First year gardens: what worked, what didn’t

With snow on the ground and a chill in the air, we’re already thinking ahead to what we can do next year.

Since moving here, our long term goal has been to be as self sufficient as possible/realistic for our needs. Growing up here, my parents were subsistence farmers. My mother had a huge vegetable garden, we had a few fruit trees and raspberries, and pin cherries grew wild in one area. We had chickens, sometimes adding ducks, geese, and turkeys. We had sheep at one point, but I’m not sure I was even born yet when we had those. We had a comparatively small herd of cows for milk and beef. There used to be a small creamery in our little hamlet, and we sold our cream to them – sometimes in exchange for butter! Aside from beef for our own use, once a year we’d sell cattle at auction, and that was the bulk of our annual income. Sometimes, we had pigs, too. We grew crops and hay to feed our own animals, with very little purchased feed to supplement. If the money was tight, my parents would go and get short term jobs. My dad had been working full time after they first moved here from the city, but when he asked his boss for a few days off to do the haying, he was told he could either be a farmer or work for him, not both. So my dad quit the job, right then and there!

We don’t plan to go quite that far in our goals. Our first focus will be on vegetable gardening and planting food trees, including nut trees. The challenge with the trees is finding varieties that will produce in our Zone 3 climate.

There is a great deal of work that needs to be done to get to that point, with limited resources, while also dealing with varying levels of health and able-bodied-ness.

All of which we can work with. It just tends to slow things down.

We really weren’t ready to start gardening this year, as far as clean up and soil preparation, but we went ahead and did it, anyhow. If we waited for everything to be perfect, we’d never start at all! 😀

So for what we had to work with, we were pretty ambitious with our gardening this year. My expectations were actually pretty low for this year. As we plan ahead to what we will do next year, it’s a good time to assess what worked, what didn’t, and why.

Let’s get started!

The one area that was easiest to work in was where the old wood pile used to be. Cleaning that up revealed incredibly soft soil, perfect for root vegetables.

How did this area do?

Carrots: pretty darn good, really. Of the three varieties we got, the purple carrots were a favourite. As far as taste, they were all good, but the purple carrots seemed to have a better, more robust, shape to them, and of course the colour is awesome.

Looking ahead: we definitely want to do carrots again. The purple carrots, for sure, plus there are a couple of other varieties suitable for our climate that I’d like to try.

Beets: Well, they could have been better, but deer were a problem, leaving us with a paltry crop. Even so, we enjoyed the three varieties we got. The girls especially liked the deep red Merlin variety.

Looking ahead: we definitely want to do beets again, but we are going to have to find ways to protect them from deer!

Parsley: those did really well. So well, in fact, that after harvesting and drying them, we have enough parsley to last us quite a long time.

Looking ahead: we don’t plan to grow parsley again next year. In the future, we will be growing herbs in a more permanent location, where we can try growing root parsley (which can take a couple of years for the roots to be mature enough to harvest).

Kohl rabi: this was a disappointment for me. I really hoped they would turn out! For all the seeds we planted, only a few sprouted, only two got big, and between the deer and the tiny cabbage beetles that showed up, they were decimated. The few plants we had ended up on the compost heap.

Looking ahead: I really want to grow these, but I don’t think we’ll try again next year.

Muskmelon: this was a last minute addition, with 2 purchased transplants. They seemed to do very well at first. Then one just up and died. The other grew and even started blooming, but remained very tiny. Then the first frost killed it.

Looking ahead: I remember we’d grown muskmelons when I was a kid, and really enjoyed eating them. My mother didn’t even do anything special to grow them. They were just in with everything else in the big garden. So I know they can grow here. I wouldn’t mind trying them again next year, but we shall see.

For this garden area next year: well, we’ve already got things completely changed in this area, with two slightly raised beds planted with fall garlic. There is still room for another bed the same size, so there is still potential to add to this area. Given the quality of soil, most likely we would plant root vegetables here again.

The next section we planted in was the retaining wall in the old kitchen garden. In this area, my mother had flowers and it’s where she planted her onions and garlic. Unfortunately, she also planted trees and bushes, which has greatly reduced the usability of this area.

Cucamelon: these were not planted were we originally planned, and with less sun than recommended for them, I did not expect much at all. So we were very pleasantly surprised by how well they did! This is something we’ve never even seen before, other than photos, never mind tried to grow. We really liked the tiny little fruits, and even had enough to try a quick pickle.

