Beginning a Garden? Learn From My Mistakes

gaden post 11 So I have quickly become known as a garden nerd among my friends. Little do they realize that I actually am making this stuff up as I go. Regardless, I have been asked by a bunch of people how I got started gardening and if I have any advice for them. Boy do I.

I've always been the girl who had to learn things the hard way (just ask my parents), so I often end up making (and learning from) mistakes. My way of justifying that is that lessons learned from mistakes are often the best learned lessons. Try not to read into the grammar of that sentence too much.


I started gardening three years ago when I asked my husband to build me a cold frame (basically a mini raised bed with an old window attached to the top). I filled half of it with strawberries and planted the other side with carrots, lettuce and two tomato plants. Needless to say, three inches of soil on top of hard-packed gravel were not the ideal conditions to grow carrots, lettuce and tomatoes. They promptly died.

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This brings me to Lesson #1: Garden Location and Soil Preparation are KEY

Pick a sunny spot in your yard (preferably south facing), and get your hands dirty. As with most things in life, 90% of your effort should go into preparation. Dig your soil. Dig it some more. Add compost and/or manure and dig it some more. I love my raised beds (a gift from my Dad a year ago), they are great because you can plant in them sooner (soil warms up more quickly), they never get stepped on (so the soil doesn't get compacted), and they're easier on your back (you'll spend a lot of time hunched over them).

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This last fall, I covered my beds with maple leaves from my yard. In early February I dug the leaves into the soil and covered both beds with a 50/50 blend of manure and compost. I let that rot into the soil for a month, and then I dug it in. When I say I "dug it in" I basically dug up all the dirt from the beds with the intention of loosening the soil that had settled and clumped, and mixing the leaf rot, manure and compost into the existing soil. It was time-intensive, but I anticipate it paying off this next summer. I'll let you know how that goes.

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Last summer was my first real season gardening because I don't really count my ill-fated cold frame (it is now my strawberry patch). I planted my garden like I read books: left to right, first one, then the other. Although the garden did okay, some plants suffered because I didn't design the garden. I planted my carrots north of my potatoes, and they ended up being under the towering potato plants. They grew slowly because of the lack of sunlight, and I didn't get any carrots until the very end of the summer.

Lesson #2: Plan Your Plants

What I should have done was do some quick research on the height of the mature plants, the nutrient needs, and the space necessary for optimal growing conditions. I'm still working on understanding and implementing crop rotation, but that should be a consideration too. Basically different plants have different needs. Some plants (like beets) take a lot of nutrients out of the soil, whereas others (i.e. carrots) have less of an impact. By rotating your crops, you can reduce the drain of nutrients from your soil, and also protect your plants for soil-dwelling pests that tend to winter over under their favorite veggies.

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Lesson #3: Try, Fail, and Research (Ideally: Research, Try, No Fail)

In addition to having issues  with my carrots being planted too closely in the shadow of my potatoes, I noticed the carrots I was pulling up were stubby and crooked/spiraling. I did some research and realized that I had planted my carrots to close together and in soil that was too firmly packed down. I knew I had sown them too close together, but I was too lazy to thin the seedlings. My grandma suggested that I sow my carrot seeds mixed with sand to avoid that problem, so that's what I do now. To solve the stubby carrot problem, I realized I needed to make sure my soil was well-tilled. This is where the above obsessive digging, digging again, and digging once more just-in-case came from.

Lesson #4: Start Small. This is supposed to be fun.

I'm glad my first cold frame was a bust. I like having a tiny 3'x3' strawberry patch in the corner of my garden that reminds me where I started. I've added things to my garden little by little throughout the year. If I had done everything that first season, I would have ran out of money, made even more mistakes than I did, and I would have gotten overwhelmed and quit. Instead, now I can leisurely garden for the joy of it, and it doesn't feel like work. I love seeing my son eat his snacks off the vine in the garden every evening in the summer, and learn about the difference between manure and compost in the spring. I can just sit on the bench in my garden and watch life unfurling at my feet. Start slow and pace yourself. Ask questions. And be patient. Everyone kills plants sooner or later, you're just trying to keep the ratio of alive things to dead things in the positive.

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Rule #5: Always have coffee, beer or wine within arms reach when gardening.

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Gardening should be fun for the whole family. Especially when using child labor (see above picture), use rewards like a cozy "garden bed", hot cocoas, and kiddo-sized tools to keep the little ones interested and invested in the garden.

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In Issaquah, Washington, where I live, the Farmer's Almanac says the last expected frost falls around March 19th, so I typically use my spring break from school to get the garden up and running. It figures we would have a freak snow on March 22nd, but raised beds and hoop-houses will give you flexibility over the outside temperature.

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Pinterest was my friend this winter. I pinned lots of different projects to try my own twist with. The above picture is my vertical potato garden. It saved me tons of space in the raised beds, and (hopefully) will make harvest time significantly easier. (The idea is that you just tip them over and knock the potatoes and dirt out.)

And wine corks + shish kabob skewers = garden labels.

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In my over-achieving craftiness, I planned on making a tutorial on how to build this harvest basket out of half of an old pallet (put your potatoes, carrots, beets, etc. in a simply hose down). It ended up being a huge pain in the butt, primarily because I was using dull wire cutters, and I couldn't find the stapler in my husband's shop. So I ended up meticulously prying the staples apart from the strip one at a time, and individually hammering them in to attach the chicken wire. I now understand the definition of "painstaking" both literally and figuratively.

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These raised beds are my newest addition to my garden. Last year, my arbor for my peas/beans was too short, and I didn't have enough space to grow the quantity I wanted. So now I have 14 feet of green beans, peas and sugar snap peas that can grow 7 feet in the air. The intention is to have a sort of "living wall" between my garden and my neighbor's yard.

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