Starting Over After the Worst Garden Year Ever

The best estimate I've seen is that in 2009 alone, we had more than 2 million first time gardeners, and from 2007 on, we've added 8 million new vegetable gardens. This is one heck of a movement. Unfortunately, it also meant that millions of people started gardening in what was, in the Northeast, the crappiest garden year ever.

Well, maybe not ever. There was eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death when volcanic activity meant hard frost in July. But at least in 40 years, according to CR Lawn, head of Fedco Seeds. Here in the Northeast it rained - I don't mean a little. We got 23 inches of rain in June. We got 17 inches of rain in July. In June, it rained 26 out of 30 days.

After some hot days in April and early May, it never warmed up. Here in the hilltowns, we had frost on June 1. Night temperatures were routinely in the 40s, with days barely breaking 70. This was awesome for sleeping, but tough on heat loving plants, which even under cover didn't do well.

Then there was late blight, which killed most of the organically raised tomato and potato plants across the eastern half of the country. Unless you were growing rice, it was a really, really bad year. And the bad year has continued for many folks in the deep south who rely on warm winters to get their growing done - it is just too hot and dry in the summers. But hard freezes and consistently low temperatures have killed off their dreams too.

So if you are one of millions of people who are thinking "Wow, that was a lot of work for some rotted tomato plants, a lot of slugs and one lousy pepper that didn't even turn red..." you need to know, it wasn't your fault, and it won't always be that way - I swear. If you watched an enthusiastic friend lovingly turn his lawn to garden, only to watch the weeds and slugs take over, and are thinking " so much." Please, reconsider and give it another try. It wasn't you.

Now I wish I could say that a year like this will never come 'round again, but I can't. The reality is that we all know that climate change means increased climate instability. The odds are that there will be a lot of crappy years to come, in fact. But the odds are also good that the will be interspersed with years that make you bless your garden. And a bad year for one crop is a good one for others - even in this terrible year, there were some stars. Best beets ever. More broccoli and peas than you can imagine.

What about the blight? Well, now that it is around, there's not much you can do about it. But there are organic controls - the problem is that you have to use them before the problem shows up in your plants. Seranade, Sonata and copper sprays seem to work fairly well. This is, of course, a pain in the ass. But it is also a reality, and those tomatoes are worth a bit of extra work.

And there are the years when you hit it, like the perfect music notes, and a symphony comes out - the tomatoes fill the jars and the berries fall into your hands, your table groans with squash and crisp leaves of greens and the you know that you did it. It is always best to start gardening in one of those years, so you become so addicted that even the worst days look good. But trust me, for those of you who stepped into the breach last year, there's still good years to look forward to.


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I was a new gardner last year. Do to an illness with hubby, I never got my raised beds built or filled til almost July. The plants I had purchased from the garden center had a very late start. But I did get some zucchini, green and yellow beans, green onions, kohlrabi, cucumbers and a few pumpkins.My cabbages were hugh. Hubby is going to build me a growing table with lights and all. I have my seed catalogues, and my garden plan and I am stoked. Can't wait for spring.

If I could, I'd love to trade you some of our "no rain after April, hottest summer on record" year for some of your "too much rain and never warmed up."

Pity that. In our case, we had to write off a good bit of July and August for squash and eggplant, and the peppers were pretty wimbly. Tomatoes gave up on setting fruit for most of the summer, and for still-unknown reasons even tomatillos only set a handful all year. Beans are a lost cause.

On the other hand, our winter veggies (swiss chard, broccoli, lettuce, etc.) are doing nicely and it does look as though the peppers, eggplant, some of the tomatoes, basil, and maybe okra will survive till spring. In which case, Katie bar the door.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 13 Jan 2010 #permalink

Last year was a year I was grateful I did not have to survive on only what I could grow.

It was also the perfect example of why everyone should start growing food now, and not wait until it's absolutely necessary! Even a small garden will teach a lot, mostly by mistakes, but also by successes.

By curiousalexa (not verified) on 13 Jan 2010 #permalink

I couldn't grow shit last year. Everything that could bolt, bolted. And then it got cold, so none of the warm weather crops produced. My kale was infested like crazy. I got one itty bitty pepper. I think in total I got a couple bowls worth of salad greens. No beets for us though.

The kids pulled and ate all the carrots, radishes and green onions way before they were ready to come out and pulled off all the apples on my columnar trees in July. Sigh.

Ha. One year, a few years back when things were ripening with painfully slowness, I finally, in September, got One ripe tomato ... And my dog ate it.
As I keep mentioning, it doesn't generally rain in the Pacific Northwest in the summer. Except some years, when the entire month of June is cool and wet, and the next two months surprisingly temperate. I've read that the old-timers here used to call those "cabbage years," because the cabbages turned out darn fine, even if nothing else did. It's always helpful if you can hedge your bets; plant tomatoes and other heat lovers, but also the cabbages, the peas, celery, beets, etc., so, hopefully, you have things that will like whatever weather you get. Of course, that requires having enough space to plant all that ...
You'd also think that two or three months without rain would mean a whole lot fewer slugs, but somehow, it doesn't work out that way.
Gardening. It's an endless adventure. (I tell myself, because when you call it an adventure, it sounds less like, things keep going ##%#$ wrong!!. Apparently, on an adventure, that's what's Supposed to happen). And those homegrown vegetables do make damn fine eating.

