I started gardening during the first lockdown in late March of 2020, with the intention of improving the quality of our food supply, decreasing toxicity from pesticides, and reducing our dependency on a strained supply chain.
The results were mixed and I learned a great deal in the process but all-in-all I have to congratulate myself for delivering a healthy harvest and a mountain of very useful insights to consider in future years.
In the interests of sharing what I learned and documenting my regenerative journey, these are my key takeaways from gardening (for resilience) in 2020.
Timing Is Essential
Biological timing is more complex and unforgiving than anything else I can think of, except perhaps magical timing. There is a right and wrong time to do everything in your garden and being late, or premature, can render the entire process pointless. The pounds of green tomatoes I harvested after the recent frost are a testament to this fact.
Planting late this Spring was a mistake that steadily worsened throughout the year. Starting seeds on time would have saved money and planting on schedule would have increased the garden’s productivity.
Good Soil Is Grown, Not Made
Buying compost and fertilizer and plant food and mixing them together doesn’t make soil. Time, bacteria, and fungi make soil, along with the myriad of other creatures and conditions that one can find in a spadeful of healthy dirt.
I spent a lot of money trying to push nutrients into my dirt that I don’t think was necessary. By planting in boxes filled with bagged soil I was putting plants into dirt with nutrients they couldn’t access. Outside of legumes, all the vegetables you’ll find in my garden rely on mycorrhizal networks of fungi in the soil to translate nutrients into the energy they consume.
After planting in fresh dirt, my first round of Spring vegetables did nothing for several weeks. In a panic I bought organic fertilizer that had heaping helpings of bacterial cultures and fungal inoculants. Shortly afterwards the plants started growing like crazy. I believe the delay was the amount of time it took for the mycorrhizal web to develop in and around the plants’ roots.
Planting again in the late Summer and Fall proved fruitful much more quickly which I attribute to the soil already being thick with feathery white webs of mycelium.
Digging a hole to add new plants disturbs the soil but my garden dirt was rich with fungal and bacterial life by this point and the mycelium quickly grew back together, integrating the new plants into the network.
Within a few days of planting in the late summer, I was already seeing growth that indicated they’d “taken to” the new soil, forever making me a believer in the value of letting fungi do its thing before trying to use new dirt.
Grow In Bulk
I was entirely too experimental and had over twenty different species growing in my beds. Now, I have a lot of beds, and this is a fine strategy for hobby growers because it’s more fun. But when you’re trying to provide sustenance, there is more benefit in growing a bulk of a few key (high-nutrient density) vegetables than a more diverse spread of species.
This is not to say that it’s better to grow all one thing -far from it. Instead growing a few, synergistic species in a guild and staging plants across multiple beds gives you the opportunity to “get it right” by reducing the complexity of your garden and producing enough of a particular food to make it worth the effort.
There are also the benefits of easier pollination and bulk management -if you’re growing a lot of one plant at once, the care, feeding, and watering requirements are essentially the same which makes your job easier.
Know What Grows, When
I waged an epic battle against squash beetles this Summer -and lost. I started no less than 50 squash plants, including 30 or so yellow squash and 20 or more mixed winter, spaghetti, and other varieties. Sadly none of them survived long enough to bear fruit.
I was lucky and got my first two squash plants to produce for about a month and a half prior to the start of Summer, but once that Texas heat was in full effect, so were the squash beetles and their ravenous vine-boring larvae (damn them all!).
Despite spending many hours ass-up in the garden picking squash beetle eggs off leaves and digging those hideous wriggling, Lovecraftian terrors from the stems of dying squash plants; all my efforts were wasted. I lost the entire crop to the infestation.
And all the while 35 okra plants were growing to unassailable heights with dozens of mighty, fruit-producing blooms, free from pests and flourishing in the sticky, sweltering heat of Texas summer.
It matters what you grow, when.
Prioritize Beneficial Habitats & Attractors
I got lucky because Sarah loves sunflowers and insisted that we plant a row of the towering, bright-faced beauties along a fence line in the garden. Obsessed with vegetable production, I had completely forgotten to prioritize pollinator attractors like flowers and herbs.
