5 Tips for a Greener Thumb
When I was a kid we had a big backyard and a big garden. It was fenced in and my mom grew a bunch of stuff, of which I only remember: strawberries. A big planter box of nothing but strawberries. I loved those strawberries! I think we only kept it up for a year or two, but I still have memories of how much I liked being in the garden and seeing things grow.
Fast forward a bunch of years, I’ve grown up and have a house of my own and I decided that I wanted to start a backyard garden. Just a little something to have as a hobby. You know, maybe grow a few tomatoes or a cucumber or two for a salad. Since we had never gotten around to planting flowers, the border around the backyard was still just dirt. We decided to plant our little veggie garden there. I think we got a little over-zealous considering we had no clue what we were doing. We planted tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, watermelon, cantaloupe, basil, rosemary, parsley, bell peppers, and strawberries. Hmmm…. I still feel like I’m missing a veggie in there somehow.
In any case, we planted a LOT! And we learned a lot in that first year. We fought pests and mildew. There were successes and there were failures (quite a few). And we decided to do it again, but bigger and better the second year! We were now seasoned gardeners, so we could totally handle it, right?
So my husband built planter boxes for me. He used standard 1’x8’ boards that could be purchased at a home improvement store. It was cheaper than purchasing the planter box kits and quite a bit more work to put together, as most DIY projects are. But I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. We had 4-4’x8’ planters and 1-4’x4’ planter. Instead of using the borders of the yard, we took over part of our grassy area. This gave us quite a bit more room to work with, which we totally made use of.
Here are a 5 tips and tricks we learned from that first year to improve our gardening green thumb:
We learned good soil is very important. The soil in our area is basically just clay. So we made sure that the planter boxes were filled with mix that was geared towards growing things. Instead of buying bags at the home improvement store (we would have had to purchase a LOT of bags), we had the soil delivered from a local company that sold dirt and rocks. Makes me laugh that places sell that, but we had our driveway filled with soil and gravel for a day while we hauled things into the back.
Another lesson we learned is that we needed extra space for veggies like cucumbers and zucchini. We tend to get greedy and try to squeeze more into the space than we should. But squishing them together can actually impact their growth and promote spread of mold and pest. Cucumbers grow on vines. The more vines that grow, the more cucumbers you get. We decided to keep these by themselves in the 4×4 planter. We also left more room for the zucchini. Though these don’t really grow on vines, they do spread quite a bit. Zucchini got 3/4 of one of the big planter boxes. Tomatoes also seemed to need more space since their branches will grow in all kinds of directions. If they are placed too close together it is hard to harvest the fruit or trim the plant.
#3 Pests and Mold
We learned to fight those ants like crazy! If the ants came, the aphids were there too. If the ants and aphids were there, then nothing would grow. So we did our best to keep the ants away. And we fought powdery mold. This stuff looks like you sprinkled slightly grey-ish baby powder on your plants leaves. And it spreads fast. So we found the best way to keep this in check was to aggressively cut the plant back. At first sight, we trimmed off the leaves we found it on and those leaves touching the affected areas. If necessary, we trimmed off a whole vine of cucumbers or branch of the zucchini plant. If you don’t do this, it takes over and kills everything in its path.
One of the biggest take-aways from my gardening experience was to have drip lines or some sort of automatic watering system installed. I am hopeless at knowing how much, how little, how often and how to remember to water! Basically, our plants stayed alive because my husband put in a drip system.
#5 Plant Food
Just like in Little Shop of Horrors, “Feed me, Seymour. Feed me!” making sure to feed the garden made a huge difference. I bought a jug of food for plants and veggies and just followed the directions. One thing my mom taught me is that tomatoes like acid. She would dump her used black tea leaves (just break open the tea bags) around the base of the tomato plant and then water them. In addition to regular use of plant food, the tea leaves can really help to perk up the tomato plant and I usually see the improvement within a couple days.
In addition to cucumbers, zucchini and tomatoes we continued to try to grow strawberries and cantaloupe. We gave up on the watermelon though since it didn’t do anything for us the previous year. Honestly, we should have given up on the cantaloupe because it didn’t thrive for the second year in a row. But the cucumber, zucchini and tomatoes did great! We also tried onions, lettuce, carrots, bell peppers and hot peppers. And, boy, did we have a bumper crop that year!
I made tons of homemade tomato puree, pickles, pickled jalapeños and roasted bell peppers. It was a canner’s dream! But I was too chicken to actually try canning. It scared me. Maybe this year I’ll give it a shot. So I froze most of the tomato puree and roasted bell peppers, and just made sure we were eating lot of pickles, lol!
The following year, we took it easy on the garden. My health wasn’t great, so I didn’t have tons of energy for it. But the kids missed it quite a bit. And when we decided to sell our house, we wanted to garden to look good too. So we planted a few things that we could manage more easily: cucumbers (on a trellis this time), zucchini, tomatoes, bell peppers and hot peppers.
And again, we had huge amounts of cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini. Luckily for me, I was able to eat the zucchini and bell peppers in my soup. I let the rest of the family enjoy the pickled cucumbers and jalapeños again.
I loved that garden. It was almost magical in its ability to grow our favorite veggies. But I know the tips and tricks we learned made that possible. We have since moved and are starting another backyard garden. But that is a story for another day. 🙂