Archive for Lessons Learned

Is it summer yet? or how I learned to blog again after forgetting to post for months

It’s almost February, and my thoughts have already turned to spring.  They had to turn somewhere, since the rest of my body has turned to ice.  In the midst of this reoccurring polar vortex, it’s hard to imagine thinking about seeds and sprouts; but as sure as the sun rises each day, spring will come again.  Thinking warm thoughts alone isn’t going to prepare me for this growing season.  I learned the hard way last year what “going big” can do, the consequences of improper planning, and the folly of overestimating one’s (specifically, my) abilities.

That said, this year I’m going smaller, more manageable, and more focused.  Raised beds will be built to contain quality topsoil and keep out weeds.  Also, I will focus on only a few types of veggies, and concentrate my effort on those.  Then as the years progress, I will add as my abilities grow.  Despite my miserable failure last year, I did learn some valuable experience.

As many of you know, with experience comes leveling up.  Well, depending on the age of my readers, some may know that experience builds “character”.  “Character” is used later in life when you tell people “Back in my day we didn’t have shoes, we killed a deer with our bare hands and used its hide for boots while we chewed on roots” or something like that.  My generation knows experience as points.  Like “if I get 20 more experience points, I level up and can learn a new spell!”  In my case, I guess the experience is a little of both.  I got a little bit of character and I think I leveled up, which earns me some tomato cages and lumber for a raised bed.  Maybe even better tools and equipment.

Dangerous to go alone

Other than herniating my back on a load of mulch, I think I increased my strength a little too.  In all I learned lots of valuable lessons.  Which brings me to the actual point of this post….

Lessons learned

The Farm - 2013 - ResultsWhen I last left off, I gave sage-like advice on gardening with a newborn, how not to organically garden, and not to get carried away with starting a small army of seeds in your garage/basement/greenhouse.  So now I finally will release the picture I’ve been dreading to post for the last few months.   The actual turnout of my garden at the end of my *ahem* “harvest”.  As you can see, the results were not as I had planned.  The few plants that weren’t completely overtaken by weeds or didn’t germinate were slowly killed by insects, rabbits, or me being stupid and accidentally pulling them up along with a handful of weeds.  It goes without saying that I was over my head, but in this case it was literal, since on one of my forges into the garden to weed I got lost and had to climb a pokeberry bush to find my way out.  That last bit was an over-exaggeration, but I bet it was fun to imagine me wandering around a 20×60′ patch of land yelling for help like a kid in a corn maze.


So, having finally posted the results of my “year zero” farm, I can hopefully move on put that experience behind me.  As I slowly claw back some free time as spring and summer approaches, I should be able to build my raised beds and post more frequently.  When I’m out in the garden, I tend to think about the blog more than when I’m huddled by a space heater staring out at the frozen wasteland behind my house.  More updates to follow (sooner, hopefully, rather than later)










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August update, or “Lessons Learned: Part One”

Part one of many, I figure, so I better get started now before my lessons are lost in the part of my brain that has to dump new knowledge to make room for “Futurama” quotes and Jeopardy trivia. I’ll have to deviate at some point to talk about my useless Jeopardy knowledge, but for now, a much belated update from the Suburban farm.

Things have been growing, despite my best unintentional plans to ignore the entire plot for days (WEEKS?!?) at a time. I have a few tomatoes that have survived some sort of mold/fungus/rot. A spaghetti squash and pumpkin that defied all odds to come out looking, well, looking pretty darn good. Also, it’s good to know that not many things will eat cayenne peppers. They do very well against drought too. The only downside is that there is a very finite amount of culinary creations you can do with a bushel of cayenne peppers.

“Ultra spicy omelets today? Eat up, I have a cayenne-carrot cake for a treat later!”

Sunflower and Peppers

I’ll most likely dry most of them out and make crushed red pepper flakes or grind them up in a spice grinder to make ground cayenne pepper.

