ones stay. Could be your plant is putting too much energy into growing male flowers. This may encourage females.

  10. What an awesome article! So much good information. I’m a blogger as well with an only slightly different cause…gardening. I love thinking about where food comes from so I work with a company called Cayisa to promote learning gardens, sustainable gardening, and reforestation. They’ve educated 78,000 kids about where their food comes from through their Seed for Seed program! Cayisa also sells some awesome jewerly to support their cause. You should check out the website ( and the blog (! Thanks!

  11. I just found the measurements earlier in the comments.
    14.5x50x96 (2)
    16x33x96 (2)
    16x33x55 (2)
    17×26 whiskey barrels (5)

  12. My question is the same as Tiffany! What sizes are your boxes? Just trying to get a better idea of what I’m doing. Thank you. I have learned so much from you guys. :)

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Krishell (below) found the measurements earlier in the comments.
      14.5x50x96 (2)
      16x33x96 (2)
      16x33x55 (2)
      17×26 whiskey barrels (5)

  13. Hi, can you tell me what sizes your gardening boxes are and what plants go in those sizes. We are doing a garden this year and we are buying the box supplies this weekend. Also, I see you use large “buckets” for some items and not for others, is there a reason for this? Pros/cons? Any other advice would be helpful, thanks

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Krishell (below) found the measurements earlier in the comments.
      14.5x50x96 (2)
      16x33x96 (2)
      16x33x55 (2)
      17×26 whiskey barrels (5)

    2. Hey Tiffany – Well, the major pro of the whisky barrels is that they are portable :) Our properly line runs right behind the vegetable boxes, and the whisky barrels sit about 5 ft behind in a utility right of way. We aren’t allowed to build structures there, so I figured the barrels would be good if our HOA complained (they haven’t, but don’t get me started on the tree house drama!).

      Plus the barrels are good for blackberries and raspberries since their long, thorn covered stalks would make harvesting nearby plants difficult. Same thing for vines…we can spread the barrels out and let them grow along the ground. Good luck with your garden!

  14. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hi Eileen. It is normal for the male blossoms to form first. Females should blossom when there are a sufficient amount of nutrients within the root and vine system to support growing a fruit. ~Amy

  15. I do not know a lot about gardening either but if your squash only have male flowers for some reason they have no one to pollinate. My question would be why no female flowers developed. Hmmmm. Fluke?

  16. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hi Marie. Wow, that is a really big space. A few months of gardening could keep you in greens and veggies a good part of the year especially if you learn to can and preserve. Our experience is with small suburban gardens, though I am certain lessons learned could apply to any garden. Your local Cooperative Extension office is usually a good place to turn to for gardening/agriculture advice pertinent to your own part of the country. Also,this is a really useful site that I refer to often:

  17. Hi, just wondering how to do a garden at over 8,000ft. where I live. We also have a very hard clay/rock dirt and many months of dirt and freezing temps at night. My budget is very small also to make a garden. Thank you for the help.

  18. SLUGS: My neighbor installed a strip of copper all the way around their raised, wooden-garden boxes. They claim it keeps the slugs away because the critters get shocked when they try to cross the metal.

  19. I watched my father in our garden for years and learned a few things. You can plant a few rows of bean, spread them out two weeks apart and you will get a longer harvest.
    We use old tights and nylons (not many of those anymore) to tie up plants, just cut them in strips, they stretch.
    Those green tomatoes that don’t get a chance to ripen in the sun (they need warm sunny weather to ripen) will ripen on the counter if you pick them just before the frost. They won’t be as tasty as sun ripened ones though. Or you can make fried green tomatoes.

  20. Thanks for the great info. Your garden looks great! I found a green velcro I use to tie my plants up with. I love it because I can reuse them from year to year. Also have put a trellis up for my cucumbers this year. I saw my neighbor do it a couple years ago and loved how they grew and didn’t take over the garden. I put one up for my cantelope this year. We’ll see how it goes. It truly is a learning process each year! Thanks for the great posts!!

  21. I train my zucchini to grow vertical. I put in a t-post and as the plant grows I remove lower leaves and tie the stem to the t-post. Don’t use string, it’ll cut the plant. I use that stretchy green plastic stuff meant for gardening. My zucchini each take up one square on my square foot garden doing it this way!

