Backyard Organic Veggie Farm – Lessons Learned in Our Second Season

A couple of years ago, we set up a veggie farm in our backyard (see The Wonder Garden – Lessons and Fun with Our Organic Home Vegetable Garden) and last year was our second year of home farming. Now it is almost spring again and the new growing season is nearly upon us, so I am thinking about how we will run the garden this year.  Before it is too late I wanted to share our lessons learned and some photos from growing vegetables in our back yard last year.

Crops Grown In The Second Year

  • Tomatoes (several types)
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Swiss Chard
  • Lettuce (several types)
  • Spinach
  • Red and Green Peppers
  • Cabbage
  • Cucumber
  • Pumpkin
  • Squash (several types)
  • Herbs – Mint, Basil, Parsley, Coriander, Dill
  • Strawberries

Farming Changes From the First Year

Quick Preparation – Since we didn’t have to set the whole garden up, we spent a lot less time at the outset establishing the garden. Not having to create 500 sq ft of garden beds was a huge time and effort savings and for the most part we just raked and put the seeds in the soil – to our detriment as you will read below.

Planted seeds not seedlings – Unlike the previous year, I did not start seeds indoors, before moving them outside. Instead I waited until there was no longer a frost risk and planted my seeds right into my garden soil – sometime around mid to late May. This ended up being a shortsighted move as I effectively shortened my growing season by about a month, which delayed the time to harvest. This year, I will start seeds indoors in April (as well as transplant some of the plants I have grown in my basement this past winter) to get a jump start on the outdoor growing season.

Backyard GardenMoved Some Plants Around – In the first year, I had my tomatoes and gourd family plants in the middle of my garden (a mostly random decision). That placement seemed to work very well and they grew aggressively making it difficult to get to those particular garden beds. Admittedly, I did not prune them back although I probably could have. In any event, this past year, I moved the tomatoes and the gourds to the edge of the garden on the assumption they would creep up the fence or be bounded by the garden’s edges. For whatever reason, perhaps the change in soil, sun or watering conditions, this was a total bust and while the previous year I brought in both crops by the bucket, I harvest very few tomatoes or gourds this past year.

No Soil Augmentation – In the first year, when we created the garden from a formerly wooded bush areas, we worked hard to till the soil and add nutrients. Underestimating the importance of this in the second year, I failed to add anything to the soil. This was perhaps my biggest mistake. I am sure this was a major contributor to a weaker crop for many of the plants in the second year.

Rain – We received a higher than normal amount of rain this past summer and it rained almost every other day so I didn’t have to spend much effort watering the garden.  It is possible the garden received more water than it would have if I was watering. I am not sure how much of a difference this made, but it is worth noting.

Weeds in my backyard farmVery Little Weeding – I was remiss in weeding the garden regularly. At one point the garden became quite overgrown with weeds so I spent a whole day pulling unwanted plants, but because the weeds had become so entrenched I think I may have damaged the roots and stalks of some of my crop during pulling. I will not let this happen again this year. Regular weeding is pretty important.

Compost – As I mentioned earlier, we did not augment the soil this past year, but I did build a very large compost box out of four old palettes. In previous years I had used closed compost boxes to minimize the chances of attracting animals and to keep them out of the compost itself. The downside of this is that the composting effects of light and water were minimized so the organic matter broke down very slowly. With the new open composting bins, our kitchen scraps and garden waste broke down really fast and within weeks I had very rich dirt which I was able to spread on the garden at the end of the season. We put out one or two shopping bags of compost from our kitchen a week, so it adds up pretty fast (and also has the nice side effect of minimizing the amount of trash we put on the curb each week). To discourage animals, I would mix regular soil with the new compost whenever I added to the pile.

What Went Well

Organic broccoliWith the exception of the tomatoes and gourds I mentioned above, everything else grew well. The greens produced well all season and for the first year I got some great, albeit small, heads of broccoli and cabbage.

I think with soil augmentation and revised plant placement next year to make sure the tomatoes get lots of sun, I think all the crops will thrive.

End of Season Close Down

Soil Augmentation – At the end of the season, I ordered a big load of garden soil – black with lots of organic matter in it. Painstakingly I dug out the top 18″ of my existing sandy-ish soil and replaced it with the new richer black soil. Then I added a layer of fresh compost and turned over the soil – first by hand and then, a couple of weeks later, with a powered tiller. Finally I added a dusting of blood meal for added nitrogen. So this year, our soil will be much richer and I am confident this will make a big difference.

Hoops and Mini Greenhouses – Late in the season I learned about the use of mini greenhouses to extend the growing season and protect some plants through the winter. As an experiment, in mid October before the snow fell, I made one mini-greenhouse out of PVC pipes covered in clear plastic sheeting. I put it over some kale and swiss chard I had not dug up. This protected the plants from the first few frosts and also kept the leaves intact even after the snow had fallen and the temps were consistently below zero. The plants didn’t survive too far into the winter before going dormant but the tent has the effect of raising the temperature about 4 Celsius (which as I understand things, means the plants will not go dormant even when the temps outside are as low as -4C or 24 F). I also set up hoops with no covers so that I can set up tents in the spring, plant my seedlings early protected by the cover and not have to worry about any late frosts.

Mini Hoop Tents

Plants inside mini hoop tents
As usual last summer was a great learning experience and we are excited to put these lesson to work this summer on a new crop and harvest.

Backyard veggie harvest

Life is good.


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