What makes your garden grow?
Lessons from an amateur veggie gardener
The death of my first Roma tomato plant nearly a decade ago haunts me to this day. The beautiful specimen, carefully planted in a large pot for easy relocation from indoors to outdoors, was doing swimmingly. Green tomatoes were just ripening red when I left it on the porch on a lovely July day in Big Sky.
But when I forgot the plant outside that evening, I awoke to a brown-leaved monster, dead as a doornail.
Tears ensued, followed by ridicule from my family visiting from Wisconsin. They just couldn’t understand why I would care so much about a silly plant. Well, I did. And I still do. And it’s because growing a vegetable plant takes time, energy and care.
Done successfully, vegetable gardening produces amazing edible results. Side effects include stress relief, patience, and often salsa.
Spring and summer are on our minds here at The Madisonian. If you’re a beginning veggie gardener like I was, and really, still am, I hope I can offer you some ideas and tips to get a lifelong passion planted.
Spring seed starters: Why wait?
Winter may still maintain some if its icy grip, but now is the time to think about sowing seeds indoors. Plants that require a long growing season are the ones I like to focus on – think tomatoes, peppers, broccoli and cucumbers. But really, you can start anything you’d like.
To get seeds to sprout most efficiently follow sowing depth recommendations and place the little pots in a warm location – on top of a fridge or some other source of a bit of heat works well, sun not required for this step.
Once the little sprouts pop through, move them to a sunny but not too warm location. If you don’t have enough light and/ or have too warm of a location, many plants will get “leggy,” and grow longer stalks than necessary which makes for a not so sturdy plant.
Be patient with your little seedlings. I planted a first round of peppers and tomatoes last spring that just wasn’t sprouting, so I decided to plant a second round, whilst still holding onto hope the first would take eventually. Well, let’s just say they almost all came to life eventually, and I had more plants than I knew what to do with. Free veggie starters, anyone?
Planters: Beat the frost
RIP Roma. Don’t be like me, forgetting your frost-sensitive plants outside on a cold night, and container gardening is easy and rewarding. Tomato plants and peppers are obvious choices for this method since they can’t even hear mention of frost without withering up and dying.
There are plenty of other planter-friendly options out there, from herbs to green beans, cucumbers, et cetera et cetera. I wouldn’t recommend squashes, though, as they take up more space than an elephant in an elevator.
When outside temps finally take a turn for the worse in the fall, you can also take in some of those planters for the winter. I had a chili pepper plant with peppers still needing to mature so it was relocated inside from my greenhouse. Not only did those peppers ripen, but the plant bloomed unexpectedly again about a month ago, much to my surprise.
It's not all fun in the window sun, though. I recently had a fruit fly of sorts infesting the precious pepper plant, so I relocated it to a sunny spot in my garage. Usher in those below-zero temps we had in February and I found it wilting and losing leaves from the unexpected cold it was subjected to. Blast!
Will it be RIP chili pepper plant? I am cautiously hopeful. But another gardening lesson I’ve had to accept: Every plant will die eventually. Some sooner than others, often directly dependent on your level of neglect.
Greenhouses: A home away from home
I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent hanging out in my greenhouse. Sure, some of that time was actually spent gardening, but many times I just go out there to warm up, read a book, and stare at what I’ve grown with my own two hands. It’s also a great spot to hide out while my toddler naps.
I was lucky to have a husband that built ours from a plan he drew up on his own. I suppose I never confirmed how much supplies cost (more than I probably care to know) so it’s not like we saved any money on veggie purchases at the grocery store by growing our own. But plants just love that warm abode, and we grew way more than we could eat.
I found that tomatoes will take over quickly if not pruned (still a bit of a bleeding heart when it comes to that!), and that full grown plants need way more space than you’d expect when you’ve got a puny seedling to stick in the dirt. So, planting just about half of what you think you should still yields way more than you’d expect.
Cucumbers, green beans and tomatoes have been amazing greenhouse producers for me. Larger or cooler-weather tolerant plants like squashes, peas, chard, beets and onions are happy to grow right outdoors in some well-tilled soil, and therefore won’t take up limited greenhouse real estate.
Greenhouses also help with pest control, though several years ago grasshoppers decimated a number of my plants in and out of the greenhouse. The following year we let our chickens range outside the greenhouse, which seemed to help, but overall the grasshopper invasion just wasn’t as bad. They’re still my nemeses, though!
Gardening lesson 1,001: Bugs and other pests love your plants as much, if not more than you. Steel yourself for losses that way too.
Hydroponics: Dirt? Who needs it?
It was a bleak winter day in Ennis when I discovered my favorite “appliance” 20% off on Amazon: The Aerogarden. This baby is the perfect tool for even the blackest of thumbs and comes in a variety of sizes to fit any countertop. Within weeks of receiving, I had little plants popping up in my dining room. Great for those winter blues.
Never heard of one? Basically, it’s little hydroponic garden for your kitchen. The Aerogarden comes with pods, seeds already included, that you pop right into the base after adding water and plant food. The LED grow lights are set to glow for 15 hours a day (I prefer dark hours, but that timing is not crucial).
Within a week or so those seeds begin to sprout, and so does the fun. The seedlings grow fast; you can really see progress overnight. If you’re dealing with herbs, you can have edible results in weeks. One can also grow things like peppers and tomatoes, which do best in the larger models and require more pruning for success – of course these take longer but the rewards are great.
Admittedly, these machines are not cheap. Amazon currently has various models – Aerogarden is just one – on sale for anywhere from $99 for a smaller option up to more than $600 for the huge “farm style” model. Pod kits average about $15. Back to that other lesson I’ve gathered from gardening – if you’re looking to save money on veggies, growing your own is usually not the answer!