Gardening Lessons Learned in 2023

North Georgia Candy Roaster squash

I never fail to be amazed by the gardening lessons I learn each year in my little backyard garden. Throughout the year, my garden serves as a living classroom. I often refer to it as my science lab.

As 2024 approaches I am taking time to reflect on my gardening journey in 2023. Looking back on what I grew, what I harvested, what worked and didn’t, the wins and challenges, and in doing so, I’m reminded of the profound lessons each plant, pest, and season taught me. This year was particularly special, marked by new discoveries and revisiting past challenges with a fresh perspective. 

I recently cohosted my boss’s podcast The joe gardener® Show to talk about a few of the lessons and takeaways we each learned in the garden this year, but here is my full list. This is what the garden taught me in 2023.

Look, Listen, and Observe: Wildlife Diversity in Suburbia

Even in urban areas and suburbia, wildlife is all around us. That’s even more true if your garden doubles as habitat for creatures coexisting in our human-dominated landscapes. My garden, nestled in the suburban landscape of South Tulsa, has always been a magnet for wildlife. Each year, I discover new residents that teach new lessons, and 2023 continued that tradition of discovery.

Plant Diversity and the Interconnectedness of Local Ecosystems

Early in the year in spring, I observed the presence of the cactus lady beetle, a species I had never encountered before in my garden.

When I first looked it up in Google Lens, it was identified as the twice stabbed lady beetle. A fitting name given the two red circles on each side of its body that remind you of stab wounds. I was able to further narrow it down to cactus beetle (Chilocorus cacti) in iNaturalist, my favorite app for identifying flora and fauna. 

See my list of iNaturalist observations here.

Through research I discovered that this tiny visitor prefers prickly pear plants which I don’t have. My neighbor, however, has a large thriving prickly pear in their front yard.

This was a reminder for how our individual gardening and landscaping choices collectively shape the broader local ecosystem. Our gardens can benefit from the plants in our neighbors’ yards. Likewise, what we choose to grow and the decisions we make with our lawns has an impact on our neighbor’s property and local wildlife. By embracing plant diversity and ecological gardening principles, we can create a thriving and balanced environment for both flora and fauna.

Cactus lady beetle
I have lots of ladybugs in the garden each year but observing cactus beetles (Chilocorus cacti) this year was a first. My hypothesis is that they were drawn to my area by the neighbor's prickly pear.
What’s That Bird?

One of the most surprising lessons I learned this year was the incredible diversity of bird species in and around my garden. Thanks to the recommendation of my boss, Joe, I discovered the Merlin Bird ID app, which listens and identifies birds based on their songs. This tool has been a game changer, allowing me to recognize and appreciate the various species of birds that call my garden and the backyards around me home.

I already knew I had quite a variety of bird species from blue birds to cardinals, Mississippi kites, mockingbirds, finches, and more.  Those I can recognize by sight and song, but with the Merlin app, I started to discover warblers, juncos, wrens, a variety of sparrows, thrashers, grackles, and more.

I now have a deeper understanding of the avian life that surrounds me.

Merlin Bird ID app
Using apps like Merlin Bird ID and iNaturalist can help identify all of the wildlife we share our spaces with.

Fall Gardening Lessons

Revisiting fall gardening after several years of being too busy with my daughter’s marching band activities, I’ve come to appreciate its distinct advantages: the reduced intensity of heat and humidity, diminished pest pressure, and the favorable conditions for cool-season crops.

But a fall garden brings unique hurdles, especially in its initial stages. Planting seedlings must occur during the sweltering triple-digit heat, a time when being outdoors is taxing and pests abound.
 
