Gardening as a Family – 6 Tips for A Good Start

Gardening seems to be in my family’s genes. For years my grandfather would have acres upon 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 farmland. For crops farther away he used his tractor and a huge, homemade spraying tank.

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

The remainder of his gardening time, which wasn’t planting, watering, or harvesting, involved 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.

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. It felt important to get our three kiddos involved. Lending an opportunity to educate them on how to grow their own food (doing it organically) and to spend time together while teaching them a life skill that they should know. Selling the produce and keeping part of the money was a good motivator for the kids.

Once I decided to start gardening, my first step was chatting with my grandfather. In typical fashion, he arrived very early one morning the following week, without warning and tiller on-hand, and set out to find the perfect garden spot. I quickly gathered myself to start the morning, a little sooner than expected and joined him outside.

• Location

Granddaddy picked a sunny spot with a rotting stump nearby. According to stories from older neighbors, it was the same spot used for pigs to roam long ago (the house is circa 1851 so there is plenty of history). 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, and 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.  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 in the wrong spot), some spinach there (planted too early), and a feeble attempt at corn (not enough rows for germination). My flower gardens were unorganized and I grew random plants in random locations. Again, the importance of location. We enjoyed a very small and heedless harvest but had the accomplishment of getting my feet wet with gardening.

A strange hybrid

• Make a Plan

As years went on I spent more time reading and planning out the garden, which included research on the placement of plants (which plants like to be neighbors). My prior inexperience with this led me to some interesting hybrid vegetables.  Habanero 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.

• Protect the Garden

Deer made no exception for my garden as they helped themselves each night.  The tricks my grandfather attempted to deter the wildlife flashed in my mind: shaved pieces of specific soap around the garden, chili pepper sprinkled onto plants (my most successful method), 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 felt disappointed to see my vegetables 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 the fence. 

Dropping a lot of money on a fence project wasn’t what I had in mind, so we got resourceful with metal fencing poles that we already had 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.

As my garden expanded each year, so did my fence. Ultimately, 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.

Fence is important

My husband decided to handle this for me and headed off to the local farm store to get more metal fence posts and more chicken wire – lots of it. He actually layered the wire and stacked one layer on top of another to get more 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 already on hand; regardless it was certainly an investment worth making. I am here to say that we have had no deer problems since we made the fence upgrade.

• Planting Variations

Marigolds have many benefits and look beautiful around the garden

Marigolds surrounding the perimeter of the garden is not only a beautiful touch, but also beneficial. The deer will not eat them and it can keep bugs away from the garden. For me the bright orange flowers have sentimental reasons, thinking back to my grandmother’s beautiful flowerbeds abundant with marigolds. She spent much time “fussing” over them (although they are easy to maintain) because most likely she just enjoyed being outside taking care of them. My grandmother passed away last year, so the marigolds have become an especially important supplement to the garden.

Upcycled pallets allowed the utilization of space and gave the cantaloupe and watermelon area to climb. Some chicken wire (same as we used for the fencing) attached on the backside of the pallets allows supported space for the melons to rest on.

Three Sisters Method

Three Sisters Method

Using the Three Sisters planting technique for my corn, squash, and beans resulted in great success. Basically it means making a mound 3 feet in diameter and planting 4 corn seeds spaced around the mound. 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 varieties), should be 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.

The only caveat: a battle with vine borer bugs, and unfortunately, they won. This was not an issue I was familiar with as I usually had more squash than I knew what to do with, but 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 method resulted in success.

• Know your materials

Seed complications and compost issues sparked another battle. 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. Sadly, I realize that I am not one of those folks.

I decided that besides my 3-sisters method, in which I would plant the seeds directly, I will stick to purchased seedlings. Plants grown from seed tend to be frail. I lost a lot of seedlings and felt that too much time replacing and regrowing the plants became counterproductive.

My compost issue also involved seeds but the difference – the seedlings were too hardy and fertile. My rich, organic soil from the compost did not reach the high temperatures to kill off the potential seedlings. Unknowingly, I added the compost mixture to my new plants, only to have dozens of volunteers come up and mingle with 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 tiny cucumber seedling and a cantaloupe seedling.

• Enjoy the Experience

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.

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