Thursday, April 1, 2010

Rookie Mistakes (I Have Made)

Growing up, my family lived on two acres outside of Tulsa. My parents attempted some gardening, even keeping some chickens, until our dogs killed the whole flock in one fell swoop. I think my parents had ambitious homesteading dreams after living through some tough economic times in the late 70's (my father still curses Carter's name). I remember some huge tomato plants from elementary school, but my parents gave up the gardening efforts after the chicken debacle.

So when I started my gardening / edible landscaping adventure a few years ago, I didn't know the difference between a cold season and a warm season crop. I didn't know what to plant from seed, from plant, from set, from bush, from tree or from crown. I had to learn everything from scratch - which, of course, means making a few mistakes here and there. Since there may be a few of you who are just starting out, here is my top six list of "rookie" mistakes I've made as I work towards learning how to grow just a bit of food. I hope you learn something from my embarrassment.

6. Site Misplacement

When we moved in to our home in Oklahoma City, we had a blank landscaping slate. Bermuda grass, bermuda grass, and more bermuda grass. Wait, and two gigantic pecan trees which cast shade over much of the yard. The first landscaping project we did was to build a brick patio out back, right next to the house.

Later, I realized that our lovely, back-breaking and time-consuming- to- install brick patio was sitting right in the middle of the best sun of the yard - the spot where I should have placed my garden. While it was not a complete disaster, because there were still other places to put my garden, I have much less gardening area than if I had sited my patio correctly. About 50% less. Whoops!

5. Tree Matching

As an amateur orchardist, I was surprised to learn that some fruit trees require two different varieties to pollinate correctly - plums, apples, pears, and some peaches, to name a few. What! You mean I can't just get one of every kind of tree I want? I have to make sure they bloom at the same time? For months, I pored over the Raintree Nursery and Burnt Ridge Nursery catalogs, in combination with my site plan, before finally placing my order.

Yet somehow, I managed to order an European plum and an Asian plum tree, which don't happen to pollinate each other. So, two years later, I had to buy yet a third tree to pollinate at least one of my plums. After that, one of the trees grew a few puny plums that fell off the tree before harvest time. That was when I realized that plums don't do all that well in Oklahoma City. Now, I can't bear to cut any of them down.... the trees are nice and strong, even if they are not giving me (much) fruit.

4. Anger management

So there it is - my first garden bed, so nicely planted with seeds. All that research, all that work, to build the bed, fill it with soil, choose the seeds and plant them. Now I can finally go to bed and sleep soundly knowing I am on the road to self-sufficiency.

Wrong. Next morning, and for every morning thereafter, I see that SOME thing, SOME dastardly critter has completely destroyed my seedbed. I wanted to wail. Honestly, there might have been some wailing. How am I ever going to grow a garden if the mysterious squirrel-bird-coon keeps killing the seeds before they even sprout? I vow revenge, and start planning to buy a trap. Or a shotgun.

Then I discovered the easiest solution, which has worked without fail until this day. Whenever I plant a seedbed, I stake the four corners and then cover it with netting, anchoring it with bricks. The netting allows the sun to reach the soil and is easy to water through. After the seeds are a good size, I can remove the netting without fear. And all without any squirrel bloodshed.

3. Record-keeping (or lack thereof)

As I mentioned earlier, I ordered quite a few trees early on in my urban homesteading experiment. Apples, pears, plums. In my hurry to get them in the ground, I planted them and removed the tags. I recorded their locations on my site plan. But yet somehow, that site plan has disappeared. Now, I know I've got a Liberty and an Enterprise apple tree, but which is which? Which plum is which? Heck.

2. Plant abuse

Well, I can't claim ignorance on this one - just plain forgetfulness. I know that seedlings need to be "hardened off" - that is, you need to toughen them up by exposing them bit by bit to the cruel outside world after their sheltered young existence. Otherwise, it's a shock to their system when they are used to constant inside temperatures. Usually, I put my seedlings out for several hours for four or five days in a row, taking them in at night, before finally planting them in the soil.

Earlier this spring, I planted out some broccoli that I had raised from seed without first hardening them off. Of course, they all died.

1. Failing to plant is planting to fail

For several years now, I've meant to plant a huge winter garden like my friend Shauna, who harvested salads all through the winter with just a plastic sheeting to protect her lettuce and greens from the cold. I just never got around to protecting my fall garden with a cold frame or row covers. Instead, I "experimented" by planting a fall garden and then I let the plants fend for themselves (Result: kale and collards live; pac choy and mustard die).

Another planting failure: Year after year, I wait too long in the spring to plant my early crops, especially spinach, onions and lettuce. Then, they wither from the heat or bolt early. And I'm not even going to mention all the times I tried to plant my tomatoes early before the crucial April 15th date...

Bonus mistake: Going it on my own

Over the years, I have done a whole lot of research. I found many web resources, read a lot of books, participated in a permaculture workshop, and took an online class. I wanted someone to help me with a permaculture design, but couldn't find any local designers at the time (2005). What I didn't do was find people who were already doing this type of stuff locally, see what they were doing, and learn from them. That would have saved me a lot of time and given me a lot of new ideas - maybe even saved some money. But I was shy, and didn't know anyone in the sustainability crowd. So I missed out on the wisdom of the local experts.

Lessons learned: My gardening education and landscaping experiments have taught me something: start small, be flexible, plan ahead, and learn what works in your area. Perhaps most importantly, just get started...and keep trying through the inevitable failures.

So don't make my mistakes - go make your own!


dandelionlady said...

Ha! Great post, I can relate to your squirrel rage. We gave in and started giving offerings to the little stinkers they get the cheap peanuts and we get the seedlings.

Sharlene T. said...

The problem is, if you move elsewhere, you're still going to have to discover what does best in that locale. Gardening is always learning new things and how to outsmart the local wild (or in my particular case) or local pests. Won against the neighbor's cat. Now, I must fight the birds...

I used to try everything but now only grow what we really like...

Chris and his Garden said...

Can I add one too?

1. Addiction to watering and fertilizer! I think I've killed a couple of plants this way. Too much nurturing kills.