Our first order of business after moving to the country was to plant our own garden. My wife and I devised a magnificent arrangement: she’s Management and I’m Labor. Management invested a substantial part of her not-so-free time in taking a master gardener class through the local technical college, while Labor was a stay-at-home gardener and studied garden tillers and fence designs online. Management and Labor began their first garden in September of 2013 by prepping the soil.

Size Matters

When Management said “I think you have too many tomato plants,” Labor should have listened. However, Labor’s “bigger is better” attitude was out of control with a rented New Holland tiller. After getting the rented tiller operational, Labor tilled like there was no tomorrow. New Holland and Labor were eating up landscape, tilling too deep (according to Management) and running out of space to till. We measured our new garden space at 45-by-60 feet, all for the two of us.

We had plenty of room for three types of cucumbers, two varieties of peas, two varieties of pole beans, pumpkins, bush beans, sweet corn, carrots, onions, garlic, green bell peppers, hot wax banana peppers, sweet banana peppers, jalapeño peppers, asparagus, basil, oregano, cilantro and so on. We also had six varieties of tomatoes, totaling 15 tomato plants. This was all just for two people with full-time jobs.

Have you any idea how many cucumbers are produced by one healthy plant? How about one healthy zucchini plant? When the tomatoes finally began to ripen in late July, a handful at a time, we were elated. A morning picking trip to the garden yielded a couple of small bags of tomatoes—fresh cherry and grape tomatoes for salads and snacks, a couple of Better Boy or heirloom tomatoes for sandwiches, with Roma and Amish Paste waiting in the wings for salsa, along with our daily ration of cucumbers and peppers.

By September, we had added three grandchildren as “pickers” and a garden cart to get the tomatoes up to the house. We gave tomatoes to family, friends and neighbors. We delivered tomatoes to the local assisted-living facility. By September 22nd, we had canned eight half-pints, 59 pints and 32 quarts of salsa ranging in heat from mild to maniacal, which coincidentally allowed us to use up all those peppers we had planted.

The Takeaway: Start small—smaller than you think you should. Let your garden grow with your experience. When planting a high-yielding crop, stagger your plantings based upon the growing time between planting and harvesting. On our side, Management staggered the plantings for bush beans, lettuce and pole beans so these were not all ready at the same time. For Labor, the tomatoes all came at once. Labor should have gotten a smaller tiller. And fewer tomato plants.

Vegetable gardening tips
A morning trip to the garden yielded all of these vegetables. Remember, think small or else you will have more produce than you know what to do with.


Watering Woes

Plants must have water to grow. More of it must mean things grow bigger, healthier and faster, right? Wrong. Labor overwatered our tomatoes in the beginning and watered them using the wrong method, so they developed early blight, which Management was able to combat. Mother Nature overwatered our cucumbers in late July, killing them off in August just before Labor went on strike. Management was relieved. So was Labor.

Overwatering drowns the plant’s roots, causing them to rot. Under-watering leads to dehydration. The common green-thumb rule for gardens is 1 inch of water per week. However, other factors such as when you water, the amount and type of composting material, and the soil type all impact the garden’s ability to absorb, retain and disperse excess water. Clay soil tends to pull moisture away from plant roots and is very slow to drain. Sandy soil is great for aerating roots, but often drains too quickly. Your County Extension office can provide helpful information on the soil in your area.

The Takeaway: You can determine how your soil absorbs water by using a cylinder, such as a soup or coffee can with the top and bottom removed. Push one end into the soil a few inches. Fill the can with water and let it drain completely. Fill it again, and then see how long it takes for the water level to drop 1 inch. If it takes more than four hours, you probably have a drainage problem that could harm plant roots. Both clay and sandy soils can often be modified using composting materials to achieve a healthy balance.

Canning Sardines, Are You?

Management planted the tomatoes. Labor complained that they were too far apart and wasted valuable garden space. Labor was looking at 15 small plants. Management was looking at 15 small plants that were about to become 15 very large plants, which Management advised would create a “sardine-can effect.”

The Takeaway: Each plant needs space for its root system to expand and to maximize yield through adequate sun exposure. Each seed packet has guidelines for spacing. For purchased plants, consult your nursery or garden center expert. Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew is also a great source of information on spacing.

Fencing Flaws

“To fence, or not to fence?” that was the question. Varmints in our midst predicated fencing. Management selected the appropriate varmint-resistant fencing and Labor installed it accordingly. However, Labor elected to place the gate near the composter to simplify the regular incorporation of our home compost. This location was also the farthest point from the house, the tool shed, the water and completely inaccessible for the truck that delivers the spring and fall compost in bulk, thus requiring Labor and Management to load and unload it twice. Labor and Management attempted to negotiate a peaceful resolution that didn’t require tearing down the fence. Labor lost.

The Takeaway: If choosing to fence your garden, pay particular attention to the location and size of the access point(s). Dragging hoses, carting tools and supplies the “long way around the garden” might be good exercise, but is not efficient. Be certain each gate is tall and wide enough to allow access for all equipment.

vegetable pruning common gardening mistakes
Management advised Labor on the benefits of pruning, but Labor was slow to react. The resulting jungle increased Labor’s overhead, or increased over Labor’s head. Or both.


Prune, You Loon!

The tomato plants were so small when Management brought them home in May, Labor wondered if any would make it. By July, it occurred to Labor that the plants were quickly outgrowing their cages without any blooms, so Labor consulted Management, who advised that each plant was supposed to be pruned regularly of suckers and some shoots each week, to prevent overgrowth and enhance the production of fruit. Labor went right to work, albeit six weeks late, only to discover that it was too late to prevent some of the overgrowth. After several hours of selective pruning several days each week, the plants became overly productive, though not without overgrowing their cages and intermingling with other garden plants and each other.

The Takeaway: For those plants needing pruning, prune regularly to enhance both your yield and ease of access to your fruits and vegetables. Otherwise, be prepared to hire very small “pickers” and/or crawl around in tight places among leaves, limbs, stalks, and vines looking for edibles.

The Cage Match

Labor purchased the largest tomato cages available at the local farm store. Their shiny metal glistened in the sun, towering over each wispy looking plant. By late June, Labor installed wood stakes to support each cage as the plants’ girth began to shift them slightly, tying the cages with cordage to the stakes. By July, Labor replaced the stakes with 4-foot metal electric fence posts (as a precautionary measure) as the plants continued to expand and began a belated pruning regimen. By early August, several of these 4-foot posts had been replaced by 7-foot T-posts to combat their bourgeoning weight.

The Takeaway: Build your own tomato and pepper cages, cucumber trellises and pole bean supports and over-engineer them. By using heavy-gauge fencing, such as welded wire farm fencing or “rabbit” fencing, your cages and trellises will exceed the weights and forces applied by your plants. Use posts and anchoring systems that may initially appear oversized for the job. Other heavy-duty examples include cages made of 2-by-2-inch hardwood or from 0.5-inch PVC pipe. If the white PVC bothers you, paint the it green or brown to blend in with the plants.

Parting Planting Pointers

When this was written, the end of our first garden was near. Not that the work is ending, just the harvesting. Soon, Labor will be tearing a section of the fence out to accommodate the compost delivery truck, and replacing it with a double-wide gate to alleviate another garden goof. Garlic needs planting along with winter radishes and some other winter vegetable according to Management, and we will plant, water and cultivate these according to the directions instead of having Labor just wing it. 

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Spring 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

RELATED: Grafting The Perfect Tomatoes 

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