July 26, 2022

10 Lesson From the Summer Garden

I'm not usually a "let's rush through summer and get to fall" kind of person like so many are. I want to revel in long days filled with swimming and gardening and trips to the beach and and all that good stuff. But this year, I'm pretty much over it.

My garden is not anything close to what I had planned, I've spent thousands of dollars and hours on the pool and have barely swam, and I'm supposed to go to the beach soon, but now that is up in the air due to what was an ongoing work problem. I thought I'd spend July planting a late late summer garden, but at some point in the last week, I just decided to move on. I'll aim for next year. Maybe I'll plant something of a fall garden. Any greens I could grow would save me a fortune on duck and chicken food, and I want to try some carrots, but other than that, I'm reluctantly wrapping up this gardening season.

All of that said, I don't consider this year a total loss, especially when it comes to the garden. Believe it or not, this is actually the first year in my life that I had all the space I wanted to do whatever I wanted with it, and got to plant as many different veggies and flowers as I did. And with that came many lessons that I will keep with me for the rest of my life and that will help do better next year and the next. Here are some of them:

Chickens and gardens don't mix

In the past, when I've had chickens, they've stayed out of the garden. I'm not sure how I got so lucky because this current flock I have is the most destructive crew around. I can't tell you how many times I've replanted sunflowers or had to pull up a broken stalk of corn or tomato plants because they destroyed the roots. That's actually probably the second-biggest reason why my garden is much smaller than anticipated. I did manage to get a fence made with some netting around my main garden area, but they still get into it, and it's next to impossible to mow around it. So, I plan to spend the winter putting up some fencing and creating chicken-proof beds so they'll just be ready for planting next spring.

Advanced planning is important

Aside from putting up fencing, I'm going to plan what I want to plant a little better instead of just ordering hundreds of dollars worth of seeds every time I see an advertisement for something that looks interesting. For example, I eat way more zucchini than I do tomatoes, and yet, I have a three gardens full of tomatoes this year and only two mounds of zucchini. I also want to plan where everything will go a little better, have trellies prepared, etc. I like to make trellises out of found items here, like bamboo and small tree trunks, and that takes some time. And I'd like to invest in a greenhouse or more grow lights, so I can start more seeds early.

Telling my dad where I planted things is also extremely important

Don't get me wrong — my dad is a HUGE help with my gardening and farming endeavors. He takes care of the chickens. He cuts the grass. He hills up my corn. He plants the extra tomatoes when I'm too busy, and they're overgrowing their pots. But if I don't specifically tell him I planted some seeds in a location multiple times and then put some sort of sign up, he'll stomp right through it, pile tools on top of it, or let the chickens dive right into it. In some cases, he'll chop fully grown plants right down for no reason. Just ask him what happened to my grandfather's rosemary and my mother's oregano. Then if you say something to him about it, he mumbles about how it's my fault for just planting random things in random places and how my mother and grandfather used to do that too, and I'm like but that's how this works. Sigh.

Growing from seed > buying starts at the nurseries

This is one area that I really consider a win for this year. We've always bought nursery tomato and peppers starts in my family. Over the last few years, I've experimented with starting them from seed, but with all my parents' health issues, I never got to see them through. This year was different. Almost all of my tomatoes and peppers were started from seed here by me and babied and coddled, and they're some of the healthiest plants I've ever seen. Well, the tomatoes are. The peppers have contracted some kind of bacterial issue, but that's beyond my control. Anyway, every single day I marvel at the idea that I was able to take a tiny seed and turn it into a huge plant that's as tall as I am and producing actual food. I do have a few pepper and tomato plants that I picked up at Lowe's, but they just aren't as good-looking as my little darlings. Oh, and marigolds! I have never in my entire life been able to keep marigolds alive, but this year I started them from seed rather than buying nursery starts, and they are the most vibrant and hardy flowers I've ever grown. I've got one that's over three feet tall.

Flowers are just as important as vegetables in the vegetable garden

And speaking of marigolds, I'm a huge believer in companion planting and peppering flowers in with your vegetables. I've felt strongly about that for a long time, but this year made me even more of a believer. I planted some marigolds and zinnias next to some of my tomatoes, and those plants are thriving. I truly believe the flowers have helped deter pest and attract pollinators. As a matter of fact, I was just sitting out giving the ducks a few minutes of free time when a hummingbird landed on my zinnias. They also really brighten up the place. Next year, I really want to create a cutting garden for flowers, but I'll also be sure to plant them among my veggies.

