squirreltomato.jpgIt occurred to me recently that I’m celebrating 16 years of vegetable gardening this year.

My first vegetable garden got started back in 1993 like this: over several days in April, I moved several pieces of flagstone from an 8 by 8 foot area of our side yard. Then I sat on one of the flagstone pieces and used a tiny hand cultivator to remove grass and work the soil. Wow, was I a glutton for punishment or what? Sitting on the flagstone left my bum pretty sore, my back was sore from leaning over and using the cultivator, my hands were blistered, and I got really good sunburns on the back of my neck and on the tops of my ears (since I wore a baseball cap).

What did I plant? Well I didn’t keep records back then, so I can’t be completely sure. I know that I picked up a 4-pack of Early Girl tomatoes from outside the grocery store on my way in one day. I did not (yet) like tomatoes (what?!? I know, I know), and so I was going to grow them for my husband. My mother-in-law recommended I try green beans “because they’re so satisfying and easy.” I’d read somewhere that it was actually harder to NOT grow radishes than to grow them, so I grew them. And that’s all I can remember. But I had good beginner’s luck, and by the end of the season I was hooked (and loving fresh tomatoes). I remember that I used those wimpy little so-called tomato cages they still sell in some garden centers, and my tomato plants had toppled over and out of them by mid-summer. Lesson learned! I let most of the green beans get way too big and figured out quickly to start picking them when they were younger. Another lesson learned! And every season after that, I know I’ve learned at least a few lessons.

A few more lessons:
– Start your own tomatoes from seed inside and you’ll have your pick from far more varieties than you’ll find at the garden center (since my early days, a few garden centers have stepped up to the plate and are offering lots of great varieties now)
– Use walls o’ water to get your tomato transplants through the early part of the season. (and I’ve learned lots of lessons about how best to work with these things)
– Cover your lettuce seeds immediately with floating row cover and just water them through it. The cover helps the seeds stay moist and to germinate. After they germinate, the cover helps keep flea beetles from making swiss cheese of your lovely lettuce.
– Plant the above lettuce seeds in April.
– Amend your soil in the fall so you can get planting earlier the next year.
– Try growing unusual varieties of things (like purple “green” beans) that you can’t find in the grocery store. Oh…and purple beans are much, much easier to find when you are picking them!
– Although the squirrels will help themselves to the occasional tomato, they will also plant the occasional surprise! One year we got our Halloween pumpkin thanks to the squirrels. And last year, we got a surprise spaghetti squash.
– Hummingbirds love to perch on the top of tall tomato cages.
– Garlic should be planted in the fall (and it is soooo good!)
– Hail…well, sometimes there isn’t alot you can do about hail.
– Hail is NOT a reason to not grow another vegetable garden next year.
– Gardening is much more fun if you hook up with other gardeners

Oh…I could go on and on. I figure, if I’ve learned a few lessons every year over the past 16 years, I should have a list of at least 32 things!

So, this year? It’s late April, and I have one raised bed already full of garlic (planted last fall, of course), onion plants I started inside in February, broccoli plants (bought at the garden center), and lettuce that is germinating. Under lights in the basement, I have tomatoes (Goliath, Abraham Lincoln, Sungold, Juliet, Glacier, Stupice, Siberia, Cupid, Gardener’s Delight) and peppers (Carmen). I’ve also got sweet basil and cilantro going down there to be transplanted out into containers next month. I will get carrots and beans out later….I just have to find the space for them. Here’s hoping for a great 17th garden!