Life lessons are plentiful in gardening. We cultivate the soil, plant, water, try to prepare for problems and learn from past successes and failures. Ultimately, we cannot control the outcome. After planting our seedlings, the learning process begins.
This 2009 award winning video (below) revived our interest in having a vegetable garden. The video was on urban homesteading. This family had taken their 1/8 acre in the middle of a major city and turned it into a small farm. They were 100% self sufficient in vegetables and produced an abundant crop to sell to local restaurants. The video was not simply on gardening. It conveyed another message. Growing your own food was empowering and liberating.
We decided to try organic gardening because organic produce are packed with natural enzymes and nutrients that help our bodies to heal from years of damage due to celiac. We started with two, 4’ x 8’ x 12”, raised boxes. To learn how to make a raised bed, click here. We used 2 x 6′s and stacked them. I suggest you use cedar wood as we had to replace our boxes last year due to termites.
Our local nursery gave us suggestions for 100% organic soil and fertilizer. click here. After a weekend of carefully deciding the right placement of the boxes (full sun), and then building them, we were ready to go.
Grow what you like
We chose to grow vegetables that we enjoy: tomatoes, beans, zucchini, bell peppers and cucumbers. Our nursery was well stocked with organic seedlings so we planted and waited with great enthusiasm. Below is a picture of one of those first raised beds.
Never ending lessons
Lesson 1) There is no substitute for hands on experience. There turned out to be a lot of questions that had to be answered before those little plants went into the garden bed. How many plants would be sufficient for the space we had and the outcome we wanted, how often would watering be necessary, how would pests be dealt with? All our research gave theoretical guidelines, but until we did it ourselves we just didn’t know exactly what would happen.
Lesson 2) Have a good plan. That first year, the cucumbers were doing ok. We installed a net from the box, to the top of our fence (6’). The fence was about 18” away from the box. They were growing vertically away from the zucchini with no problem. That was planned well. In the other box, after a month the tomatoes had taken off. They were about 3 feet high and lush. This was great. However, they were beginning to block the sunlight from reaching the beans. Tomato vines can reach 6’ high. Eventually the beans would have no light.
Our beans did ok, but not great. We should have realized this from the start. With two large boxes we were constrained for space. No matter where the tomatoes went they would have blocked some other plant. A little more planning beforehand would have shown us that we could have built a smaller box in another area just for tomatoes. We did this the following year.
Lesson 3) Use your space wisely. The net technique for cucumbers and beans is a fabulous idea. Even on our 1/4 acre there is not a lot of space; vertical growing is an efficient means for increasing yield or growing vegetables you wouldn’t consider.
We’ve seen tomatoes grown in compound buckets, strawberries in pots and while watching a Discovery Channel program, we learned how tomatoes are grown indoors in Mexico. They supported the plants by dropping a wire down from the ceiling of the greenhouse. It was a brilliant idea. We did this outside with some old wire attached to our fence. It worked wonderfully.
Lesson 4) We cannot control every outcome. That initial year, the tomatoes started out great. It looked as though we would have a bumper crop. However at about 4’ high the plants began to look a little odd. Their leaves were turning yellow. We tried to save them, but it was futile. Within a month our entire tomato crop was destroyed. They had contracted tomato blight. It destroyed over 60% of the East’s tomatoes, including ours. It was a helpless feeling watching our food wither and die day by day. Concerning tomatoes, our labor was in vain.
We did gain a new respect for farmers though. They sow, but they are never 100% sure they will reap. They may be able to control nature in some aspect (irrigation and fertilizers) but they can’t control the weather. At any time tornados, floods, droughts etc. can destroy their crop. Like them we are not in control of the growing and sustaining process. We couldn’t control the late frost or constant rain, which probably weakened the tomatoes. We sowed faithfully in good soil, but God was in control of the rest. We would have to wait another year for tomatoes.
Lesson 5) Be optimistic and persevere; there will be another harvest. Overall, except for the tomatoes, our crop was a moderate success. We had an abundance of zucchini and peppers, enough for the whole summer. The cucumber yield was about one every week, but the beans were sparse. That wasn’t so bad. No tomatoes, but our attempt was not a total failure.
We would try again the next year. Maybe the harvest would be better. We had tried something we had not tried before. We weren’t farmers and didn’t come from farming families. We did see produce though, and that was encouraging. We had started to take back the land. It was a small beginning, but a better harvest lay ahead.
Lesson 6) Be patient; good soil and good seed will produce a good harvest. The next year, we added the separate 4’ x 6’ box for the tomatoes. In our other two boxes we again went with organic seedlings. We chose lettuce, brussels sprouts, beans, bell peppers, zucchini and cucumbers. The weather was perfect. We used a drip irrigation hose to water when it was needed. There were no pests and no diseases. We were totally self sufficient in vegetables for the whole summer and early fall.
A harvest cannot be rushed, it cannot be predicted, it cannot be manipulated. A gardener must submit to the elements and to the One who is in total control. Grumbling and complaining will not make the crop grow any faster or better. After we have done our planting, we pray and give thanks.
Lesson 7) Be a blessing to others. Our garden produced so much food that we gave basketfuls away to our neighbors. The Lord blessed our efforts, but he also used us to be a blessing to others. Since fresh organic produce is rather costly, our neighbors were so appreciative to receive organic food. However, it meant more than that. It gave us an opportunity to build relationships and to provide each other support when needed. It has given us a sense of community.
Lesson 8) Enjoy your produce. The following year our yield was also a success and we continued to reap the health benefits and convenience of having our produce grow in our backyard. It was not as good as the second year’s, however, due to a very damp spring and fungus problem. Then we had a problem with bean beetles early on, but we dealt with them.
Overall we continued to be 100% vegetable sufficient. The cucumbers were great. As usual, the zucchini was too much to handle so we were always giving it away. The beans and peppers grew strong. While we didn’t have many tomatoes, we still ate and enjoyed 1-2 a day. We tried broccoli. It was a little sparse, but delicious. And we added strawberries, too. Sweet.
…Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives the rain in its season, the autumn rain and the spring rain, and keeps for us the weeks appointed for the harvest. Jeremiah 5:24
To see how to protect your seedlings from frost or get an early start to planting click here.
For ideas on vertical gardening for the urban gardener click here.
What are some of the biggest lessons that you have learned from your gardening experience? How is your garden growing this year? Share your tips in the comment section.