Sunday, November 13, 2016

Gardening Lessons 2016

Winter has descended in Flemington officially. Some days, like today, are pleasant and mild and others are cold and chilly. I have cleaned my garden of plant remains, removed the fence, taken out the black plastic mulch and kept all the tools in the shed. It's like saying good-bye to a dear friend. I miss not working in the garden anymore.

I have been following the political turmoil for past week in USA. These were the first presidential elections I came across that were very bitter and took people to streets in some cities. For some, the president-elect is a welcome change, for others he doesn't represent the true American values. I am merely an observer. The 2016 elections are over, it's time to put our feelings aside and move on.

I want to summarize all that I learnt from my garden this year. The following points might be helpful for those who have some space and are eager to start growing some of their own food. Writing down helps me take an account of my journey through the year. What I thought of about having a garden was so different than reality. I was new, the land was never used before, the city was new to me and I had physical limitations. There were things that I hated doing (like weeding in 90 degrees weather) and some that were pure joy (harvesting zucchini and sweet corns).

I had a 10,000 sq ft garden space in front my house (rental). I started seeds and transplants in March and ended harvesting by October. Lemon was the first seed that I sowed in a pot. When I planted the first lemon seed in the pot, in my mind, I had imagined a 6 ft tall lemon tree in my backyard with lemons hanging low from it.
Dreamy lemon tree
One among the many daytime musings that I do :) The lemon seed turned into a 2" seedling in two months after which it died due to neglect. No more lemons for me.  I moved on to grow other vegetables. I am a firm believer in learning by doing and learning by observing. What I learn while doing is so much more than by reading book. Books and other means of education should supplement one's own learning, not replace it. My two cents.