The sunflower head was the second one that I’ve harvested. Those turned out really well also. However, I found out that stinkbugs like sunflower seeds. If you live where there are stinkbugs, cover your sunflower heads when they start to droop, because what happens to the seeds is the bugs eat a little of it, but it ruins the whole seed. When a stinkbug eats, it basically spits into the seed/fruit/veggie, and the spit dissolves some of what it’s trying to eat. The bug will have a little, but then wander off, leaving you with a pocked and possibly rotting harvest. In the case of the sunflowers, the stinkbugs turned the seeds inside brown. So I guess they’ll have to go to the birds this year.

Additionally, the cherry tomatoes are still growing better than crabgrass out front, so that’s great. The corn and beans on the other hand…there’s always next year.

Which leads me to my first lesson learned: Don’t start a garden if you have a newborn. Maybe you can do better, but from my experience, a baby is not only a very poor helper, they are an active ANTI-helper. While a toddler can’t help you weed or plant seedlings, they are more or less independent and can follow you around the yard. A baby on the other hand requires someone watching/holding/feeding/tending them constantly, so they prevent you from otherwise being outside doing something to stop the onslaught of weeds and rabbits from overtaking your best laid plans of self-sufficiency. Even now, as I attempt to translate coherent thoughts into interesting reading, I have a baby that is trying to unplug the laptop, pull all the hair off our dog, UNfold all of the laundry, and for the rest of the time maintain a high degree of satisfaction at achieving “the loudest one in the house” award. Believe me, it was a hard award to win. I come from a long line of loud-talkers, and there is never a quiet moment in this house between me and a dog that likes to bark everything: a car going by, a phone ringing, the TV, the wind, the lack of wind, someone outside, someone’s talking, it’s too quiet in the house, etc. So, when to start a garden? I’m not sure, I’ll let you know in year two, or three, or four…..

Lesson two: If you start seedlings indoors or in a greenhouse, give some away or make a plan on where to plant them. I got carried away because I decided to plant 12 of each variety of tomato seed that I bought (four varieties, 48 total tomato seedlings). When they all germinated and started growing wonderfully, I thought “Gee, I better till up enough room for them”, so my initial 10×20′ garden plot morphed into the 20×60′ plot that I had now (it could be even larger, I still have yet to measure it, partially out of fear). If you’re like me and love starting the seeds, then keep a few, but give the rest away. I hate the thought of wasting them, so throwing them away was out of the question. If they look really good, you could even try selling them. As expensive as they are at nurseries, if you sold them for a couple of dollars, you could at least get your neighbors to take them off your hands and earn some money to buy more garden toys.

Lesson three: Organic farming is an ideal to strive for. But in reality, insecticide powder is pretty awesome. It saved my eggplants from flea beetles, it kept Japanese beetles off my grape vines, and rescued a spaghetti squash from an army of hungry unidentified beetles. I tended to use the insecticide on hard-rind plants, or for leaves on plants (like the eggplant and grape vines). The beetles didn’t eat the actual eggplants, so I only needed to apply it to the inedible leaves. I will keep on trying to grow organic vegetables, and I hope raised beds and better soil will help, but in the end I will defend my garden and will use all weapons at my disposal to protect my harvest. I have read that a good defense is high-quality soil, since the plants will be stronger from having a huge amount of nutrients to pull from and recover from insect attacks. My compost pile will hopefully yield some good-quality soil for next year. Plus, with raised beds, installing floating row covers is a little easier, and if the bugs can’t get to the plants, they can’t hurt them.

I’ll come back to the lessons a little later as I remember more of them. I’m also going to update the garden layout picture, since the final layout differed quite a bit from my original plan. That will probably be in the next post. For the rest of this post, I’m going to post some of the harvest that I’ve managed to pull off, which surprised even me.

…and believe me, I set the bar pretty low once I realized what I had gotten myself into.

Front Stoop Cherry Tomato Plant2

Okay, first up are the cherry tomato plants. The one in the front right is some kind of mutant plant, because it’s just growing out of control. For every cherry tomato that I pluck off of it, it seems like another bunch of four to eight blossoms appear in its place. Of course this is embarrassing, as my wife pointed out, that these plants happen to be in our front yard right as you walk up to our house. She says that she would like to help me out and pick some of the tomatoes too, but she’s worried that a snake might be hiding out in the plants and attack her. I sensed a little sarcasm in her voice, but I think she was probably laying it on pretty thick.

