Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Gardening Lessons

Childhood memories of corn stalks towering above me in my parents' backyard garden in New York, and rows of glass jars of home canned fruits and vegetables stirred a little bit of hope in me about tending a small garden in our suburban Florida yard (tropical south gardening zone.

I'd made one try at growing tomatoes in our sand back yard when our boys were young, and that dismal experience along with a very full schedule had pushed home gardening totally off my radar until recently.

My daughters-in-law have enriched my life with so many joys and new experiences and "the garden experiement" this year came about largely because of the two of them. Michelle has been nurturing an interest in modified suburban "homesteading", and Amber has shared wonderful memories of gardening with her grandmother as a child and eating the bounty from her families' gardens all summer long. A garden at Grandma's house would give each of them another experience to share with their kids.

I dipped my toes in last summer with a couple pots of basil. That went well. I used the basil in cooking, made a couple batches of pesto, but mostly enjoyed glimpsing flourishing pots of herbs from my windows. Kyle made me a compost pile enclosure and I faithfully added and turned it all year. I found fruit and vegetable plants sprouting in the compost and started saving seeds when I chopped up our veggies.

 After a month or two of skimming through a square foot gardening book and listening to pre-school grandchildren urging me forward - "When are you going to get chickens , Grandma?" and "You DO have room for a cow in your backyard, Grandma"- any vestiges of self-restraint departed when I passed easily assembled gardening boxes and seed collections for sale in Sam's Club.

I ordered a couple huge bags of vermiculite from a local garden center, added peat moss and cow manure to my compost and vermiculite, assembled my garden boxes (recycled plastic) and planted seeds with my grandchildren. Trips to garden centers for more "supplies" meant I also came home with more seeds - "Sunflowers for the grandchildren!... I should have planted lettuce - ohh, they have heirloom varieties!", starter plants - "ummm, rosemary and mint and ... pineapple sage?...I wonder..."

We've been in the middle of helping to build Kyle and Michelle's house every weekend (and plenty of other days) and common sense was shouting "RESTRAIN YOURSELF" so I told myself "no grand goals for this season's garden other than to water it, learn from it, and hope to harvest SOMETHING.

It has been enjoyable. Except for the mosquito bites I get every single time I "tend" the garden for 60 seconds or longer, if I'm not covered head to toe in clothing or repellant.

I was able to harvest at least a tiny bit of tomatoes, green peppers, yellow squash, jalapeƱo peppers, eggplant, and bush beans.  I forgot to pull the onions.

Tomatillos are ready to pick now and I have used some of all my herbs:  basil, rosemary, oregano, mint and pineapple sage.

The critters got all of the cucumbers and most of the tomatoes.

A couple things I've learned from my Gardening 101 course:

1. "Mel's Mix" is good stuff.  It's made of equal parts vermiculite (coarse, if you can get it), compost (5 different sources, if you can manage) and peat.  My mix ended up being a 4 part mix with purchased "garden soil" as the fourth part, since I didn't have the book to refer to on planting day.  This mix is crumbly not clumpy - it holds water and plants well and supposedly I will only need to replenish the compost each season.

2.  Tomatoes eaten within minutes of picking from your own garden really do taste way better than store bought, and tomato plants really do need supports to lean against.

3.  Beautiful flowers on some of the vegetable plants can compensate somewhat for small veggie yields.

3.  Small critters and bugs REALLY love tender veggies.  Getting my harvest before the critters do is definitely going to be the biggest challenge I'll face.  More research is in order.

In tropical south Florida we have spring and fall gardens as summer is just too much sun and heat.  I hope to plant some cabbage, broccoli and a few other fall crops.   Next spring planting I hope to make a vertical support as described in Square Foot Gardening and train some of the plants to grow vertically for better air circulation, and hopefully less pest feeding and more more people feeding.

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