Trials & Tribulations of a N00b Gardener

The first photo was taken April 15 last year, before my seedlings went into the ground. The second was taken today, 3 weeks earlier in the year... ... wow, this year's bunch looks so much better. I think I leveled up my gardening skills! I provided better light this year and I think that's what's made the difference.

That said, I thought I'd share what went right and what went wrong last year, in case there are any other new-ish gardeners who would like info on avoiding the same mistakes I made.

First, I had heard you could grow stuff right in straw bales, so to save money on dirt in my raised beds I put a layer of straw in the bottom. This would've been great, IF I'd done it the fall before I wanted to put my garden in, but I did it in March, so my plants were growing in straw and I think as a result, didn't do great. Toward the end of the season, as the straw broke down, the tomatoes went crazy, and I picked a gallon of them the day before our first frost. But that straw is nice and decomposed now, and I think I'll reap the benefits this year.

Lost a lot of stuff to bugs. Here in Tennessee it's a constant battle. The flea beetles got the eggplant, the squash bugs and squash vine borers did in the zucchini after a minimal harvest, and I got some cucumbers but then the cucumber beetles came calling with the Blight, which destroyed the cukes, and the watermelons too. I also had Japanese beetles on the beans, and the little yellow caterpillars, which reduced my harvest. Plan for this year: traps for the cuke beetles and floating row covers on all of the above.

I started squash and cuke seeds with the tomatoes and eggplant. I lost all those seedlings to rot and they got pot bound, so curcurbits go right in the ground from now on. Or, I won't start them till 2 weeks before they go in the garden.

I put lemon balm, a mint relative, in the vegetable beds. It's going to be a weed if I leave them there. Anyone want a lemon balm plant? Need to move them to a different spot, but I do love the herb.

I think grandpa's heirloom Soldacki tomatoes don't much like the climate here... I may put them somewhere they get a little bit of shade every day so they're not in the blazing TN sun.

Carrots needed something... lighter, sandier soil, I think. They came out stubby. Broccoli failed utterly, but I planted it too late. The peppers also needed something, and I think this is a crop I do not have an affinity for, but I do use them, so I need to figure out the problem. I think the straw may have had a lot to do with it.

  • Had a bumper crop of tomatoes toward the end of the season, and canned my own salsa for the first time.
  • Peas! They are so easy to grow. This year's are off to a good start, too.
  • Herbs. I have an affinity for a lot of them and they make my thumb feel green. My regular basil didn't do as well as it did in a pot the year before, but the purple basil produced more than I knew what to do with. I have a cabinet full of dried herbs, still.
  • Swiss chard. Which, unfortunately, Russ hates.
  • Determinate cherry tomatoes did really well all year.
  • I got tons of raspberries on my everbearing Heritage bush, and also a decent crop of sour cherries off my dwarf North Star tree, considering it was its first year.
  • I definitely learned a lot!
This year's tomatoes are already 4-6 inches tall with thick, healthy stems. I finally got all of them potted into little pots from peat pellets yesterday and they look happy. Actually pretty much all of my seedlings are thriving (9 tomato varieties, 4 eggplant varieties, 6 peppers, basil, parsley, some flowers, ground cherries... I think that's it) and if things continue as they are I will be giving away seedlings around the end of April. Or maybe taking them to the farmer's market, but I suspect friends and family will want them.

That's the report... I'll keep you updated on this year's organic garden and food preservation efforts as we go!

The Season's First Fruits

The Vegetannual as seen in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: click for interactive version

Consider the broken American food system: a farmer grows a crop (probably corn), sells it on the national market for a price that can't feed his family or even turn a profit on the crop (the government subsidies -- taxpayer money -- are what make it possible for him to keep growing it). It goes into a massive food machine that churns out products that don't even resemble the corn or any natural food, and have been proven to increase health problems. Calculate the approximate percentage of the food that you eat that comes out of a box, a bag or a window, and ponder the cost for a moment.

Consider an alternative: if you eat locally produced food you obtained from a farmer's market or CSA, 100% of the money you would be spending on it would go to feed that farmer's family and to keep him producing healthful food, or even if your grocery store carries local food, a large percentage goes to the farmer. (You can find markets and CSAs at

However, this requires a huge shift in thinking: it means that we have to eat primarily what is in season where we live. This is a good time of year to think about it, because if you want to get in on a CSA you have to do it before the main growing season. (See this post for more info on Community Supported Agriculture).

So, what the heck do you cook? The picture above is Barbara Kingsolver's Vegetannual (click it for an interactive version), showing when you can expect what vegetables in your area. By the way, if you're thinking about a local food diet and haven't read her book, make sure you do.

