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Becoming a better gardener

What have you learned from your garden this year? The lessons are many.
How did your garden grow this year? Carrots, cabbages, tomatoes, peppers, even corn? Photo Metro Creative Connection

 We learn more from our mistakes than our successes.

Some experts say it takes eight years to become a good gardener. In my case after gardening almost all my life, and seriously for the past eight years, I disagree. I am still learning, trying, often by trial and error, and by trying new techniques. Gardening on a fairly large city lot, I found little reason for growing vegetables in containers. But this summer, I have somewhat successfully grown cabbage, spinach, radishes, and tomatoes in containers. Last year, I grew corn in a wine barrel and harvested one cob of corn. This year I combined corn with pumpkins. Great results with the pumpkins, mediocre results with corn.

Adapting the garden to your urban lot is trial and error. Nor only does the placement of your house and trees affect the amount of sun and moisture available to your plants, your neighbour’s trees also affect your garden. You can use areas in light shade for leafy vegetables such as spinach, Swiss chard, or lettuce. Hotter areas are great for tomatoes or peppers. While areas of six or so hours of sunlight are great for root vegetables, potatoes, beans, or peas, they will produce, but with smaller crops, and mature later.

Becoming a better gardener includes a respect for nature. We want to live in harmony with the birds, bees and insects in your garden soil. Identify damage by daily inspections and move quickly by removing infected leaves or applying targeted organic pesticides. Only use organic pesticides in small areas to control an invasion that could seriously damage your crop. And remember, a plant can lose up to 40% of its foliage and still provide a great crop. Pruning of tomato plants should prove that point.

I find the foundation of a great garden is at least 12, and up to 20, inches, of compost rich soil. Compost returns nutrients that have been taken up by your plants, holds water, and ensures your soil is porous. I compost vegetable and plant leaves, kitchen garbage, fall leaves, and add compost in the fall as part of putting my garden to bed.

More and more, I am finding my plants need much less water. Why? Soil that contains compost absorbs, holds, and releases water as needed by the plants. Plants need less water in nutritious soil in order to obtain nutrients. A layer of mulch reduces surface evaporation. And plants that provide a canopy of vegetation also reduce surface evaporation. Rain water is better and cheaper than city water. For a large garden you will need at least three large rain barrels and a few smaller containers. Some years this may too few, others too much. In the fall use the excess to water your trees.

For larger plants such as brassica, squash, or tomatoes, I have developed a process of getting water to the plant roots, by inserting larger tin cans with the bottom removed inserted in the soil to the height of the can. To water, I simply fill the can once or more as needed. I can also add fertilizer in the can at the same time.

The process of becoming a better gardener also involves research, talking to other gardeners, cruising Internet web pages and YouTube, and reading gardening magazines and books. There years ago, I learned flowers of raspberries and tomatoes are bi-sexual, not needing pollinators to fruit. I also found the flowers won’t set in high humidity and temperatures in the high thirties.

This year I expanded my container gardening to include cabbage, lettuce, peanuts, radishes, and spinach, all successfully. Many cabbages had split heads, probably from not watering consistently. And I planted too many. Nest year, I am going to plant three of each early, then three more later to spread out the eating.

All in all, I have made enough mistakes to learn a lot.

Charles Schroder gardens in the Edmonton area.