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Top 5 Lessons Learned as a Novice Gardener

Amanda StoffelsLesson 1: You have to have sun.

Now I know that this sounds silly as most people would say, "You can’t grow anything without sun," but I never knew plants had to have so much sun. Full sun versus partial sun meant nothing to me. So when my husband said he would build me a garden box I said put it on the front side of the house where the dogs can't get to it and we will have some sun. Keyword: some. I never realized that the fence, house and neighbor’s house would shade it. So when I started reading about plants needing 6 to 8 hours of sun minimal, I was concerned. I began plotting the sun at different times of the day in mid-May (way too late to plant cool weather plants, but that will be in Lesson 3) and figured that I have one square foot of the entire 6 by 8 garden that gets full sun. A couple of the square foots get 8 to 10 hours due to the fence shading it and the rest barely gets 6 to 8 hours. This brings me to lesson No. 2.

Lesson 2: Plot out your garden BEFORE you buy all your plants from the local nursery.

I was super excited about buying plants for the garden. I went to three different stores buying plants that I thought would be fun to grow. Then I ran across the local farmer's market store that has a ton of plants come spring. I looked like a kid at a candy store trying to find the perfect piece of the most delicious piece of candy. As I was walking around looking at plants, a nice staff member asked if they could help me. I said, "I want to grow fruit." So she took me to the blueberry bushes, blackberry vines and grapevines. She then proceeded to ask me all the right questions such as "Where are you going to plant it?" and "How much sun is it going to get?" I realized at that moment a little forethought would have gone a long way. I couldn't answer those questions so I proceeded to describe my entire front and back yard with guessitimations of the amount of sunlight. In the end, my blueberry bushes did not make it, my blackberry bush died, and my grapevines were dug up by the dogs, not to mention that I didn’t have enough space for all the plants that I bought at the previous stores.  So I was giving away plants. Lesson learned.

spring garden
Happy Mother’s Day present, our first garden

Lesson 3: Timing is everything 

Cool weather plant, warm weather plant, fall planting are just a few terms I should have read up on before going head first into gardening. Mid-May in Texas, you can find tomatoes, peppers, cantaloupes and watermelon. I was not so happy that I couldn't find broccoli, green beans and kale. As I ran my errands, I stopped everywhere looking for these cool weather plants. Reading an article or two about when to plant what crops would have saved me, at minimum, time and probably a little embarrassment. Most nursery staff gave me the craziest looks when asking to buy a seedling of broccoli when it was almost June and Texas heat had already kicked in. I did plant a few broccoli seedlings, but was not successful at growing anything to eat, but the yellow flowers were a pretty addition to the garden.

Lesson 4: Have a plan when planting a garden around animals

Nature sometimes makes us work hard when fighting off pests like cabbage moths and caterpillars, but I never thought I would have to worry about my own animals as the pests! As I tried to expand my garden along the back fence, my dogs saw the nice soft dirt as a digging station. They rolled around, dug up anything I planted, and acted as if I had hauled the seven bags of composted manure in there just for them. After losing too many plants and raking the dirt back into the garden bed one too many times, I had my husband put up a hot-wire fence. This solved the puppy problem with one quick shock and now I don't even keep it hot. It's just a wire. But no one told me chickens LOVE garden plants too!! I'm still working on this adventure.

Henrietta the Buff Orphington Chicken AKA bug eater

Lesson 5: Keep on trying

After two seasons under my belt of gardening, I continue to gain vast amounts of knowledge from experience alone. If nothing else I am learning to read others experiences so that I can avoid some major failures, but I also have had some great success. I have been able to pass on the love for gardening to my 6-year-old daughter! She is so excited to dig in the dirt, plant, water, and, of course, pick anything that might be growing. Last season I grew so many grape tomatoes I was giving them away. Cantaloupes love my front garden and have been a steady crop for two years. If nothing else, I love to be elbow deep in dirt, trying to be a part of growing my own food for my family no matter how small or large the crop might be.

grape tomato
My grape tomato plant is as tall as me!

grape tomatoes
The most tomatoes we harvested in one day!

Overall, gardening is fun and is a working piece of art year round. My plans are exploding for next year as the winter cold makes me think twice before venturing outside. Potatoes, carrots, my own green beans are all crops I can't wait to plant. For now, I'll be reading my stack of garden books and planning out my gardens for the spring.

spring garden
Garden plot in 2013