Last spring, we decided to start a vegetable garden in the yard. (Wait ’til you see where we’re at now!)
We had a whole side row space that had previously just been greenery and decorative plantings, but they all burned in the fire. In the spirit of finding the silver lining, we decided to replace them with food.
We had a vegetable garden previously, but it was very small, and wasn’t very well thought out – it was mostly just trial and error. We planted some things and hoped for the best. That first year gave us a few tomatoes, a few eggplants, some lettuce, some very small sweet potatoes, and a big brussel sprout stalk with no brussel sprouts on it. Womp womp.
This time, we decided to do it right. Since Brandan is an engineer, he handled the measuring, cutting and building of the boxes, with assistance from his brother Matt and some light supervision from Folly. (I try to stick to the tending to the plants and the actual cooking of them.) In the end, we were left with 3 large planting boxes. We decided to start out with the “square foot gardening” method, and divided each one into one-foot squares. Each bin is approximately 3 ft. x 8 ft, or 24 square feet, for a total of 72 square feet for planting. Here’s the space that the boxes were going:
The boys handled the sawing, cutting, nailing, and overall building of the boxes. I made myself useful by providing paleo snacks throughout the building process. Snacks is usually what I do best.
So you’re probably wondering what all that PVC pipe is. Brandan decided to build a type of watering system that would help keep that box irrigated. Honestly I’m not exactly sure how it works (or IF it works?) but supposedly it’s helping to keep the soil wet from underneath, rather than from the top.
Then we bought a LOT of dirt. Square foot gardening recommends a mixture of 1:1:1 of peat moss, vermiculite, and compost for your vegetable garden, so that’s what we used.
Then it was time to start baby seeds! We’ve since switched to a computerized spreadsheet this year, as the popsicle stick labels faded once they got in the sun. Lesson learned.
Once they got big enough, we planted them outside and nursed them along. This was still in the early stages. And yes, ALL of this is from seeds!
They started to get a little bit bigger as summer continued…and a little out of control.
And then, FOOD! We got some great lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers.
Now, I’m sure this looks like we were having a great vegetable crop, and we were…for awhile. But things tapered off pretty quickly, and we made a few mistakes in our first season.
4 Things We Learned in Our First Year of Vegetable Gardening
You have to tend to plants every day early on to trim and train.
These plants all went into the vegetable garden right around early May, when it started to warm up. This was the same time my wedding season picked up, and I was out of town every single weekend for about 3-4 weeks in a row working weddings. I wasn’t able to keep an eye on the plants well enough to trim them as they were growing, train them to grow the way we wanted, and they all got wily and out of control really quickly. The tomato plants became a giant tangle, and you couldn’t tell which plant was which.
You can’t cut back too harshly too late in the season.
Once these were growing out of control, we decided we had to do something about it, as they were choking each other out (see #3). We separated them and trimmed back what we thought was a reasonable amount, but it was already too hot and too late in the growing season to trim that much, and it did more damage than good to the plants. They stopped producing as well (which we also think had to do with the extreme heat) but this certainly didn’t help.
You have to give your plants room to “breathe.”
You have to give your plants enough space to expand to their full size, especially when they aren’t tended to early on like I referenced in #1. Do you have indeterminate or determinate plants? Does each of your plants have the space it needs to grow tall and wide? Make sure you’re allowing enough room for them at their full growth, not just when they start out as small plants.
You need to plan out your planting locations well.
Think about your plants when they’re going to be full grown. Are you going to have tall tomato plants in front of lettuce, thereby blocking the sun and creating too much shade for the lettuce? Are you going to have too much harsh sunlight on things that don’t need it? Look at the seasonality of each plant, the growing rate, and what it pairs well with. Map it out on a piece of paper or a spreadsheet before putting them in the ground. We had the tomatoes in the first box, and they got the tallest. They actually ended up blocking the sun from the peppers quite a bit, which was a mistake.
Despite these speed bumps we encountered, we learned a lot in our first year of our home vegetable garden, and we’ve already started implementing some of the things we learned into our plans for this year. Not to mention we grew huge (maybe too huge!) plants from seed, which felt like a big win.
Since this first run, we’ve expanded quite a bit, and our food supply isn’t just limited to our square foot vegetable garden boxes. We’ve added fruiting trees, bushes, and this weekend our package of bees gets delivered. Stay tuned for more from our little urban farm!