As Thanksgiving approaches and the 2014 gardening season ends, I am thankful that I have been able to 1) garden this year; and 2) harvest and cook new veggies that my family enjoyed. I don’t take gardening for granted. I am lucky I have the physical health, the space, and the time to be able to garden. I also believe that gardening is a process; the garden as well as the gardener continues to evolve. Growing, harvesting, and cooking edibles is an even more complex process because the critters want the harvest just as much as you do. When you spend months growing veggies for your family, warding off deer and aphids, you have made a positive impact on everyone’s health. Plus, when your son helps you set up a compost pile or your daughter enjoys making kale chips, you know you have instilled valuable memories and a better understanding of nature. Despite a successful gardening year, I have a few “lessons learned” from my Northern Virginia garden that may help others in my neighborhood.
Alpine strawberry: Learned that if you grow from seed, in addition to buying plants, you will greatly expand your palette of edibles that grow successfully in your garden. Alpine strawberries are great plants, easy to grow from seed, but you won’t find the strawberries in stores or the plants for sale in nurseries (the fruit is too small and delicate to ship). I started my seed in the spring and by mid-November, I was still harvesting the small, delicate fruit.
Beans: Learned that beans germinate so quickly and the plants are so easy to grow, they are great kid plants. Beans keep on producing beans all summer long. Even if something eats the leaves, the plants come back. Although I prefer pole beans for extended harvest and vertical lines, I could also grow a bush bean plant in a large container surrounded by other colorful edibles for a “patio garden.”
Eggplant: Learned that if you grow it, they will come. I have never seen flea beetles until I grew eggplants. Learned to plant the transplants later, when more mature, and to use Surround next time, which will coat the plants with kaolin (a fine clay based product). Also learned that eggplants seem to be more drought resistant than other veggies, they do not need to be watered as often.
Goji plants: Learned that once you have one goji plant, you will always have a goji plant. Goji plants root from roots. If you dig up one plant to place elsewhere and you accidentally leave roots behind, you may find new goji plants. Not that this is a bad thing, I like to eat the small red fruits which are a great source of antioxidants.
Kale: Learned the importance of organic methods. Kale is easy to grow but attracts several different kind of bugs in our area so if you can imagine a farmer growing kale and having to battle these pests on a large scale, you would want he or she to use organic practices instead of chemical sprays. Learned that kids love kale chips and I love to add this healthy green in soups and stews.
Lemon cucumbers: Learned that lemon cucumbers are tasty, easy to grow, and prolific. For once, I did not have a problem with bitterness. Learned that kids like novelty, in fact, was able to give away to friends who also thought they were great! Learned that they are so prolific, they need a heavy trellis to lean on or will drape over my tomatoes and peppers.
Lemon grass: Learned that I could get edibles from Asian markets for a fraction of the cost. My lemon grass plant came from stalks bought at the Asian market, which I rooted in soil. I also learned that once the plants are established, I can pull off a stalk, root it in water/soil, and start a new plant (great gifts for friends). I learned, through YouTube, how to harvest the stalks for cooking and how to dry them to make herbal tea.
Lettuce: Learned that I need to buy different varieties, those that can take cool weather and those that can adapted to heat so can grow continuously from spring through fall. Also learned that our family prefers the cut and come again sweet lettuce. Lettuce is one of the easiest edibles to grow, in a shallow container or in a bed, but it is important to keep sowing to have new, young leaves that are not bitter or that will not bolt.
Pak choi: Learned that pak choi is another fast germinator and easy to direct seed if have cool weather. Like lettuce, need to have enough seed to sow several times, because I use it a lot in cooking. Although it can be grown in a container I use too much so I grow it in the front garden bed and so far, no pests or disease.
Peppers: Learned that pepper seeds are difficult to germinate or conversely, I don’t have patience. But I also learned that once I can get them to germinate and transplanted in the garden, I can harvest peppers up until frost. They seem to perk up in the fall and produce even more peppers.
Pineapple sage: Learned that even though this is a tropical plant that does not overwinter here in Virginia, it does not necessarily mean it likes the hot, afternoon sun. My pineapple sage wilted often in August’s heat but thrived in the cooler autumn temperatures. I think it would have thrived in morning sun, afternoon shade, which is where I will put it next year. Pineapple sage is one of my favorite herbs for teas so I periodically cut stems and harvest the leaves. I learned that if I strip almost all leaves except two or three, I could put the stems in water and they will root. I end up with even more plants to put into the garden or to give to friends.
Shiso: Learned that shiso can be invasive in Virginia. I obtained a seed packet from a California based company and after I had transplanted the seedlings to my garden, I saw many plants in the neighbor’s garden, in the sidewalk cracks, alongside the road, etc. I then researched shiso further and discovered that it is considered invasive here, but maybe not California. The source of seed can make a difference plus the seed packet may not tell you everything you need to know.
Sugar snap peas: Learned that these are very easy to germinate, just soak seeds in water overnight, put in wet paper towels or paper coffee filters, and seal in a plastic bag. They germinate so fast this way you best be ready to plant them. I also learned that seedlings tolerate the cold, wet soil better than seeds so is best to germinate indoors and then plant outdoors.
Summer squash: Learned that it is worth it to grow the yellow summer squash so I will find a way to prevent the dreaded squash vine borer. My family enjoyed eating squash in a casserole dish and I am sure they will enjoy it next year when I add it to grilled shish kebab.
Tomato: Learned that seed germinates so fast, you can use cardboard egg cartons (any longer and the cardboard will get moldy). Also learned the value of growing in a medium with the prescribed amount of fertilizer. I have always grown my tomatoes in Earthboxes on the deck and they have never had diseases. I really believe it is because they are grow from seed, in a container on the deck (away from the garden soil and other plants), and with the prescribed amounts of lime and fertilizer.
Zinger hibiscus or Roselle: Learned that the variety makes a difference. I obtained a packet of seed from a California-based company. Although I started the seeds indoors in early spring, transplanted outdoors in very rich soil in large containers (practically coddled them), this particular Hibiscus sabdariffa finally started flowering in late September but our frosts occur at the end of October. Again, the seed packet did not offer the crucial fact that flower initiation is caused by short days/long nights. Next year, I will grow another variety called Thai Red Roselle, which starts flowering mid-summer, allowing a more ample harvest.
I have been eating lemon cucumbers all my life (coming up on 80 years). My grandmother told me to pick them at full size, but before they turn yellow.
They’re nicer and less seedy that way.