Lessons Learned Our First Year in the Garden

Lifestyle

Our first year growing in the kitchen garden has been far more successful than I imagined. Successes aside, the garden taught us a number of lessons which we’ll apply to future seasons for more fruitful and healthy harvests. For every cucumber, tomato and pepper picked we encountered a pest or disease that called for attention. Perhaps you’ll find these discoveries helpful for your garden, too!

Pests & disease

I didn’t anticipate encountering pests and disease so early in the garden. Naively, I expected those things to trickle into a more established garden. That was not the case!

Cabbage worms

Cabbage worms came for the brussel sprouts early on, and later for the collard greens and sprouting broccoli. When I say they demolished the leaves, I mean it.

To prevent this in the future, we’ve learned to cover the crops with garden fabric early in the growing season. This will deter moths from laying their eggs. There are several other tips such as amending the soil, companion planting to draw months away and, when all else fails, spraying the worms with neem oil or BT. I’m in favor of trying to stop them before they start!

Parsley worms

Parsley worms, also known as Black Swallowtail caterpillars, appeared on one of our parsley plants later in the season. They feed on plants in the parsley family.

I happened to plant parsley in two different beds – one, an old plant from last year that I replanted, the others, new plants this year. Thankfully, the caterpillars only feasted on our lonely, old plant which I considered sacrificial. I kept a close eye on the newer, healthier plants to make sure they steered clear. The butterflies are actually great pollinators, so if you want to keep them around, just plant a sacrificial plant and keep an eye on any plants you don’t want eaten alive!

Beetles

I couldn’t figure out what was going after our lavender, basil, pepper and bean leaves until a friend called it out – beetles! They come out around dusk, so you won’t necessarily spot them during the day.

You’ll likely need to monitor your plants and hand pick and drop the beetles in a pail of soapy water, but covering the crops early in the season may minimize the number of eggs laid.

Three-lined potato beetles made themselves at home on our Tomatillo plants. The beetles lay eggs which grow into these yucky, brown slug-looking creatures and – you guessed it – eat the leaves.

We found these eggs and beetles pretty easy to spot and pick off, but as with all pests, regular maintenance is the key. A spinosad-based organic pesticide can be applied to manage infestation, too.

Powdery mildew

I spotted this white dusty covering on our squash plants about mid-season, but didn’t think anything of it until I mentioned it to my sister. Mildew! This is pretty common, but there are several things you can do to prevent this.

Pruning leaves, spacing plants appropriately, planting in full sun, removing leaves that show early signs of infection and rotating crops are just a few of the things you can try. There are some organic spray products to apply if you’re encountering issues with production or rapid spread. I went a little crazy cutting off ALL leaves that showed signs of infection and I think this has rendered the plants useless. Lesson learned!

Nutrition

Throughout the summer there were a few things we noticed that made us wonder if our soil was impeding growth. Notably, our carrots and radishes grew greens but no roots and our squash plants had a lot more of male flowers than few female flowers. This brought into question the quality of our soil. Next year, we’ll do a soil test to figure out how best to amend the soil with the right nutrients for our plants.

Hydration

Luckily, this year was very rainy so our drip system in the raised beds didn’t need to be used often. The back beds did not have any irrigation set up, which meant I needed to manually water these plants.

Turns out, if you forget to water your garden, things don’t grow. Imagine that! We have a few ideas on how we might change up the back beds next year. Whatever we do will have to include a better system for watering to make sure our seeds germinate and plants that require more hydration (like watermelon) have what they need to succeed.

Sunlight

We knew our raised beds probably weren’t going to get ideal full sun each day, but we needed a season to see how things panned out. This just means we have to learn what will grow well in the raised beds, and what needs to be moved to other garden beds with more sun exposure. So far, I think our squash and onions probably need more sun.

Improving support

This year we used what we had on hand for support structures, but as we near the end of the season we’re noticing some weaknesses in what we used. For one – the tomato trellises are too short. If we want to encourage our plants to keep growing, they need something taller to attach to.

Once they reach the top of these trellises they don’t know where to go, so we’re stunting additional production. Secondly, the trellises need to be stronger. Tomatoes get heavy and unwieldy as they grow, so if they don’t have the proper support they’ll bend, and eventually break. Similarly, our tomatillos need trellises next year to prevent them from intruding on their neighbors!

Planting techniques

We followed an intensive planting method in the raised beds, which for the most part turned out just fine. There were a few crops we learned needed more space (or sun) so we’ll change that up next year. I’d like to introduce more pollinator-friendly plants next year and do some succession planting so we have a more steady harvest.

I also learned that corn needs to be planted in blocks for a reason. I planted mine in a row just to fill an empty space we had. The crop pollinates itself, so the block encourages cross pollination between each stalk. If the silk doesn’t get pollinated from the tassels of its surrounding stalks, the kernels won’t produce well (or at all)!

All of these lessons and we still have plenty of produce to enjoy this season. We look forward to tailoring our techniques and amending the garden year after year for continued success. Hopefully next year we’ll have even better news and more learnings to share with you.

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