My grandfather grew tomatoes, beans, peas, corn — he even had a small orchard from which he would pick fruit for my grandmother’s fabulous pies. He gardened for 70-plus years, all about 100 miles from here, making any advice he could have given me invaluable.
Unfortunately, he died years before I caught the gardening bug, so I’ve had to learn the hard way: experience.
I am now in my eighth year as an organic gardener — mostly veggies, but some flowers too. I’ve gardened in a local community garden as well as my own backyard. Here are six bits of wisdom my experiences have taught me.
Write it down.
Keep a paper journal, start a blog, make a record of your garden. At minimum, it should include the specific variety of what you plant, when you planted it, any problems you had, and how your harvest went. Pictures are a nice bonus.
Review your record before you plan your garden each year. Not only will it help you to remember the name of that yummy tomato you planted last year, it will keep you from making the same mistakes over and over again.
Buy (at least) one good book.
I love the Internet, but it’s still worthwhile to have one gardening reference book to help narrow down problems.
Several years ago my Brussels sprouts were being attacked by red bugs, and I couldn’t figure out what the bugs were by searching online. So I looked up Brussels sprouts in my book and found that they are commonly attacked by Harlequin bugs when the weather gets warm. Sure enough, when I did an image search for “Harlequin bugs,” the results looked just like the bugs I had in my garden.
The specific book you buy will depend on what you’re growing, but my trusty book of choice is “Rodale’s Vegetable Garden Problem Solver.”
Visit your garden often.
When I was gardening at the community garden, I didn’t always get to it every day. But I found I had to check in every other day, at least.
While I think this is necessary for all gardeners to some degree, if you want to garden organically, it’s essential. When you don’t allow yourself to drop a chemical bomb on every pest that comes along, you have to catch little problems before they become big problems.
The first time I planted pumpkins, I started noticing little bronze eggs on the leaves in mid-July. I didn’t get on top of it as quickly as I should have, and before I knew it my whole crop was decimated by squash bugs. If I had picked the eggs off the first time I saw them, I could have helped stem the damage.
While you’re doing your walk-through, take five minutes and pull as many weeds as you can. Like pests of the insect variety, weeds will creep up on you until all of a sudden getting rid of them without chemicals is overwhelming. Catch weeds when they’re small and scratch them out with a hoe before they start to take over.
Raise your soil right, feed it well, tuck it in.
I’m convinced that raised beds are the way to go. My problem is clay, but whatever deficiencies your soil may have, it’s easier to fix them if you raise everything off the ground a bit. Even just logs or landscaping timbers pushed together in a square helps make digging, mixing in compost and planting much easier.
When you go to fill that raised bed, think compost, compost, compost. Get as much as you can, and mix it in well with your existing soil. If you want your plants to feed you, you must feed them, and they crave compost!
Lastly, cover your soil. You can use pretty mulch if you want, but I usually use newspapers and straw. I put down about six layers of newspaper (black and white only), spray it with water, and spread one or two inches of straw over the top. When I plant my veggies I use a shovel to poke a hole through the paper. It keeps the weeds down, lets water in, and whatever is left of it next spring can easily be dug back into my soil.
Keep things in perspective.
If you’re committed to gardening organically, you should realize that sometimes a problem is going to get away from you. You’re going to see visions of your entire crop being ruined, and you’re going to be tempted to resort to a chemical spray. When this happens, stop and step back.
Yes, yes, I know. You worked hard for that plant, whatever it is. You dug and toiled in the hot sun, perhaps were even devoured by mosquitoes as you regularly watered.
But, if you’re a small-scale gardener, is it really worth it? Do you really need that eggplant that’s probably half-chewed on by bugs anyway? Or can you accept that nothing is a failure if you enjoyed the learning process, and pick up your eggplant at one of our beautiful farmers’ markets instead?
Grow what you love, but love what you can grow.
If you can be perfectly satisfied with a garden of tomatoes and peppers, go for it. If you’re intrigued by exotic varieties of garlic, plant yourself some. To me, there is no point in having a garden if you don’t grow the things you absolutely love.
With all that being said, I’ve found the plants I truly love are the ones that don’t need much fuss and are happy in the climate and space that I have to give them. I’ve killed four beautiful rose bushes to date, and none have made me as happy as the beautiful Diablo cosmos that pop up almost unbidden all over my garden. The most humble thriving flower looks better than the grandest dead one — work with what you’ve got!
I hope my experiences are helpful to you — best of luck in your garden!