Post G21-001: Garden lessons learned.

Posted on March 15, 2021

Last year I put in a fairly serious vegetable garden.  Partly it was for the exercise, partly it was to have something to do.

And partly, it was so I’d have something cheerful to see when I looked out my back window.  Like so.


I’m going to start this year’s garden posts with lessons learned from last year.  Scroll down to the headers in red to see if any of this interests you.

1 Vegetable garden raised beds should run east-west.

I set up some raised garden beds as a pandemic project. I constructed them on the cheap, from recycled political campaign signs and bamboo.

At the time, there didn’t seem to be any strong cases for orienting them in any particular direction. So I set them up on the low spots in my back yard.  And as a result, they run northeast-to-southwest.

That was a mistake I now know from first-hand experience that the only efficient orientation for long raised beds is to run them east-west.  I will now briefly explain why.

If you grow plants that are all the same height, then the orientation of the beds doesn’t much matter.  All your plants will get roughly the same amount of sunlight.

But if you grow plants of different heights, or grow a lot of trellised plants, an east-west orientation with a trellis along the back of the bed is the only efficient setup.  (In the northern hemisphere, the “back” is the north edge of the bed.)

In my case, because the beds run northeast-southwest, anything north or west of a tall plant or trellis gets shaded.  Running a trellis down the center of the bed shown above resulted in the plants on the left (west) side being sun-starved.

The upshot is that, the way I’ve done this, a) the beds have to be planted in strict order of plant height from south-to-north, and b) the only place I can successfully put up a trellis is the very back of the bed.  This results in too little space for growing the tall, trellised, or indeterminate plants that I would like to grow. (Tomatoes, cucumbers, winter squash, okra).

A secondary issue is that the paths between my beds are sunny.  Not only does this waste valuable sunshine, I still have to mow there, and those areas turn into a mess in the rain.  By contrast, if you put the walking paths along the back (here, north) edge of east-west beds, the paths are in otherwise unusable ground, shaded by the trellises along the back of the beds.  The lack of sun will help keep weeds down if those paths are then covered with wood chips.

If you are just setting up your beds, take a tip from somebody who screwed it up.  Run them east-west. 

Separately, don’t trust the compass app on your phone.   Use a real compass corrected for your local magnetic declination.  My phone was off about 30 degrees relative to an actual compass reading.

Am I going to move the tons of dirt in those beds, to fix this mistake?  Probably not.  At least not until the beds start falling apart.  I’m just going to live with that mistake for a while.

2  Pick your battles, part 1:  Cucumbers and summer squash are a spring crop.

I spent the entire middle of my garden year fighting three cucurbit pests:  squash vine borer, cucumber beetle, and powdery mildew.  I leaned a lot, and none of it was any fun.




In hindsight:

  • Yes, I defeated the pests, mostly, after a fashion.
  • No, it was not even close to being worth the effort.

You can see a compilation of everything I learned about the squash vine borer, and a treatment regiment that prevented damage, in Post #G27You can see everything I learned about powdery mildew, and a non-toxic spray that worked to kill it, in Post #G20.  For the cucumber beetles, I patrolled the garden in the morning and squished them as I found them.  That never did get them fully under control.

In hindsight, more-or-less all of that was a foolish waste of time.  It was an expression of stubbornness instead of good sense.  Too much work, less than zero fun, and, ultimately, little yield.

I got excellent, blissful, pest-free spring yields on those vegetables.

Pushing that into summer was not worth it.  This year, I’m calling a strategic retreat.  When those bugs show up, I’m going to punt.  Call it a day, and pull those vegetables out on Bastille Day.  I can always plant okra.

But this requires some planning.  In particular, it requires getting seeds started far enough in advance to have a full growing season in prior to 7/14/2021.  I’m already on that — see Item 5.

3  Pick your battles 2:  Animal pests, including deer, birds, and squirrels.

3.1  Locate plants with deer in mind.

I really don’t want to fence in my garden.  And around here, absent an 8′ fence, keeping the deer away is pretty much a full-time job.

Last year, I was a deer novice.  I foolishly planted deer-attracting crops all over my back yard.  I ended up having to defend a widespread area. This year, I’m re-configuring things in the hope that a single device will give me full deer protection.

Last year, I kept the deer mostly in check with a combination of:

  • Bobbex deer repellent
  • A Yard Enforcer motion-activated sprayer
  • Homemade deer-scaring devices.

I give the Bobbex repellent full marks.  It really stinks.  In a good way.  It seems to do what it says it does, which is repel deer.  The only downside is that I had to keep applying it weekly, all around the garden, to keep up the effectiveness.  You also can’t (or shouldn’t) spray it directly on food crops.

The Yard Enforcer motion-activated sprayer worked, with a few caveats.  It tends to trigger off randomly when faced with bright sunshine on broad, fluttering leaves.  And the hose connection began to leak until I replaced the original cheap vinyl hose gasket with a standard 10-cent rubber hose gasket.  Otherwise, it shows no signs of deterioration after one season of use.

You can see the basics of my home-made deer scarers in Post #G07 That’s a cheap indoor infrared switch, hooked up to a radio and some lights.  Don’t know if it scared the deer but it sure scared me when I’d trigger it after forgetting it was on.

This year, the whole strategy is to avoid deer where possible, and to concentrate my deer-attracting crops in one spot.

