One of my favorite experiences, this year, has been creating a large backyard garden, nurturing it, and watching it grow.
Now that it’s nearing winter, and there’s not much to do out there, I thought I’d take a moment and reflect back on the year and all of the things I learned from it. Here we go…
1. I learned that I need to grow more of the vegetables that we actually eat and less of the types I’m just enamored with growing.
~ I grow an abundant supply of many different varieties of heirloom fruits and vegetables – many for their unique looks, exotic names, and interesting histories. I learned, this year, that we don’t consume them all equally, though. So, over the winter, I’m going to be re-examining my garden plan, and redesigning it so that it better reflects our actual diet — more carrots, peas, beans, onions, garlic, and fruits/fewer squashes, cabbages, cucumbers, and eggplant. Waste not, want not.
2. I learned that I need to better plan the harvest.
~ While I incorporated succession planting into this year’s garden, I still had too many items coming into harvest all at once. To regulate this, next year, I’ll be planting more early, mid, and late season varieties (I’ll be paying much more attention to the “days ’till harvest” when I order my seeds), and I’ll be sowing fewer seeds at more regular intervals than I did this year. Hopefully, this will give us a more steady, year-round harvest.
3. I learned that I need to pick fruits more often and as soon as they are ready.
~ If you’ve ever grown zucchini squash, you know what I’m talking about. One day, it’s the perfect size, tender and ripe for picking. The next day it’s the size and feel of a wooden baseball bat! This happened to me with more vegetables than I care to remember: green beans, tomatoes, and lettuce – just to name a few. Next year, I’ll know: whenever I hear myself saying, “I’ll pick that tomorrow”, I’d better pick it right then and there, or suffer the consequences of producing overripe, bitter, mushy, woody, or spoiled fruit that’s more fit for the compost bin than our dinner plates.
4. I learned that straw mulch really is the best solution for weeds.
~ Wow! Can you see the difference between the areas of my garden where I applied straw mulch or no mulch at all? The results speak for themselves…
5. I learned to ask myself, “Are some crops really worth growing?”
~ We love corn, and consume a lot of grains and beans. So, last year, I devoted a large portion of my garden to growing them. They were very easy to grow, but some of the varieties didn’t produce very well, and harvesting some of the smaller beans and grain crops was extremely labor-intensive and time consuming! For example, after three hours of hard, dirty work, we managed to harvest only a pint full of French lentil beans. I must admit that the taste of these beans was out-of-this-world amazing, but I just don’t think they were worth the cost of production. At just $7 an hour, it would have cost us over $100 in labor alone to produce one pound! At the grocery store, I can purchase the same amount for a little over a dollar. Although I did cherish the family time we spent together, and the knowledge and appreciation we gained for old-fashioned harvesting; even though these are the plants we really should be growing the most of for self-sufficiency, unless we invest in a mechanical harvester, I don’t think I’ll be growing many of these crops next year.
~ Half of my garden was filled with native, volunteer sunflowers this year. Boy! Were the bees buzzing in that area! I’m sure there will be a lot more that pop up in those areas again, next year. I’m already planning on growing corn there – a crop that needs a lot of bees for good, uniform pollination. I also found some large packs of native wildflowers, on clearance, at a local feed store that I’m going to introduce into the garden, next spring. Insect predators watch out… You’re days are numbered!
7. I learned that I need to give my tomatoes more room to grow.
~ Although I scatter tomatoes here and there, throughout the garden, (this seems to really help with horn worm control), since I mostly grow indeterminate varieties (ones that keep growing until freezing temperatures), I need to give them more space so that they are easier to harvest. Tomatoes that were difficult to get to simply didn’t get harvested, and were wasted. Next year, I am going to build larger cages for them to grow in and leave a couple feet of space around them so that I really have enough room to maneuver in and around them and not so much of the harvest goes to waste.
8. I learned that large gardens are a lot of work!
~ Gardening on a grand scale is definitely not for the fainthearted, especially when you grow organically, and do everything by hand. There are always seeds to sow, crops to harvest, beds to maintain, hoses and sprinklers to move, gophers to trap, and a seemingly endless list of other chores to do. It can be physically demanding, at times, and can consume a lot of my time. But, it is a labor of love, and no matter how much work it requires, the benefits I receive from it, I’ve learned, far outweigh the costs.
9. I learned to treat my garden as a grocery store, and not a museum.
~ Although I designed my garden to be aesthetically pleasing, it’s main purpose is to supply our family with food. I’ve struggled, at times, with harvesting plants – knowing that doing so will subtract from the overall beauty of the garden until new crops grow in their place. Viewing the garden as a grocery store helps me to maintain my focus on the main reason why I grow fruits and vegetables: to provide our family with fresh, organically grown produce and to help us live a more economical, self-sufficient life.