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!