A Family Builds a Homestead in the Rain

Lessons From a First-Year Garden

This year has reportedly been a tough one for many. I remind myself that we’ve only been living on our new property for two-and-a-half months. Planting was late; spring prep was minimal. The land was raw and clayey. Oh, and I’m gardening with a toddler.

All of those excuses aside, our garden has not been the lush, overwhelming show of fertility that I had imagined. It’s given us some food, but I’ve been quicker to dwell on the ailing pole beans than to celebrate the pile of cucumbers or ripening tomatoes.

I’ve grown plenty of gardens, but never too scientifically, and never with such lofty goals as I have now.

So I’ve been reading gardening books voraciously, but the lessons that have stuck come when I’m perusing the tomato leaves and digging potatoes. Here are some pointers for all of us starting out fresh.

Focus on the soil. The plants are just a byproduct of good tilth. Fertility can’t grow on its own while also growing vegetables for the table.

Plan. I tend to find myself trailing behind the planting dates; always intending but never accomplishing on-time. I threw some beet seeds in here, some tomato seedlings there, but didn’t plan for effective crop rotation or amendments.

Keep records. Next year’s garden will theoretically be an improvement on this year’s because of all the learning we’ve done. That’s not the case, or at least less so, if we don’t have good notes on what we did, what we did wrong, which pests hit, when we planted which plants, and what the weather was like.

Read regionally specific books. I’ve had many revelations that go against what I knew from reading more general gardening manuals as I learn more about unique soil qualities of the Pacific Northwest. I’m currently reading Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades and The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Pacific Northwest.

Make good compost. I recommend doing a little reading on this one, and doing it right. This way we’re essentially working on next year’s garden alongside this year’s, which is like growing hope beside the bug-eaten nasturtium.

Thin seedlings ruthlessly. I greedily over-seeded our pole beans, and rather than a huge crop, I’ve watched them emerge and slowly drown one another out. It was my biggest regret and therefore my greatest lesson.

Grow too much of something. If you can overwhelm yourself with squash or shallots, you can share and barter with neighbors for produce that you didn’t manage to grow.

On that note, think outside the garden for trade: eggs, wild blackberries, and canned jam make great gifts in exchange for a friend’s corn and kale.

Grow summer squash and a few other easy crops, even if they’re not your favorite. It will encourage you to try new recipes. Even if you’re comfortable (or think you’re comfortable!) cooking veggies, I highly recommend the book Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison for ideas to freshen up your menu. Also, it’s a boost to see some vegetables thriving.

Don’t walk anywhere you intend to plant. We’re trying to break ground on our fall beds. But between the sun-baked clay and having walked all over one area, it’s like shoveling concrete.

Eat the bugs’ leftovers. If the kale is full of holes, it’s also full of phytonutrients. Plus pest damage is often only cosmetic and the produce is worth salvaging. Our potatoes were not pretty, but they were delicious.

Stop over-watering. This lesson came as a surprise to me, and it seems I’m not alone. Many of the symptoms we recognize as thirsty plants in fact indicates over-watering. I’ve scaled back and it has helped. Plus it’s easier!

If the cilantro bolts, grow coriander. I can’t grow cilantro for the life of me (I could, I’m sure, if I planted it at the right time of year…) but coriander–cilantro seed, a common spice–does great! It’s one thing we won’t have to buy for months. Likewise, save seed from other bolting veggies for next spring (or resowing now!).

Resow the failures. Not all have a long enough growing season to squeeze in two rounds of the same veggies. If the tomatoes don’t produce, you’re pretty much out of luck until next year in most places. But  radishes and other fast-growers can certainly go several rounds throughout the year, and problems with others like beans and lettuce will be obvious soon enough to get more seed in the ground in time.

Prepare garden beds for each growing season— meaning spring, winter and fall (even winter, for some)– a few months ahead, at least. Plant cover crops. Add compost and organic matter. Mulch. And like I said, avoid compressing the soil.

Plant some flowers. I used to consider flowers superfluous and unimportant– not worth the extra trouble when I had veggies to water and weed. But with bee populations flagging alarmingly, flowers help support them while encouraging essential pollination of vegetables, which has been a problem with our zucchini. Cheery marigolds help repel pests, an extra plus. Plus, the magenta cosmos and orange and yellow marigolds have made all the difference brightening our slow-growing garden.

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I'm Kelly. Writer, crafter, forager, country winemaker, cook. Mama of an awesome toddler and married to my best friend. We recently returned to the Pacific Northwest, where we're setting out to grow, make, and learn as much as we can as the future unfolds.

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