I’ve been gardening for a long time, almost 40 years now, and I like to think I’ve learned a lot over the years. I’ve certainly tried plenty of new things, some of which worked and some of which didn’t. I always try to learn from my mistakes, which by now are too numerous to count. Along the way I’ve eaten lots of tasty homegrown food, and have usually had extra to share with others. I still have a few of my old garden plans from the early 1980’s, and some of my garden logs from that era. It makes for interesting reading, but right away I can see I do things quite a bit differently now.
One big change is the size of the garden. My first garden was in the backyard of a house on a small urban lot. I grew things intensively then, more so than when I moved to my next place which was a 40 acre farm. My garden there was huge, more like a quarter acre in size. I had a tractor mounted tiller to break up the garden plot, in addition to my trusty rear tine Troy Bilt tiller. Gardening there was less intensive, and I could always plant extra if necessary since I had so much room. Now that we have retired, we have ‘downsized’ to a 1.6 acre spot we call Happy Acres. And our tastes continue to change in the things we grow and the way we grow them.
Just this past year, I learned a new way to trellis vining squash. I put up panels of steel remesh material and secured it to metal t-posts. Then I planted the squash near the trellis and encouraged them to vine up the remesh material. It turned out to be a great success, and as a result I plan to use even more of the remesh trellises in the garden next year. Going vertical is a good strategy to maximize garden space, and it helps keep the squash up off the ground as they are ripening. Last year I lost lots of squash to rot from laying on the wet soil, but this year not a single one of the trellised squashes rotted on me. This may seem like a small thing, but it will surely change the way I grow squash going forward.
A few years back, I had a paradigm shift with sweet potatoes. For many years I had only grown the ones with moist, orange flesh. For that matter, I used to think that was the only kind of sweet potato there was! It was certainly the only kind I had ever eaten. At my old place I grew varieties like Georgia Jet and Centennial, which were reliable producers for me. At Happy Acres I tried Beauregard and Hernandez, and they performed well here and became my new favorites. All four of those fit my earlier paradigm of a sweet potato, and had moist orange flesh.
But then I started growing sweet potatoes that had purple flesh. They were drier and less sweet when cooked, and turned out to be wonderful for savory dishes like stir-fries and curries, and for turning into baked sweet potato fries and for sweet potato hash. Next I tried ones with white flesh, like Bonita, Korean Purple and Red Japanese. Some of these have moist flesh, while some are drier, but none of them fit my earlier paradigm on what made a good sweet potato. I continue to experiment and try new varieties, and who knows what I will find in the future, especially now that I have opened up my mind to all the different types, colors and textures.
My tastes have also changed a bit when it comes to tomatoes. Used to be, my favorites were red fleshed hybrid slicing tomatoes like Better Boy and Big Girl. I always planted a few cherry tomatoes too, and lots of paste types like Roma for canning, but my favorite ones for eating were the red hybrid slicers. Today, I still like red tomatoes, and I still grow Better Boy for that matter, plus newer red cultivars like Celebrity and Garden Treasure. But one of my new favorite slicing tomatoes is an open-pollinated one called Captain Lucky that is hard to categorize.
Captain Lucky looks nothing like the red slicers I used to grow. Actually, it doesn’t look much like any other tomato I’ve ever grown. It’s a green-when-ripe type tomato, though it’s usually listed as a tricolor type, with green, yellow and pink flesh and a sweet/tart flavor that both my wife and I love. It’s great for sandwiches, or for just eating as a side dish. We’ve also come to enjoy purple/black tomatoes like Cherokee Purple, and the orange fleshed Chef’s Choice Orange. Of course I love to experiment, and there are lots and lots of tomatoes out there to try in the future. Who knows what might be my new favorite a few years from now?
My latest game-changer in the garden is a bean, specifically a class of snap beans called ‘greasy beans.’ The beans are so named because the pods are smooth-skinned and non fuzzy. They also have strings, and afficionados of these heirloom beans think they taste best when the beans inside have started to swell up. These beans have certainly broken all the rules about beans as far as I am concerned! My favorites so far are two called Bertie Best’s Greasy Bean and Robe Mountain. Both are heirloom beans available from Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center. Another new favorite is called Non-Tough Half Runner bean, which also has strings but has tender pods even when the beans have developed fully inside.