In a wilder place this error might have been inconsequential, with pollinators able to discover my patch of green on their way to other, established sources of their sticky, golden currency.
But here in suburbia? Bees have little reason to visit the zero-scaped, boxwood-and-grass landscaped neighborhood. Worse, our cultural obsession with Round-Up is murdering these prize pollinators by the millions (probably billions, honestly) each year. This constant cycle of destruction has decimated the populations of urban beneficials while allowing the annual infestations of pests to progressively spiral out of control.
Without the beaming faces of the sunflowers, and a few other pollinators I planted in a state of panic, my vegetable production could have been extremely underwhelming. And I know I could have done better. There were several weeks with no production whatsoever that I am convinced could have been avoided had I prioritized planting pollinator-attractors early on.
Pest control in organic gardening isn’t about adding more chemical inputs. It’s about the law of attraction. Attracting birds, bees, lacewings, lady bugs, lizards, toads/frogs, and other easily overlooked beneficial creatures is the secret to a highly productive garden.
Supplying habitats for these unsung heros (early in the year) is the best way to ensure that their support throughout the growing season.
Not Everybody Is Going To Make It
As I mentioned, pests are a growing problem. Not every seed will germinate and not every seedling will survive the dangerous journey out of the soil and into the sunlight. Cutter worms, slugs, flies, and other insects will feed on their supple little leaves. I take a cue from nature and spread my seeds like the world is against me.
Out of 10 seeds, I’d average 2-4 plants at full production in the garden. That means seeding, repotting, planting, and (since I was trying to maximize production with vertical gardening) staking, tying, and pruning a lot more plants than actually produced edible vegetables.
I also learned that you’re never really gardening just for your own consumption. There’s an entire ecosystem with equal rights to everything I produce -because it’s not really my production in the first place. Insects, rats, rabbits, and other consumers will eat a fair amount of what grows in the garden. The solution is simply to grow enough for everyone (and to put a reasonable amount of effort into protecting the crop).
It Takes A Guild
Plants never grow in an ecosystem of one. The very nature of Nature insists on collaboration, conscious or otherwise.
Thanks to studies with Gordon White’s Rune Soup membership and permaculture literature, I was introduced to the idea of plant guilds this year. Unfortunately a bit too late to really influence my garden design, but soon enough for me to employ some of the basic ideas.
The famous guild example is beans, corn, and squash. The early bloomer, squash, produce big leaves which shade young bean shoots which grow up the corn like a trellis and fix nitrogen into the soil, feeding the guild.
This trio, nicknamed the Three Sisters, provides a reliable and sustainable resource through biomimicry; reproducing a balanced, natural system through human intervention. Applying the same logic I planted beans in all of my vertical beds and trained them to grow up the sides. I provided ground cover in the summer with vining plants (cucurbits and melons) and greens in the fall.
I added herbs to every bed; a little mint here, a little basil there. Herbs are a deterrent for many insects, rats, and other pests. They’re also delicious, medicinal, and fragrant -a staple of any self-respecting garden.
Vines covered my fence from top to bottom. Watermelons made knots with climbing beans and cucumbers. Beans peaked the fence and curled around themselves, bridging a foot or more of empty space to find support from mammoth sunflower necks craning westward towards the fence (and the late afternoon sun).
Plants tend to grow in communities as a beautiful, chaotic mess that’s perfectly balanced and mutually beneficial. There’s much we could learn from them in this respect.
It's Not About What I Learned But What I Lived
Education is cheap these days. YouTube can teach you to do almost anything. What’s rare and wonderful is the personal experience of puttering around in your garden or workshop, creating and resolving your own delimmas.
Through these lived experiences I learned what I can and can’t do in a year, from scratch, with a garden. Give me some space, a little good dirt, seeds -and a lot of time- and I can produce half the vegetables we eat throughout the year.
I think there’s a lot to be proud of in what I accomplished with the garden this year and I’m confident that the effort I put into developing healthy soil this year will set me up for success in 2021.
But what I’m most pleased with, after all the work I put into this project this year, is the confidence that I have to move forward with my plan to reprioritize how I spend my life. If I can go from nothing to over 600 sq ft of highly-productive growing space in under a year, think what I can do with the rest of my life.