First, instead of planting sunflowers, I’m planting some “deer-proof” wildflower mixes, along with some mustard.  We’ll see how that works out.  I just want to see something pretty.  I don’t much care what it is.  Last year, I didn’t know that sunflowers are like deer candy.  This year, I’m going for blossoms that the deer (reportedly) don’t like.

Second, plants that the deer will generally leave alone are going in the outlying beds.  That includes tomatoes and potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, and such like.  I didn’t see much deer interest in those last year, and I’m hoping that keeps up.

Third, the deer-attracting vegetables will all go in the beds nearest the house, to be kept under heavy guard.   Peas, green beans, cucumbers, squash, and so on.  The things where, if I let my defenses down for even one day, the deer would do their best to mow them down.

3.2  Birds.

My only bird trouble is that they’ll go after sprouting seeds.  Otherwise, I don’t grow anything for food that the birds want to eat.  Floating row covers worked adequately last year, so that’s what I’m doing again.  Just lay them down, weight them, then pick them up once the plants can fend for themselves.  Very little work, and so, no change from last year.

3.3  Squirrels.

Just wanted to mention that wrapping pumpkins in floating row cover actually did keep the squirrels from gnawing them (Post #G30).  Otherwise, the squirrels ruin the odd tomato or two, but that’s about it.  So, no change from last year.




4 A watering system would be good.

Arguably, the majority of the labor in my garden last year was for watering.  I have eight 60-gallon water barrels.  And no water delivery system.  Unless you call hauling watering cans around “a system”.  Or, alternatively, hauling around a hose hooked up to a pump sitting in a water barrel.

I like using rainwater not just because I’m cheap, or for the slight beneficial impact on the Chesapeake Bay (see my post on bioretention).  Mostly it’s also because our municipal water is treated with chloramines (not chlorine), and a lot of crops just don’t tolerate chloramines very well.  Among other things, the peas will bleach if watered with chloramines.  When I have to water with tap water, I have to use a high-volume activated charcoal filter to remove the chloramines.

I have a rain gauge, and I consult it regularly.  But around here, you can count on having to water the vegetable garden in mid-summer.

Watering is a chore where the basic arithmetic is daunting.  Supplying an inch of water to a modest 16’x4′ bed requires about 40 gallons.  Or, more realistically, about 340 pounds of water.  I have several such beds, and some smaller ones besides.  Hauling water by hand gets to be a real chore.  And as a result, I tend to under-water, particularly when the weather is hot.

After one year, it’s clear that some sort of water-delivery system would save a lot of effort.  I have the feeling that about $20 worth of drip irrigation tubing can replace a few hundred hours of carrying watering cans around.  But I have not yet figured out how to make that work.  It’s hard to make drip irrigation work well with gravity-fed systems such as water barrels.

My rain barrels are cheap.  They are recycled soda syrup barrels, dating back to an era when the local Pepsi bottler would let you haul away as many as you wanted.  I’m sure there’s some reasonably cheap way to get the water from those barrels evenly spread over the garden.  I’ll write that up when I figure it out.

5 Plan the garden, chit the spuds.

I’ve done a little half-baked gardening off-and-on for most of my adult life. In the era before farmers’ markets, the only way to eat a decent tomato was to grow it.  Now, with farmers’ markets everywhere, there’s really no strong incentive to garden for the quality of the produce.  Vegetable gardening is more like entertainment that you can eat.

I’d like to claim that I save money by gardening, but I’m not so sure about that.  And I’m reasonably careful about not buying expensive gardening doo-dads.

I’m not (quite) compulsive enough to do full-fledged cost-accounting for my garden.  But with just a crude reckoning of operating costs (i.e., ignoring the value of the land), and counting my labor as free, I’d say I did no better than a two-thirds discount from store prices.  Probably not even that.  That’s just crudely adding up the cost of pesticide, deer repellent, seed, lime, fertilizer, soil test kit, some fraction of the deer deterrent devices, floating row cover, netting, plant ties, plant markers, and so on.   Then dividing by the approximate poundage of the resulting produce.

If nothing else, growing a serious garden makes wonder how commercial farmers can do what they do for so little money.

Interestingly, when I do the crude accounting, it’s pest control that’s the big-dollar item.  Repellent for the deer, short-acting pesticide for squash vine borer, potassium bicarbonate for powdery mildew, and so on.  That’s all the more reason to reconfigure the crops and the timing to avoid the pests, rather than spend the money to fight them.

That said, I have come to realize that serious gardeners plan their gardens.  That never even occurred to me before last year.  They know what they’re going to plant, they plan for a succession of plantings during the year, they know when to start seeds to have them ready to plant, and so on.

So this year, I’m working it all out in a spreadsheet, above.  Starting from the likely last frost and first frost days.  Working out the seed-starting time from the planting date and the weeks required to produce seedlings.  Figuring out what’s going to get planted mid-summer to replace my spring crops.  The whole bit.

And as it turns out, the first thing I needed to do was chit my potatoes.  So, three weeks ago, I put a bunch of potatoes in paper bags and sat those on top of the fridge, hoping they’ll chit (sprout).  Even though it’ll be at least another two weeks from now before I can plant them.

This week, I started pepper and tomato plants in peat pellets, on a warming pad.  Yesterday I started putting in the peas (as that’s traditionally done around Saint Patrick’s Day.)  Starting the cold-intolerant plants (cucumber, summer squash) will commence in a week or two.  All according to plan.

I have never been anywhere near this organized about gardening before.  We’ll see if it pays off.