Saturday, August 11, 2012


It started out so well. Excitedly digging up the dirt and planting little tomatoes and strawberries and broccoli and other favorites into my small and forgotten backyard garden. Through May and June I checked the plants everyday, stared at them and really enjoyed watching them grow and tending to whatever they seemed to need. Then the heat wave and the drought really kicked in - and you know what, those little plants had more willpower than I did. Getting out there every day and watering and doing whatever I could to keep these plants alive just got to be so much. I'm not proud of it. I can understand just a smidgen of how it must feel to be a farmer in this heat, but of course I have the luxury of having this garden be just a hobby. That's probably a key part of the reason why I had a near total crop failure. Let me go through the ugly details.

The strawberries - I heard these things were easy enough to grow. That's true enough. I really couldn't tell you how they tasted because I don't speak squirrel or rabbit language. Just when they were getting ripe, I thought I'd let them go just one more day and poof! They were gone.

The potatoes - I was really excited when I saw the plants shooting out of the ground. I had just a half dozen plants. They looked good, then they fell over but still looked fine. By the time I learned about "hilling" it was a litte too late. Then when it got really hot I decided to see if I had any potatoes in the ground because I heard potatoes don't like warm soil. All in all I got about a dozen little potatoes. Maybe voles got to them? 

The broccoli - the few plants I had were getting eaten up by these little green caterpillar-like animals that hide underneath the leaves. I successfully fought them off and then I saw some broccoli crowns starting to grow and got excited. But the crowns got sorta brown and odd shaped. They just didn't look right and it was about that time that I gave up.

The tomatoes - I had a few different varieties growing, the most promising being Sungolds. At one point I had maybe 30 little green tomatoes growing and I was getting excited. Some little animal enjoyed some of them, I did manage to snag a few, but the plants really wilted in the heat and dry conditions. Actually, the real issue is that I was the one who wilted. 

The zucchini - This plant never took off. Got flowers but no zucchini. Died of sunstroke.

The herbs - they did/doing pretty well although I can't seem to figure out how to get a high yield of basil. I got confused when I saw the basil plants start to flower (I think that's what it was)...should I cut them off or let them grow or what. I looked it up online and couldn't really figure it out. It was about that time that my CSA came through with professionally grown basil and my few little plants began to matter a lot less.

The bottom line - I learned that it is really hard to grow fruit and vegetables well. There's a lot of trial and error and an enormous value in the accumulated knowledge that farmers build as they work their land over decades. I also learned that it is really hard to get yourself out there every single day of a long and hot summer...I sort of gave up during that long stretch of 100+ degree weather. Also, I'm really quite privileged that I don't have to rely on my own farm for food. On another note, I learned that I really enjoy being out there and keeping a vegetable garden but that I have to try harder and learn more about how to do it well. Next year. 


  1. Hot peppers are about the only thing that did well for us. Critters got almost all of the strawberries and tomatoes and the zucchini, cucumbers and basil never did anything. We think the dry conditions may have driven squirrels to pick over the tomatoes more than hasn't been that big of a problem before. So, aside from peppers, almost nothing.

  2. I'm with you. I'm across the river from you in Columbia but getting so discouraged! Thinking I need to take a class or something. I work so hard and so diligently but fail miserably. I still have healthy looking plants (tomatoes and peppers) but no tomatoes to speak of really. I guess its just been SO HOT! Too hot even for tomatoes! I tested my dirt. Its fine. I watered, but apparently the surrounding ground still sucked all the moisture and my garden still suffered.

    I'm like you - so thankful that I'm not relying on it for food, but what IF....?? Scary thought!

    My squash? For the third year in a row, I have planted in excess of 10 plants, had beautiful plants and then? Squash fine borers and squash bugs by the cazillion!


    Thank heavens for the farmers market!

  3. I think this is one of the best lessons of growing your own food. It's hard. I especially find it frustrating when I can't figure out what went wrong or how to fix it. It's not a black and white profession. It definitely helps you develop respect for the oft-forgotten farmers who keep us fed.

    The cabbage worms that got your broccoli are a menace. Your options: row cover (a very good option in cool weather), hand picking (which is hard to keep on top of), organic sprays (Bt), non-organic sprays.