Yet, as the oppressive heat subsides and some of the summer insect pests recede, a new wave of challenges emerges. The garden becomes a battleground against plagues of cabbage loopers, cabbage butterfly caterpillars, and army worms, each posing a significant threat to the maturing seedlings as they race against the approaching frost.
Skeletonized kale
My kale was totally skeletonized by caterpillars, but the roots were still healthy so it grew new leaves.
A Lesson of Resilience

Oh my, how caterpillars love brassicas! In my garden, the voracious cabbage loopers, resembling green inch-worms, left my kale plants mere skeletons. In a cheeky response, I nicknamed these stripped-down plants “Kale-etons.” Surprisingly, I noticed that even after such devastation, the kale demonstrated resilience. Keeping the plants in the ground led to a pleasant discovery: new growth sprouted not long after. This experience was a testament to the robust nature of kale, showcasing its ability to regenerate even after being thoroughly devoured by pests.

My cabbages, broccoli, and giant red mustard weren’t spared from the onslaught of cabbage loopers, cabbage worms, and specifically army worms on the cabbages. However, these plants showcased a resilience matching that of their wormy foes. Engaging in a daily routine of hand-picking worms and diligently trimming away the damaged leaves, I fought to keep my plants healthy. As the colder weather set in, the moths ceased their egg-laying, offering much-needed respite. Now in December, a few green worms linger, but their numbers are too insignificant to cause concern.

I also discovered the remarkable frost resilience of brassicas. Initially, I feared the giant red mustard was lost to the frost, particularly because of the severe damage to the larger leaves caused by our region’s cold, piercing winds that often accompany frosts. However, to my surprise and delight, new growth emerged. Even now, in mid-December, there’s enough fresh growth to regularly harvest for salads, a testament to the hardiness and unexpected recovery of these plants.

Giant red mustard
I grew giant red mustard for the first time this year. Even after some heavy frosts and a lot of pest pressure, it just keeps bouncing back more beautiful than ever.
A Lesson of Patience

Giving broccoli cultivation another try after about a decade, I re-learned a valuable lesson in patience. Previously, I had given up on this crop due to pest challenges and impatience, as broccoli requires considerable time to mature. This year, however, brought a new understanding.

Despite initial doubts, when large, lush broccoli plants went on for months without the actual vegetable showing up, patience finally rewarded me with a delightful surprise. I found tiny broccoli heads one morning. So the broccoli did head up, culminating in the harvest of some good-sized tasty produce. Sometimes you have to be retaught this lesson and this experience reaffirmed that fresh homegrown produce is worth the wait. 

Broccoli
I never thought I could grow broccoli, but armed with patience, knowledge and a new strategy, we had fresh homegrown broccoli all through fall.

Implementing New Strategies

I often hear people say, “I can’t garden; I kill everything I try to grow.” But in my experience, the issue isn’t a so-called ‘black thumb.’ It’s more about not providing the right conditions for each plant or failing to strategically defend against external factors that harm them. Gardening isn’t just about planting and hoping for the best; it’s a thoughtful blend of understanding each plant’s needs and preemptively tackling challenges that could impede growth. There’s both a science and an art to it, and that’s what makes it so rewarding!

Timing is Everything

One of the keys to successful gardening is strategic timing. This lesson became evident when I tackled the challenge of growing squash. The squash vine borer, a destructive pest, had always thwarted my attempts to grow these crops and I had given up totally on squash.

However, by waiting to plant until after the lifecycle of the squash vine borer had completed, I managed to avoid their destructive impact. This experience taught me the importance of timing in gardening and how it can significantly affect the success of our crops.

But timing is also true when it comes to weather. So while I did miss the squash vine borer and had a literal jungle of healthy unmarred plants, I only got to harvest a few butter babies and one North Georgia candy roaster before a major frost hit on Halloween night.

The garden lesson there is next time, back up the planting just a bit to allow enough time for the fruits to mature while still missing the squash vine borer or implementing barriers to keep it from laying its eggs. Despite the small harvest, I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to be able to grow squash again after years of failure.

butterbaby butternut squash
Timing my squash plantings after the life cycle of some of the most intense insect pests resulted in a successful squash harvest for the first time in years.
Strategic Barriers: Shade Cloth and Row Cover
A Barrier Against Pests

On the subject of barriers, I learned the importance of using row cover to deter pests. The row cover acts as a physical barrier, preventing egg-laying moths from accessing my crops. This experience reinforced the need for proactive measures to protect our plants and ensure their optimal growth.