Roma Tomatoes

Here are a few Roma tomatoes that made it out of the garden alive. I didn’t get a picture of the big boy tomatoes (they were eaten before I could even come back with a camera), but I harvested a few of those as well. I started some basil late in the season, but with the hot days we’ve been getting lately, along with me actually remembering to water them and planting them in containers with miracle-grow soil, they are already full-grown. So whenever I came in with some tomatoes and basil in my hands, they were promptly turned into caprese salads. My wife says that the tomatoes are delicious, so I’m glad that they turned out so well. I would have had a much bigger harvest if I had kept the weeds down and fertilized the garden, but a half-dozen or so tomatoes isn’t bad, considering the amount of effort I put in. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t been completely lazy, I spent probably 4 or 5 weekends out there for about 3-4 hours each time. However, it wasn’t enough to keep the garden looking as it should, and given the size of it, it would have needed another one or two people helping even with an additional few hours each day of work.


This is, unfortunately, one of my better ears of corn. Now, keep in mind this was on unfertilized bare soil, with no irrigation, and maybe 25% of the seeds actually germinating. I certainly wouldn’t try to eat this myself, but I know a few birds or deer that would be happy with this, so I’ll leave it out for them when it starts getting cooler out. Better luck next year, right? I’m going to plant the corn more densely packed when I get the raised beds built. If I don’t have to worry about walking between the rows, I can plant them as close as recommended. I’ve seen some fields planted with corn that the stalks are practically on top of each other. Another use for these ears of corn this fall, is to hang them up around the outside of the house as decoration. Considering that when I showed my wife the ear of corn, she jumped back and was totally grossed out, I would say it could make a pretty good Halloween prop.













Ok, now for the squash and pumpkin that I was actually impressed with when I found them.

PumpkinSpaghetti Squash

They had actually been hidden from view by the huge leaves that grow on the vine, so I didn’t even notice them until a few days ago when the leaves started dying back. The squash is a spaghetti squash, and I grew it since my wife doesn’t eat gluten. She isn’t celiac, but eating gluten causes her to feel bloaty and nauseous. I try to help when I can, and growing the squash is my attempt at giving her a good supply of alternatives to gluten. Spaghetti squash can be used as a substitute in any pasta dish that calls for spaghetti or angel hair pasta. It probably could be used for any pasta dish, but the noodle dishes match up the best. The pumpkin is the pie variety, so I’m going to try to run it through my food mill and make some pumpkin puree for either pumpkin lattes or some homemade pumpkin pie.



Lastly, I made some cuttings from my blueberry bush. This had been on my to-do list since June, but I hadn’t had time to get to it. June or July would have been ideal for making the cuttings, since the leaves are already starting to turn, and you’ll see in the pictures that they’ve been eaten by bugs a little. It hopefully isn’t fatal, but it weakens the new plants from the start. After buying two more blueberry bushes this spring at $7 each, I realized that my idea of a blueberry grove would get VERY expensive. I did some research and found out that blueberries do very well taken from cuttings.

Rooting CompoundSo I bought some rooting compound, and found a good branch that was a second-year growth. Now, I know it’s not technically called a branch, but I’m a little distracted at the moment to look up what they’re called on blueberry bushes, I’ll trust that you can Google it and sound smarter than me when you’re talking about it to your friends. (Update: I remembered this morning that they’re called “canes”)

cutting stock

From that second-year branch (to right: the main branch is the second-year growth), I cut off the side shoots, which are this years growth. I snipped off the bottom few leaves, dipped that in water and then dipped the cutting into the rooting compound. After that I put the cuttings into a pot (or solo cup in this case) of peat moss and vermiculite. I’ll let the roots set up for the rest of the summer and fall, and then keep them inside for the winter to guard them from frost. If I didn’t wait too long, they should set up some good starter roots, and will be ready to transplant into the ground next spring. I’ll probably keep them under grow lights as long as the leaves are still green and on the cuttings. Hopefully ever bit of light helps.




