Gardening, Year 2: What I Improved and How I Planned, Planted, and Harvested My 200-square-foot Garden
I grew and preserved so many delicious tomatoes in 2019. The critical question in 2020 was: can I replicate the yield? Had I simply gotten lucky, or was my method actually working? The first year of the garden, I was happy if anything grew. The second year, I felt I had to do at least as well as before… or better. I had to up my gardening game.
How I prepared for my second year of gardening
I bought a square cubic yard of compost from a local landscaping company. I distributed this throughout the garden, mixing it in on top of the beds. There was a little left over, which I kept in cardboard boxes to add to the garden later in the season.
A few plants were still alive in the garden beds from the previous year. These included some perennial herbs, such as sage and thyme, and the kale and cabbage, which both happened to survive the winter and went to seed this year.
New tomato trellises
One of the most substantial preparations needed was new tomato trellises. In 2019, I had used basic wire tomato cages—having been given a bunch—but the plants towered over the tops, tipping over into the PVC-and-netting garden bed covers, and toppling those over, too.
I read up on other people's tomato support methods. Randy and I picked one method that looked sturdy and not too expensive, involving rebar, electrical conduit, and twine.
First, we completely removed the PVC-and-netting garden covers from the tomato beds. They may have protected the plants from our resident backyard quail when the plants were small, and from questing children, but they were listing after the tomatoes toppled the previous year, and hadn't seemed critical to the gardens success.
We pounded the rebar into the ground at either end of each garden bed. We slid long pieces of electrical conduit onto each piece of rebar, which towered a good eight feet into the air. Elbow pieces held a top bar in place. This gave me a frame for tying the tomatoes up. I used jute twine to support the plants. I tied one end loosely around the base of the plant, wrapped it up the stem, and tied the other end to the conduit bar over the bed.
This trellis system worked very well. We had no problems with twine breaking, plants falling, or rebar shifting. I will definitely use it again.
Square foot garden planning and planting
I was not quite as thorough in my planning and record-keeping as I was in year 1, though I still filled out most of my spreadsheets. Again, I approximately followed the square foot gardening method in planning my garden beds.
I planted nearly the same herbs, flowers, and vegetables as the first year, using leftover seeds. Basil, parsley, marjoram. Zucchini, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, carrots, potatoes, green onions, sugar snap peas, tomatoes (Roma, beefsteak, cherry), sweet peppers, green beans.
There were some notable differences. I didn't bother with cabbage; it hasn't formed heads last year and I didn't feel like trying again. I skipped the watermelon, too—I don't think it gets hot enough here for watermelon to grow really well.
I didn't plant the perennials that had happily survived: sage, thyme, peppermint, lemon balm, oregano. I didn't need to start chamomile, because it popped up from seeds dropped in the soil the previous year.
I added dill. I let my oldest son pick out several packets of flower seeds, since we wanted more flowers this year—alyssum, columbine, purple poppies. I tried broccoli. I also had heirloom tomatoes, three different varieties, from a seed packet obtained at a local event.
Gardening with kids
My kids, being a little older this year, could participate in much more gardening. Both my 3-year-old and 1-year-old helped scoop dirt and plant seeds, watered plants, harvested and ate everything. My oldest knew the names of every plant in the garden. He could identify all the herbs, which was more than Randy could do!
When harvesting tomatoes, for example, I could hand the kids a section of a cherry tomato plant and a bucket, and they would meticulously strip the plant of all the fruit (and eat some of it too!)
How the garden grew
2020 started cold. Everything was off to a slow start. I transplanted my seedlings to the garden about the same time as in 2019—early May, when my lilacs bloomed. But May stayed cool. The zucchinis didn't start producing in June like in 2019; instead, we were midway through July before we got any.
I did better with the timing of my seed starting. For example, I started my sweet pepper seeds nearly a month earlier, in late February instead of in late March. I also planted more of them—we had at least 12 pepper plants, instead just a handful.
This year, I tried to pay more attention to pests and disease. I missed the timing on dealing with the worms in our purple plum tree. But I got the slugs! We have an unfortunately large slug population in our yard. With slug pellets from the hardware store sprinkled liberally everywhere, I saved many of the greens, especially those in the shadier beds, from being devoured.
Tomatoes, fresh from the garden
The biggest success: I replicated my tomato harvest! The new trellis held the tomatoes very well, so we ended up with walls of tomatoes instead of piles of vines all over the ground.
The heirloom tomato varieties that we had added were all extremely delicious, and we will plant more of those again next year.
Harvesting in the fall
We did much better planning our harvest, and ensuring that we were not picking anything super last minute as snow was falling. I'm sure it helped that this year, I had some idea how long it would take to harvest everything. I think we were overly optimistic in year 1 in how fast we could move through the yard...
So this year, I spread the harvest out over several days. We spent one day picking all of the tomatoes, and another collecting all the other vegetables—digging potatoes, pulling kale leaves, picking peppers. The last day we spent harvesting a bunch more herbs.
I appreciated the more relaxed harvest, though I also appreciate that we had the experience the first year of the hectic last minute frost. It made me think of the Little House on the Prairie books.
Our herbs and flowers grew well. Many of the tea herbs—especially everything in the mint family—had survived the winter and came back strong. I dried and froze plenty.
Our rhubarb and raspberries were wonderful, just as before. Most of the raspberries were devoured on the back deck, in the sun. With the rhubarb, we made pies, jam, and froze plenty for later. The green gage plum, however, did not produce nearly as much fruit as the first year—likely because of the cold spring. We did get enough for a batch of jam and some plum crisp.
The first year, we had had difficulty getting much to grow in the shady corner bed, under the crapapple tree by the fence. This year, I had Randy trim back the crabapple. I also took most of the plastic slats out of the chain link fence. The combination let the sun actually reach the plants, and improved our yield. The peas grew much better—though I think I should plant more of them next year. The carrots, however, were still small (perhaps it's just the variety we had?), and the broccoli didn't really grow. We had an aphid infestation on the kale, but it seemed to produce plenty anyway. Next year, I think I'll take the rest of the slats out of the fence, or maybe change up what's planted in that corner.
Elsewhere in the yard, our zucchini produced prolifically, despite the late start. The cucumbers fared no better this year than the first; I'm wondering whether they simply need a sunnier spot in the yard. I'll try somewhere different. My goal is still to have enough for pickling, one of these years.
Preparing the garden for winter
I've been reading about no-till gardening methods. In brief, you add mulches and compost on top of the soil, leave roots in the ground, and never stir the soil at all. The reasoning behind this method is that tilling messes up the soil's ecosystems. So, just like Mother Nature, you only add to the top. Exactly what you add and when depends entirely on whose account of no-till gardening you read.
So, this year, I decided to keep our winter preparations simple. Randy used the lawn mower to mulch piles of fallen maple leaves. The kids and I spread the leaf bits over the garden. We also spread out a thin layer of compost over the beds.
Then we just needed to wait for spring.