  22. Sprinkle lots of crushed eggshells and sand around your strawberries. They cut the soft bellies of slugs and snails. They’ll stay away. Your garden looks wonderful.

  23. Another way to deal with slugs/snails is to sprinkle crushed eggshells on ground around your berries (or whatever those critters like). They cannot crawl across the shells without cutting themselves up, so will not be able to get to the goodies.

    1. Hi Samantha – We usually get our seeds from Renfrow Hardware here in Matthews. The brands vary but Lisa usually gets organic seeds when available. Regarding the dirt, I had a truck load of Blue Max Material’s “Garden Max” mix delivered. We are experimenting with composting but I haven’t added any to the garden yet.

  24. Just a suggestion for the slug problem. Put a plastic cup with beer in it in your strawberry patch. The slugs will crawl into the cup and drown. Sounds weird, but it worked great for us!

  25. This is a great article… For not having much experience, your garden pics look wonderful! I agree, taking notes would be my first tip also. It’s something I fail to do each year and wish I could remember the name of a plant that worked well the year before. My favorite plant is okra… sorry to hear it’s not yours. Fried okra rocks!

  26. For Slugs- used coffee grounds kill them and nourish the soil, Squirrels, rabbits, deer etc.-dog hair is the best but human hair works too, Birds- Owl decoys, plastic snakes- moved around at night when the birds don’t see you moving them.

  27. I had the same problem with strawberries until I started permaculture garden techniques. They still get nibbled on but nothing like before and now I have strawberries and about 15 other edibles in the same spot that was originally just strawberries. I grow them as ground cover to protect the soil throughout the garden now and getting berries s just a bonus. I love the cucumbers in whiskey barrel. I have an empty barrel ready for some edibles.

  28. I have a suggestion for you about the strawberries. I just recently read about growing them in gutters! It may not be practical but if you want to google it I read about it at $100 a Month.

  29. This year I will plant my first adult garden and the first time I’m going to use raised beds. While I was gone this weekend my husband surprised me and bought all the wood and started to build the beds…he bought treated wood. I know there is much debate on whether treated wood is safe for veg/fruit gardens because the toxins can get into the soil. What kind of wood did/do you use? What do you think?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      HI Martha. Jason used cedar which is a little pricey. We would not suggest using treated wood. Good luck with your garden. ~Amy

  30. Great blog…
    We actually have a business installing vegetable gardens..

    A couple tips I can add…when growing in boxes, or containers, its important each year to refresh the nutrients in your soil..a little fresh soil.peat moss, compost and a little manure each year, also boxes dry out faster, so when you are away it’s important to have someone water for you..if you stick your finger in the dirt one inch it should be moist, if not time to water!

    I positively agree with marigolds around your garden for critters, and beer for slugs…if you have a HUGE problem with squirrels and such a little fox urine arouns the outside of your garden area will keep them’s a little pricy but well worth it!

    And I recommend a small sturdy trellis for cucumbers grown in containers..

    We are installing early veggies over the next couple days…fingers crossed no more cold below 40 in central TN!
    Happy gardening everyone!

  31. SLUGS – disgusting little creatures! Hot glue pennies all around a ball, bowl, or really anything round that can stand the weather. Place it around berry plants – no idea how it works or why; but slugs won’t come near it (and there are no chemicals involved)

  32. Thank you so much for the encouraging post about organic gardening. I am moving to a country home in June and am hoping to start growing my own produce. I really appreciate your motivation and helpful tips. It is kind of intimidating to think of having my own garden because I am from the city and never really gardened before this. I am excited for the adventure to come.

  33. Thanks for the on the Zucchini – I was wracking my brains about the exact same problem and could not find the answer – in years past I couldn’t give it away fast enough and the past 3 I can’t get enough!.. On the strawberry issue – if you build a bed with support walls made of pig wire or some other sturdy wire you can hang portions of old rain gutter on the side of the wire and get your strawberries off the ground and out of harms way. Also a shallow pie tin with flat beer is a great swimming pool for slug! They die happy – who knew!