  1. Planning is an extremely important component of gardening vegetables.  Vegetables are tender crops and need the right conditions for healthy growth. The right soil, right moisture, right temperature and best sunshine. April was still cold here and it wasn't until May 2016 that I started building garden infrastructure. June saw emergence of a few seedlings. I should have planned better for weather before sowing seeds or starting transplants. Cost was my prohibitive factor. Season extension requires significant investment in materials. I realized that it is better to put irrigation, fencing and other things in place in garden in cooler months of spring than in summer. It becomes extremely difficult to work outside in summer when days get hot. Tasks like weeding are difficult to tackle when temperature outside reaches more than 75 degrees. If I were to do things differently, I would have put all the required things in place by end of April. By required things I mean compost, mulch, irrigation setup, fencing and a garden layout. IF YOU HAVE A SMALL GARDEN, it is always a good idea to plan how and where you want to grow your favorite edibles. Examine the area for slope, ease of access, sunlight and drainage as you think what vegetables you plan to grow.  Some vegetables like summer squash require more area to grow than others like cilantro and basil which grow beautifully in small spaces. Do your planning in spring (March and April) than in summer. 
  2.  It is difficult to access the right soil temperature for proper germination and growth as a beginner. 60-75 degrees is ideal germination temperature for many crops. When direct seeding in the ground, knowing when the temperature is in the ideal range is tough. This fall, when I expected cabbage to grow and thrive during the cool days, all of my five cabbage plants died because of frost. Even after covering the young cabbage plants with a row cover, the strong cold winds took the toll. I should have either covered the cabbage plants with a thick row cover or used white plastic sheet over hoops to cover them up. Better yet, grow things in greenhouse. Cold frames are expensive and not feasible for larger areas. I wouldn't want to build them on a rented place. If you have a knack to build things, go ahead and assemble glass cold frames to protect small crops from extreme temperature fluctuations in fall and winter. Ventilation is must. I would also like to say that sometimes extreme rainfall followed by dry spells adversely affects the fruits of plants. 
  3. Some plants were just more difficult to grow than others. I grew onions, garlic, tomatoes, corn, eggplants, cabbage, okra, summer squash, cilantro and mint in my garden this year. The vegetables grew with varying levels of success. A few onions came out really good with big red bulbs. I planted Red Witherspoon onion variety. Most of my onion bulbs didn't mature. It was partly because of hot summer and partly because of incorrect planting time.  CABBAGE and SPINACH were difficult to grow. Partly because they were most susceptible to diseases and were attacked by pests. I failed to understand the specific nutrient requirements at various stages of growth for these two plants. In summer, they were stressed. Simply applying compost wasn't enough. 
  4. Nasty pests. Pests are ' A Basket of Deplorables' ;) I read a lot about what causes them and ways to combat. Soil chemistry and presence of weeds play a role in pests' life cycle. When a plant does not get enough of all the nutrients from soil, it looses it's ability to fight the pests. If there are too many cruciferous weeds growing all around the plant, pests will come. While I actively removed as many weeds as I could, doing this job in the heat of summer for 10 vegetable rows was tough.  If you have a pest problem and are new to gardening, you may have to use organic sprays to combat pests initially. They are widely available in Home Depot, Lowes and Walmart (as well as online on Amazon or other garden supply stores). However, all of them turn out to be expensive in the long run. Spraying anything on plants is more of a curative measure to combat pests than a preventive measure. Planting companion crops that deter pests and keeping land free of unwanted grass are the most effective cultural control measures to avoid pest problems. A healthy plant that gets all of it's nutrients from soil is so much more resistant to pests than an unhealthy plant. 
  5. Weeds: Weeds in my garden was something that I tackled in all the wrong ways possible. When my garden area was first tilled, big chunks of sod still remained in the garden. The sod took roots in the soil in a few weeks. In two months, my garden was more grass than vegetables. I used a trimmer to trim the grass and weeds. It helped but after every rainfall, the weeds grew more. By September end, I gave up on weeding. My summer crops were mostly harvested by then. I would like to point that even though I had put plastic sheet on almost all of my vegetable beds, perennial weeds like crabgrass took over the beds. Crabgrass grows through rhizomes and each bud that puts itself in soil, grows roots. The only way to kill perennial weeds is to either solarize it (by covering it under black plastic) or take it out individually from the garden. A TILLING equipment has to be in place to keep the weeds from taking roots and keeping the land clear. No-Till gardening proved difficult to practice in first year. Tilling breaks the soil structure and if done repeatedly, causes damage to the soil. However, when working on a land that has not been used before or where grass has been growing for years, I think tilling is necessary. A simple wheel hoe or a walk behind tractor is best if you are gardening bigger acres. Next year, I plan to use better tools and techniques to combat weeds. 
  6. Unwanted critters: Raccoons, groundhogs and rabbits enjoyed feasting on vegetables all summer long. It was disappointing to see okra plants being devoured by raccoons overnight in spite of fencing. My six foot tall fencing was only good to keep deer at bay. Unless your fencing is dug a few feet underneath the ground, chances are, rabbits and other critters will eventually find a way to their food. If you in an urban area where animals are not a problem, you may not require fencing. Squirrels don't do much damage. 
  7. If this is your first year growing vegetables in a garden, grow the easy ones first. Easy ones depend upon your location, climate and availability. Here, I found herbs were easy to grow and required less maintenance than vegetables. Cilantro grew like a charm in summer. It self-sowed from seeds again in fall at the same place.Mint, spreads like a weed. I use mint a lot in summer. I experimented with Holy Basil and Thai basil in garden. Both grew wonderfully. Basil is a heat loving crop, it died down after the first frost on October 11. 
  8. Sunlight - there is no substitute to it. I planted seeds in seed trays for a few summer crops. Since April was cold, I put the seed trays inside my house where it was warm enough to germinate. After germination, when the seedlings needed sun, I transfered them in hoophouse to grow. There were a couple of times in April when I forgot to bring the seedlings inside at night. The next day, they died. Hoophouses do not raise the temperature enough if it already in 30s and 40s outside. If you do not have a window sill that receives sun for at least 5-6 hours in the day, there is no point growing seeds as transplants. You can use grow lights under which seedlings can be grown. The grow light replicates  the wavelength of sunlight and helps the plant grow. It is a slightly expensive setup and is good for microgreens and other tender plants. I did not use grow lights so cannot comment on their setup costs and ease of use. 
  9. There is a cost to everything. My total expenditure for the entire garden season was close to $2000. I planned to put only $500. Gross miscalculation on my part. The biggest expense was the equipment rental from Home Depot. I rented a rear tine rototiller (walk behind) for a week and used it to clear land and prepare beds in April. Another $200 were in wasteful expenditure (fancy pots, extra seeds, too much of this or that). Most of the other expenses were rightfully needed. I had written a separate post earlier in the year on costs incurred in garden. For a small garden (less than 5000 sq feet), plan to spend only on soil (manure, some compost etc), a few tools, seeds, hose pipe, some kind of mulch and row covers. Depending upon the type of crop you will grow, you may require trellises (for tomatoes, beans etc), stakes and other infrastructure setup. There will be expenses along the way. Choose materials that make your work easier and solves the garden issue you are dealing with. 
  10. Love what you do and enjoy the beauty. Gardening feels best if you love to tend to things and dig the dirt. Wear gloves but get ready to spend a few hours a week to get dirty. Plant a few flowers of your choice and that grow well in your region in specific seasons. 
I look forward to next year with many more ideas to implement in the garden. Better techniques, better plan and more success. Gardening is fun when done with a team of enthusiastic gardeners. It adds to your energy. The most valuable lesson was to learn to work with nature and not against it, keep frustrations and ego aside and stay humble. I am always open to hear about farming/gardening experiences from enthusiastic gardeners.