In the Garden: Keeping track of the year’s ups and downs can improve next year’s harvest

I know it’s not the end of the garden season yet, but with fall fast approaching, I’ve been taking a critical look at how this year’s garden performed.

Gardeners in the Inland Northwest and across the country have seen the impact our changeable weather patterns have had on our plants. While there’s nothing we can do about the weather itself, it’s a good idea to think about what we might do differently next year.

Our very wet, cool spring impacted the production of many warm-season crops. My tomato plants are still being very stubborn about ripening all of their green tomatoes. I’ve been engaging in my annual three-step pruning routine in order to encourage them. This consists of severe pruning and cutting back the amount of water they get.

In the spring, I learned that wilting seedlings can mean they are too wet rather than too dry. All of our rainstorms really set back our melon and tomato plants.

One change I’m considering for next year is to reduce the amount of plastic sheet mulch I use on the beds where warm-season crops such as melons, winter squash, tomatoes and eggplants will be grown. The mulch increases the temperature of the soil and the amount of light reflected up into the plants, which in turn increases productivity, but I want to see if it makes enough of a difference to warrant using it every year.

This year, we grew our onions from small bulbs (sets) instead of plant starts. Many readers have told me their onion plant starts didn’t grow well and, in some cases, were infiltrated by onion maggots. I located an online source for onion sets this spring, and our plants grew better than they have in the past few years.

One of the fun things we tried was growing winter squash up and over an arbor made from cattle panels. At planting time, I envisioned needing a hard hat during the summer because there would be so many squash hanging from the top of the arch. Even though the plants grew well, the arbor got more morning shade than I’d like, which impacted the plants’ productivity. Next year, we’ll move the arbor to a much sunnier location.

Our best idea was growing potatoes and a few tomato plants in cloth grow bags and large pots. All of them did beautifully. This helped us expand the footprint of our garden without having to make more raised beds. You might consider this for 2021.

I was disappointed in a new broccoli cultivar called Millennium. After I harvested the primary heads, they didn’t form secondary heads, which is unusual. Next year, I’ll go back to Early Dividend, which is an excellent producer.

What’s my big goal for 2021? Do a better job of succession planting. This requires planning ahead to anticipate when a crop will be finished so you can quickly replace it with a new planting. As always, my goal is to get the maximum yield from our garden.

Writing in our garden journals is the best activity we can all be doing right now. I use a three-year journal, which helps me make comparisons between each growing season: the dates of the last spring frost and first fall frost each year, when we first started harvesting each crop and so on. By being able to look back and spot patterns, I will become a better gardener.

Susan Mulvihill is author of “The Vegetable Garden Pest Handbook.” She can be reached at susan@susansinthegarden.com. Watch this week’s “Everyone Can Grow a Garden” video at youtube.com/susansinthegarden.

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