Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lessons from Another Year in the Garden

No stack of gardening books could teach me as much as I've learned by simply being out there in the garden working and observing. Here's what I learned this year.

My book-learning had already taught me that cucurbits don't transplant well (cucurbits are all the members of the squash family--cukes, zukes, pumpkins and other winter squashes, gourds and melons), so it's best to direct-seed them into the garden and leave 'em. This year I planted six zucchini seeds in a space that could support three plants, and all six of them sprouted. Since I had an empty spot elsewhere in the garden I thought I would move the three extra plants just to see what would happen.

The first one I sort of mindlessly scooped up and in the process didn't leave very much soil clinging to the roots. I knew it would be traumatized and probably wouldn't make it. I was more careful with the other two plants, scooping each up with a big ball of soil surrounding the roots. All three were very traumatized by the move for about the first week, then all recovered. The first plant however was always sickly and weak and the grasshoppers attacked it severely. Any zukes that formed were small and grotesquely deformed. I was afraid of them.

The other two plants did okay, produced some zucchini, but were never as robust or productive as the three plants in the original bed. In the past week or two, the sickly plant took to its deathbed. I had been leaving it in the ground because I thought it served as a pest decoy, drawing bugs to it and away from the other two somewhat healthier plants. But I finally decided to put it out of its misery. As soon as I did, the other two got sick and I had to pull both of them within a week.

Last year I had six zucchini plants all together in one bed. There was one that was sickly and all of the squash bugs flocked to it while leaving the other plants alone. I left it in the ground all season and the other plants remained healthy (and pest free).

Lessons learned: 1)don't transplant cucurbits and 2)sickly plants may offer pest protection to their neighbors (as long as their sickness isn't contagious, in which case you need to pull the plant immediately and destroy it).

The hail and grasshoppers made it a very interesting year in the garden. We had at least six hailstorms, two with golf-ball sized hail and larger (2.5" diameter). We got lucky though because one of the storms that dropped golfball-sized hail on us dropped grapefruit-sized hail on another town before it got to us.

Lessons learned: Gardens want to grow, life wants to happen. You can't keep life down. If there's any opportunity for it to spring back from adversity, it will. My potatoes were decimated by grasshoppers (and to a lesser extent hail). I'd say at least eighty percent of the leaves were destroyed. The plants never flowered, except for three or four blossoms on one plant before the hoards descended. The vines started dying back on the potatoes but never died completely. Now with the arrival of cooler weather the number of grasshoppers has decreased dramatically and all of a sudden I have tons of lush new growth on my potatoes. These were supposed to be a mid-season potato, but better late than never. We have harvested new potatoes here and there and they seem to be forming just fine, but it's all kind of weird. I suppose the frost will end up killing the vines. The potatoes probably won't store well, but at least we'll get some.

Also with the cooler weather and decreasing number of grasshoppers, my Swiss chard and basil plants are going crazy. The chard was so full of holes all summer I was only using it for making pasta. It was too ugly for anything else. Now I'm eating it almost every day and freezing a bunch for the winter.

Another lesson learned: intensive gardening protects against wind damage. The plants are spaced so closely that they support each other and create a biomass that the wind can't mess with as much. In conventional rows, each plant is out there alone, getting whipped around in every direction by the wind.

Which brings me to:
Lesson learned: very stiff cutworm collars on very tender plants can act just like actual cutworms when a ferocious spring windstorm is added to the mix. Note to self: toilet paper rolls and pepper plants do not mix.

I also learned that John Jeavons' estimate of yields for tomato plants is quite accurate. A hundred square foot bed should produce about 200 pounds of tomatoes for an intermediate gardener (as much as 418 pounds for an advanced gardener). I've got my tomatoes in a 100 square foot bed, but have 20-some basil plants in the middle, taking up some room. So far I've harvested 140 pounds of tomatoes and probably have at least another hundred pounds on the vine. I love that his charts really let me do some accurate planning.

I learned that fall crops come up much faster than spring crops and seem to get off to a much healthier start. (The cool summer probably helped.)


Tomatoes love soaker hoses and mulch.

Oregano makes a delicious tea (especially with some rosemary thrown in).

Coriander attracts ladybugs.

Clay saucers and wood scraps are very protective when placed under pumpkins, melons, and gourds.

Hail damages horizontally sprawling plants more than vertically growing plants, it damages broad-leafed plants more than narrow-leafed plants, and it damages succulent stems more than woody stems. Therefore, untrellised cucurbits are among the most vulnerable plants in the garden when it comes to hail.

A cool, wet year brings hoards of grasshoppers and mosquitoes, but also hoards of toads (who seemed to have kept the squash bug population in check this year).

Melons and gourds take over the garden, but their shading and biomass seems to be appreciated by the other plants.

Five cucumber plants never produce enough cukes of uniform size at any one time to make a decent batch of pickles. Well, maybe they would if they weren't hail-damaged.

Dill wants to mature long before the cucumbers mature, so plant dill continuously throughout the season.

A 500 square-foot intensive garden produces a lot of food, but bigger would be even better.

And last but not least--the number one lesson of the year-- I learned to always call before you dig.

No comments:

Post a Comment