The most satisfying triumphs in the garden are built on experimentation and, yes, what many call failures, but what I always call learning opportunities. We’re always learning, no matter how long we’ve been gardening. Perhaps no one I know pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in the garden further than veteran gardener, Meg Cowden of the blog Seed to Fork, so I invited her on the podcast this week to find out what lessons the garden has taught her in 2020.
Meg is an organic gardener who lives and grows in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area in Minnesota, and she shares her gardening journey on her blog and on Instagram. Starting seeds indoors very early and using low tunnels, Meg begins her annual garden months before many of us even think to get started. She also defies the conventional wisdom on what can be grown in her zone — USDA hardiness zone 4b, where air temperatures dip to -25°F and snow in April is common. She says challenging yourself to see what you can get to grow is such a joy.
Meg considers her garden a sanctuary, and in 2020 that’s been truer than ever. She said the more she gardens, the more her appreciation and reverence grows toward the natural world and its resilience. Gardening has also taught her to be more resilient herself.
Lesson #1: Cut Your Losses
Meg’s plans for a productive vertical garden this year were dashed when her cucumbers growing on a brand new trellis got anthracnose — a fungal disease that affects cucurbits, tomatoes and trees. She also trialed two new pole bean varieties this year, and she gave both a thumbs down and yanked them early.
Meg had wanted her cucumber and bean trellises to create visual interest in the garden, but she had to let that idea go and cut her losses. As she puts it, she had a vision, and her garden had other plans.
Rather than leaving failing plants in the garden in hopes that they will turn around, Meg has embraced change. She suggests asking yourself, what could I gain out of that space? She has found that planting something new in place of something disappointing is the more fulfilling path.
She also realized that every day that she left diseased cucumber plants in place, more fungal spores were accumulating in her garden, endangering the following year’s crop. As hard as it is to pull plants that may still produce something, it can be the best choice.
Letting go is an opportunity to renew, Meg says. It’s not a loss — it’s a gain.
Lesson #2: Don’t Waste Space on What You Won’t Eat
Meg makes room in her garden for just one summer squash plant a season because it will produce as much as her family will eat. If it fails — as was the case this year due to squash vine borer — she will plant another, but she won’t grow two at the same time.
And then there are tomatillos, which Meg says she always intends on making salsa verde with, but instead ends up with 99 percent of the plant ending up as compost.
What she’s learned is that if a vegetable isn’t exciting enough to motivate you to get into the kitchen, don’t grow it. The effort and space it took up could be dedicated to another crop that she knows she and her family will enjoy.
Lesson #3: Stick with Tried and True Rather Than Shiny And New
Meg is always trialing new varieties of vegetables and detailing her experience on her blog. One thing she keeps finding is that some tomato varieties that may succeed elsewhere are very disease-prone in the wet climate where she lives. She attributes this to the tomatoes being bred in dry climates where they will be more resilient to diseases such as tomato anthracnose.
For instance, while she loved the Black Beauty tomato — a black-shouldered tomato with a burgundy color — it got anthracnose in her garden. However, even a disease-resistant tomato can be a disappointment if it doesn’t have the flavor you desire.
Though Meg loves Brandywine, an heirloom beefsteak-shaped tomato, in general, she is not a fan of slicing tomatoes. She often finds the big slicers to be watery and lacking in flavor. (As our friend and tomato expert Craig LeHoullier has told us, tomato flavor is in the DNA, and will not be affected or diluted by overwatering.)
Of course, personal preference comes into play. While the showy Costoluto Genovese tomato did not deliver the flavor profile that I was expecting, it is a slicer that Meg actually does like.
Embracing a tomato you love to eat can lead to more satisfaction than exploring every cultivar of tomato there is — a list that grows every year as new varieties are introduced. Meg asks: “At what point can I just say I’ve explored enough? My life is going to be okay, and it will still be fulfilling if I don’t try any more tomatoes.”
Lesson #4: Determinates Are a Canner’s Friend
Last year, Meg grew all indeterminate tomatoes, but out of 30 plants she only canned about 8 pints of sauce and 8 pints of salsa. This year, she pivoted to determinate tomatoes. With just 14 plants, she canned 50 pints of tomatoes.
As you may or may not know, indeterminate tomato plants will keep growing and keep producing until the first frost kills them off. Determinate tomato plants get to a certain size, produce all of their fruit in about 10 days, and then they are done for the season.
Determinate tomatoes hold up better for canning because they contain less water, among other beneficial attributes for canning. And from a timing standpoint, it’s more efficient to can many tomatoes at once rather than canning an ongoing trickle of ripe tomatoes.
Lesson #5: The Benefits of Starting Tomatoes a Little Later
Another big “aha!” moment for Meg came about because she wanted her determinate tomatoes to be ready for harvest at back-to-school time. While she had begun seed-starting indeterminates indoors in the middle of February, she waited until April 1 (six weeks before her local last frost date) to start determinate tomato seeds.
Because she waited to start the determinates, they did not grow large indoors, so she did not have to pot them up twice. Not only did this mean less work for Meg, it also left her with more available space under her grow lights. There’s a lot to be said for plants that have a smaller footprint indoors and take less time and effort.
The cherry tomatoes cropped first in June, followed by the slicing tomatoes by the middle of July, and the determinate canning tomatoes in August. Next year, she also wants to start some cherry and slicer tomatoes later, so they will be younger and more vigorous — to hold out against disease pressure — and will start cropping later.
Lesson #6: Water Stress May Lead to More Disease Pressure
Meg also noted that her tomato plants that were most affected by disease were the plants that received the least supplemental watering. That water stress may have left them more vulnerable.
The jury is still out on this one but the point is, after decades of gardening, this is a new lesson that just presented itself to Meg, maybe. It’s got her attention, and now she’ll be watching to see in subsequent years if this holds true.
Lesson #7: Starting Early Has Its Rewards
For Meg, the best period to extend her short growing season has proven to be at the beginning — a time of expansion. This starts with very early varieties of brassicas (the genus that includes cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, kohlrabi and turnips) that she gets in the ground shortly after the spring equinox.
Then, to make the most out of fall, six weeks before her first frost date Meg identifies what square footage is available to grow frost-hardy crops, like carrots, garlic, leeks and onions. Plants that have stopped producing or become overwhelmed by disease can be removed to make more room.
Lesson #8: Death Gives New Life in the Garden
In order to have a fruitful garden, gardeners have to be willing to turn over spaces as needed, Meg says, and they should know that death is an integral part of a garden. Meg says death is what a garden grows on — compost and leaf mold sustain life.
Lesson #9: Plant a Diverse Garden to Reduce Pest & Disease Pressure and Expand Your Harvest
Broad plant diversity in the garden can help thwart disease and pest pressure and it also means there’s almost always something to harvest. Meg says plant diversity is one of her best strategies in the garden. Even when some plants are affected by pests and diseases, she still has baskets of food to feed her family.
Different vegetables and different varieties of the same vegetable are ready to harvest at different times, so there is always something in Meg’s garden that’s producing.
Lesson #10: As Your Garden Grows, You Grow Too
Meg says as your garden grows, you will grow to: your culinary skills, your flexibility, and your resilience to disappointment.
If you haven’t listened yet to my conversation with Meg Cowden, you can do so by scrolling up the page and clicking the green Play button in the green bar.
What lessons have you learned from your garden in 2020? Share with others in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Essential Gardening Fundamentals: The basics on healthy soil, planting, watering techniques, composting, raised bed and other gardening methods, fertilizer, the many benefits of mulch, and more.
Seed to Fork blog
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