Looking ahead: We definitely will be growing these again. When cleaning up at the end of the year, I found they had amazing tubers, which are now planted in buckets, in a cool indoor location. From what I’ve read, we should be able to transplant these tubers to get an earlier crop next year. We still plan to drag the rest of the chimney blocks out of the old basement and set them up by the chain link fence in the south yard, which should make for a more ideal growing location for them, too.

Fennel: they… got really nice fronds! No bulbs formed, though. To be honest, once we transplanted the few leggy seedlings we managed to sprout, I tended to forget they existed.

Looking ahead: I’d like to try growing these again, but probably not for another year or two.

Chives: when setting up the retaining wall, I transplanted some of the chives growing in one corner into a couple of blocks that would otherwise have been right on top of them. They grew just fine, and we were able to snip some greens any time we needed. The original clump of chives I dug them up from is still there, too.

Looking ahead: nothing needs to change here.

For this garden area next year: my daughter planted a border of Gardenia Daffodils and Eye of the Tiger irises along the south edge of this area. There is rhubarb growing under each of the ornamental apple trees. They aren’t really doing well, and I might transplant them somewhere else, eventually. Some asparagus still shows up on the north edge of the garden, but not enough to harvest. If we plant fresh asparagus, it will be somewhere else.

Though we have done a lot to amend this garden area, which had been overtaken by spreading vines and invasive flowers, there is still much work that needs to be done before the whole garden can be used, including building the soil up more at the retaining wall, to level it off. The mulching we’ve added has already improved the soil considerably, but there is so much in this tiny space, it’ll be hard to get it to a functional garden. My thought is for this area to be a kitchen garden; the place for those vegetables and herbs we use the most. There are perennial flowers in there that I want to transplant elsewhere, and while I want to keep the main rose bushes, there are lots of little rose bushes spreading that are going to be difficult to clear out. Not as difficult as those invasive vines, though!

So while we’ll be able to use parts of this garden, other parts still need lots of work. With the poles by the retaining wall being to ideal to hold a trellis, the chimney blocks are ideal for planting anything that climbs.

The next area we planted in was where my mother’s big garden used to be. It is in such rough shape; poorly plowed, largely neglected, full of rocks – and rock hard soil! We’d gone so far as to use Round Up on one area, then mulched it with straw, the previous year.

The mulched area became our squash beds.

Summer Squash: these probably had the roughest start, yet were our greatest success! We planted sunburst squash and a summer squash mix. A late frost damaged the first transplants, most of which never recovered, but the second group of transplants did very well.

The sunburst squash were very prolific, and we all really enjoyed eating them, too. The zucchini varieties had a harder time of it, but still did fairly well. It was great to be able to include picking squash for the day as part of my morning rounds.

Looking ahead: we are most definitely planting these again! We did end up transplanting them later than they should have been, but late frosts are an issue here, so we need to be better prepared for that.

Birdhouse gourds: these were a sad disappointment for me. They took forever to germinate, and when the first batch was transplanted, they got hit with frost. Amazingly, more germinated later, but in the end, this tiny little gourd was all we got – and it got killed by the first frost.

Looking ahead: There are a variety of gourds I want to try growing, as I want to use them for various projects. I want to try these again, but now know I need to start them indoors much earlier, and will probably need to invest in a warming mat.

Pumpkins: these were planted very, very late, using seeds my mother got for free. No idea what the variety was. I quickly made some mounds to plant the seeds in, but honestly didn’t expect to get anything. Ultimately, they just didn’t have enough of a growing season.

Looking ahead: we do want to grow different pumpkin varieties. We’ll just have to make sure to start them earlier! I’m not entirely sure why I want to grow pumpkins. We’ve only ever eaten it as pie. But there are lots of recipes out there, and I’m sure we’ll find something we like! 😀

Yukon Gem potatoes: These were an experiment for us. We planted two beds, using the Ruth Stout method, because our soil is just too hard and full of rocks.

It did work, though it wasn’t a particularly large harvest. The odd thing was finding seed potatoes, still intact!

Looking ahead: we do want to grow more potatoes, and try other varieties. We’ll still probably use the Ruth Stout method of growing under mulch for a few years, until we can start building raised beds. For now, I’ve taken the seed potatoes I’ve found and replanted them along the north side of the garden, covered in mulch. It should be interested to see if they grow at all, next spring! We planted only 6 pounds of potatoes this year. Next year, we definitely want to plant more, now that we know we can successfully grow them without digging and hilling.

Giant Sunflowers: We had several goals with our sunflowers. Some were met, some were not!

