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What worked in the garden this year, what didn't

“I used to visit and revisit [my garden] a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation.”

— Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Mosses from an Old Manse,” 1846

The leaves on the maples in my front yard are putting on their annual display of fall colors, so I know it’s time to take a step back and evaluate my 2020 growing season.

Last year, I introduced several questions I’ve found useful in considering my successes and disappointments in the garden. Here are a dozen of those questions again, along with an assessment of my vegetable garden:

1. What grew well? We harvested large crops of two heirloom tomatoes called ‘Violet Jasper’ and ‘Black Vernissage.” Both are cherry-type tomatoes with streaked skin. They were delicious eaten fresh from the vine or cooked into pasta sauce.

It was also a great year for lemon cucumbers and hot peppers, particularly serrano peppers and a unique heirloom variety called fish peppers.

2. What didn’t grow well? Our pickling cucumbers did not flourish like the lemon cukes, nor did the pineapple tomatillos I was so excited about for homemade salsa. The radishes we tried to grow as companion plants under the cucumber A-frame trellis and tomatoes vines didn’t amount to much either.

3. What would I like to grow more of? We grew a lot of leafy greens in the spring, but I’d like to get better at succession planting so we can harvest through summer and fall.

4. What would I like grow less of, or not at all? I think growing one vine of lemon cukes is enough; this variety is prolific. Also, one serrano plant produces plenty of peppers for eating fresh and for drying.

5. What needs to be divided, replaced and/or removed? We lost a few of our globe artichokes to gophers this year; however, our 3-year-old plants need to be divided to give the youngsters more room to grow.

6. Which garden pests were less of a problem this year? Overall, this was a light year for insect pests in our vegetable garden. We’ve had problems with squash bugs in the past, so we intentionally avoided planting zucchini or summer squash this year. Squash bugs didn’t bother the cucumbers much, perhaps because they were trellised.

I did learn the difference between squash bugs and stink bugs. Both have a foul odor when squished, but stink bugs are wider and rounder than squash bugs. Squash bug nymphs are gray with black legs, and stink bugs nymphs are orange with black spots.

7. Which garden pests were more of a problem this year? We experimented with planting closer together this year to reduce weeds, and this strategy was successful. The beds with plants spaced farther apart allowed opportunistic weeds a chance to take over.

8. What worked about garden irrigation? We experimented with overhead watering in the vegetable garden this year and it worked surprisingly well, particularly for beds with lower-growing plants. We avoided typical problems with driplines — breakage, blocked heads, low pressure at the ends, lack of moisture in some spots — and there are no drip lines to gather up and store for the winter.

Overhead watering may have helped wash away insect pests, and it certainly helped to wash off wildfire ash from plants. Watering in the morning allowed the plants to dry, so fungal diseases never became a problem.

9. What could be improved about garden irrigation? Vining plants are more difficult to water overhead, so next year we’re going to install soaker hoses for tomatoes, pole beans and cucurbits.

10. What worked about the garden’s organization? Within the raised beds, we’ve been using more staggered double rows and block planting. This strategy has produced more food and has helped to reduce weeds. In addition, we broke up a large bed that was difficult to maintain into smaller beds that we can work around more easily.

11. What could be improved about the garden’s organization? We’re still experimenting with polyculture planting to learn which plants grow well together. For instance, we learned that tomatoes do not like to share moisture and nutrients with their bed buddies.

12. Which garden tools were most useful? The best tool I have for gardening is my body — hands and fingers for digging, arms and shoulders for carrying, knees for kneeling, thighs for lifting. I injured my arm this year by lugging around a heavy plant container, and it made me realize that I need to be more conscious about how I use my body for gardening tasks so I can continue gardening for years to come.

Also, dull garden clippers are not useful, so I learned it’s a good idea to keep a pocket-sized sharpener handy for on-the-spot honing.

I began this week’s column with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s collection of short stories, “Mosses from an Old Manse.” I’ll end with another quote from the book that puts deep contemplation about my garden into perspective.

“Ideas, which grow up within the imagination and appear so lovely to it and of a value beyond whatever men call valuable, are exposed to be shattered and annihilated by contact with the practical.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her website at www.literarygardener.com.

The last harvest of tomatoes and peppers. Photo by Rhonda Nowak