Misadventures and Lessons in Starting a Garden

I spoke on Wednesday about sourcing and growing food. I’m still in my first few years of gardening, but I’m slowly learning the ins and outs. The first year, I went on vacation and came home to lettuce four feet tall; we offered some to our neighbour, and our unwitting neighbour walked away with two lettuce plants that were going to feed her family of five for three days, and definitely wouldn’t fit in her fridge. This year I have indoor grow lights and more seeds than I know what to do with. Growing your own food is a great way to control quality, freshness, chemical content, and ripeness. There’s nothing to compare with a vine-ripened tomato – even tomatoes picked just short of ripe by a local farmer aren’t nearly the same. I thought for today I’d share some of the gardening lessons I’ve learned (mostly by error) so far:

  1. Buy or at least plan your seeds purchases early. Some need to be stratified (allowed to go through the freeze-thaw cycle of winter or early spring) before they will germinate, and some require very long growing seasons, so depending on where you live you may need to plant them in mid- to late winter. I’ve had wild strawberry seeds sitting in my dining room for a year and a half because I can never manage to plant them in the fall. My husband loves strawberries and I love the wild kind, and I kick myself every spring when I look at my seeds and see what I didn’t do. Consider buying heirloom and other varieties that will produce live seeds so that you can start seed saving rather than buying new seeds every year or two.
  2. Cherry TomatoesStart with the basics like lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and other vegetables you might buy regularly (I don’t eat tomatoes, but my family does). One small packet of carrot or lettuce seeds contains (at least) hundreds of seeds – more than you are likely to use in a year or two if only growing for your own family. Seeds eventually die, and you don’t want to be throwing them all away in a few years. It’s easy to spend hundreds of dollars on seeds for a huge variety of vegetables, but much of it will be wasted on seeds you don’t have room to plant, unless you share costs with a neighbour or friend. My seed collection is insane, germination rates are down on older seeds, and I had to throw some out this year. I have even more seeds varieties than I would normally need because I’m trying out a special project with non-food plants, but I think from now on my seed purchases will be significantly decreased.
  3. Consider how you will start seeds. Your latitude will affect your growing season, and the closer to a pole you are, the more likely you will need to start some seeds indoors. If you have to start seeds indoors, get them into a south-facing window or under growing lights if at all possible. The less light your seedlings get (and some seeds), the slower they will grow and the more likely they are to become “leggy,” or to grow too tall reaching for the light and fall over. Once they become unable to hold their own weight and lay on the soil, they are more likely to become damaged, mouldy, or diseased. Grow lights should be placed 2-3 inches above the tops of the plants. If you live closer to the equator, you may be able to plant most seeds directly into a garden. I tried to start seeds in a west-facing window last year and most of the ones that didn’t die due to damping off died because they got so tall they couldn’t stand upright anymore, and staking doesn’t work on tiny seedlings. Latitude will also affect when you should start the seeds, based on soil temperatures and date of last frost.
  4. GardenAvoid peat pellets for starting seeds. Peat pellets can collapse inward, causing seeds to be planted more deeply than intended, and they also become mouldy more easily. I had more plants damp off (develop shoot-weakening fungus) last year than successfully started. Not only that, I started celeriac (celery root, a mild-flavoured root-vegetable) in peat pellets. *Big* mistake. Most of the usable root was tied up in the fabric-coated peat pellet, making yields tiny. Imagine trying to eat a turnip with a fabric net growing through the center of it. Many greenhouses will have seed starter trays that they use – they contain individual cells that you fill with soilless potting mix, and have holes in the bottom for drainage and seedling plug removal. I got 12 trays free from a local greenhouse just by asking. Once the roots are well-developed in the seedling tray, you can transfer the seedlings to progressively larger pots. If you use clear covers over your seedling trays, allow them to air out and release condensation for at least an hour a day. Once seeds sprout, leave the cover off and don’t let the soil dry out.
  5. Consider using a cold frame. A cold frame is a solid-walled enclosure with a glass or clear plastic top that works as a mini greenhouse, allowing the sun’s heat to enter, become trapped, and warm the soil within. Cold frames allow you to extend the growing season earlier and later than usual, and can even help you to store cold-tolerant vegetables like leeks and carrots in the ground over the winter. A cold frame inside a greenhouse will provide an even longer growing season. I have yet to make myself a good cold frame, but I do have greenhouse-type covers that can be added to my raised beds for the fall and early spring. Last year I was picking celery root, leeks, carrots, and parsnips all the way into December.
  6. Garden - LightsFollow the directions on the seed packets. Seeds all have specific needs, from darkness to light, from being sown on the surface to lightly covered or buried, and from stratification to soaking to scarification (scratching the seed coating). Small seeds planted too deeply will never reach the surface if they do germinate. Seeds requiring light will never germinate if left in the dark. Plants requiring deep roots may not survive if planted on the surface. Plants placed too close together will starve each other of light and nutrients, and none will reach maturity by the end of the growing season. Plants placed in shady areas that require full sun will not receive the energy they need to grow. Last year I had one ground cherry seed germinate and the seedling died within a few weeks when it damped off. It was all my fault for using peat pellets and sitting them in a dim window. This year, planted more shallowly and under lights, I have 6 started, and counting. They’re growing and getting stronger day by day.
  7. Plan your garden. Know which plants, like spinach and lettuce, require cool weather, and which must be planted only after the soil warms, like beans. Consider planting late crops in the place of your early crops once harvested in the spring. Make sure plants are arranged to get enough light; avoid blocking sunlight to short plants with tall ones. Plan for trellising, if needed, and don’t plant varieties of similar plants too close together (like corn, melons, cucumbers, and squash) to prevent unwanted cross-pollination. Last year my beets were so crowded that only three ever reached a mature size. My second row never grew to an edible size at all. I ate more beet greens than beets. I got one cob of corn, with hard kernels, and my cucumbers were like swollen orange thumbs – none ever reached anything close to mature size before becoming overripe. Only one melon ripened, and it was eaten by bugs before I got to it.

I hope my misadventures will help people just starting out from making the same mistakes, and help you get a better yield early in your growing career. I have so much left to learn, and will share more from time to time as the year continues.

What was the biggest thing you learned when starting a garden? Comment below.

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