When June rolls around, the long-awaited summer garden accelerates and we have no choice but to hang on for the ride. We spend our time weeding, managing insects, fighting disease, and harvesting. These tasks keep us so occupied it’s sometimes easy to move from the spring garden to the summer garden without a second thought.
But even as the tomatoes turn red or you panic at the sight of an unfamiliar bug, have you ever stopped to consider the results of the spring garden you poured months into preparing, planting, and harvesting?
I know taking the time to reflect presents a challenge for me. But this season, I made a specific effort to stop and evaluate my cooler weather crops as their season ends.
And because I know I learn my best lessons from hearing from other gardeners, I wanted to share with you nine reflections from my spring 2018 garden. You’ll hear successes and disappointments and the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
You can listen to it in my own words in this episode of the Beginner’s Garden Podcast, or read the blog post for the highlights below.
In my long-season, hot and humid, zone 7b Arkansas garden, spinach is a finicky crop to grow. It hates hot weather, and because of that, many beginning gardeners in warmer climates become frustrated when they can’t grow a good crop.
After several seasons of trial and error, I finally harvested the most spinach ever in the longest period of time!
I began my spinach seeds indoors last August and I transplanted them into the garden in September. They grew well and I was able to harvest throughout the fall and into the middle of December. Then, with dipping temperatures and shorter daylight, the plants stopped growing and many of the leaves suffered freeze damage.
But, in late January — about 6 weeks later — they started growing again. Because of a cool spring, I harvested consistently until about late April when the rising spring temperatures drove them to bolt.
With both a successful fall and spring harvest in one planting, this season’s spinach was a success!
Lesson: Start spinach indoors in the late summer and transplant for the fall garden. Leave them in the ground and they may come back in the late winter!
After planting a 4×8 raised bed full of seed garlic cloves in mid-November (about two weeks after my average first frost date), I harvested in June. I experimented with two new types of garlic (Garlic-K’s Backyard and elephant garlic) in addition to my go-to garlic variety (Red Inchelium). All grew very well and I harvested about 80 bulbs of garlic, which we’ll eat for the entire year plus save the best cloves for the next season’s planting.
Lesson: Plant garlic in the fall and in raised beds for the best chance at a stellar harvest.
If you’re interested in more resources on growing garlic, here are some places to start:
A dry winter enabled me to plant my potatoes at the optimum time for my area: six weeks before my average last spring frost. But, they took a very long time to emerge (and many did not). In hindsight, I believe our record-cold spring played a role in the delay.
When they finally did break the surface, they grew extremely well, perhaps some of my best plants. However, for some reason when I harvested, the yield was much lower than I’ve seen in the past. I still can’t put my finger on a reason, but perhaps some years just produce better than others.
Lesson: Sometimes you won’t know when a crop performs poorly. If it’s an important crop for you, try again next year.
While I gritted my teeth in frustration as I waited weeks to get my summer crops in the ground due to a cold spring, I secretly hoped the cool weather would produce a bumper onion harvest. Indeed, I saw little bolting of my onions that I tend to see with warmer springs. But the bulb development proved smaller than expected.
A spring storm toppled my green tops causing me to harvest early. While I could blame the wind for truncating the development of the onions, the nearby garlic tops remained unfazed. This tells me perhaps the onions had reached harvest stage by this time.
So, why were the bulbs so small?
Maybe the cool spring inhibited a lush green growth needed for optimum bulb production.
Or perhaps I did work in enough fertility to the bed. This is one area I’ll work on specifically next year.
Lesson learned: If using bone meal as an organic phosphorus source, understand it takes some time to become available to the onion plants. Amend the soil with organic matter 2-3 months prior to planting.
If you want to grow onions for bulbs, it helps to understand their growth habits. In this podcast, I share how to grow onions successfully, though clearly I have more to learn.
This season was my first for starting cabbage seeds indoors, and I’m proud to share that this year’s crop has been a great one! Instead of spending money on transplants at the garden center, I planted my cabbage seeds inside around 10 weeks before my average last spring frost, and I transplanted them outdoors about 5 weeks later.
Though I have had typical issues with the cabbage worm, both a combination of beneficial insects (I’ve seen two large spiders hunting around my cabbage) and an occasional supplement of the organic insecticide Bacterial Thurengensis, has helped this cabbage harvest to be a successful one.
Lessons learned: Save money by starting cabbage indoors! Also, look into row covers when transplanting to keep the cabbage moth from accessing the developing plants.
Though I prefer to plant lettuce seeds directly in the garden, I did start a few indoors to get a head start. Both my transplanted seedlings and my directly seeded lettuce performed very well.
I learned that thinning lettuce isn’t as necessary as I had previously thought. While the individual plants didn’t get as big, I still had great harvests of tender, young leaves.
I also learned that later plantings of lettuce will germinate and grow at a faster rate than earlier plantings. So even though my goal was to succession plant three batches every two weeks, the later plantings ended up catching up to the earlier ones.
Lesson learned: Start first plants indoors for earlier harvests, and plan succession planting every three weeks instead of every two for a more staggered harvest.
While thinning lettuce seeds didn’t prove as necessary as I had thought, I learned the hard way that thinning carrot seeds are an absolute must. My Cosmic Purple and Imperator carrots germinated so well that they became crowded. But by the time I needed to thin the carrots, I was so busy with other garden projects, I just didn’t make time.
This oversight cost me in the size of the carrots and the harvest. I ended up feeding many tiny carrots to the chickens. I knew my lack of culling extra carrots was the problem because I harvested larger carrots in a few patches that didn’t have the roots competing with one another. Lesson learned.
But the good news is, I’ll have a better game plan in place for my favorite time to plant carrots — in the fall garden.
Lesson learned: To prevent having to thin carrots, broadcast the seeds more thinly. If they still germinate at a high rate and grow too close together (no closer than 2″ diameter should surround each carrot), thin as needed.
One of my big goals this season was to incorporate more flowers in my vegetable garden with the purpose of attracting beneficial insects. I strive to maintain an organic garden, but I’d rather not even spray organic insecticides if I don’t have to.
In order to attract beneficial insects who feast on pests, I planted specific flowers such as coreopsis, sunflowers, and zinnias. I also allowed my bolting onions, carrots, radishes, and spinach to flower. In addition, by incorporating buckwheat as a cover crop between a spring and summer planting, its flowers attracted many different types of beneficial insects.
With my past efforts of eliminating pesticides in my garden and with this new addition of flowers, I’m seeing many beneficial insects. Not a coincidence, I don’t believe, I also had no problems with aphids or squash bugs.
Lesson learned: Continue adding more and more flowers to the vegetable garden.
Over the winter, I allowed our hens to roam the garden. They pecked and fertilized for many months. Though I have always incorporated their manure in the compost pile and as a soil amendment for specific beds, this was the first time my hens have made their home in the garden.
So far, I’ve seen a healthy increase in the production of my garden plants, and I couldn’t be happier. I also have to wonder if they have helped control some of the pests in my garden that had burrowed into the soil for the winter.
Lesson learned: Allow the chickens to make their home in my off-season garden each year!
As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s always good to reflect on what has worked and what hasn’t in our gardens. What have you learned this season?
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