by Krystal Krogman
Working for a company like Heirloom Solutions, and its parent company, is sometimes kind of embarrassing. I am a convert, slowly implementing more and more beliefs of theirs: self-sufficiency, education, and preparedness. When I first started here, I couldn’t tell you the difference between green beans – I thought they were always just green! Same goes for carrots! (Did you know they come in a variety of colors, even purple and white?!)
Turns out, I was wrong… way wrong. Over the years, Heirloom Solutions has grown, from a few plants in their greenhouse to an actual farm a few miles away! They still have their pioneer greenhouse, but it mainly is used to start plants in the colder months which seem to last forever in Northern Illinois. Last year, in late spring, I decided to get some of these started plants.
Let me be frank, I can’t grow anything – or at least I didn’t think I could. I know nothing about gardening and often claim to have the “brownest thumb in the company” (I’ve even killed the “impossible” – Hostas, Philodendrons, and even my grass is questionable) … but it wasn’t always that way. I used to live in Iowa’s countryside, when I was much younger, before I moved to the smack-middle of this little town not far from Heirloom Solutions. My parents had a garden when I was younger, but I really wasn’t the gardening-type mainly because I didn’t understand its importance. To me, it was this awful weeding chore. A chore that took hours, probably because I didn’t help keep up with it… I didn’t quite understand the connection between it and my parents’ pantry of canned tomatoes.
So mid-spring last year, I decided I should learn to garden well, before it’s too late to learn. Face it, these days kids don’t always care about the world – they’re more interested in what pop-culture thinks… and I don’t see many stars in Hollywood talking about their plot rows. So I dove in and got dirty… “Sink or swim” … Check out how close I got to drowning:
Mistake #1 – When I grabbed these started heirloom plants, last spring, I just grabbed. No plans, no plotting – just grabbed the plants, then went to the hardware store and purchased the other supplies. So you can understand the gravity of the situation, I grabbed three Chives plants, a broccoli plant four-pack, an eggplant plant, five bigger tomato plants (like Beefsteak size), a cherry tomato plant, three hot pepper plants, a bell pepper plant, some Parsley, some thyme, and some sage.
I just want you to know that I’m a relatively “picky eater”… I don’t like chives, eggplant, bell peppers and, on occasion, hot peppers. See where I went wrong here? I was headed for a bounty, but one that I wouldn’t eat much of. I should also mention that when I got these plants, my family was at the hefty size of three: myself, my husband, and a toddler. My husband is notoriously a more selective eater than myself, and my toddler was a little young to be consuming the rest of the bounty we had deemed “untasty.”
Mistake #2 – So last spring, when I got these plants, I purchased four pots from the local hardware store and some soil. I even got some of that “Moisture” type of soil, just in the event I under-watered (a habit I know I’m notorious for). I knew nothing about my yard, its sun patterns, its pH levels or its composition. I thought I was being wise, opting for container gardening on my front porch. Turns out, I kind of was. I knew that if I didn’t walk past it every day I wouldn’t care for it. It would go by the wayside. Unfortunately, because I knew nothing about the “sun patterns” in my yard, I didn’t know that my front porch, facing east (but behind several buildings) only gets a small amount of sun, if any…
Mistake #3 – As you read before, I got a LOT of plants for my small family. Also, as you read, I got four pots. To the garden-savvy folks, you know, that’s not a very good amount of space. To the hard-core beginners like myself, trust me, it’s not enough room. My plants were severely stunted in growth.
I didn’t get much fruit at all. My 5 slicing-size tomato plants grew 4 tomatoes, only one of which turned its “mature” color, and they were all grape-sized tomatoes. I got one chili pepper, that grew full-size, and one bell pepper that was the size of a small habanero pepper. Lesson learned: give them some room to grow!
Mistake #4 – I didn’t do ANY research on the plants I got. While I got some decent growth on my herbs (because they’re used to being planted so close together) I didn’t know what to do with them.
When do I snip the chives? What would I do with them once I have them? What can I use them for? Can I dry them? I’d never seen dried chives.
What in the world is sage good for? How do I know when it’s ready to be clipped? The leaves look the same; there are just some larger ones.
Cilantro… oh cilantro… I was really excited when after a couple weeks I found that my cilantro was really enjoying our rather wet summer. So much so that my potted cilantro was over a foot tall! Turns out, a good friend of mine clued me in: it’s not supposed to get that tall. I had managed to miss the prime of the plant, and now was working my way to something called coriander. (Who knew they were the same plant?) I tried to hack it down a good way, to see if I could salvage it… It didn’t like that.
Mistake #5 – The research I did do was for the pots and soil. I looked up on Pinterest some container gardening ideas. I started each pot with a coffee filter in the bottom, to help with erosion I believe is what I read. I added a raw egg before putting the plants in, about halfway up in the soil. I filled the pots with soil, but for the tomato plant pots, I added a cleaned out water bottle with holes poked into the sides because somewhere I had read they like their roots watered. I even looked up (also on Pinterest), about companion planting trying to avoid the faux-pas of container gardening.
I did all this at the beginning, but at no point during the growing season did I fertilize, or even feed my plants. I watched them, occasionally looking them over for pests. I noticed the squirrels (or perhaps another animal) liked the leafy greens from my eggplant and broccoli plants. I put sticks next to the tomato plants when they grew up and started falling over. I snipped the herbs, unfortunately it was well past when they should have been done. It was a rather wet summer, so I really only had to water maybe once.
What I learned from my first year of gardening
1) Buy and plant what you’ll eat. No sense in buying three chives plants, if you don’t even know what to use them for. I’m not saying don’t try anything new; just don’t go bulk for a newbie that you may not like.
2) Put the garden (whether container or in ground) where you’ll see it, and somewhere where it will thrive. Rotating containers so the plants can share the three inches of sun between porch rungs won’t yield much. If you don’t have a spot that fits both these criteria, set a timer on your phone or set aside time to go out and just love your garden.
3) Give them some space. I think I had one, maybe even two pots that had five plants in it. If you’re going to container garden, know how much room to give each plant so you do get a yield.
4) Research, research, research. Know how long growing seasons are for plants, before you plant. You don’t want to be researching (like I did) when you should be trimming your parsley or cilantro when you’re well on your way to coriander. Know that a broccoli plant gets huge. Literally, huge. Three broccoli plants in a foot-wide pot with your sage and cilantro… It’s just not going to work. You get nothing… except some greenery labeled broccoli with your sage and cilantro.
5) Keep at it and don’t leave your plants to fend for themselves. They can be needy, but they can’t voice it. Think of how prosperous a garden would be if it could just scream like a two-year-old when it gets hungry, thirsty or something is picking at it. If they would just speak up, maybe I wouldn’t be able to back-burner something my family may just be relying on one day.
Lastly, don’t get discouraged, it does take patience. Get your family, children especially involved. I know that when I “staked” the tomato plants, my toddler was right there ready to find sticks in the yard to put in the pots. In fact, I would often find sticks randomly sticking out of the dirt in my garden pots. This year, I think we’ll put in a “digging garden” for him to get all sorts of dirty too… Then get him started in gardening too, even if he finds it to be a back-breaking weeding chore.