Sunday, August 22, 2010

An Experimental Gardener: The early years


I classify myself as an Experimental Gardener. I was never around a home garden when I was a child. My house was surrounded on almost all sides by large rice, bean, wheat or corn fields. But to me that was farming, not gardening, and for some reason the two didn't seem even remotely related. My house didn't even have a flower garden or a few flowers planted around the house for color. In the summer my family was constantly getting large bags of cucumbers and tomatoes from neighbors with overflowing gardens. So I did get to experience the taste of fresh veggies straight from the vine and knew that they were far superior to anything you could buy in the grocery store. But I never got to help plant seeds or start seedlings or harvest that first ripe tomato of the season. I never got to experience the joy of creating food from almost nothing.


My first experience with a vegetable garden came no more than 7 or 8 years ago when I decided I'd fill in a bare place in my flower garden with a cucumber and a zucchini plant. Looking back on it I now realize that the soil in that garden was horrible. It was a light beige color and probably had very little organic material in it at all. But I planted my starts that I bought at Lowe's or Home Depot, watered them well and waited. The space in which these starts were planted did get a fair amount of sun fortunately. I really had no idea what to do with a plant start other than water it and wait. I didn't amend the soil with compost or even fertilize the plant, but low and behold a couple of little pickle sized cucumbers did grow on that plant. The zucchini plant, however, didn't do a darn thing. Not a single zucchini grew on that plant to the shock of some of my gardener friends. For them, zucchini multiply like bunnies to the extent that they will sneak them onto friend's doorsteps just to get rid of them. But for me, nada. Looking back on it I realize that the state of the soil was most likely the reason for the lack of fruit on my zucchini plant. Zucchini like to grow in compost piles or nearly so. That sandy beige soil held no nutrients that the zucchini needed to set fruit or even produce flowers.


I never really tried to plant vegetables in that garden again, but when we moved to our new house with a bit of land set aside for a garden I tried again. That first garden plot was about 10 feet by 10 feet and wasn't really in the best spot for sun, but I planted some seeds and starts the first year we moved into our house and to my surprise vegetables grew! I planted pole beans next to a couple of poles already set beside the garden, planted 2 zucchini starts, 2 cucumber starts, 4 lettuce starts, a packet of carrot seeds and a packet of pumpkin seeds. The zucchini, cucumber and pole beans did fantastically well compared to my previous attempts, but the lettuce was mostly eaten my bunnies and slugs. My carrots came up in neat little rows, but I am horrible at thinning! I don't have the heart to kill those little plants by pulling some of them up to make room for others to grow. So my carrots were really too crowded to grow that year. (I now start my carrots in pots and transplant every single little start into its own space in my garden. According to the "experts" you can't transplant carrots, but I tried it and it worked.)


My pumpkins were another mystery to me. I still hadn't figured out that the soil in our other garden had not been good. So I didn't think about the soil in this garden much either. The soil was better here, but I could have done more to make it better. As the years went on, I did amend the soil with compost, leaves, grass clippings, etc. but at this point we had the soil that came with the house. I also didn't know the difference between a female flower and a male flower on a squash plant. So when my pumpkin plants started to grow and produce these lovely yellow flowers I thought I'd have a bumper crop of pumpkins. But the flowers kept coming and no pumpkins appeared. All summer long I'd water the garden and peek under all of the pumpkin leaves only to find nothing resembling a pumpkin. Again, hindsight being 20/20, I realize that I never had a female flower on those plants. I'm not sure why that was; the next year my pumpkins did very well and I had several pumpkins to carve and to eat.


All in all, that first real year of gardening taught me a lot. I learned that if you want to grow lettuce you have to put up a fence and lay out slug bait (or get chickens), most veggies need a lot of sun -- more than that garden position would give, and soil needs yearly amendment of organic material. In later years I've learned a lot more helpful tidbits, but it's all experimentation. One thing I've learned is that ignorance of the "right way" to do something often leads to a better way to do it or at least a better way for you.
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