For years I always thought strings in beans were a bad thing, and a trait that led to time-consuming processing. And the experts always told us to pick our beans before the beans inside started to swell, or else the pods would be tough. Who knew the toughness was bred into the beans at the same time the strings were bred out, in order to make it easier for the pods to be machine harvested and processed for canning! While it does take a bit of time to remove the strings from the pods, for me it is worth the extra effort since the beans themselves are more flavorful. And letting the beans inside the pods get bigger actually results in extra nutrition, since it increases the protein content of the beans. Next year I look forward to growing even more of these beans, and I have a couple of new varieties I want to try.
So how about all of you gardeners out there – have your ideas and preferences about gardening and what you grow changed over the years? If so, I’d love to hear about it! I’ll be back soon with more happenings here at Happy Acres.
One thing about gardening is that you never stop learning. There again you can di the same thing over two years and thunks turn out completely differently. I’d love to have a garden the size of yours.
My first big shift was learning that I garden in a mild enough climate to grow vegetables year round. It has taken me a long time to learn how to really take advantage of that and I have to say that I still have a lot to learn. But as we moved from one house to the next and then to here I was on the lookout for a spot that would provide enough light in the winter to maximize the growing opportunities. A winter garden is not going to grow in the shade of a neighbor’s pine trees. And for this last move I rejected outright perfectly nice homes that were surrounded by too many trees.
Then I discovered the wonderful world of peppers beyond bell peppers and jalapenos and the other few measly offerings at the grocery store or even the farmer’s market. And the same can be said for things like dry beans, flour/flint/dent corns, lettuces, and squash. And as you’ve found there’s a huge variety of green or shall I say snap beans because they come in more colors than green and a variety of shapes and sizes and textures. Heirlooms offer up even more opportunities for new growing and eating experiences.
More revelations came as I learned about soil and the web of life it contains and how taking care of it can reap huge benefits in the garden.
Learning to attract beneficial insects to the garden has also been a fun and beneficial experience. It is really amazing how many aphids a few hover fly larvae can eat in just a few days!
I found that trellising and trimming my tomato plants has been a good switch from growing them in cages. The plants get better air circulation and more light so they are healthier and the tomatoes seem to be tastier perhaps because they get more sun also.
So yes, over the years I have shifted what I grow and how I grow it and no doubt I will continue to do so for as long as I garden.
We definitely picked HA more for the gardening possibilities than for the house itself! As for the peppers, it used to be I only grew bell peppers. This year, I only grew two orange bells, and I may drop them next year. And the soil web topic is one for a separate post (or two) I think! It is safe to say I approach soil as a living thing these days, and treat it more carefully than I might have in the past.
If we knew it all after a few years and just did the same thing, year in and year out, that would get pretty boring – learning and trying new things is one of the best parts about having a garden! I’ve already changed how I do things so much in the relatively short time I’ve been gardening and my preferences have certainly changed. I think that gardeners grow just as much as their gardens!
Funny you mention your old notes as I also still have the notes & drawings from my first garden as well as the 1st gardening book I ever purchased (years before I actually had a garden) – Ortho’s “All About Vegetables” if you can believe it. I have to say my library has definitely improved since then 😉
What I always find interesting is how quickly a new (better) habit or practice to takes over and then you wonder how you did/didn’t do things differently before. I sometimes find myself rolling my eyes at things I did only a few short years ago and wonder – what on earth was I thinking? 🙂
Thanks all of you for sharing a learning process! This year, some gardeners in Greater Boston are experimenting with Biochar, me included. It is too soon to tell yet. No visible difference so far (1st year). What do you think about Biochar?
Hi Marie, I don’t have any experience with Biochar. I don’t believe it is available anywhere in our area.
I love this post and all its comments. Growing and adapting our gardens to our tastest and lifestyles is such an integral part of gardening, and yet so little talked about. I think there is often a stigma against it, a sort of “I’ve always done it this way and it works and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality that can often stifle the creative nature of gardening. I was on a forum a while back and a man was talking about how he always grew a quarter acre of sweet corn every year for a dozen years to feed the extended family’s craving for it. But finally, one year, he was like “wait a minute… I hate growing corn. I hate the work, I don’t much like corn. This is my garden. If they want a quarter acre of sweet corn, they can come out here and plant and harvest it themselves.”