5 Lessons from My Summer Garden

In the Garden · Summer Garden · The Beginner's Garden Podcast

The home garden grows more than vegetables. It also births new ideas, experiments, knowledge, and lessons. With the harvesting of the last tomato to the clearing of the last spent vine, we learn more to make the following season’s garden even more fruitful.

Having completed my sixth garden season, I know I have many more years before I consider myself a veteran. But still, each year I learn more and more about my garden and about gardening in general. In this week’s episode of the Beginner’s Garden Podcast and blog post below, I share the lessons I’ve learned in my summer garden this year. My hope is that you can take some of my lessons and try them in your garden.

Click to listen to the podcast episode, or continue reading the blog post below:

Lessons Learned from my Summer Garden Tomatoes: Pruning Reduced My Total Yield

I’ve heard it for years, as I’m sure you have as well: you must prune the suckers off your tomatoes. (I’m talking about indeterminate types, not determinate; see an explanation of the differences here.)

But is it true? Or is pruning tomatoes just one of those things we’ve passed down to one another over the years?

I decided to test it. Planting two rows of tomatoes only feet apart from each other, the soil was identical as possible. I staked them in the same way, and I grew an exact combination of three different types of indeterminate varieties: Arkansas Traveler, Black Krim, and Amish Paste. In one row, I pruned every sucker, and in the other row I pruned none of them.

Then for the growing season I harvested each row in different buckets, calculating the yields separately.

The result?

The unpruned tomatoes yielded 50% more fruit than the pruned tomatoes.

Sure, they may have been a little unruly and hard to manage. But I can’t argue with the yield. What I learned is in my garden, I see no purpose in spending time pruning. I get better yields leaving them alone!

Corn: Planting In Smaller Amounts is Possible

I’ve always heard that corn is best planted in large amounts for proper pollination. Because I’ve always had enough space to grow large patches of corn, this never presented a problem.

But this season, I decided to stagger my corn plantings and I put this theory to the test.

In my first planting, I planted four, 28-foot rows of corn. In my second planting, I planted two, 28-foot rows. And in my third planting, I planted a 4×8 raised bed with 4 rows.

How would these second and third plantings compare?

Overall, my best yields and my best ears came from the first planting, for sure. I had fewer problems with under-developed corn due to lack of pollination. But, my second and third plantings produced well enough. My second planting yielded a good amount of full, ripe ears, though a few did show signs of poor pollination. And in my third planting, I still harvested ripe ears, though they did not grow as large and full as the others.

It’s hard to say how much the amount and space contributed to the difference since I planted in different areas at different times. But I did learn this: planting in smaller amounts is possible. This should come as encouraging news for gardeners with smaller spaces who want to enjoy a few summer dinners with fresh-picked corn on the cob.

Squash and Zucchini: Timing is Everything

Gardeners hoping to grow organic sometimes have to come up with creative measures to “outsmart” their greatest insect foes. In my case, it’s the squash vine borer with my squash and zucchini plants.

adult squash vine borer moth

I knew from experience that an early planting probably wouldn’t yield much before the borer killed my squash, but I tried anyway. I also knew from experience that if I planted my squash or zucchini in late July, the borer wouldn’t bother my planting.

But this season I had extra space in late June and I decided to test it and see if I could manage a squash harvest in mid-season.

The results?

The squash grew rapidly in the full summer sun and heat, but the borer arrived as well. Thankfully, the plants, with their fast growth, withstood the attack longer than my early spring plantings and I harvested more squash than we could eat before they eventually succumbed. But as in year’s past, the late July planting escaped the borer’s pressure.

Interestingly, I’ve learned that gardeners in different areas have different experiences. Jen in Ohio plants her squash very early because the borer doesn’t arrive until later in the summer. Therefore, she has the opposite experience than I do. That’s why it’s important to test your plantings and observe. Thankfully, with a quick-maturing crop like squash or zucchini, you can plan your planting at the perfect time for your area.

Green Beans: Test Something New, but in Small Amounts

I grow enough green beans to last our family all season. That’s why it’s important for me that we have enough harvest year after year. In the past, I’ve grown Blue Lake Pole Beans because they have proven to be the most productive and the easiest to harvest before growing tough.

However, Blue Lake beans do not produce during the heat of summer, and I wanted to see if another variety would produce better in our long, hot Arkansas summers. After reading reviews online, I decided to try Rattlesnake and Seychelles beans.

But, I did not want to risk such a critical crop by trying all new varieties. I decided to plant half of my A-frame trellis with the Blue Lake pole beans, and the other half I planted with Rattlesnake and Seychelles.

Right out of the gate, my Blue Lakes grew faster and larger than the new varieties, but because of our quick, hot summer, they did not begin producing until August. The Rattlesnake, however, began producing in June, giving me a few pints of canned green beans before shutting down production during the heat.

 

Seychelles started producing in small amounts at the same time as the Blue Lakes, though the production from them has been dismal.

Overall, this was a good test, but I am glad I didn’t plant my whole crop with these new varieties. Otherwise, I would not have had the abundant harvest I’ve come to depend on.