Thanks for the boost, Sharon. Considering all that worked against the garden expansion last year, including weather, late blight, slugs, deer (first time ever), my schedule, my ignorance (a.k.a. learning curve on the new stuff), when I saw what came from the garden - nuts, berries, lettuce, a few tomatoes, potatoes, turnip greens, chard, kale, squash, cucumbers (never thought I would live to see the day), and beans, beautiful beans, even though it was not in great quantity, I was encouraged.

This year, I am tempted to grow just what did well last year, then a wise inner voice reminds me that diversity is strength, and that last year will not be this year. I am backing off on nightshades, though, because I really do enjoy the beans, kale, greens and cucumbers more.

More sunchokes, more perennials, more herbs this year. And onions. We will try again with onions (hey, I started them from seed last year, so something went right - they just didn't get very big).

Ah, the garden. . .

There were some places that had good garden years ... the lower Midwest being one. We had plenty of rain, more than usual; those of us west of Ohio didn't have late blight; we had gorgeous weather in July and August, not the heat waves we usually get. It was the first year I had greens (kale and collards) all summer and fall long. Now if all I'd had to rely on was my fall garden, it wouldn't have been a good year. I had pitiful fall lettuce and bok choy due to an excessively cool and rainy fall, especially in October. But the rest of the year was good. Again, diversity of crops, and planning for crops in all three growing seasons we have here (two short cool seasons on either side of a long warm season) made the difference.

It's a good year to realize that we need to grow plenty of food everywhere and to keep at least a minimal level of transport connections alive between different regions, so that when one region has a poor year, another region whose weather patterns were different can share their surplus.

Too True! Had this past year been my first gardening year I would have an extremely unhappy husband (for wasting all that money on dirt and raised beds and water) and I probably would concur in that assessment.


We've been gardening for several years, and we know what a good year can be. So yesterday we planted a great deal of our seeds for the coming spring garden, we continue to nurse the kale and beets and chard through the winter, and we look forward to spring peas and beans. And we rhapsodize over the canned spaghetti sauce made from tomatoes that mostly came from the garden (six jars left...) and salsa that DH made from our cherry and pear tomatoes, that gets raves from everyone who tries it.

Even in a bad year there's good things. Simply spending time in the garden with family is good. And worth the labor and expense.

It was interesting to see what did and didn't do well. Tomatoes were late, but we avoided the blight somehow. The 'wetter' tomatoes didn't fare very well, but the meatier Amish paste ones were, although smaller than usual, quite plentiful. The tomatoes with more mulch under them seemed to do better, maybe it kept them from getting as heavily soaked?

We had plenty of strawberries but you either had to eat them right away (same day) or put them in the fridge or they'd have mold on them, from all the constant wet.

The flour corn took freaking forever to ripen enough to pick, but we had a much higher success rate than most of the commercial corn growers in MA. It was nerve-wracking though!

We lost a few potatoes, but most survived to harvest. I was worried about the wet, so we went out and piled up mulch hay on them. We'd have been doing that anyway, to encourage them to grow upward and put out more potatoes, but we shaped the hay so the water would shed away from the center of the plants. Seemed to work, so I'll be mindful of that if we get another wet summer.

Kale did well, as did the new Jerusalem artichokes. They don't like a swamp but apparently don't mind rain as long as they get plenty of sunshine. The hops did well too.

Beans were problematic, but we brought in some, anyway. I'll have to plant a _lot_ more beans next year!

By Heather G (not verified) on 15 Jan 2010 #permalink

Responding to a community need, I spearheaded the establishment of a community garden last year in our little town in the Adirondacks. After some unforeseen events, we ended up with 23 plots in the yard of an abandoned house near the center of town.

I put a lot of effort into making sure we had fencing, water and soil amendments right at the beginning, but during the summer I didn't pass through the gardens very often. Sometimes I saw some classic beginner mistakes, like corn that was two feet tall in August, but there were a variety of techniques tried, and it was clear that at least some were fairly successful.

The truly astonishing thing to me is how many of the gardeners want to come back and try again. Even with the wet, wet conditions and new soil lacking nutrients and full of weeds, the majority of the gardeners had a positive experience and want to give it another go! And most of those who are leaving plan to continue gardening in more convenient spots.

In fact, our biggest dilemma right now is how to get the funding to develop another plot offered to us by the village. I'm convinced that if we get the details worked out we'll be looking at doubling the number of gardeners this year.