blueberry cuttings1

Here are the pictures of the cuttings, sitting happily at the moment in the potting soil that I made for them. I’ll let you all know how they turn out over time, since this is almost a completely free way of making more blueberry bushes from the ones you already have. I made six cuttings in total, so I’m figuring that if they survive until next spring, I just saved myself $42.Blueberry cuttings2









Well, that’s all for tonight. I had planned on doing the first installment of my gardening product reviews, but it’s getting late and I’ll need time to regroup my thoughts. I received a few items from from my mom, and since I had a free-shipping coupon, I ordered a few other things. While I like some of the things I have, there are others that could definitely be improved upon (or just not purchased). More on that in the next post though.

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Much needed update. Or “where has the summer gone?”

So, first off, I found out that at least one person reads my blog!  I’d give a shout-out, but I’ll leave that to later if they want to be recognized.  Second, I do want to say that comments are welcome on this blog, it might help keep me honest, and deligent with posting more than once every 2-3 months.  Needless to say, the summer months are busy.  Busy will mowing the law, swatting away bugs, dying from the heat, and staying inside whenever one can (all the time).  That being said, I have a sad update from the suburban farm.  No, it’s not dead, but surely it’s not thriving.


Yes, unfortunately, that’s my garden.  Well, nobody…including me…thought that this year would be a bumper harvest.  But truly, I think that this is year zero, not one.  This was the control,”What would happen without fertilizer, without rules, without a plan, and without any real idea what I was doing.”  Besides that, I think in a few weeks/months, I will have a few vegetables to show for my “hard(?)” work.  I see some green tomatoes clawing their way through the weeds,  I beat back the grass and weeds to give the eggplant a change (and LOTS of Sevin), but the organic garden will have to wait until there’s a garden with a bit of time for organic gardening (when I have 5-7 kids that love to listen to me….HAH!!)

So, what does the garden look like right now?  Guff, you really don’t want to know.  I haven’t had much time to do anything with it, and with the lack of rain in the last week, I’m sad to say I’ve lost at least two squash plants.  I’ll post the pictures of it now, so I can look back at this in years-future and hopefully think to myself how I let that ever happen.


Now, the good news is that a few things are actually growing.  the sunflowers have survived despite my many attempts to step on them (inadvertently) and the tomatoes are growing around the weeds and without any support with stakes as commonly done.  If I’m adept at growing anything, it would apparently be grass and those little things that look like mini corn-dogs.

My wife is very patient, and to that end, she’s allowed me to continue to grow weeds and a mess of green things next year.  However, I’ve decided to make some changes.  I thought that raised bed gardening would be pointless with so much room to grow things, but with the grass-creep, I’ve decided to try separating my valuables from the less-desirable’s that grow all around them.  Just because I have land to grow vegetables on, doesn’t mean I have to just toss seeds out onto it right?  (At this point, my family, neighbors and readers are probably screaming “no duh!”), but I wanted to give the “natural” planting a try.  Not to say in the least that it can’t or wouldn’t work, but with a full-time job, newborn baby, and a house that I’m moving into to deal with….it’s just not the time to try that.  So, to that end, this is what I’d like to try, and I’ll be sure to keep updating this blog all throughout the process, so you’ll have many data points to compare and analyze for your own gardening.  I promise I won’t ever sell out if I get popular and hawk gardening products, but if I get anything that works, I will be sure to pass along what I have found that works, so you all can benefit.


