The Green Life

Lessons Learned from the Summer Garden

Spring is coming.  Well, in Houston it’s almost always spring or summer so I guess I could say spring is unofficially here.  I’m ready to get outside and start my summer garden for the 2nd time.  But first I have to look back over what happened with last year’s summer garden.

It was a wild ride.  I took some notes through it all, but mostly toward the end & here is what I learned…

 

1. Pay attention to planting instructions

Last year I planted everything from seed.  It’s hard to imagine those seeds as mature plants, so I didn’t completely follow spacing guidelines or get the timing right.

Follow spacing guidelines

Just like people, plants like their space.  Planting from seed was hard for me because I couldn’t visualize them full size.  You would think that wouldn’t be an issue since I decorate homes & offices for a living.  But these plants…. yah, I underestimated ALL of them.

Midway through I did some research (talked to my grandmother AGAIN, consulted the farmers almanac, googled some things, experimented) & quickly realized that I planted too many seeds too close together.  Everything from cucumbers, marigolds, tomatoes, basil & even a few bulbs.  All too close.

As soon as I pared down & thinned them out, they all began to grown & thrive.

These veggies are over-crowded.  Cucumbers are taking over.

Timing (and/or sun requirements) isn’t always exact

The planting instructions give a guideline on when to sow seeds & how much sun/shade they need.  I don’t like the whole transplanting thing & since we don’t get hard freezes here, I don’t really see the point.  I just want to plant my seeds & get going, so I wait until it’s “time” to plant and do it directly outside whether in pots or in the ground.

The problem is those timing guidelines aren’t exact.  I guess that’s why they give a range of when to sow the seeds.  Take cilantro for example.  The instructions say to plant between March-May & August-October in full sun for 6+ hours.  BUT cilantro bolts if it’s too hot.  Last year my cilantro never got off the ground – literally.  Why?  It is too hot in Houston’s full sun from March-November.

Lesson learned – plant it earlier, like now.  I know it’s February, but it was a sunny 85° yesterday.  That full sun should be plenty.  For Houston, cilantro is not really for the summer garden but more for a “spring” or “fall” garden OR a partly shady summer garden.

 

2. Don’t rely on on what you read online or see on Pinterest

There are so many incredible gardening pictures & so much “advice” on pinterest.  I’ll admit that I fell for it all.  But when none of that stuff was working, as I said above, I had to do some serious research to fix the problems I had in my garden last year.  I talked to my grandmother (who happens to be a master gardener at age 90), read the farmers almanac, googled & experimented a lot.

Lesson learned – if you’re gonna use pinterest or other online resources to help you in the garden, be sure to search & pin stuff that is very specific to your planting criteria.  That means searching by combinations of everything from region to soil type.

 

3. Companion gardening works

I added basil & a marigold to my tomato container right next to the planter box. I ended up with lots more basil, less bugs, a few more tomatoes that seemed tastier, and attracted more BUTTERFLIES!

It could have been in my head because I wanted it to work, but the research shows that it actually does.

But again, be careful not to place companion plants too close together.  Also try to stagger them so that a taller plant that needs more sun & root space doesn’t block or crowd the shorter plant.

 

4. Look out for rabbits & other herbaceous animals.

We have rabbits – not pets, just random rabbits & all their never ending babies.  They are not picky eaters, they eat the leaves off EVERYthing.  And to keep things organic means no spraying.  So I had to think about other ways to keep animals away like:

  • Use planter boxes for plants the animals seem to prefer.
  • Plant items the animals like but you don’t.  That way they’ll eat those plants and leave the ones you want alone… hopefully.
  • Plant some things that deter whatever animal(s) are invading the garden.
  • Use physical barriers such as {chicken} wire or wooden edging to protect plantings.  Just make sure to dig underground if you have burrowing animals & take the barrier high enough as well.

 

5. Not all crops are created equal.

We know that some things are supposedly easier to grow, but beyond the numerous tips about picky plants there are some things I learned last year that you might not think of.

CUCUMBERS

Look at this… (and please excuse this photo).  See that extra long root?  That is a cucumber root.  This is after cutting the vine down and then pulling up the plant.  See how all the other “sections” look bare?

