Gardening as a Family

So, gardening, or a green thumb, seems to be in my family genes. For years my grandfather would have acres and acres of corn, tomatoes, watermelon and whatever else popped up from his fertile soil deep in the hollows of Virginia.

His water source was a small creek that trickled by his farm land. For crops farther away he used his tractor and a huge, homemade spraying tank.

A small creek served as the water source for my grandfather’s large gardens.

The remainder of his gardening time, that wasn’t planting, watering or harvesting, was used trying different techniques to keep the abundance of deer away from his gardens. Tricks including certain brands of soaps scattered around, colored flags placed around the crops, and different odors to deter them, just to name a few.

He sold his produce from a wagon on the side of the road using a metal empty toolbox with a lock on it, and the honor system. This kept him busy and happy.

Fast-forwarding several years from watching my grandfather’s gardens flourish, and in comes my experience with gardening.

One of my first small and simple gardens.

It started with a desire to see if I could even grow anything somewhere on my 9/10ths of an acre, to where I am now, more than 5 years later. Also, I wanted my 3 kiddos to know how to grow their own food (doing it organically) and know how it all works. It was a great opportunity to spend time together and teach them a skill that they should know. They were also motivated by being able to sell their produce and keep the money, if they worked.

Upon first deciding to try my hand at this I, of course, went to my grandfather. He arrived very early one morning the next week, without warning and tiller on-hand, and set out to find me the perfect garden spot.

I quickly gathered myself to start the morning a little quicker than expected and joined him outside. (Did I mention that my grandfather has always had a high energy level – I’m hoping to inherit that as well!)

He picked a sunny spot with a rotting stump nearby. Stories from older neighbors indicated that it was the same spot previous owners from long ago used for pigs to roam in (our house was built in 1851, so it has seen a lot in its lifetime). My grandfather deemed that as the perfect spot due to the rich soil from the manure and the continued nutrients it would receive from the rotting stump. Before my husband or I could grab the tiller from my grandfather, at that time in his late 70s, he set to tilling it up. The soil was hard and not easy to brake up, but he got it done.  I then knew Step 1 was location, location, location.

My first garden was basically my attempt at throwing out some random seeds and hoping for the best. A few carrots here (planted at the wrong time), some spinach there (planted too early), and a feeble attempt at corn. My flower gardens were also very unemblessied and I grew random things in random places. Again, the importance of location.

We enjoyed a very small and heedless harvest, but had the accomplishment of getting my feet wet with gardening.

As years went on I spent more time reading and planning out the garden. I started researching placement of plants, (which plants like to be neighbors). My prior experiences with this led me to some interesting hybrid vegetables, (or whatever you would call it). Haberno pepper-cucumber-cantaloupe anyone? I tried to sell this mistake on E-bay, but has no takers. I also couldn’t convince anyone at my house to sample it.

My strange hybrid due to plant misplacement

Just as my grandfather experienced, the deer enjoyed my garden as well. I tried the tricks from my grandfather: shaved pieces of specific soap around the garden, chili pepper sprinkled onto plants (this was my most successful method, although time consuming) and various organic sprays and techniques. Ultimately by the end of summer the deer always had one up on me.

At this point I had invested a lot of time in my garden and was so disappointed to see my vegetables (deer loved my green bell peppers) get destroyed in one night. It was time to protect my hard work, and a fence was the logical thing. Not only did this work for keeping animals out (including nosey pets) but it also has dual-purpose to provide climbing trellises for cucumbers and other climbing plants. This came into play as my garden expanded, and I added new sections with fence. 

I didn’t want to drop a lot of money on the fence project, so we used metal fencing poles that we had left over and chicken wire from the local farm supply store. Discarded pallets from the HVAC business next to my husband’s office served as garden gates.

Protect your garden area. A simple fence is a good start.

As my garden expanded each year, so did my fence. Finally this year, determined to not have deer problems and make the best of my garden due to the pandemic, we went big with the fencing. Like prison fence big.

Getting the Garden Started in 2020

My husband decided to handle this for me and headed off to the local farm store to get more metal fence post and more chicken wire – lots of it. He actually layered the wire and stacked one layer on top of another to get height. We used more discarded pallets for another gate and zip-ties to “pull” it all together. Overall it was not an extremely expensive project, since we used some things that we already had, and it was certainly an investment that I can use from now on. I am here to say that we had no deer problems this year.

High fencing to keep deer out

Another good trick that helped, and looked beautiful at the same time, was planting marigolds around the garden. The deer would not eat them and it helped keep bugs away from the garden. It also had sentimental reasons for me personally since my grandmother always had beautiful flowerbeds full of marigolds. She spent much time “fussing” over them, although they are easy to maintain, because I think she just enjoyed getting out and taking care of them. My grandmother passed away last year, so the marigolds were especially important to plant this year.

Marigolds have many benefits and look beautiful around the garden.

I also used more upcycled pallets to utilize space and allow my cantaloupe and watermelon to climb among them. I attached chicken wire (same as we used for the fencing) on the backside of the pallets allowing support areas for the melons to rest on.

Upcycled pallets served as climbing support for cantaloupes and watermelons.
Upcycled pallets allowed for more growing space area.

I tried several new methods for this year’s garden. One was a success, the others need work.

My success was using the 3-sisters planting technique for my corn, squash and beans. Basically making a mound 3 feet in diameter and planting 4 corn seeds spaced out. The squash went between the corn mounds. Once the corn was 4″ or 5″ tall the “running’ beans, (those that like to climb – not bush), were planted beside the corn. This allows the beans to have the corn stalks as support, and the corn also provides the right amount of shade to make the squash happy.

My first success with corn.

I was nervous about this because I really wanted it to work. I never had a garden with a good corn harvest, so it was worth a try. Fortunately it worked out great and will be a method that I continue to use.

The 3 Sisters Method – Corn, Beans and Squash

My not-so-great results included a battle with vine borer bugs – they won. I had not had issues with this before, and usually had more squash than I knew what to do with, but this year the borers destroyed the plants. I made some feeble attempts at reviving them, including peppering down the plants and “injecting” the hole with mineral oil. Neither were successful.

My other battles were with seeds and compost issues. I overcame the obstacles, but not without a lot of headache and frustration. My conclusion from the experience was that I would choose carefully which plants I started from seed, and also learn more about composting before I fully utilize it.

Due to the unknown of the current pandemic, I chose to purchase seeds and start my plants indoors. Lots of folks do this and get a great early (and less expensive) start to their garden. I ended up with plants I had to transfer indoors to outdoors to allow for enough sunlight during the day and many that died.

I decided that besides my 3-sisters method, in which I would plant the seeds directly, I will stick to purchased seedlings. This is also because the plants that I grew from seed were very frail and I lost a lot of them and spent a lot of time replacing and regrowing. It was a huge hassle.

My compost issue was also involving seeds, the difference was that the seeds were too hardy and fertile. My rich, organic soil from the compost had not gotten hot enough to kill off the potential seedlings. Unknowingly, I added the compost mixture to my new plants, only to have dozens of volunteers to come up and get mixed into the intended plantings.

Sounds like an easily resolvable problem, right? Just pull the unwanted volunteers. However, the issue was the volunteers taking away from my planted seedlings, in addition to the problem of a random variety thrown in with my carefully placed plants. It is very hard to differentiate between a cucumber plant and a cantaloupe plant.

So if you’re just starting out I hope this post will help you avoid the mistakes that I made. It’s definitely worth the effort to keep trying and enjoy watching your garden grow…Mary, Mary. 😉

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