Gardening Lessons Learned


I can’t believe I have such a large list of lessons learned for 2017 already. I have gardened several years before, so why I haven’t I learned these already? I am tripling the size of my garden this year, I more than tripled the number of seeds I planted indoors, and I have new types of plants that I am growing. Here are the lessons I learned.

Reputable Seeds Companies

I should know better, but experimenting with different varieties and trying to save money, may not have ended up saving me money. I shopped around for plants and seeds quite a bit this year and instead of going with all of my normal companies, I tried some cheaper ones. It definitely didn’t save me time. Although some of my new plants were excellent, and a much better deal than I have seen around, a majority of the purchases didn’t work out. Next year, I will stick to more reputable companies.

I decided to try to grow mint and lemon balm from seeds this year even though it is much easier to grow from cuttings. Lemon balm is an invasive plant in my backyard (planted by the previous owners). I found a variety pack of multiple types of mint and lemon balm on amazon. They ended up being bad seeds shipped all the way from China, all mixed together, and labeled with a cheaply printed piece of paper. I was skeptical and frustrated as soon as I received them. The seeds are almost identical looking; it was impossible for me to distinguish which seeds were which.

This is the quality of the printout in the seed packet I received. Poor quality printing and the “n” is cut off.

Not only were they shipped from China and mixed together, none of them started. I additionally planted lemon balm seeds that I accidentally purchased from a reputable company. I made sure to start the seeds on the same date and the seeds I purchased from the reputable company all grew, so I know it wasn’t me.

Soil Research

I mentioned in a previous post, I wasn’t very happy with the soil I purchased for my raised garden beds. I have 10 yards of it too. In order to get it delivered I had to spend a certain amount and 10 yards was the amount I could get for that minimum price. I know that soil is so very important for the garden. Isn’t that the first rule to gardening, take care of your soil? Well, I purchased it from a larger farm that I go to that provides produce and plants.  The produce is excellent and my family has had tours of the farm multiple times. They know what they are doing, they are farmers, and they are offering a soil good for vegetable gardening. Well, I regret that decision. It isn’t like I can return the 10 yards of soil that was delivered to my front yard that I already began to fill my garden beds with. I will always spend a lot of time researching the contents of the soil, before making such a large purchase again.

The new soil we purchased contains too much clay for my preference

Purchase Timing

I am guessing I am not the only one that gets impatient and begins purchasing seeds in December or January. Well, I don’t tend to have a problem with purchasing seeds that early. Typically many seed and plant companies will wait to send me the products that are time sensitive when it is the right time to plant them. I didn’t stop to think that some companies may not do that. If I had looked into that I would have saved money and a lot of time and some money. My strawberry bare roots were shipped to me in December when the ground was frozen and my Camellia sinensis was shipped through Ohio when it was snowing and had multiple shipping delays for weather.

I am not sure why I potted the tree since it was almost this dead when I received it. I was hopeful I could revive it.

I will always make sure live plants, bare roots, and sets will be shipped when I want them to be shipped in the future.

Starting Onions

This year, I tried planting onion seeds again and it this the first year I was successful at getting them to grow.  I also planted onion sets, because I wasn’t sure the seeds would work out. Even though the seeds were successful, it really wasn’t worth it. Last fall, I planted onion sets, covered them with some row cover and mulch. I then haven’t done anything and they are nice tall and thick plants. In January, I started onion seeds. I sterilized the pots and flats. I mixed and sterilized the soil. I watered, kept under a grow light, and tended to my onion seedlings. I hardened them off and planted them outside. They have skinny and small growth that doesn’t even compare to the onion sets. Maybe some people can grow much better onion plants from seeds, but I just can’t see how an onion seed is going to keep up with an onion set that was planted in the fall. At least with my asparagus seeds, it is a perennial and after several years, they should be good to harvest.

Circled was from seed indoors started on January 21st and the squared plants were sets planted on March 19th

I will be sticking to onion sets in the future.

Spinach Direct Planting

The title is a little misleading, but let me explain. After a few years of experimentation, even though documented research online disagrees, my best luck planting spinach is starting it in the refrigerator in a wet paper towel in a plastic bag. It takes a while to germinate, but I have very high germination rates with this method. I learned this after several years of direct seeding and having low germination. This year, after letting the seeds germinate in the refrigerator I experimented with placing most of them directly outside and a few in pots under the grow lights indoors. While the first week the plants indoors grew much faster than the plants outdoors. After transplanting the indoor plants into the same garden beds (after hardening off), they slowed down significantly. They weren’t nearly as strong, and the seeds directly planted began to grow much faster than the indoor starts. They are a darker color green and have larger leaves. Even the pests enjoy them more. I will stick to how I have always done it, directly planting the germinated seeds.

The plants on the left were planted outside from germinated seed and the right was planted indoors and transplanted outside.

Boxes for Grow Light Height Adjustment

In the past, I have had one shelf of plants under grow lights. I generally raised one side of the light for the taller plants, raising the entire light as the plants grow. This year, I used a whole shelving unit and many grow lights, which has been a great setup. After following the same practice as before, I got to a point where my tallest plants were on the same shelf, but the plants were very different heights. Adjusting the light to be higher on one side and lower on the other didn’t work out for the plants in the middle. I started to collect boxes to prop up the plants. I have learned my favorite boxes are around 10”x20”x2”, but I didn’t always have those available. I was able to collect enough that I didn’t have to constantly adjust the lights and I could just add or take away a box as a tray of plants grew. Next year, I am not going to worry about adjusting the lights, I will just keep a stack of boxes handy.