Regenerating soil is important

I won't get too deep into this one, but permacutlure and regenerative agriculture have become very important to me, and I think if others took these two topics more seriously, we wouldn't be worried as much about some of the environmental topics that we seem to be worried abuot, but I digress. I can only speak for my little slice of the world, and I can tell you that my parents and grandfather didn't take great care of their soil. We've all taken a bit of a break from gardening over the last few years, so some of it is coming back to life on its own, but I've been also been using compost and chicken and duck manure and trace minerals to help make that happen. Next year, I want to focus on some no-till areas to improve it even further. My major at UGA is agriscience, and I'm learning a lot about crop and soil health and sustainability, but I'd been studying the topic on my own for years. If you want to learn more or see a good example of how you can do agriculture right, check out White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia. I've been getting the majority of my beef from them for years and have become a big fan of their regenerative and humane farming practices. Plus, their food is soooo much better for you than regular old grocery store meat.

Don't be afraid to try something new

You can plant the same old stuff every year — and I grew up with a gardening family who did, at least in my lifetime — but I personally like to try new things. This year, it was cucamelons. They're trendly little fruits that look like tiny watermelons and supposedly taste like limes (I haven't had any to harvest just yet), and I really wanted to grow some last year for my mom and I to try. I never got to, but I did get some planted this year. I thought they'd grow a bit more like cucumbers, so next year, if I grow them, I won't dedicate such a large space to the plants. They also seem a bit slow to grow, so I will try to plant them earlier next year, but I just love the wow fact of trying new seeds and plants and being able to introduce those items to friends and family.

Take in everything you learn but do what works for you

I'm definitely a student when it comes to gardening. I read as much as I can. I have so many gardening books. I have learned so much at UGA over the last year. And I've learned so much from my parents and grandfather throughout my lifetime. I'm still learning from my dad. But I also bring some of my own ideas to the table, and my own gardening practices have becomea mix of all of those things combined. I guess what I'm saying is feel free to stick with tried and true methods, but don't be afraid to experiment as well. Even when you screw up, you learn something.

I can coexist with frogs

If you know me, you know I'm not a fan of frogs, but I've cultivated quite a little ecosystem within my little garden that I'm quite proud of. And yes, that means I've got a big lumpy toad and several tiny little frogs hanging out in there. I may scream when I encounter one (sorry, neighbors), but I let them be. I imagine they're partially responsible for the lack of pest problems I've had this year. I just have to be very careful when I pick up a rock.

When in doubt, go to the garden

Back in March or April, a difficult work situation came up, and unfortunately, it's been the number one reason why I didn't have my dream garden this year. It seems to have finally come to an end (with a bang, might I add), but by last week, I felt like someone had just repeatedly beaten me. I was in actual physical pain. I think Friday night, I crawled into bed and slept for 11 hours straight, and I woke up wondering if I could ever trust anyone again. In general, it's been a crappy month. I'm still dealing with the fact that I had to euthanize my little cat kind of unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago and missing her daily. Plus, this time last year, I was sending my mom off to the hospital, and I had no idea at the time she'd be there for weeks and never return, so that memory is kind of lingering in the air with these hot late July days. My point is that it's been a lot. And I've had to navigate it all without my number one supporter. I'm still learning to do that. I'm still learning how to plan my life around what I want and not what's best for my mom's health. All of that can be overwhelming.

But I have found that the best cure is going out to my little garden. It may be smaller than I expected, but there is life there. You can feel something there, whether it's the heat of the sun beating down on your back while you pull weeds or the pride in finding a new tomato that's popped up on your plants or the joy in watching the playground you've created for all of the butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and even frogs. It's a reminder that there's a world out there beyond your problems, and it's best to enjoy it rather than get caught up in nonsense. Nature is healing. It can be difficult too, but learning to take it all in as it comes can help you handle the other stuff life throws at you. It's been the cure for almost every bad day I've had lately.