New Plants in 2020: What I Learned

At the end of the season, I always review how the season went and what I would like to do differently next year. 

New Garden Goals for 2020

This year was very different than previous years for me in the community garden. For the past 9 growing seasons, I had led a team that grew produce for a local food pantry. Our main goal was to grow as much produce as possible.

This year, the plot became mine only and my goal was to provide fresh vegetables for myself and my husband. I wanted to try a few new crops and flowers. I didn't feel like I could grow flowers for pleasure in the previous garden, and I tended to stick with crops that had proven to succeed. 

So.... how did it go?  I have 4 lessons to share.

Lesson 1: Borage is a Big Plant!

Borage has a reputation as an amazing attractor of pollinator insects. It was true! My four borage plants always had dozens of bees and other flying insects visiting the blue and pink flowers. 

Yet... I had never grown it before,  and I misjudged the size of the plant. It took over the corners of my plot. It was a vigorous grower, too. Before I realized it, my four plants dominated the ends of my plot and shaded everything around it. The shade and the borage's hungry roots caused nearby plants to struggle.

I tried cutting it back, but found that sometimes the cut stems rotted. It smelled bad and attracted undesirable insects.

Lesson learned: Borage needs a lot of space to grow, and while it's a good attractor of pollinators, it's not the best choice for a small plot. 

Lesson 2: Sunflowers

I had admired other plots' sunflowers for years, and early in the spring, I was seduced by the pictures of beautiful heirloom sunflowers on the seed package in the store. Orange, gold, yellow, rusty red - what a lovely addition to my bouquets! or so I thought. Giddy with the enthusiasm of the spring gardener, I put in 6 sunflowers. 

I knew they would grow big, but I didn't think it through. Their broad leaves shaded many of my other plants and impacted their ability to thrive. 

The flowers were beautiful and attracted lots of bees. I proudly cut blooms to bring home for bouquets. 

I did not enjoy the yellow pollen the flowers dropped from my bouquets. They were messy.

Windy weather knocked some of the plants down. We get some strong storms here in Kansas City, and several of the smaller heirloom sunflowers were snapped off or knocked down entirely. 

Then, mid summer, some kind of critter, probably a squirrel, discovered the flowers. They chewed off every last flower, and came back for more when new flowers sprouted and started to bloom. Disappointing.

When I decided to take them down, that was a project in itself. Some of those stems were close to 2 inches thick. 

Lesson learned: Plant fewer sunflowers (if any) and position them within the plot not to shade other plants so much.

Lesson 3: Lettuce is Delicious

I was looking forward to lots of early-season salads and I planted 4 different kinds of lettuce. I was especially excited about a new variety I was trying called "Crispino," because it was an iceberg lettuce that formed a head. I had only grown leaf lettuce in the past. 

Yes, indeed, lettuce is delicious! The critters thought so too, unfortunately. My lettuce crop was essentially destroyed by small animals. 

I tried growing it again in the fall, and it did well until the critters got it again. Very disappointing.

I did get to taste a little bit of it and it's delicious! No wonder the pests would eat them up! I'll keep trying Crispino until I figure out how to grow it successfully.

This year my plot endured more pest damage than ever before. It wasn't just the lettuce and sunflowers. I'm not sure what made this year more enticing to the small mammals, but I will try some different techniques next year.

Lesson learned: Protect your lettuce (and all tasty crops) aggressively. 

Lesson 4: Clarify your Goals so You Plant Enough

This year, I tried a "paste tomato," called San Marzano. I had planned to make one or two batches of fresh tomato sauce from those tomatoes. I had two plants. They did very well and they produced picture-perfect tomatoes.

However, they didn't produce enough tomatoes for sauce at one time. I picked the ripe ones, put them in the freezer temporarily, accumulating enough to try to can them. I didn't originally plan to preserve them with canning, but I figured, why not?

After nearly the entire crop came in, I processed them for water-bath canning. Unfortunately, it just wasn't very many tomatoes- maybe about 6 pounds. I went through all the effort to can them to get only 3 pints. Canning is a lot of work - 3 pints is not really enough to justify all the work, in my opinion.

Lesson learned - if you want to make tomato sauce or canned tomatoes, you need a lot of tomatoes. Two plants is not even close.

It's How You Become

You may think I had a less-than-successful garden this year - but not true! Even though I had these learning opportunities, I still consider this year's garden a great success. Now, I know more about:

  • How much space more plants require. If you don't try new plants, you never learn how they work. 
  • Plan a plot to be more mindful of sunlight
  • How much to plant to grow enough for preserving
  • I learned how to can using the water bath method!

This is how we become better gardeners. What a wonderful thing to be!

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