Grit Blogs > Of Mice and Mountain Men

Gardening Lessons Learned

As the tomato vines begin to wilt and the squash plants turn yellow I find myself reviewing the garden’s performance this past summer and planning my garden for the coming fall/winter as well as next summer.

Let me just ballyhoo Grit’s Garden Planner program for a moment.  I’ve been using it for the past couple of years and I’ve found it to be such a tremendous help, especially for a newbie.  I garden in raised beds, (supposedly) using the square foot gardening method.  My boxes don’t move around much, so being able to copy the drawing of the garden from one season to the next saves me a great deal of trouble because I don’t have to re-draw all those boxes each year.  Also, while doing this, the program remembers where each crop family was and automatically shows a crop rotation warning of where any certain plant should NOT be planted this time.  When you click on any plant on the selector bar to drag it into your garden plan, fuzzy-pink spots flash where you should not put that plant.

Also, the information pop-up window for each plant helps me decide on placement due to sun/shade and what plants to companion with it.  The planting reminder e-mails are also very helpful.  I only wish they’d remind me when it’s time to harvest – but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Major Failures

My corn did very poorly.  Oh, the stalks grew quite nicely and put out great tassels, and most stalks produced one ear, but most of these ears stayed very small and the kernels never developed.

Garden Lessons Corn Box 

The beets started off with a bang and I was able to judiciously snip out some very tasty beet greens for our salads.  But most of the beet roots never got to a useable size.  I did pull a few that got to an inch or so in diameter (and they were delicious) but most just turned gray and wrinkly, never having gotten larger than a marble or grape.

Once again this year, the eggplants never got very large and the few fruit they developed were no larger than (ironically) an egg.

While I did harvest a large number of garlic fists, they too were all quite small – about the size of a walnut.

Onions grew well, developed nice tall tops but when they fell over and started to wilt I pulled them and found disappointingly small bulbs.  They taste great, they’re just quite small.

I have tried to raise Brussels Sprouts for the past three years.  Each year Looper worms move in and eat out the plants heart successfully rendering it useless just after I’ve gotten to where I’m encouraged by its size. Nothing I’ve tried is both effective against the worms and something I’d care to eat.

Possible Suspects

After pouring over information from the internet, I’m leaning toward the conclusion that I erred in thinking that planting everything in “soil” that is composed of composted manure and dried peat I would not need fertilizer.  In fact, I was afraid to add fertilizer because of warnings that over fertilizing vegetables causes the plant to flower profusely but limits growth and fruit production.  This lack of fertilizer may be the primary culprit in all of the above problems.

I planted my corn according to the Square-foot gardening book; 4 plants per square foot.  But I planted an entire bed in corn this way: 64 plants in a 4’ x 4’ bed.  My sources say that undeveloped kernels is due to pollination failure.  This failure can be caused by several things, but over-crowding is not one of them, in fact too much spacing is more a problem than crowding.  However, a corn plant typically puts roots out 12” around the stalk, having four plants per foot throughout the box may have sucked all the nutrients (especially nitrogen - corn needs lots of nitrogen) out of the soil before the ears developed fully.

Rainfall was spotty this year, and when we got it, it poured for days.  I watered between gushers, but hand watering often doesn’t really fill the bill because I don’t linger long enough to get the soil good and wet deep enough.  It was also hotter than normal, some plants don’t tolerate heat all that well.

Possible Solutions

Next year I plan to plant the corn in a checkerboard fashion and plant squares of black beans in between the corn squares.  I chose black beans because they will take just about as long to mature and dry as the corn to run its course.  Other types of beans could be used to add nitrogen back into the soil, but would need to be picked regularly, and I worry that pushing through to get to the bean squares toward the middle of the box would damage the corn stalks that would be in the way.  Of course I could plant four squares of corn in the middle and beans around the outside.

I *will* be investing in fertilizer next year to augment the compost in the soil.

I would like to engineer a system of soaker hoses to water the garden instead of using a wand.  My biggest concern is that some plants need a lot of water (like tomatoes) while others prefer just occasional watering.  For most, an inch of water per week is good.  To do this well, I need to group plants (in addition to all other considerations) by how much water they need.  I’ll need to find a way to calculate how much water passes through a soaker hose in an hour’s time.  And I’ll need to find a way to regulate the flow of water so that the light-water plants can be shut down sooner than the heavy water plants.  Everything I’ve come up with so far involves a pretty heavy investment into pipe and valves – particularly considering that the crops will be moved each year, so a “tomato section” (for example) isn’t really possible.

I won’t plant eggplants at all next year.  I’ve tried for three years and gotten nothing back for the effort.  We’re not so fond of them that we can’t do without them.

Everything else I will approach as though I were growing them in dirt and fertilize accordingly.

I lost a lot of produce to waiting for it to develop some size thus allowing it to go too long and get woody (beets, turnips, radishes, carrots).  Had I pulled them at the proper time, regardless of size, I’d have gotten more out of the garden than I did.  Next year I will record the date I plant each one, and use a calendar to put down reminders to harvest each one as well.

The garlic did poorly because I failed to cut off the canes a second time.  I cut them off when they appeared in the spring, but they grew back again and apparently that is why the fists never developed much size.  This year I will be more vigilant.

This fall I am again trying Brussels Sprouts.  But, I have a new weapon. My research says that the only effective (non-chemical) means of controlling the Loopers are hand picking to remove eggs and tiny worms before they do damage or row covers.  Although… one fellow says a bug-zapper hung over the Brussels Sprout bed does a good job of deterring (assassinating) the Looper moths – that’s a little too heartless for me at this point.  My eyes are not good enough that I can find and remove all the pin head sized eggs, so I built a Brussels Sprout House.

Garden Lessons Brussels Sprout House 

In earlier articles I described how and why I modified my Hoop House design from last year.  This is one of the new generation with an additional modification of air vents in two sides and the top.  The vents use window screening to keep out the moths.  These, I hope, will allow for enough air circulation to prevent over heating the seedlings (still quite small) during the tail end of summer and yet keep the dastardly Loopers at bay.  Maybe THIS year I’ll finally get to enjoy some Brussels Sprouts.  Those I do enjoy enough to keep trying.


Among the things that did quite well for us this year are a variety of beans, zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, potatoes, cantaloupe, watermelon and a variety of peppers.  The peppers got a slow start and half the plants died, but those that survived are producing copious amounts of delicious peppers.  And my herb bed.   

I have quite a variety of herbs (including Stevia) growing in one bed that provides us with fresh herbs for cooking and lots more for drying or freezing for future use.  These have done so well, I’ve considered packaging and selling the dried herbs over the internet and to local health food outlets.  I’m not sure what kind of inspection and licensing would be required, so I’m just considering that for now.

I can say that my friends and family will not be running out of herbs any time soon!