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Sara & Katie

Amateur’s Guide to Gardening

May 19, 2020

Amateur’s Guide to Gardening

May 19, 2020

We are the amateurs and we are providing the guide to gardening. That seems a bit ironic – but let’s go with it. Sitting down to figure out our first official garden two years ago was a daunting task – even the “beginning gardener” pages were over my head. We wanted a garden that would produce some vegetables, more for novelty than anything at that point, but didn’t want to spend a lot of money or time into the project. I (Sara) told my husband at one point when he was feeling very ambitious that I had two children and two dogs at the time to keep fed and alive and taking on a whole vegetable garden was more than I was willing to do.

The first couple of years consisted of some potted kitchen herbs (cilantro, rosemary, and chocolate mint for fun), along with a pre-planted container of strawberries and cherry tomatoes that were kept on the deck. These were mostly successful, assuming I remembered to water them. The kids had a lot of fun picking off the cherry tomatoes but the dog had too much fun picking off the strawberries!

“Husky Red” Cherry Tomato container on the deck

step 1 – determine what kind of garden bed

After a couple successful years of the above plants, I was ready to try my hand at a “real” garden. I wasn’t willing to invest much time into constructing a fancy raised garden bed, so a simple online order from Costco.com served the purpose. It can be configured in a few different ways.

New England Arbors White Vinyl Raised Garden Bed

Meanwhile, Katie made a different type of raised garden bed using a farm trough from a local farm supply store. They’re technically called “stock tanks” apparently. She spray painted hers black to look nicer against the house. After spray painting, she drilled holes in the bottom and added casters so it sits up off the ground.

Another alternative is something like this one our neighbor uses —
a store-bought or DIY standing height raised garden to keep the animals out and not kill your back.

Metal Raised Garden Bed Planter

…and the garden of all gardens – my in-laws just built this one at their cabin in northern Wisconsin. It’s like the fancy gated neighborhoods, but garden style. Just in case you’ve got some extra time on your hands during the quarantine!

Step 2 – Prep your soil

Here is where the amateur advice comes in. We did nothing in between last year’s garden and this spring. I read about many ways to winterize – like planting rye grass to till into your soil, but I actually just forgot. We had a freak October snowstorm in 2019 and most of the winterizing I had planned to do never got done.

This spring, I sent my 4-year old out into the garden beds to till them up with a child’s rake. We’re fancy. I bought some ‘weed preventer’ for vegetable gardens and sprinkled that in about 2 weeks prior to planting. A few days before planting, I mixed in some vegetable garden fertilizer and then the day of planting, mixed some compost into the soil. This probably has avid gardeners sticking their head in the dirt over my approach, but it worked last year and if it ain’t broke, I’m not fixing it.

Step 3 – pick your Plants

The summer of 2019, our first official garden year, was actually quite successful but I’m learning from some mistakes. That year, I went wild at Home Depot choosing random plants and putting them in random places. Nearly all did well – but it was overgrown. I took mental note of what worked and didn’t as I started planning for this summer’s garden.

What worked well and what I’ll do again:

  • Tomatoes
    • We did a couple Roma’s and something else (I forgot to save the tag) and they were very successful, with minimal work except adding tomato cages when they started getting tall. I like ‘indeterminate’ varieties because that means they’ll produce a bit all season long
  • Bell peppers – Red + Green Sweet
    • These would have been more successful had I given them more room to spread out, but we did get some bounty from them
  • Jalapenos
    • These did really well – no plans to change this year except I added one plant called “mammoth jalapeno” because that sounded fun!
  • Lettuce
    • We just did romaine, because that’s the majority of what we eat
  • Cilantro
    • Easy to grow, use in a lot of foods and always seem to forget to buy it at the grocery store.
    • The one thing I learned is to keep up with the “harvesting” – I let mine get too flowery and stalky and were garbage after that.
  • Basil
    • Again, easy. Just sun and water.

What I planted and what I would do differently:

  • Zucchini
    • Well, we harvested a GIANT zucchini so they worked. (See photo below) What I didn’t realize is how big the plant gets and how the leaves take over. Way too much space needs to be devoted for zucchini, and we don’t even like them that much 🙂
  • Cauliflower
    • Same as zucchini – the plant is huge and takes over. We also didn’t realize you’re supposed to use the leaves to wrap around the growing cauliflower to protect it from getting scorched and brown in the sun. Whoops.
  • Onions
    • We planted these too late in the season (they have a long growing period) and too close together. So, they did grow but not big enough to harvest and we gave up on them.
  • Tomatillos
    • These just seemed fun, but they need to be planted in pairs to cross-pollinate. They were fun to grow and watch – they almost looked like little paper lanterns. We just didn’t use them much when cooking and had a huge harvest.
Giant zucchini from Summer 2019

Tip: my mother-in-law (who is NOT an amateur garderner) tells me that marigold flowers planted around the edge of the garden repel garden pests. I didn’t do this…

Step 4 – Buy Plants

Easy enough. We went last weekend, which was mid-May and after (hopefully) the last frost in our area. Judging by the chaos at the garden center, everyone else in Wisconsin had the same idea so I guess my timing was okay! We just went to Home Depot, again since “it worked last year so we’ll do that again“.

Step 5 – Plant Plants

My farming buddy helping me transport plants to the gardens

I put things where they went last year for the most part. I do know you’re not supposed to replant tomatoes in the same place each year, as they’re more prone to diseases. Figure out where the sun and shade are and how high your plants will get – you don’t want tall plants blocking the sun from the smaller ones. (Hint: have your 4-ft tall child pretend to be a full-size tomato plant and stand in random places on a sunny day. It works.) Once we get mulch for the rest of our house, I’ll throw some more on top of the soil in the garden as well.

Here’s my layout — will report back later this summer on whether or not it was a success or a flop! (Knowledgeable gardeners, I’ll take your feedback for next year!)

Throw all your magical garden-growing dust my way – hoping for a
low-maintenance and bountiful yield this year! If not, it’s a fairly low-cost investment and kept us busy for a day during quarantine!

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