Gardening is a continual learning experience, which is part of what makes it fun, and as winter settles in I am mulling over what I've learned from my first year of growing a full-on vegetable garden, though small it may be.
Of course every year is different so what was a success one summer can be a failure the next (just look at the difference in tomato conditions from the late blight of dreary 2009 to the parched heat of 2010). But, there are a few things I've taken away that I think will transcend the fickleness of weather.
1. Mulch, stupid!
I've been over this before, so I won't rehash it here. I have taken Garden Girl's advice about leaf mold for mulch and have a nice, thick blanket of shredded leaves on the veggie bed as we speak. Whether it's this or straw or grass clippings, there will be mulch next year.
2. Start some vegetables from seed.
Maybe that seems obvious to others, but I was concerned about lanky, weak seedlings thanks to my humble set-up and lack of a place for proper grow lights. So I direct sowed everything (except the peppers and tomatoes which were purchased beyond the seedling phase). Overall, this was a success. But I read an illuminating post by Michele on Garden Rant concerning broccoli. Her post actually concerns all crucifers (cabbage et al.), and ironically her epiphany was the opposite of mine, or rather to direct sow her broccoli.
But the reason I say this was illuminating was that this post made me realize my broccoli was bolting, which was not something I ever thought of broccoli doing. Lettuce, spinach, cilantro, sure, these plants bolt and I know how to deal with it. But I was stumped by my lovely broccoli heads inexplicably blooming with yellow flowers just a day or two before I intended to harvest them. The broccoli was probably the most popular veggie grown here this year and I intend to increase it next year. So what to do about the flowering, which of course is the same as any other plant bolting (i.e., flowering and becoming inedible due to summer heat)?
Michele's post highlighted the problem of broccoli reaching maturity in the heat of midsummer. So the obvious solution is to not have the broccoli plants reaching maturity at that time. Instead, I will start seedlings indoors so that they reach maturity in June or by early July, hopefully before the real dog days set in, while also continuing to direct sow seeds around Memorial Day or 4th of July so that the second batch reaches maturity after the heat of August. See, this is why it's great to read garden blogs...
3. Grow fewer things.
That may sound strange but with my compressed space it's a must. I need to grow fewer things better rather than many things poorly. Just as I am trying to grow more broccoli (big hit with me and the whole family, have good ideas on how to improve), I need to cut back on squashes and not just because they were a total failure this year (which they were) but because they take up too much space if I'm to grow more broccoli. Both those types of plants need space, so prioritize I must.
(Squashes and broccoli duke it out)
Similarly, I know I want more peppers and tomatoes but things need to be moved around so the peppers get more sunlight than they did this year. So things like onions will probably lose out (except for green onions which I can probably squeeze in). That small space has proven it's productive beyond its stature, but there's only so much I can ask of one 9'x3' rectangle.
4. Use better tomato cages.
I skimped last year thanks to budgetary and time concerns. At my favorite local garden center the only tomato cages in the whole place were those cone-shaped ones you always see--exactly the kind my mom warned me against. And while I knew she was right and said as much, I was too cheap and hurried to order good ones online or try another store, so I grabbed the flimsy cones and regretted it from June onward. No more! Decent, sturdy, square-shaped tomato cages will be worth the slight extra cost, and now I know to get them in advance of mid-May, when my seedlings are sitting there and I'm feeling pressed for time.
(Tomato cages being overwhelmed, and this was not the worst of it)
So what did you learn in your garden this year (vegetable or otherwise)? What else should I know that I've not mentioned here?