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Other possible titles were “Failures of a beginning gardener,” “Don’t garden like I garden,” “Gardening: Say What!?,” “Common Beginner Mistakes That Only I Would Make.” My grandma is an avid gardener whose garden I spent lots of time in (eating string beans from the plants) when I was a kid but that doesn’t mean I was ready to garden as well as she does when it came my time to cultivate my land. And by land I mean the 6-foot by 4-foot patch of dirt that we didn’t cover in grass. So here is a list of lessons I learned the hard way or never knew until I came across it reading somewhere!

Some vegetables don’t produce their first year. Or the year after that. When my husband and I bought asparagus root stock from the local big box store I was all set with my hollandaise recipe to smother my stalks in. What was this fern doing in place of little asparaguses (asparagii?) poking up from the dirt!? As it turns out, asparagus takes a year or two to start producing stalks. Rhubarb shouldn’t be eaten in the first two years after planting. The good news is that they’re both perennials that produce for 15-20 years so no reseeding each season.

Celery and leeks need blanching. In this case, blanching does not mean dropping in boiling water and then throwing it in an ice bath, either. It means you cover the plant with dirt or something to block out light for a little while to make it sweeter. Yeah. Seriously. Weird, right?!

Tomato plants can (and should) but cut back. As I mentioned over the summer I had a cherry tomato plant (the small, yellow pear-shaped kind) grow to be over 8-feet tall. The picture below shows the plant when it was still growing up and not out in front of our 7-foot fence. It made it taller than the fence and then over it. It was all but too late when I heard that trimming it to keep it about this size would have been a good idea and produced larger, better tasting tomatoes.

Tomatoes will replant themselves which means if you pull one out of the ground to build a deck and then try and transplant it to a shady spot and it dies, it will suddenly reappear the next year. Tomatoes do not grow well in pots even if the guy at the nursery tells you they do. They have pretty long tap roots and you will get a significantly better bounty if your tomato is in the ground. In full sun.

Know what the plant looks like before nurturing a weed. Oh, do you think that sounds crazy? I’m just telling you from experience. The picture below is what I thought was a giant bell pepper plant because it sprouted where I planted my seeds. I thought the leaves looked about like a pepper plant‘s leaves, too. I bug sprayed this thing, watered it, and loved it. Until another one of these popped up where I hadn’t planted seeds in another part of the yard, and another, and another. And it never grew peppers. In fact, the only reason I have a picture of it is because I legitimately thought it was a pepper plant.

Flowers on herb plants are bad and are bad on some vegetables. When herbs flower it’s called “bolting” and it basically means that they’re trying to produce seeds. Because we want their leaves, flowers should be pinched off. The same applies for some vegetables (like broccoli, below) except we eat the flowers before they bloom. When they eventually bloom, they will expand plant energy on seed making and not on broccoli making. Then these weird grayish broccoli colored aphid-type bugs show up and it’s no good. The moral: eat your broccoli.

Thinning is good. I have a thing with thinning or trimming vegetables, I don’t want to pull out the baby sprouts! I don’t want to cut those tender new shoots! I’ve realized I just need to plant less seeds if I don’t want to thin. Otherwise you get a wall of broccoli and beets that are too close to grow very big (both below). I want to nurture all baby sprouts. Don’t be like me.

Make sure you know what kind of soil you are getting. My first garden at my house was a “raised garden” made using leftover cinder blocks that were left by the previous owner. We bought the cheapest “soil” we could find which ended up being mostly bark and super acidic to fill it. It was really good at growing mold. Which brings me to:  Potting soil and garden soil are different. Which kind of makes sense since they have different names, right? Turns out it also means they have different soil composition (potting soil allows more air in for plant roots) and different nutrients (potting soil has nutrients a plant would get from regular ground soil).

Squirrels love sunflowers. Squirrels will leap from a fence to a sunflower to trample it down and then gnaw off the head of a sunflower even before the sunflower seeds are something they want to eat leaving you with beheaded sunflowers. I would punch every squirrel in the face if I could.

When it says full sun it doesn’t mean mostly sun. And if you ignore the seed packet/ common sense of planting vegetables in full sun, they will only start producing late in the season and never fully ripen. While I’ve now learned what to do with green tomatoes (besides frying them) I would have preferred them and my pumpkin to have ripened.

Dogs like vegetable fertilizer. The pooch below is not dead from fertilizer (she’s actually just sleeping on newly laid sod in this picture). But she would have eaten all the plant fertilizer I laid down if I hadn’t prevented her. Chicken manure was also pretty great for her to smell as well. Just keep your animals away from any kind of fertilizer even if you’re using the organic stuff. They don’t know why it smells good but they will try eating it.Lots of learning experiences in my first attempts at a vegetable garden but I can’t wait to make more mistakes and learn from them this year. What have you learned in gardening that was unexpected?

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