Now that 2020 has come and gone, I've been reflecting on what we learned in our first year of homesteading. We started out the year with very little knowledge about gardening, animal keeping, or generally anything related to small scale farming, but it's been really remarkable how much we have learned along the way in only our first year. Here is a look at some of the most important gardening lessons I learned this year.
Growing Food is an Ongoing Science Experiment
We had some minor gardening experience before 2020, but I was honestly never very successful with it. This year, I’ve learned that it’s kind of like doing a science experiment that never ends. Sometimes, seeds germinate and you get beautiful, healthy plants. Other times, you plant those seeds and wait and wait and wait… and nothing ever happens.
So many factors can impact your garden. Is it getting enough water? Is your soil healthy? Are you planting the right things in the right time of year? My first big lesson was learning what to plant and when in our zone (7B). Knowing your zone will help you so much because you can literally just go online and look up what to plant in the current month for your particular area. If you don’t know your zone, you can find it online here by just putting in your zip code.
Plant the Right Things at the Right Time
The first things I planted didn’t do too well honestly. I started seeds in the spring and put them on my greenhouse shelves on the back deck and figured as long as I gave them a little water along the way, they would do just fine. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite that simple. I planted all the wrong things to start!
Here in western NC, there are basically three gardening seasons: spring, summer, and fall. You can grow a few things in winter, but not a lot. For my spring garden, I tried to plant summer crops. They couldn’t handle the unpredictable temperatures and cold nights and most of them died before they ever came out of the seed trays. Some didn’t germinate at all.
Like a good scientist, I didn’t give up. Once warmer weather came around, I replanted the summer crops and this time, I had better results. I learned that starting things from seeds is tedious and baby plants are very delicate. I felt like those little seedlings would die if I looked at them the wrong way sometimes!
I ended up doing a 50/50 approach to summer gardening. I relied on plant starts from local nurseries for 50 percent of my garden and I started seeds for the other half. I also learned that sometimes it’s better to direct sow the seeds into the garden, instead of using those seed trays. Some plants came up nicely in the seed trays, but they just couldn’t survive transplanting.
Summer Gardening is the Easiest for Beginners
During the summer months, we enjoyed an overwhelming success with tomatoes, bell peppers, green beans, okra, cucumbers, basil, banana peppers, turnips, jalapenos, and a few other herbs. We had mediocre success with potatoes - I should have purchased indeterminate seed potatoes, but instead, I bought a determine variety so the yield wasn’t great. However, those homegrown potatoes tasted amazing!
Our corn crop was mediocre. We planted too early the first time and got no results so I replanted and the corn came up nicely. However, it was FULL of worms so we only had a handful of edible ears to enjoy. I probably won’t even attempt to plant corn again because it’s so cheap and plentiful here in the south in the summer. I will, however, continue to keep seeds for corn in my freezer as an emergency stash in case I change my mind (and I might!).
Plant What You Will Use and Learn to Preserve the Harvest
In the thick of July’s heat, we were overrun with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and green beans. Those four crops were so prolific that I actually started selling vegetable bags to a handful of friends and neighbors. We were able to share our bounty with friends at church too. Even with selling and sharing a large portion of our summer harvest, I had to figure out how to preserve all those beautiful vegetables.
I invested in a gardening tool I had never planned on - a canner. I learned to can using both a water bath canner and a pressure canner. This turned out to be a lot of fun and I built up a beautiful stockpile of jars filled with my own produce. I canned tomato sauce, tomato soup, diced tomatoes, pickles, pickles, and more pickles. Then just when I thought I was catching up, green beans were ready to pick and it was time to can some more!
Growing a Garden Can Quickly Become a Full-Time Job
With all the planting, weeding, watering, picking, and preserving, I quickly found out that a successful garden takes a lot of work and a ton of time. During the summer months, I would wake up and start my day in the garden before it got too hot. Then in the evening, I’d go back for round two when it had cooled down enough to get more work done.
Then when we decided to try selling some vegetables, there was the matter of dividing produce, packaging it, weighing it, and scheduling pickup times. I really enjoyed this part though and it led me to dive deep into researching commercial gardening, CSA’s, farmer markets, and other models of selling produce.
Fall Gardening is Fun Too
By the time fall rolled around, I was so in love with my little garden that I wasn’t about to let it come to an end. As I pulled dying plants out of each bed, I replaced them with baby plants I had started indoors or I planted new seeds. This time, I planted the right things at the right times and had much more success than in the early spring.
Fall has delivered a great harvest of kale, arugula, broccoli, an abundance of lettuce greens, and collard greens. These leafy greens thrive in the cooler temperatures and I’ve learned different ways to prepare them so that even my kids will eat them.
What I’ll Do Differently in 2021
As I start to plan my garden for 2021 and order seeds, I have to confess that I’m feeling like a kid at Christmas. I want to plant ALL THE THINGS. It’s truly like magic to watch a garden grow, to eat food that started as a seed in your hand, and to know I’m feeding my family homegrown vegetables with absolutely no pesticides or sprays that could make us sick.
In 2021, my plan is to go bigger. Last month, Josh worked with his dad on the excavator and tractor to clear a big part of our upper land. This will become our first market garden and we plan to grow those summer bumper crops that we know will sell well to friends and neighbors. We’re going to offer produce bags weekly this summer and start to experiment with creating a profitable business model for our little farm.
Our raised bed garden will continue to be used to feed our family and I plan to experiment with a few new varieties this year. I’m shopping for seeds now and trying to decide what all I will plant. I definitely want to do more potatoes this year and I also hope to add a pumpkin patch.
So there you have it! That is our 2020 gardening recap and a quick look at what we learned in our first year of homesteading. If you are considering a garden, I really encourage you to jump in and give it a try. Even mistakes help you learn and there is a lot of joy found in the garden. Personally, I find that God speaks to me most often in the garden. Sometimes about having my hands in the dirt, my heart quiet and ready to listen, and my attention fully on work at hand just lends itself to growing faith and time in prayer.
What about you? Did you grow a garden in 2020? Was it successful? What do you plan to do differently in 2021?