From Our Garden to Yours: 6 “Mistakes” We Made That You Can Avoid

Bodhi in the strawberry patch“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.” ~ May Sarton

It’s about that time again.

While winter hasn’t really felt like winter all that much this season, one thing is for sure: The gardening bug is starting to set in.

The days are getting longer, with the sun keeping me company on my drive home from work each day. Here and there early spring perennials seem to be fooled by the mild winter weather and popping up. The birds and squirrels are venturing out more and more.

If you’re a gardener, you know what the “bug” feels like. If not, no worries. But be forewarned: It can be VERY contagious when you learn what cozy-ing up with a patch of luscious soil and a few seeds can do for your entire being. For me, getting out and spending time in the garden is an antidote to a culture that saturates us with all things unnatural and fabricated. A culture that begs to keep our attention indoors instead of out. Growing some of our own food and flowers slows me down and makes me mindful of what it means to be reconnected with the natural rhythms of life.

The other great thing about gardening is that it’s a life-long learning process. There are no “mistakes” – and always something to try out or do differently. And that’s where my mistakes will hopefully benefit you this growing season. Here are some of my a-ha’s, tips and lessons learned from last year’s garden:

  • Set Realistic Goals. We went all-out last year with our most ambitious growing plan to date in an attempt to maximize each square foot of our nine raised beds — companion Cuke trellis in winter; chicken coop in backgroundand succession planting schemes, lots of trellises, and a boatload of seeds. Inevitably, our attention was needed for other things and we couldn’t deliver on our ambitions. Start small – whether a single pot, planter or raised bed – and be successful there first. Grow from there.
  • Have a Plan. We keep a notebook to track each season’s efforts — what we planted, when, where, and any insights gleaned through the growing process. Now, you don’t need to have a landscape architect-esque drawings or a military-precision execution plan, but it does help to be a tad organized. Know when you should plant your seeds and where (inside or direct sow outside); make sure the tall stuff doesn’t block out too much of the sun for the smaller things in your garden; commit to watering before the sun is high and hot in the day to conserve water and protect your plants.
  • You Can Never Do Enough for Healthy Soil. I’m a compost-a-holic and do everything I can to crank out as many batches of the “brown gold” as possible. Even then, I would skimp here and there for one reason or another. If you take care of your soil, it will take care of you in the form of beautiful and bountiful plants. While you can always buy compost and leaf mold, it’s way more fun to make it on your own (if you have the means). I try to have a rough 50/50 mix of soil and compost/leaf mold in all our beds, but any amount of that organic material is better than nothing.
  • asparagus gone to seed in the fallPlant What You Like to Eat — Especially If You Can Store It. Sounds obvious, but a lot of times you can get caught up in trying to have a cornucopia of plants growing in the garden. After a lot of trial and error, we’re adopting a three-fold approach of 1) Not planting anything that we can get a better product from a local farmer (i.e., corn, potatoes); 2) Planting more of what we use for a variety of meals and recipes (i.e., tomatoes, squashes, beans, peas, leafy greens); and 3) Planting foods that we can prepare for longer-term storage to keep the harvest going long after summer is gone (i.e., onions, garlic, cukes for pickles and relishes).
  • Put the Time In to Nurture Perennial Crops. Three years ago we planted a small raspberry patch. While I’ve cut back the second-year growth after fruiting, I’ve let it spread in a way that is both unsightly and unproductive. This year, I’ll be setting up proper T-trellises to support the canes and make it easier to harvest the fruit. In a similar fashion, I got lazy and failed to over-winter our strawberries with straw two years ago. Last season, our yield paid the price. Now the patch is in rehab and I’m keeping my fingers crossed! The lesson here: Set aside time during and after the growing season to put some TLC (tender loving care) into your garden so that it will continue to give back to you.
  • Don’t Start Your Seeds TOO Early. We went gung-ho last year when it came to starting as many plants from seeds. I made two mistakes that ended up compounding the problem: 1) I started seeds too early; and 2) I failed to transplant tender seedlings out of their peat starters and into larger pots containing my 50/50 soil/compost mix. The result: My tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and other things started indoors were small and weak when I attempted to transplant them outside. While they eventually took off it was late in the season and the fruits didn’t have adequate time to mature.

Some of last year's harvest: beats, pattypan squash and kohlrabiIf this is going to be the year you take your first steps as a gardener (or are even thinking about it) — or even if you have a time-tested green thumb — I recommend checking out the A-to-Z tutorials over at Organic Gardening for some great know-how.

What have been some of your “mistakes” out in the garden? What is your favorite gardening/growing food resource or blog? Leave a comment and share with everyone. Thanks!

Be well,

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8 Responses to “From Our Garden to Yours: 6 “Mistakes” We Made That You Can Avoid”
  1. Hi Bill,

    It’s hard to believe that Spring is right around the corner! It’s so much easier to follow your hard-earned tips than to learn the hard way. Wishing you a bountiful garden this year and many special moments of affinity in nature.

  2. Natasha says:

    Great article and I Feel the same about gardening. This will be my forth year learning. Last year was my best attempt yet at vegetable growing as I got a new job that allowed me to spend the evenings in the garden rather then in the office! I did the same as you, planted seeds to early. Then I also over planted my patch. It’s only small and I couldn’t bear to throw the little pants always. Which meant only the plants that fought for their space won. This year I need to learn about space and being realistic!!

  3. Tricia says:

    Some great lessons Bill. I especially agree with working on your soil and putting in plenty of perrenials. If you have those two right you can neglect your garden for months and it will continue to produce food.

    I’m about to get back into my garden after neglecting it for almost two years. I discovered lead contamination and havn’t had the energy to tackle the constraint/challenge. But after some time away i’m enthused and ready.

  4. ntathu allen says:

    Yes the days are getting brighter and last weekend I ventured out into the garden to have a peep at what needs doing…your post has made me more ready to get back out and being active. Thanks.

  5. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Ntathu // So glad you’re seeing it too! Even now, taking a walk through the garden and visualizing what is to come this season is something I love doing. Good luck with your garden this year! Be well.

  6. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Tricia // So glad to hear from you — and that you’re ready to tackle that project. I had heard about the use of compost to remediate contaminated soils so I did a quick search and found a few things might be of interest: Soil Testing and Remediation projects by The Food Project (a great non-profit in Massachusetts — I’ve volunteered there before); Lead in Residential Soils: Sources, Testing, and Reducing Exposure (via the Penn State Cooperative Extension). I hope everything goes well and you’re back to eating tomatoes off the vine soon! Be well.

  7. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Natasha // Thanks so much for the kind words. So glad to hear you’re embracing all the learning aspects of gardening! You bring up a fantastic tip — don’t over-plant and crowd your vegetables. I’ve done this in the past with tomatoes and quickly realized that the lack of adequate air flow between the plants was causing them to yellow and die out. No leaves = no ability for the plant to use the sunlight… and you can guess what happened then. We use a gridded notebook to sketch what will go where (and how much of it) and that helps with the spacing. You may also want to check out the Square Foot Gardening method, which we’ve experimented with in the past. It’s an approach that challenges typical spacing requirements to maximize yield. A simple Google search will turn out all kinds of stuff. Good luck.

  8. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Sandra // Many thanks for the well-wishes. Spring and fall are my favorite times of the year: Birth and renewal then the quiet passing. It helps to stay in the rhythm of the natural world around us. I’m curious as to what you grow in Hawaii — such a different growing zone than New England!