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The Farm – 2013 Layout

One of the issues with moving is getting all of your services set back up. Power and water usually aren’t a big issue, and this move didn’t prove otherwise. However, getting internet again is proving to be difficult, which makes blogging on the weekends more problematic for the moment. I did manage to get my crop list into a layout. Having spent many months and years unable to grow the amount of veggies that I’ve been desiring, I’ve had plenty of time to read and study. I’ve read up on companion planting, and how to grow the various plants that I want. That said, I’m still very much a complete beginner jumping into the deep end of the pool. I put my layout on paper, or more accurately, in excel. I’m kind of a nerd, so excel seemed like the best option at the time. Plus with the cells, it makes a really nice grid for making things to scale. Unfortunately don’t expect anything like that from me 🙂

I started out wanting to make the layout to scale, and have each square be 6 inches, but I totally abandoned that idea about halfway into the plan. I don’t have enough experience with row spacing, plant spacing and knowing what I’m doing in general to really have anything that exact. So please don’t look at the layout like it’s to scale, and the blank spaces are either placeholders for something that I might grow, or just needed extra room for visualizing my plot. Keep in mind that this is only my initial brainstorm, and the final layout could be completely different.

Now, with my small-but-useful deck that I’ve had for the past 4 years has giving me opportunities to grow veggies in pots. I know cherry tomatoes do well in deck pots, so I have had good luck growing those. This has given me first-hand experience with companion planting and helped me stumble across the knowledge. Growing cherry tomatoes and hot peppers in the same container did very well and I always got really good yields despite the modest size of the containers. They were about 2 feet high by 2 feet width and length. Just enough for a cherry tomato plant and two pepper plants each, or one cucumber plant. Last year I decided to grow black beans. I heard they can grow in Maryland, which is zone 6, so I gave it a shot. The mistake I made was also putting the pepper plants in the same pot. All summer long, I wondered why the pepper plants never took off and grew. They stayed stunted and only put out one or two flowers. That’s when I looked up “what plants not to plant together”, or something like that. Google is smarter than me 99% of the time and it figured out what I wanted to know. There it was, right in front of me, beans and peppers don’t mix. Hooray, an “ah-ha!” moment that I would remember for the day that I had a respectable plot of land to grow on. The black beans themselves did fantastically well though. For a pole bean plant that was grown on a deck in a container, the handful of beans that I harvested was quite impressive. More of an experiment and lesson for later than dinner on the table. The bean stalks had snaked around my deck railings and up and around my blueberry bush. Oh yeah, I had a blueberry bush on my deck too. That was in a much larger container, probably about 3 feet high and 3 feet in diameter. I’m guessing, since I never measured it, but it’s one of the much larger plant containers that you can buy.

Going on a tangent for a little bit, the blueberries were a great lesson too. I knew someday I wanted a row of blueberries 50 feet long, maybe even 2 rows 🙂 So I figured that I needed to learn about them first. Some things I jump into the deep end, and other times I wad into the water first. The blueberries were the latter. I went out to Lowes one spring (EARLY spring) and bought a blueberry starter bush. The little guy was more like a twig than a bush, but I eagerly brought him home to plant and bask in the glory of bushels of blueberries someday. That “someday” would prove to be more of a joking reference than an actual date, more on that in a bit. So, first mistake: I planted it WAY too early. I think I bought the bush in March, and promptly planted it. Its three glorious leaves blowing in the crisp Marchy air. A week later, your standard its-too-early-to-plant-anything-you-idiot frost hit in Maryland. I looked outside onto my deck to see one green and one red leaf left on the blueberry bush. Doh, I should have listened to my mother. She said “It’s easy to remember when to plant in Virginia/Maryland, just wait until Mother’s day.” So, lacking any Farmer’s almanacs or meticulous planning and looking up average frost dates, Mother’s day was a good reference point. I had, of course, forgotten about that, and probably about Mother’s day itself as well for a few years (oops, bad son). For the rest of the spring and summer, those two stubborn leaves hung on, getting what little sunlight they could and storing it up. I kept the bush in the container because so long as those two leaves stay on there, I was going to give it a chance (plus I really didn’t have anything else to plant in there). That first year, there was no additional growth, the frost really hit that bush hard. However, by spring of year two, the little blueberry bush that could showed signs of life. Buds had formed over the winter and what would be the first vertical cane was popping out of the ground.

It’s probably worthy of mentioning at this point that anyone thinking about growing blueberries should know that you won’t get much of anything in terms of berries for at least 3 years after planting. Someone had warned me about that, so at least I was prepared in that aspect.