My grandmother told me that cucumber vines are EXTRA long & I guess I should have known that means the roots are too.  But no.  I didn’t.  I planted 3 in the planter box my DH built and they went wild!  I didn’t know how wild until she told me it was time to pull them up & this is what I found.

Moral of the story… Cucumbers are Great for the 1st time gardener.  Quickly bear lots of fruit but…

* Don’t get along well with others

* Aggressive vines = aggressive roots

* Roots will overtake anything planted nearby

* As soon as I pulled them up, my peppers started to grow

* They need a lot of water & sun, but will taste bitter if it’s too hot

 

TOMATOES

They grow pretty easily from seed, but…

* These things are picky.  With so many varieties, you need to do some research to make sure your pick will actually thrive & that it will be the kind of fruit you really want to eat.

* They need lots of water and like to be bottom fed.  A few years ago, my grandmother gifted me one of these Earthbox Containers but a similar system could be made at home.

* They like lots of sun but will not produce well if it’s too hot (like in the full sun in Houston).

 

HERBS

I had the fewest problems growing herbs, but there was 1 major lesson I did learn about almost all of them.  I was stingy with harvesting because I thought they needed time to grow and get big, full, & bushy.  I was wrong; they need to be harvested to get big, full, & bushy.  That part was easy, but there were 2 herbs that gave me problems.

CILANTRO

Planting instructions say that cilantro likes full sun.  They also say that it must be harvested before it gets too hot or it will “bolt” (i.e. produce {coriander} seed).  What they don’t tell you is that in Houston, it’s almost always too hot for cilantro to do anything in full sun.

So all those pretty pots of cilantro online must be in California or balmy Florida because THAT ain’t happening here.  The adjustment(s):

* Plant earlier in the season (like now – February)

* Plant in a pot so it can be moved

* Plant in partial sun/shade if you live in the deep HOT south – I still haven’t found the best spot at home yet

 

BASIL

The complete opposite of cilantro, basil really does love the sun no matter how hot. But…

* It needs to be harvested often.  If you can’t eat it fast enough, freeze it in ice cube trays with water or make pesto & freeze that.

* Do NOT let it flower.  The flowers are actually pretty, but once you have them that’s it for edible basil.  So pinch them as soon as you see what looks like it might be a bud!

 

6. Composting

Keter 90 Gal. Deco Composter

 

We got this compost bin from HD mainly because of it’s looks.  We have a very strict HOA and our backyard is completely open/visible from the back & sides.  So we needed something that would keep everything contained, wouldn’t attract animals (there’s lots around here), and didn’t “look” like a compost bin.

 

It works but…

  • It’s hard to get in there & turn the pile
  • It is not easy to get compost out of that little door at the bottom, so…
  • We’ll have to wait for the whole pile to “brew” and use all the compost at once

I also learned that composting is not as simple as throwing in scraps and letting it do it’s thing.  To get good compost you really need to:

  • Layer. Starting with a dry layer on the bottom.  We started with food – turned out okay but messy & took forever to decompose until we figured out we needed to always…
  • Cover food scraps with a dry layer of paper, leaves, or grass clippings.  It helps decomposition, smell, & to deter bugs & animals (in open bins).
  • Water the pile.  A dry compost pile does nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  We got ants & gnats like crazy.  The ants prompted me to water; it took care of the ant problem & then I started to see the compost actually “brew“.

Is composting worth it?  In the end I decided it is…

 

Last but not least, the biggest lesson I learned from last year’s summer garden is…. {drum roll please}…

 

7. LEAVE THINGS ALONE.

Yep that’s right, leave the plants alone.  Let them do their thing, have some “alone” time.

Every single day, I was outside messing with every single thing I planted. Inspecting, primping, grooming, clipping, watering, doing something.  We went on vacation to Hawaii for about a week & I didn’t leave any instruction for any plants inside or out.  The only attention they got was water from the sprinklers.

Before we left, the cucumbers had begun to vine but weren’t bearing fruit yet.  When we got back, the vines were trailing on the ground, had several cucumbers dangling, and even more flowers.

And that happened when no one was watching and it was left alone.  Imagine that!


Now that I’ve regrouped and know what went right & what went wrong last year, I am ready to get outside and start this year’s summer garden.  Here’s hoping for less trips to the grocery store & more trips out to the garden!

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