Growing them for bird seed seems to be a miss. We likely planted them too late, as it doesn’t look like they reached maturity at all.

While I did harvest a couple of heads that are hanging in the basement, we’ve decided to leave the rest out over the winter. If there’s anything the birds can get out of them, great. It looks like the deer are still trying to eat them, too, as I find more and more of them, broken.

The other purposes we grew them for is as a privacy screen, and wind break. With a 50% loss of our first planting, likely to deer, we planted another variety, just to fill in the gaps. We did not expect to get seeds from them. It sort of worked. There just wasn’t enough of them.

Looking ahead: yes, we want to plant these giant varieties again, but if we do, we need to get at least double, if not triple, the amount of seeds to create the windbreak and privacy screen we want. Hopefully, we can plant them earlier, too. We also want to try other varieties, including one that is the source of a purple dye. We definitely have to figure out how to protect them from deer, though!

For this garden area next year: In the mulched area the squash were in, the soil is so much softer! Except for all the rocks that are still a problem. In cleaning up for winter, I turned the pumpkin mounds into larger beds, so that area now has 6 beds, including one long thin one at the back, prepped for next year. Plus, there are the two potato beds nearby. Any potatoes we plant next year will be in a different location, to avoid attracting the Colorado Potato Beetle. We will likely continue to reclaim more of the old garden area, but not all of it, as we intend to plant a nut orchard in here in the relatively near future. The sooner we can get that done, the better, since it takes so many years before nut trees start producing. So we will focus mostly on where we have already planted, but when it’s time to do more, it will be elsewhere.

Final thoughts: so it’s been a year of successes and failures, but we did learn a lot from our first year of gardening here.

We have a better idea of what works for us, what we like and what we want to plant next year. For the longer term, we definitely will need to look at getting poly-tunnels – possibly a greenhouse – to be able to extend our growing season and protect from frost. We are looking to claim more of the outer yard, towards the barn, where there is more sun, for things like that. We also know that winds from the South are more of a problem than winds from the North, and need to plan accordingly. This year also really hit home for me that we need to built tall, accessible, raised beds. Any raised beds will help when it comes to our rocky soil, but this old body is just too broken, and height will help.

Little by little, it’s getting done!

The Re-Farmer

11 thoughts on “First year gardens: what worked, what didn’t

  1. Deer? DOG. Dog also something of a deterrent for your night visitor and skunks. Big dog. Big teeth. Deer? I want to say lavender. My sister uses it to keep deer from her blueberries in Michigan. I’ll ask her.

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL

      My brother who lives up the road, and my sister who’s even more in the sticks than I am, both have big dogs, and they still have critter problems! Though at least I don’t have to deal with black bears, like my sister does. 😀

      I don’t know that lavender can grow here. I’d certainly love to try it! Every time the flower garden catalogs come in, I pour over the symbols, eyeballing the ones that are both Zone 3, and deer deterrents. There’s a surprising number of them, but I don’t recall seeing lavender!


      • Well, just got word from my sister. Lavender works. But as you suspect it does not do well in the far north and in wet environs. Maybe some other plant will deter deer? Still favor the BIG dog. Marigolds? Sages? Wife gets pineapple sage that grows huge and has tons of red blossoms in the fall. It’s that or eat venison.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I just checked the list I made of stuff that both deters deer and attracts pollinators. It includes things like different types of monarda, yarrow (one variety of which grows wild here), coneflowers, any type of hosta, asters, etc. My hope is to border our various garden plots with them, though with some, fencing of some kind will be the only option.

        Sadly, a dog is not an option for us right now. 😦

        Liked by 1 person

      • Do they? Darn. We weren’t planning it for a few years yet, but there is going to be a shade garden on the North side of the house. I’d been thinking of doing hostas there. Hmmm…

        Thanks for the heads up!


      • Heard again from my sister “Anything that produces a smell is supposed to repel deer. Lavender works well. Some people hang out soap bars in mesh bags on posts around their garden.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh! Thanks. I hadn’t heard of using soap.

        I’ve seen people tie plastic grocery bags onto posts to flap in the wind, making a noise that – at the very least – would scare away birds. The noise would startle deer as well, but I like the soap idea! Awesome! Thanks again. 🙂


  2. Try Minnesota Midget cantaloupe…delicious and ready in only 60 days from transplants, doesn’t take a lot of space. It’s a small melon but there are several per vine. I grow mine on a cheap wire tomato cage.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Year End Review: top 10 posts! | The Re-Farmer

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