Also, before I ramble on too much more, I want to mention that the berries form on second year growth. Which means when you have a branch growing (I’m not using the technical terms just to make it easy on anyone new to blueberries) in one year, blueberries will form at the end of that branch the following year.

Now, back to the little blueberry bush. Year two was a good year for growth. There were strong canes that came out of the ground and several smaller branches that put out leaves. No berries this year either, but I was happy that the bush survived and was looking like it would bury me in berries the following year.

Year three arrived and I was ready to finally start getting blueberries. The two canes weren’t done growing I guess, because they didn’t develop the flowering buds at their ends. However, the smaller branches did. I think I counted about 4 flower clusters, and about a dozen or more flowers. So, in “counting your chickens before they hatch”-style, I proudly proclaimed to my wife that we would have at least a dozen blueberries this year, which is a good start. She was of course excited and supportive, but knew better than to believe me when I make ambitious or forward-looking statements. Year three harvest: 3 berries. Looking back, I have a sneaking suspicion that my year-four thieves were already around in year three.

Year four was just last summer, so it’s most vivid in my mind and hopefully the most accurate in my Swiss cheese brain. Now, each time a branch grows, it puts out leaves along the length of it. In the winter after, a larger flower bud forms at the end of that branch. The following spring, the flower buds emerge and smaller branches grow out from that first branch. The next spring, flower buds form at each one of the smaller branches and even smaller branches form from those. So each following year you can get much more berries than the year before. Remember though, pruning is very important since you don’t want branches touching each other, and the more berries that are being produced simultaneously by the bush, the smaller each one will be. You’ll want to find your own “happy middle” in terms of the amount of berries and the size of the berries. So, year four was a good year. By this time, the tiny little twig had grown into a rather large bush with 4 large canes and many side branches coming out from various points. I had done a little pruning in the fall of year three and most pages that I’ve read say not to prune the first 2 or 3 years anyways. I had just removed some sad little branches or ones that touched each other. By my count, there was at least 3 or 4 dozen flowers, so I again proudly proclaimed a basket of blueberries would be sitting on the counter one day this year.

…Sigh. You might be getting the picture why that “someday” thought of blueberries is now more of a joke. Harvest from year four: about a handful. I think maybe 7, but I think I blocked that memory for protection of my sanity. I did learn some great lessons though, and I discovered the identity of my blueberry thief. Now, the latter, since you are probably wondering. Cardinals LOVE blueberries. If I didn’t love watching Cardinals so much, I would have probably been a lot more mad, but I caught him red-feathered one day and actually watched as he masterfully hopped around the bush looking for the choicest, ripe berries. So lesson one: If you want blueberries, get a bird net to go over the bush or bushes. Several online catalogs have pop-up nets that can be placed over one bush if you only have a few, or home improvement stores have bird nets that can be 50 feet long. The nets are by far the best protection against birds. Owls work only for a while, bird feeders at other places in the yard only bring MORE birds, shiny tape or reflective “owl eyes” don’t work, and repellants don’t deter hungry birds. Without my berry thief, I would have harvested a good 3 dozen berries. Blueberries are hardy and pretty much grow themselves without much work at all. I think that the growth over 4 years is not what you’d get in the ground, but still impressive given that it’s 4 year old miracle grow soil that’s in a container on a deck.

Yikes, that was quite a tangent. I might be splitting this post up into two later on, I think a separate blueberry post would be easier to find later on when looking back in the archives. What was this post about in the first place? Oh yeah, the planting layout. If that’s the reason why you’re reading this post, I’m really sorry about the tangent. Maybe you just skimmed through the blueberry part, or at least enjoyed reading it. I’m hoping you scrolled down to the picture, looked at it, and are already doing something else like watching videos of cats or something.

Keep in mind: this isn’t to scale, I’m still a farming beginner, this layout could change, and this might not be the best way to plant what I want to grow.

The Farm - 2013 Layout

The Farm – 2013 Layout

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