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Garden 2016: Mistakes and Challenges

By Jennifer Quinn

Tags: gardening, jennifer Quinn, Scott County, VA,

Jennifer QuinnGarden NW July 2016

Well, this was to be the year my garden would really take off, but each year seems to bring new problems and challenges. What a steep learning curve!

First, the good news: I did really well with tomatoes (which I’ve never grown before) even though I started them from seed. I had no idea they were so easy to grow! Maybe it’s because my soil is so high in calcium. I did all right with bush beans this year after totally missing the boat with them last year, and I had a pretty good crop of cucumbers, too. Plus my strawberry bed finally began producing more than two or three strawberries at a time — sometimes as much as 7 ounces in a day! — while my third-year blackberry bushes began producing.

Ripening blackberries

Now for the mistakes: First, I planted about twenty seed potatoes in trenches that I dug over a period of a couple of weeks. What a job that was! I hate digging trenches, but planting them above ground would involve scrounging up all sorts of materials to layer over them, and I didn’t think I’d be able to manage it.

Now, for some reason, it didn’t occur to me that this particular bed might have the same drainage problem as the asparagus bed I wrote about earlier, though it’s at the same level on the slope. So I was rather dismayed when I saw water in the trenches after a good rain. Still, I kept watching for the potatoes to sprout until long after they should have come up. Finally I decided to do some digging, and sure enough, what few seed potatoes I found had rotted. Fortunately, I had a few potatoes planted in other places, so it wasn’t a total loss. But most of those were planted in first-year hugelkultur beds and turned out to be tasteless and watery.

After filling in the potato trenches, I decided to cover-crop the bed and save it for a fall crop of beets, since the few beets I had planted early got eaten by something, probably the groundhog, and the replacements were struggling in the heat. In August, I sowed not only beets but spinach in the former potato bed, but hardly anything came up. I believe it was a combination of the hot, dry weather and the fact that I had tried to improve the soil with half-finished compost full of undigested wood shavings. It really looked almost finished in the compost bin!

Then I made the dumb mistake of setting out my four butternut squash seedlings in the morning instead of waiting till evening. The poor things never recovered from the transplant shock, and I ended up with all of four very small squashes.

This year I decided to start my Brussels sprouts in July rather than in the spring as I used to do. Apparently this is impossible without using row covers. Every day I had to pick off the cross-striped cabbage worms, and the next day there would be more of them. Where do they come from? They seem to spring into birth fully grown, like Athena from the head of Zeus. I think I’ve finally seen the last of them, but I don’t know if the plants will recover.

Brussels sprouts with caterpillar damage

In the spring, I had fourteen nice spinach seedlings growing before the groundhog (apparently) got in and ate them all down to nothing. Finally I got a hot wire installed around the bottom of the fence, but by that time the groundhog had disappeared — probably eliminated by the coyotes that have been hanging around and killing my chickens. So I don’t yet know for sure if my fence is effectively groundhog-proofed. Meanwhile, I’ve been plagued with grasshoppers, cicadas, and katydids almost defoliating entire plants at times.

On the bright side, I had sown some boneset seed (collected from my streambank) in a waterlogged area of the garden, and they’ve taken off amazingly:


What you can’t see in this blurry picture is at least a couple dozen bugs on the flowers, mostly mating, which turned out to be Pennsylvania leatherwings. Imagine my delight when I looked them up and read that the larvae eat grasshopper eggs!

A lot of things have simply suffered from the hot, dry weather, which has kept me watering two or three times a day when I’m able. With the water table as high as it is here, it’s amazing how quickly the surface can dry out! And I’ve discovered that, apparently, my soil has a too-high calcium/magnesium ratio, which, among other problems, could account for poor growth.

I’ve been reading Charles Walters’ Eco-Farm (not an easy read) and learned that certain symptoms I’ve noticed could indicate a deficiency of magnesium. Now, my soil report indicated more than adequate magnesium, but as Walters explains, it’s the ratios that are important. It seems it’s sort of a game of musical chairs, where the excess calcium knocks all the other cations off their positions on the soil colloid.

There’s a difference of opinion regarding re-mineralizing the soil versus waiting for the development of organic matter and soil organisms to restore the proper balance. (See Anna Hess’s The Ultimate Guide to Soil, which I’m also reading.) I’ve opted for sprinkling some Epsom salt on the beds most affected by the imbalance in hopes of seeing a dramatic improvement next year. Besides that, I’m planting everything with green manures like oilseed radish, mammoth red clover, oats, and Austrian winter peas, and gradually moving toward no-till gardening and raised beds. By building up the soil, I hope to have healthier plants that will thrive and be able to defend against insect attacks. And maybe next year I’ll have my head on straight and not make any more stupid mistakes!