The difference between our winter veggie garden today and exactly one year ago is absolutely mind-blowing. So I just had to share how it’s gone from sad to spectacular! Check it out – these images were taken exactly one year apart (and clearly more than just the veggies are bigger, sniff sniff).
We pretty much planted all the same stuff, but quite a few things changed in-between seasons.
Our Gardening Experience (so far)
So here’s what happened. We’ve been trying our hand at growing our own food (which oftentimes just feels like one big experiment) for almost a decade now. And one thing I’ve learned is this – you can’t exactly predict the outcome.
We started in 2009 with just a small summer garden, and that first year was a total bomb. I quickly learned that you MUST fertilize, even if you choose to go the organic route (we use Plant Tone for that reason). The next year was much better with this newfound knowledge, and things felt like they were finally moving in the right direction. But then the year after? Wacky stuff happened for no reason. Like our zucchini plant never produced any fruit even though the plant grew plenty big and looked healthy. What I’ve learned is that along with varying weather patterns (among other things), you can and will get varying outcomes each year in your vegetable garden. Since then, low expectations have served me well!
But then in 2015, we moved to a new house, and we very carefully selected the perfect sunny spot for our new garden. You see, veggies need a lot of direct sunlight, and since our garden spot at our last house was an afterthought, it turned out to not be in the best location (under a large tree that just got bigger and bigger every year). We also asked our contractor for the best organic veggie dirt possible in the new garden. So, I once again made the mistake of having pretty high expectations. I was so excited about our new garden spot it was palpable. So you can imagine how disappointed I was when it didn’t go so well!
Just look at this close-up shot. The top picture from last year shows plants that had been in the ground for months. They were certainly smaller when we put them in the ground, but – sadly – not much. Then check out the picture from this year below. We grew all of this from tiny seeds! Our biggest problem now is that we keep running out of room since we clearly planted things too close together not really expecting them to grow this much! (Can you tell how excited I am about this? LOL)
From Sad to Spectacular: How We Did It
The best resource you can have when it comes to growing your own food is lots and lots of experience. The second best resource is someone with lots of experience that will allow you to ask them questions! And for this I am so grateful to have Renfrow Hardware here in South Charlotte, NC. (They are not at all a sponsor, they just happen to be amazingly helpful and they have a website with lots of free info for those who are not local.)
This historic hardware store not only knows what they’re doing, but they even host classes and are there to offer advice whenever you stop in to pick up whatever gardening supplies you need. So I desperately reached out to the owner in an attempt to figure out the problem with our sad veggie plants. In years past, I always blamed our non-sunny spot or something else, but with our new carefully planned garden, everything was supposed to work (or so I thought)!
Giving full credit to David, the owner of Renfrow Hardware, I learned that our soil was the problem. It’s not that we got a bad batch of soil from the vendor, it’s that you simply cannot go out and buy amazingly nutritious garden soil because it’s something that takes years to create. It’s a give-and-take situation with plants both giving and taking nutrients from the soil. And if things are out of balance, then plants just don’t have much hope. David suggested we get our soil tested (which we can do through the state of NC at no charge), but even without getting those results, he guessed we could be low on nitrogen and suggested planting cowpeas as a cover crop in between seasons. We chose black eyed peas and did exactly as told (among other things, shared below).
And just look at the difference from the changes he suggested! Not only are the plants SO much healthier, but the dirt is no longer rock solid when we go to dig in it. We’ll have to do a better job of spacing things out next year now that we know things will actually grow! I’ve already given away bags and bags of this stuff to friends and neighbors and there is definitely more to come this season.
From Sad to Spectacular: What We Learned
David is just a treasure trove of knowledge when it comes to vegetable gardening, and here are some of the helpful tips we learned from him:
- Healthy Soil Makes All the Difference
The health of your soil is key and is an ongoing process that takes years to perfect. Organic fertilizer helps give the soil what it needs (as well as the appropriate cover crops) whereas conventional fertilizer just feeds the plants. Here in NC, we can send our soil off to the state to have it tested to figure out what important nutrients are lacking. Since we thought our soil was lacking nitrogen, we planted a huge crop of black eyed peas 8 weeks before frost to help remedy the problem. We also, per David’s suggestion, worked in some worm castings (poop!) and compost, which is also hard to buy as good as you can make it. He also said to buy and add actual worms if you don’t seem them, which we did.
- Give Plants Room to Grow
Thinning out plants that are too close together is important! At first, I felt too bad to “kill” perfectly healthy baby plants, but you have to give at least some of your veggies room to grow. The good news though is that when it comes to a winter garden, you can eat the baby plants. I love some baby lettuce that I don’t have to chop up! Also, David suggests cutting the plants you need to thin out with scissors or a knife at the base instead of pulling up the entire plant, which can disturb the roots of the plants around it.
- Plant from Seed
I guess I just thought it might be harder to screw things up if we started with little plants instead of seeds. But apparently, it can often be the opposite. Our winter garden this year was the first time we planted everything from seed, and we have just been blown away. David did suggest we only plant veggies that are completely edible and root crops this year (i.e., greens and carrots as opposed to something like broccoli) to help give us a better chance with our questionable soil. Apparently, some plants do better in poor soil than others.
- Don’t Overwater
We were definitely guilty of this in the past, but David suggested watering every third day. And if you aren’t sure if that’s right for your climate or time of year, just know the soil should ideally be moist down about to your knuckles.
- Don’t Let Things “Bolt” (i.e., Flower)
This is a tip I’ve personally learned the hard way. Even though I normally love pretty flowers, they aren’t exactly good news when it comes to your edible plants. Bolting (or flowering) means they’re past their prime and about to go to seed so they can reproduce. But it also usually means the veggie is bitter or no longer edible. We grew some white icicle radishes this season, and I was sad to see flowers at the top when we returned home from spring break. I harvested them anyway hoping they would still be okay. But they were so tough and woody I could barely even cut through them with a sharp knife (much less my teeth)! Lesson learned.
Now that we finally have had a good garden season under our belts at our new house, I’m definitely not going to be kicking up my feet anytime soon. I’ll be stopping at Renfrow again in the coming weeks and picking David’s brain about what I need to do to prepare for our summer garden and finding out what to plant and if I should do it from seed or not. And I will also be buying everything I need there!
One thing is for certain though, no matter what we plant, we’ll be giving things a lot more room this time. And no matter how hard I try, I have a feeling I’m already breaking my own rule and setting my expectations too high! It’ll be hard not to after our amazing winter garden success.