As the main growing season of 2019 draws to its conclusion, we thought we’d make a note of some of the big learnings from the year so far.
It’s our third year growing food in our own garden and we’ve learned a huge amount since starting out. But that ‘huge amount’ is still embarrassingly small in the great scheme of things. And this year in particular feels like more error than trial in the learning process.
Back in July 2017, we noted the big gardening lessons of growing season number one in the Ballyer Backyard. They were pretty basic: space your veg properly (also known as follow the damn instructions on the seed pack!); only grow what you’ll eat and succession plant (also known as don’t plant ten lettuces at once for a family of two); and take care of your soil.
Tick, tick and partial tick (we really need to mulch properly to keep exposed soil from drying out).
The lessons to be learned have greatly multiplied since then. This year’s top ten are:
1. You only get out what you put in
The fundamental foundational lesson of this year is the most obvious. But it’s one of those things that needs to be lived through to fully get the implications of it. It’s fair to say that both our timing and level of effort were a bit off this year. Seedlings that could have been started indoors or in the glasshouse as early as January weren’t started until April, and we were just a bit too casual about everything (including pests and diseases). The summer harvest, with its various problems and inadequacies, reflects that lax attitude. Most of the lessons that follow flow from this first one.
2. Start early under cover, don’t wait for the weather
In April, we wrote about waiting for the weather to improve, for the work on demolishing the shed to be done, etc etc. With hindsight that was just excuse-making where there really were no excuses to be made. We should have gotten started much earlier, and started the majority of plants indoors/in the greenhouse or under cover to get a good head start on the bad weather, rather than waiting to be able to plant directly. This was the difference between having one growing season instead of two or three in some beds.
3. Fruitless currant bushes
Our two currant bushes (one black, one red) produced no flowers or fruit this year. They were planted in 2017 and fruited well in 2018. This year there was plenty of foliage but nothing else. We probably over-pruned last year (you’re only meant to cut away the old wood when it’s required, not cut all the way back like raspberries or blackberries). We planted a gooseberry bush this year (too late in the season for it to fruit), so hopefully that will do well next year. Thankfully our strawberries were exceptional, so it wasn’t all fruitless!
4. Preventing mildew on courgette plants
Though mildew on courgettes in very common, and not necessarily live-threatening, if left unattended it can curtail your courgette bounty. In our case, the mildew thankfully developed after the courgettes had produced quite a lot of fruit. But because it wasn’t properly addressed we didn’t get as much as we might have done from each plant (which could have been up to 40 fruits from each, instead we probably got 30 to 40 in total from two plants). Mildew develops because of lack of water and can be treated with a dilution of skimmed milk and water on the plant. It can also be prevented in the first place by watering properly and making sure these hungry plants get plenty of nutrition.
5. Stopping blossom end root
We attributed this to the very heavy rainfall this summer (it’s important to maintain consistent soil moisture for tomatoes), but it could well have been related to soil nutrition (lack of calcium) or the soil pH not being right (6.5 is recommended). The fruits that didn’t get the rot didn’t ripen anyway (showing there’s clearly more to it than just the water issue), leading to a very disappointing tomato harvest this year. Only our Douglas variety tomatoes were affected, our Gardener’s Delights, though slow to ripen, were ok thankfully. The Douglas seeds were ‘out of date’ by a few months so that’s another potential issue.
6. Ripening tomatoes and chillies indoors
As our Gardener’s Delight tomatoes were unaffected by blossom end rot and showed signs of wanting to ripen, we gave them a little help by bringing the fruits that showed the beginning of colour change inside to ripen indoors (in a cardboard box in a dark closet, with the assistance of a banana to speed things up). We put some ‘Ring of Fire’ chillies in there too. As the Irish summer weather has been so variable this year, we can safely attribute the chillies slowness to turn red to the lack of heat and sunshine.
7. Dealing with potato blight/scab/pests
Last year was our first year growing potatoes, and it went well. We grew earlies in containers, bags and a bed, and, though they were a little scabbed from the long, hot, dry weeks in July last year, we were delighted with them. This year we did both earlies and a maincrop variety. The former did well and produced lovely new potatoes with barely a mark on them, and the maincrops certainly looked like they were growing well – producing lots of healthy foliage. Most of the maincrop spuds are perfectly good to eat, but do have lots of scabbing from lack of water (clearly no lesson was learned in that regard from last year). Others show signs of worms borrowing in (eel worms, is it?), and discolouration from what might be the beginnings of blight.
We’ll have to admit to having a ‘stick it in the ground and see what happens’ attitude to potato growing, and didn’t know anything about potentially spraying them (with an organic solution obvs) or otherwise treating the various issues that might occur. Must do better.
8. Addressing snails and slugs
Our too casual approach this year resulted in zero lettuce and various massacres of crops throughout the garden by an army of snails and slugs. Other than picking them off and throwing them into the rockeries where their damage would be less ‘important’, we did nothing to stop these critters (like using non-toxic pellets, crushed egg shells, beer traps, copper tape etc etc.). And thus have lost quite a few crops.
9. Keeping records
We hope in years to come to take our growing to a different level (and a different location), aiming to be self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. Critical to that is being meticulous in planning, in getting quantities and timings right, and harvesting, storing, pickling, freezing etc etc. But you can’t just flip a switch to get there, it’s a skill to start developing now with good record keeping.
10. You only get out what you put in
It’s worth repeating…
… oh and 11. Learn to love kale. It’s such a good grower when all else fails, and it over winters without issue.