  4. The first year we moved to Missouri, we rented a very generic small house with a very generic backyard and turned in a small garden plot. Results were pretty much as you describe. Simple reality is that good, healthy soil is a fundamental part of successful growing, and that takes time to achieve. Standard gardening books and garden center people will often try to convince you that anything will grow if you dump enough fertilizer on it, but that doesn't lead to healthy soil or plants any more than eating candy bars leads to healthy humans. Our yields per unit space, plant health, and soil life have increased markedly over the 6 years we've been managing our land, and you should be able to see improvements too if you stick with it and treat the soil right.

    I strongly suggest you read one or more books on organic gardening, the kind that take into account the entire garden setting and its long-term plans. Elliott Coleman is an especially good author and inspiration.

    Like most skills, growing things is a learning experience. None of us are born knowing how to do it, and we learn through experience and self-education. You have the right attitude and a willingness to try again, which is a good foundation.

    Also, I really appreciate your comments on the value of farmers' knowledge (and those of other commenters). Lots of people don't take that into account when judging food prices. You wouldn't belive the number of gardeners (and friends of gardeners) who gave us crap over our prices at the farmers market, with various lines like

    "I (or my friend) grow that and it's so easy, I always have it coming out my ears! What do you mean, charging that much for it?"

    Such people never wanted to hear me ask whether they did it at a larger scale or for a living, they were just offended that I dared ask minimum wage for my skill & knowledge. Wasn't rare, and drove me nuts. One of the nice things about CSA has been a customer base more interested in, and appreciative of, what we do. So thank you.

  5. I so much appreciate reading the comments here. So many of my fellow gardeners seem to have an abundance but don't understand why I won't use Sevin and other pesticides on my garden. They tell me, "Don't you know there's a spray for that?" (sigh). But I'm thinking the terribly dry weather was the source of the proble this year. I'm just going to keep plugging along. Wishing for a mentor though, someone who could tell me "right now, you should be doing this or trying this." (I'm just so clueless!)

    Definitely reading local blogging helps a tremendous amount!


  6. Gina,

    I've heard numerous gardeners express concern over the drought impacting their plants, but most of the professional organic (and -ish) vegetable farmers I know (including us) are having the opposite problem: one of the best growing years we've ever had. In general, the lack of rain and low humidity is significantly suppressing normal plant diseases and pests, while the natural predators are extra-hungry and seem to be doing an especially good job.

    The key in my opinion is sufficient soil quality and sufficient irrigation, two things that home gardeners may have more trouble with than farmers depending on circumstances.

    One option that anyone might consider is getting involved with a good local farm that offers some form of work-share or part-time work. Working on a farm for even a few hours a week can teach you a lot about growing vegetables. CCUA would be another option for true volunteer work. If you're interested in organic/no-chemical methods, places like Happy Hollow, Pierpont, and Salad Garden would be good places to start in asking whether they need/want help for next year. We'll be looking for new workers next year as well, as usual in exchange for a partial share of produce, which can be a great way to learn more and buffer/complement your own garden's production. In my opinion and experience, you'll learn more working with a real farmer than from Extension or other such sources.

    And finally, I really can't recommend writers like Elliott Coleman enough as introductory reading into organic gardening, including good advice and examples on planning and maintenance.

  7. Eric:

    Hmm... great idea (me volunteering at a garden/farm where people actually know what they're doing). Definitely I'll see if I can carve out some time for that, but since my girls have just left the nest I shouldn't have any problem.

    Silly question... but I have a TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE, AWFUL bird/feather phobia. Just can't be near them if they're wondering around in the garden.

    Any places you know of without chickens/ducks, etc.? My phobia always prevents me from visiting u-pick places, zoos, amusement parks, for fear that I will make a complete fool of myself when I melt down after an encounter with a feathered friend.

    I would love to sign up to volunteer somewhere. I'm a hard worker, just a little freaky about feathers... LOL.

    Thanks again for the tips. I will check out the books. I do have the VEGETABLE GARDENER'S BIBLE. But when I get out there in the garden, I just don't always know exactly what I'm doing. I am composting with grass clippings heavily but we live in the middle of a bunch of hickory trees with clay for dirt so its a battle.

    I actually love your idea of volunteering. No better way to learn than hands on. Now to just find a place with no little birdies ;)