large broccolini plants after a rain

Five Essential Lessons of Five Years of Vegetable Gardening

The 2020 growing season will be my 6th year growing vegetables organically in a zone 6 urban garden. I began with a few pots and planters on the patio and expanded each year, digging three 9 x 3 foot beds into the ground of my small yard, setting-up an indoor seed starting station, adding new beds in two small patches of ground and purchasing several grow bags to line the retaining wall at the edge of the driveway. It’s a small, scattered garden space of about 100 square feet.  

When you begin to garden you soon realize that there is a steep learning curve to growing your own vegetables. There is so much to know, and I still have a lot to learn. But I’ve accumulated a great deal of knowledge in five growing seasons, and I’ve been wanting to share some of it here for a while. I've decided to start with five of the most significant gardening lessons I’ve learned in my five years of vegetable gardening - in the hopes that it will be useful for anyone planning on starting a vegetable garden of their own this year.  

Visit Your Garden Every Day.  

When you grow vegetables organically, you can’t rely on chemical pesticides and herbicides to control pests and disease. Luckily, they aren’t necessary. It is possible to work with nature, rather than attempt to control it, to produce a garden with minimal disease and a manageable balance of pests and their predators. But, to achieve this, you will need to be present in your garden on a regular basis. Any number of pest problems, disease or unruly growth can be successfully dealt with if you catch them early enough. But the garden changes quickly. Get out into your garden as close to every day as you can and look around for things like damaged foliage, yellowing or diseased leaves, insects and insect eggs and plants that need pruning.  

Keep this in mind when deciding where to place your garden and how big to make it. If you have the option, build it as close to your kitchen as you can. A short walk can easily deter you from visiting your plants regularly throughout the growing season. And, don’t grow more than you will have time to look after on a daily basis. Start somewhat smaller than you might like. You can always expand in future years.  

Give your Plants Enough Water

Watering improperly was one of the biggest mistakes I made as a new gardener. I would water my plants every day or two, just until the ground appeared saturated. Most of my plants were slow to grow with low yields, and many did not even reach maturity by the end of the season. They were not getting enough water, and what they get did not reach very far below the surface of the soil. Their roots had no incentive to reach downwards and were weaker as a result.  

Vegetables need about 1-2 inches of water per week. Calculate how many gallons of water you will need to cover the square-footage of your garden with 1-2 inches of water, and apply it all at once, once a week. Use a rain gauge to determine how much rain has fallen that week, and subtract the rainfall from what you apply.

In addition to strengthening root systems, watering less frequently means that your plants will spend less time with wet leaves. It seems counter-intuitive but, while you want moisture in the soil and on the roots of your plants, moisture on the leaves and fruit or vegetables creates the ideal conditions for disease. For this reason, when your plants are wet, hands off! Avoid cutting or pruning your vegetable plants after you’ve watered or on rainy days and try to water early in the day so leaves will have enough time to dry before the sun goes down.  

Kill your Darlings.

“Kill your darlings” is a writing adage. If you want to write well, you need to eliminate words, sentences, paragraphs or entire passages - no matter how attached to them you have grown - if they are redundant, unnecessary, or do not otherwise serve your story or support your argument. To write well, eliminate your writing. There is an analogous principle in gardening. If you want an abundant garden, you will need to eliminate some of what grows. You will need to thin emerging seedlings, prune branches off of plants, pinch off tomato suckers, and top peppers, basil and mints. If you start from seed you will need to start more plants than you can use, in case some of them succumb to disease, and compost the excess.

Believe me, this will be painful at first. When you have given your time, effort and money over to caring for living things, the last thing you will want to do is cut or kill them. You will want to give everything you produce a chance at life. But, if you do, you will never maximize the health and productivity of your garden.  

In the brilliant How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, writer and rose gardener Alexander Chee writes of learning this lesson the time he accidentally pruned his rose bushes back by two thirds - instead of the one third he intended - only to find them, some time later, thriving more than they ever had before: “you can lose more than you thought possible and still grow back, stronger than anyone imagined” (170). It’s a garden lesson, a writing lesson, and a life lesson. But it’s a difficult one to learn. Think of killing your plant darlings not as a necessary evil, but as the best way of caring for your garden.  

Get to Know your Friendly (and not so Friendly) Neighborhood Bugs  

As a new gardener I was prepared for my garden to be time consuming. I was unprepared for how much of that time would be spent running into the house to google bugs. I have spent countless hours googling bugs. Did you know that ladybug larvae look like tiny alligators, that they will eat entire populations of aphids in a matter of days, that ants will protect the aphids in order to harvest the sweet substance they leave behind? I didn't. Attempting to decipher the difference between “good” and “bad” stink bugs can mess you up and ruin your afternoon, but knowledge of the identities and habits of your local bugs is essential.  

Generally speaking, from the perspective of the vegetable gardener, there are bad bugs, in the sense that they will eat or otherwise destroy the plants you are attempting to grow; and there are good bugs, in the sense that they will either help with pollination or will eat the aforementioned bad bugs. Learning to tell the difference, to identify these bugs and the telltale signs they leave behind in jagged and bitten leaves, eggs and other substances is an important part of the process of learning to work with nature as an organic gardener. The ultimate goal is balance, not eliminating all bugs.  

The bugs you find in your garden are likely to be different from the ones I find in mine. It depends on where you live. My garden enemies are slugs, cabbage worms, neighborhood cats and my arch nemesis, leaf miners. Other gardeners commonly contend with intruders I rarely, if ever, see in my garden: squash bugs and vine borers, cucumber and Japanese beetles, rabbits, birds and deer. Many pest problems will take care of themselves if you have healthy plants and soil and do not use harsh chemical pesticides. Some pests will, however, require targeted strategies, but the ones you adopt will depend on the pests you have.

Some things can only be learned by doing.

The very first vegetables I grew were kale, tomato and herb transplants purchased from a hardware store. I was so nervous to remove them from their plastic cells and transfer them into the soil. I had read plenty of instructions for transplanting in container gardening books and online articles; I knew the steps required of me, but I still felt unsure of what I was doing. Since then I've learned that the only way to get rid of this sense of uncertainty in the garden is to give it a try. Becoming a successful gardener requires getting comfortable with feelings of uncertainty.  

In this way too gardening parallels writing - both are processes of creation, of bringing into being something that did not previously exist. Get the words on the page, get the plants in the ground, and seeing them out there, separate from you, gives you a sense of what you are working with, and allows you to develop an understanding of what you are doing that is not merely a cognitive grasp of the steps required, but partly an embodied skill, and partially a form of knowledge that resides in your garden space itself. Gardening as knowledge and skill simultaneously occupies your head, you hands and the soil you work in.

Gardening advice and instruction is invaluable, but it only takes you so far. Over years of giving writing advice to students I realized that many of them were frustrated by the experience, seemingly expecting such instruction, if it were good, to produce an instant light bulb moment where everything would snap into place and they would understand exactly what they needed to do. But when you create, you have to begin before you completely grasp what you are doing, that is the only way to learn.  

In one of her garden tours of this past summer, Jess from Roots and Refuge Farm noted that one of the main things she harvested in her frustrating and unlucky 2019 growing season, was garden wisdom itself. This is the upside of this lesson. When you have to learn by doing, you can learn just as much from your failures as your successes, your efforts will always be valuable.

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