Soil: It Matters

This year I participated in my town’s first Community Garden. It was such a rewarding experience! But it also opened my eyes to how much soil quality matters.

The community garden is only a couple of miles from my own garden, and the new soil resembled the soil in my garden years ago before I began working to improve it.

But the real eye-opener came when I planted the same crops in my community garden plot that I did in my own garden. I started tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage indoors, hardened them off, and planted them in my garden and in the community garden. The same okra seed grew both in my garden and in the community garden. And I even mulched the tomatoes and peppers like I do in my garden.

And yet, the health and the production of those same crops in my garden in comparison to the plot in the community garden were entirely different. My garden’s tomatoes and okra grew taller than me, while in the community garden they grew to my waist. My garden’s peppers reached about four feet; those in the community garden maybe grew one.

To me, this presented a clear picture of how much soil quality matters. In my own garden, I regularly add compost, mulch with wood chips every year, and I limed the soil until the pH settled into a neutral range — and that’s pretty much it. But those changes also happened gradually, over a period of six seasons and counting.

This should give us hope. Even if you’re starting with soil that isn’t ideal, look at improving it in the long-term because when the soil is healthy, your plants will be more productive.

Those are the top five lessons I learned in my garden this season. What have you learned from your garden this year?

 

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10 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your lessons learned! I planted 3 different varieties of squash for the fall garden (lemon squash, spaghetti squash, and patty pan). All three of them got drilled by the vine borer. Very disappointing to say the least. My Seminole pumpkins even have been affected by the borer. The borer is just a beast in my area (central tx). My only luck has been to plant squash in a bed of garlic or onions to get any kind of decent harvest.

  2. I, too, planted different plantings of corn and beans. The first corn crop was a good harvest, but spread over 10-15 days. The 2nd crop was a little different, coming mostly in 5-6 days with huge cobs. the rest were smaller over a week or so. The beans were so plentiful this year that we got sick of them after eating, freezing, and giving to family and friends, so we just pulled the plants out. And we only had 40-45″ rows (6″ wide rows)! So our freezer is fairly full of beans and corn this year.

  3. I see you use Amish paste tomatoes. How do they compare to Romas? My Romas had many with spots that eventually accelerated spoilage right on the vine. Interested to see if Amish are better tasting and more disease resistant.
    Thanks!
    jim

    1. I imagine your experience with Romas and Amish Paste might be dependent on your climate. For me, in my hot and humid Arkansas climate, my Romas are my most dependable crop. I rarely have the issues you mentioned, but I do pull them up when their major fruiting period is over. Amish Paste produce tasty, large paste tomatoes, and because they are indeterminate they produce all season (a first large flush and then trickling the rest of the season). The Amish Paste here are extremely vulnerable to early blight (whereas my Romas never have issues), and they grow out of control on long, spindly vines. I enjoy them, obviously, as I keep growing them (my third season), but Romas are my most dependable crop for canning.

  4. Years ago, when the corn tassels were ready to drop their pollen onto the silk of the ears, scores of honey bees would show up and the tassels would be covered with bees, causing pollen to fall onto the silk. Sadly, there are few bees left to do the job these days. You can greatly improve the pollination of your corn ears by tapping the tassels with a stick — i use a yardstick. You have to do this on a sunny day when the little pods on the tassels are dry enough to release their pollen, and before the silk has turned brown. Each strand of silk is actually a little tube that carries a grain of pollen to the kernel to which it is attached., so lots of pollen must fall onto the silk of each ear. So do whatever you can to facilitate this process. However, there is not much that can be done when the silk is ready and the tassels are rain-soaked, too wet to release their pollen.

  5. This is my first year growing Rattlesnake pole beans also. I had them growing beside some Fortex pole beans which i had been growing every year. Both have done well, but the rattlesnake beans produced more than the Fortex. Also the Rattlesnake beans were not as bothered by the Japanese beetles. I will continue to grow both as i have some Fortex seeds left over.

  6. Hi Jill!

    Love your farming journey, and exploration!. Thanks for including us! Couple questions:

    1. In Franklin, TN were I live hot humid summers with rain often, our tomato plants tend to get diseases under these circumstances. So we pinch suckers for good air circulation (to reduce fungal/bacterial disease. How do you manage Diseases such as, blight, late blight other fungal disease which unprinted plants? Would love to not prune.

    2. I get the corn to fruit, but my small patch is always eaten by raccoons! Any tips for combatting nighttime critters?

    Thank you again for your advice.

    1. Hi Gloria, I deal with the same diseases as you and I tested pruning vs. not pruning to see what difference it would make. I actually found that pruning hurt my tomato plants because the disease took the plant quicker (with less foliage available). You can see the results of my test here (https://journeywithjill.net/gardening/2019/05/14/is-pruning-tomato-plants-necessary/ ) but I encourage you to test it in your own garden, as other gardeners have had opposite results. For corn and raccoons, the only thing I know of is to erect a fence that has a ceiling to it. That may not be ideal. You can hear more about that in this conversation I had with Deerbusters Inc: https://journeywithjill.net/gardening/2020/05/18/protect-your-garden-from-deer-rabbits-squirrels-and-other-wildlife/

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