But I learned that delaying the application of row cover on one bed led to my kale and mustard suffering heavily from the cabbage looper moth. In contrast, the adjacent bed, where I had covered the cabbages and broccoli, saw significantly less damage. This experience taught me to apply these protective measures as soon as I plant.

However, this strategy was less effective against army worms. They found a way in, perhaps already in the soil, and made a snack of my cabbages in both spring and fall. I had to diligently check the cabbages a few times each day to stay on top of those.

Cabbage loopers
The cabbage loopers treated my uncovered brassicas like a literal buffet. Once they got started, I was handpicking them off two to three times a day.
A Barrier Against Heat

Shade cloth serves as a type of barrier against the harshness of direct sunlight. In extreme weather, particularly during intense summers of Oklahoma, it’s crucial to shield my plants. Implementing 50% shade cloth, draped over PVC pipe hoops across my garden beds, was a game changer.

It provided a cooler environment for my vegetables, shielding them from the searing heat. This simple yet effective strategy also reduced the frequency of watering, sparing me from the relentless sun while ensuring my plants thrived in more temperate conditions.

shade cloth
This year I used shade cloth to help give both warm season and cool season crops a reprieve from the intense summer sun and heat.

Trying Something New Each Year

Every year in the garden I do two things. I always attempt to grow something new or revisit a past crop that made me pull my hair out. Alongside this, I come up with at least one new method to preserve the bounty of my garden, be it herbs or vegetables. This dual approach keeps my gardening both fresh and creative!

Experimenting with Onion Transplants

Besides retrying broccoli and squash this year, I also decided to experiment with growing my own onion transplants for the first time. In the past, direct sowing onion seeds in the fall had proven unsuccessful for me so I always end up buying transplants or sets from the local farm or garden center.

However, this year, I took a different approach and started onion seeds in trays, then separated them out when they were about the size of a pencil, and planted them out at the same time as I planted my garlic in October. While it is still too early to determine the final outcome, the onion transplants are showing promising growth. This experience taught me the value of experimentation and the potential for success when we step outside our comfort zones.

Onion seedlings
For the first time this year, I grew my own onion transplants for a fall planting rather than waiting to purchase some in spring. These seedlings have been thriving in the garden since October.
Using Up All Parts of the Harvest: A New Addition to the Spice Collection

In line with my love of herb crafting and my commitment to maximizing the potential of each harvest, every year, I explore new preservation techniques for my herbs and edible crops. Last year, I created herb-infused massage oils, and the year before, I made smoked cayenne chili powder. This year, I turned the green tops of spring onions into a delightful green onion powder. By drying and grinding the tops, I created a vibrant and flavorful spice that became a staple in my kitchen. This experience reinforced the importance of resourcefulness and finding creative ways to make the most of our harvest.

See how I made green onion powder here.

Onion powder
A new favorite in the homegrown spice collection this year is green onion powder. We use this so much, it's one of the reasons I am getting an early start on onion planting this fall and growing more onions than ever before.

Looking Ahead

As I look towards 2024, I’m excited to apply the lessons learned from this year’s gardening experiences. But I can’t wait all winter to start gardening again. This time of year I turn my attention to gardening indoors by growing under grow lights, in my grow tent, or hydroponically.

I’m diving into a brand new project very soon: growing microgreens. This aligns perfectly with my annual winter habit of starting crops from seed indoors, a practice that keeps my connection with plants alive during the colder, darker days.

Microgreens present a new gardening frontier for me, and I’m eager to explore this venture. As I give it a try and learn more this winter, I’ll be sure to share the insights and discoveries from my microgreen growing.

What were your biggest gardening lessons in 2023 and what are you most looking forward to trying in the garden next year?

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Cultivating Nature's Wisdom

I’m a nature photographer and gardener sharing how I created an ecological garden in a small suburban backyard. I also share a few tips for growing and using herbs to craft your own homegrown spice blends.

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