There are plenty of web sites that can help you find recipes for your farmer's market finds. Mark Bittman's cookbook How to Cook Everything is great for ingredient-specific recipes. Also, check out the Peak Season Map at Epicurious for recipes for what's in season in your specific area, although it has its flaws; check the states adjacent to yours. Whole Foods' website also has great recipes that often keep in step with growing seasons.

Here in Tennessee and in a lot of states nearby it's asparagus season (or almost). You can also get plentiful dandelion greens often right in your own back yard, assuming you don't use chemicals on your lawn (be sure to wash them thoroughly). Some farmers use cold frames and have lettuces ready now. Lamb is very definitely in season; check CSAs for availablility, if you're a meat eater.

Eating local produce in season is not something you're going to be able to do immediately or overnight; it will take some planning and some food preservation, and a pretty radical change in thinking. But this is a great time of year to start the thinking process. I'll try to keep the recipes coming; keep a weather eye out.

Here's a simple, quick asparagus recipe for you.

Parmesan Asparagus
24 medium asparagus spears
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, preferably fresh
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Preheat oven 400 degrees. Toss all ingredients into a Ziploc bag or large lidded container, shake to coat. Dump onto a cookie sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes or until the spears are tender. Yum!

It's the Little Things

We went out with friends this weekend, and Russ made a point of talking about how I don't use the straw that the restaurant passes out with the drinks. Yeah, it's a tiny bit of garbage, but how many straws have I used in my lifetime? How many does a family use in a year, if they eat out a lot?

When it comes right down to it, most of the things I am doing are little things. The mass of the vegetables I'm throwing in the compost and not in the trash is not huge. The amount of high fructose corn syrup that I no longer consume is not going to bankrupt the producers of high fructose corn syrup. But, I think that's the point of this blog. Big changes are really hard. Most people aren't going to go from eating 3 fast food meals a week to eating 100% locally grown organic food all at once. Most people aren't going to reduce their garbage production or their energy consumption to zero in a year.

But when other people who care about such things see others making small changes, they may be inspired to make small changes. And, a million people not using any disposable straws means a LOT less straws in landfill. A lot less plastic bottles and shopping bags. A lot more people voting with their forks, banning horrible for you packaged and fast foods in their own homes, means that large corporations have to change the way they do things if they want to sell to us. So it matters.

I want to say it again: EVERY LITTLE THING YOU DO MATTERS, whether it's in ignorance, or whether you are paying attention to the small things. So do one thing different today, for the environment, or for your health, or both.

Now I've Done It

I did three things last year that I am really proud of: 1) I boycotted single serving plastic bottled beverages and bottled water for the entire year, 2) I converted to reusable shopping bags, and 3) I spent the year saying things like "Vote with your fork" and "Find out where that stuff you're eating came from."

I was so proud of #1, which was my New Year's Resolution, that I decided to make another one this year in line with #3. Now, if my world was perfect, I'd have time to be a homesteader and make most of my own stuff, grow my own food or get it all from farmer's markets and CSA's, eat everything local and organic. My world ain't perfect. I, just like you, have days when food has to be consumed on the run. At least I'm remembering my water bottle and my reusable bags most of the time now. I'm still taking baby steps, and every step means something.

This year's resolution: I am boycotting high fructose corn syrup. This one made my hubby go, "Oh boy..." and it seems to do the same with everyone who hears that. "Wow, what are you going to eat?"

This bothers me. This tells me that my friends and family KNOW that this processed crap is in everything they're consuming. Some seem to know it's horrible for their health. Others don't seem to think so.

The last week has been eye-opening. I learned just how much food it's in. I learned that it's not the same as "corn syrup" on a label, and also that there are sneakier ways to put it in there and not on the label as consumers become wiser. Remember the old days, when sugar was bad for you, a no-no? It'll rot your teeth? Yeah. Now they're marketing soda and other things with "contains REAL sugar!" Oh boy!

I'll save some of the ranting now, though I'll probably get into it later. The above subsidy food triangle amused me. For Christmas I got Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma (HIGHLY recommended). I wasn't aware of how much government policy affected the food we ingest. And you hear politicians bitch and moan about how fat we are. I got news. Government corn subsidies (read: taxpayer dollars) make it cheaper to buy your kids a box of Froot Loops to throw at them for breakfast than to feed them something healthy (and of course, there's the convenience factor too, which is heavily marketed). You can decry the obesity epidemic all you want, Washington, but you are causing it.

Please educate yourselves about what you're feeding yourself and your family. There are alternatives. I'll be posting what I learn here as I go. And don't feel like you have to do it all at once.

Good health to you!