I shared this picture in a previous post, but it shows the boxes and trays under the plants raising their height. The tomatoes don’t really look that yellow, it was hard to get the color right in this lighting.

Sturdy Plant Flats

My common theme… I wanted to save a little money so…. Tripling the size of my garden has been pretty expensive and I was trying to keep that expense as low as possible. I purchased 20 plant flats for all of the new seeds I would be starting indoors. In the past I used some plant trays that aren’t very sturdy year after year. I read a review on the plant flats I was considering that said they aren’t very sturdy. I thought it wouldn’t really matter, I have reused the same flimsy flats I already have for many years and I haven’t had a problem.  I am regretting my purchase decision. They work perfectly fine for small pots, but I didn’t expect to need to use them for gallon sized pots for my tomatoes. I don’t remember my tomatoes ever getting this big before. The flimsy trays are very lousy for this purpose, and I wonder how many years of use I will get out of them. All of them have held up so far, but I still regret not spending a little more to get sturdier trays.

This plant tray is more flexible than I like

Starting Beets

I am not sure what my problem is, but I have never had much luck with beets germinating. I tried starting them at different times of the year, I tested the seed germination rate and they would start fine. This year, I was trying to improve my germination rates again and I decided to try to start the beets inside in a paper towel and plastic bag, in my warm gardening room, under a grow light. All of my seeds germinated very quickly. I then brought them outside and planted them. I tried doing this for multiple succession plantings and it has been much more successful than direct seeding at the same time. I read that beets are one of the few root vegetables that transplant pretty well, so I still need to wait to see how well the roots develop even though the greens appear to be growing fine. One thing that I have learned from germinating them in a paper towel, is to not do it for very long because they grow very quickly causing it to be difficult to untangle the roots from each other and the paper towel. I am guessing I would have very similar success if I used vermiculite and kept them moist, a paper towel is just what I used because that is how I do my germination testing.

Sterilizing and Storing Pots

This is a simple one. Next year, I am going to save all of my pots in one place. Collect them all at the beginning of the year and sanitize them all at once. Searching for pots and being unable to remember if the one I found was already sterilized was very inefficient. Additionally, if I had a pile of already sterilized pots, it would have been so much faster to use them.

Most of these potted plants are new along with many others that I used pots for

Succession Planting and Lettuce

I generally plant leaf lettuce, not head lettuce. According to the recommendations, for a continual harvest of head lettuce, I need to plant in succession. For leaf lettuce, I can plant all at once and just harvest the outer leaves as the plants grow. In the past, I always direct seeded lettuce. I am not sure why I didn’t follow the advice, I already knew and used. I guess I temporarily forgot and did succession planting anyway. I am actually glad I did. Every 3 weeks or so, I have planted the same 4 types of lettuce. Different varieties did better or worse, depending on the particular conditions during each succession planting. I can’t explain why this is the case, but I was glad I went to the extra work of succession planting. Unfortunately, I didn’t take pictures along the way to show this.

I am additionally really glad I started lettuce indoors during this cooler weather, because the direct seeded lettuce is taking a really long time to get started. The lettuces on the left were planted outdoors around the same time I planted my first lettuces indoors. The lettuces on the right are the same varieties as the left. I succession planted these indoors and transplanted them.

Raised Garden Bed Size

This year, we added 10 – 4 ft x 4 ft raised beds to our yard. This size was the same size that we have always made and was the size we made when we were first beginning to garden. After the garden beds were mostly built, I realized I should have thought more about the size. I really regret not making them 3 ft x 6 ft beds. First, they would have allowed for more gardening area in the location we have them next to the house. Second, it would have been a much more efficient use of the wood we purchase because the boards are 6 ft boards. We wouldn’t have 2 ft boards left over. Third, I find it difficult to get in and pick the vegetables from vines in the middle of a 4 ft x 4 ft bed, the 3 ft length would really help me reach. I wouldn’t go any bigger than 6 ft because having isolated garden beds help prevent diseases from spreading through the soil.

Citrus Tree Care

I purchased new lemon and lime trees and had no clue how to take care of them. They started to lose their leaves very quickly. A google search on “losing leaves” leads to about 10 different possible problems, which is pretty much anything. A horticulturist advised me to place the trees in a warmer and more humid environment. She suggested placing the pot in a tray of rocks with water in the rocks. I took her advice and placed the pot in the tray of rocks. I moved my citrus tree near my seed starts. Additionally, I started watering it moderately, letting the top of the soil to almost look and feel dry again before watering again. The new leaves are more than double the size of the old ones, they look great!

This is what the lime tree looked like when I received it and the leaves continued to fall off. The lemon tree was similar.

The new leaves are so much bigger and the leaves no longer fall off now

Seedling Organization

In previous years I had one shelf of seedlings indoors and keeping the plants organized wasn’t too much work. This year, with multiple shelves and hundreds of plants, I found my organization system not as successful. I need to improve and I will share after I find something better that works for me. Next year I won’t end up with the left over brassica that I think was cauliflower and the unknown variety of Brussel Sprout.

Last, I already shared about my problems with peat pots.

Do you have a lesson you have learned by expanding your garden or trying new things that you will share with me?

[Image Credit: ©Garden4Dinner]