Garden growth… and overgrowth

Seeing the first flowers pop up and buds on the trees are some sure signs that spring has come. While I’m not fooling myself into thinking that Colorado has hung up its winter hat for the year (we will inevitably have another snowy day or two), it’s getting me excited for another season of warm sunshine, hammock lounging, backyard game playing, al fresco dinners, and tending my little plot of land in the backyard.

After several years of missteps and straight-up failures, I finally felt like I’d hit my stride last year, and ended up with about 20 bunches of leafy greens, 14 harvests of lemon cucumbers, 15 baskets of pickling cucumbers, 8 rounds of tomatoes, 5 yellow squash, 9 rounds of beans, 3 okra harvests, and a whopping 59 zucchinis.

But who’s counting?

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I meant to do a roundup of “things I learned” last year after my most successful yield yet, but I apparently spent my fall getting a little wrapped up in planning our Australia trip and it all fell by the wayside. So now, as I sort my seed packets for this year, I’m trying to remember the lessons I learned from last year’s experience.

Lesson 1 – Water consistently

In the past, the most consistent killer of my little garden veggies was that famous Colorado sun. I’d have to get up before the sun every day to water my plants, being ever so careful to lift the plants off the ground and water only at the roots, while still sometimes spraying a leaf that would inevitably become fried by the sun that same day. No matter how often I was doing it, I couldn’t get the schedule just right, and my plants would wilt and die away. Especially after leaving for a weekend trip, we’d return home and find our crops withering away.

Last year, I decided to take my hydrating to the next level and installed a drip system, on a timer, that I think made all the difference in the survival of my garden goods. By having a consistent, two-a-day drip, right at the roots, my plants got all the h20 they needed, even if I chose to sleep in. In return, I got a thriving, green plot that grew with minimal watering effort.

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Lesson 2- LESS ZUCCHINI!

As you can see from above, my zucchini crop went wild. Having never had any success growing zukes before, I had no idea how many were going to grow on each plant, and how big the plants themselves would be. For that reason, I thought it was a good idea to plant 12 zucchini plants in the front third of the garden. Needless to say, this is way too many. I started pulling the extra plants at the beginning of the summer, but still had more than I could handle. It was hard pulling a thriving plant from the ground, but knowing that the extra veggies were becoming more of a problem than a low yield, I knew it was the right thing to do, and by the end of the summer I only had 2, but was still left with my zucchini than I knew what to do with.

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I brought the excess to work, distributed them to neighbors, shared them at social gatherings, and froze a ton, but I still could hardly keep up with the zucchini yield. We ate zucchini at nearly every meal — I felt like a version of “Bubba” from Forrest Gump, but instead of shrimp I was extolling the virtues of zucchini stir fry… zucchini au gratin… zucchini noodles… zucchini boats… zucchini muffins… You get the idea. We got a little burned out, as you can imagine, and I even freezed so much that we are still enjoying the zucchini today, 6 months later.

I had to pick at least 4-5 every day or they would grow to radioactive proportions. While it was fun comparing the size of the zucchinis to my cat, this year I think I’ll stick to a reasonable-sized zucchini crop and will try to start the year with just one plant or two.

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Lesson 3 – Less is more

Zucchinis aside, I learned that I need to a better job of thinning out my garden as a whole, early on. This is a problem I never had before, but when the garden starts growing out of control, it can be very difficult to keep up on. In addition to the awkwardly-large zucchinis, I also got some disproportionate pickling cucumbers that had stayed on the vine for two long, and became too seedy to become delicious dills.

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The crowding of too many plants also became a problem with my tomatoes. I actually have no idea how many tomato plants I had in a small space, and they turned into one giant shrub by about mid-summer. I trimmed them back, but at that point they had become so intertwined that it was too late, and I had to just see what would happen. To my dismay, despite the mass amount of tomato leafage, I really didn’t yield too many tomatoes off of them, and my hopes of jars and jars of homemade tomato sauce and salsa were dashed. However, at the end of the season, I pulled the mess of tomato plants and found hundreds of rotting tomatoes underneath the roughage. My tomato plants had, indeed, been producing in excess, but I just couldn’t find them among the overgrowth. Next year, I’m determined to keep each individual plot much more manageable, and will thin things out early on.

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Lesson 4 – Weed early and often

This one, I suppose would be something any gardener would tell you as it seems like a Gardening 101 lesson. But, it’s one I learned this year the hard way. I’d see little weeds pop up early, and instead of nipping them right away, I would debate whether they were my plants or invaders, and leave them in place to “wait and see.” Of course, anyone who has dealt with weeds knows what happened — the weeds grew much faster than the veggies and took over before I knew it. There was also a “pretty” weed that had tiny little leaves and wove little vines around the edges of the garden fencing and popped up between the brick edging. Anthony and I both thought they looked kind of pretty, so I used it as a good excuse to leave the weeds in place. However, within a matter of just a couple weeks these adorable little vines crisscrossed their way across the entire garden, and I had to take on a major excavation project to unwrap them from my seedlings. This year, the viney weed will not trick me with her pretty little face!

Lesson 5 – Plant garlic in the fall

The year before last, I had read about planting garlic cloves in the fall before the first frost, and yielding plump bulbs of garlic in mid-summer the next year. I gave it a shot in 2013 and was thrilled to pull up plump heads of garlic in June of last year. The homegrown garlic became the perfect addition to the dozens of jars of cucumbers I was able to pickle, along with dill grown in the plot as well.

However, I didn’t heed this lesson last fall as I was still basking in the glow of my gardening successes (as well as the aforementioned Aussie trip planning), and totally forgot to shove some garlic cloves into the ground. This year, my pickles will not have the honor of being fully homegrown, but you can bet I will not miss the timing for garlic-planting next year!

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Holding up a braid of freshly-pulled garlic bulbs. Also note that “pretty weed” decorating the edging…

 

Lesson 6 – Double your efforts

Chalk this one up to a Pinterest tip that worked out perfectly for me. Knowing that our garden area gets pummeled with sun all day every day, I’ve always had difficulty growing lettuce and spinach, which thrive on a little cooler shade. Bring in the cucumbers! These climbing little creatures soak up that sun, and cover the area with leafy shade, so I harnessed that power and trained them to go up and over the lettuce and spinach section. The trellis was held up by a couple of bamboo sticks that were the perfect structures for the climbing beans.

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This year, I hope to make the trellis a little bit bigger, to make a better use of the space, but I’ll definitely be employing a similar tactic.

Lesson 7 – Grow things you like to eat

Clearly, this should be a no-brainer, but for whatever reason, had to be something I learned on my own. In addition to the plethora of zucchini plants in the first plot, I also included a couple of yellow squash plants. Turns out, neither Anthony or I like yellow squash at all. We’d blend it in to the stir fries and veggie dishes, and they were fine, but we weren’t getting excited to eat them. Instead of continuing to scour the internet for a recipe with enough cheese to make a yellow squash more palatable, I finally just decided to give up on them and pulled the plants before the height of gardening season.

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I’m sure there will be many more lessons to be learned this summer, but hopefully I can enjoy the same fruits of my labor once again. Looking forward to building meals from my backyard, and enjoying some fresh produce in these summer months to come!

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