Conducting Experiments in the Garden

Reader Contribution by Rachel Stutts
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For all those current gardeners as well as potential gardeners out there, the surefire way to learn how to garden is by conducting experiments — by setting a hypothesis, testing it, and recording your results. Then doing this over and over.

Although you may hear the term “master gardener”, there is no one right way to grow your garden. No two gardens are even the same. Soil conditions, climate and micro-climates, the preponderance of pests and many other factors all can vary widely from one person’s garden to another’s.

While it is great to get tips from your neighbors or from the plethora of information online, you will not truly know if something will or won’t work for you until you get out there and try it for yourself. Conducting mini-experiments around your garden also increases the fun factor and keeps every growing season interesting.

For me, since this is only my third or fourth year growing any type of vegetable garden, most everything I do is an experiment. To help inspire you toward selecting and conducting some experiments of your own, I’m listing a few of mine.

Grow Zucchini or Summer Squash Vertically

Zucchini and summer squash are some of the easiest vegetables for beginning gardeners, but I thought I would change it up a bit this year. I was intrigued by some blog posts about growing squash vertically.

I got my tomato cage, staked it around my zucchini seedling and started training the leaves up through the cage. I left the yellow squash un-caged as the “control” to my experiment, so I can compare the one grown vertically to the other. I like how the cage keeps the plant from meandering out of the garden bed and into the pathways, but I also noticed how the birds love to perch on the wire of the cage. They have really torn up the leaves of the zucchini plant.

While the yellow squash is encroaching into my garden pathway, it has been producing a lot more than the zucchini, which is likely a bit stressed by the beating it has taken from the birds.

Would I do this one again? Possibly. But I would need to figure out a way to discourage the birds from hanging out on the cage.

Grow Pumpkins Out of Raised Beds

I have never grown pumpkins before, so this one is especially exciting for me. I would love to be able to grab some pumpkins directly from our garden for the kids to turn into Jack-O-Lanterns at Halloween (and for me to make some pumpkin bread)!

Since my entire garden is in raised beds, I am experimenting with training the pumpkin vines to grow over the side of the bed and hopefully down the hill on top of the succulent ground cover. So far so good.

The vines have really started to take off and I have been able to train them over the side of the raised bed. I even see the beginnings of two pumpkins forming. The jury is still out on whether the pumpkins will overtake the other vegetables in the same bed with them. I already had to transplant a couple green bean seedlings that were being completely shaded by the pumpkin leaves.

Start Sweet Potato Slips and Try Starting Late in the Season

I have some space in one of my beds that I have been trying to figure out what to do with. Based on my zone recommendations, there are not many options for vegetables to start in July, since we are coming upon the hottest, driest part of the year for the next couple of months.

But we are also blessed in Southern California with weather that stays warm well into November and December. I’m experimenting to see whether the sweet potatoes will have enough hot weather to produce well with only just now (mid-July) starting the process to grow slips from an existing sweet potato.

Build Simple Cloches to Protect Green Bean Seeds from Birds

Oh the birds! Have I mentioned the birds?! Birds seem to love our property (especially Mourning Doves). They love hanging out in my garden beds pecking around for my freshly planted seeds.

I have such a hard time getting my green beans to grow into seedlings, because as soon as they start sprouting through the surface of the soil, the birds get them. So, I am going to experiment with making some simple chicken wire cloches to keep the birds away long enough for the plants to get stronger.

Experiment with Organic Pest Control

In the realm of organic gardening, experimenting with natural repellents for pests and diseases is extremely important. Remember, organic gardening does not mean “plant it and forget it” — you need to actively be on the lookout for pests and disease and find organic solutions that work for you.

Again, here are some of my examples:

1. Fight aphids with an insecticidal soap made of water, a couple drops of natural dish soap, and a couple drops of peppermint essential oil (worked for me).

2. Dust a mixture of flour and baking soda over broccoli leaves to get rid of Cabbage Loopers (did not work for me).

3. Spray a solution of milk, natural dish soap, and water on squash leaves as a preventative measure against powdery mildew (seems to work).

4. ight spider mites with an insecticidal soap similar to the one above, with additional lemon essential oil (works somewhat).

Keep a Gardening Journal

Do you remember back to high school science classes? A key part of conducting experiments is documenting your hypotheses as well as the results. The same is true with gardening and is why we should all be keeping a journal.

Would I remember in a couple years that ‘Bloomsdale’ spinach does not grow well for me? Or that I need to plant and trellis my peas appropriately for strong westerly winds so they do not bunch up from being blown on top of each other? Perhaps I would remember a few things, but it will be nice to have a running tally of all these experiments I am conducting. Even if something fails, perhaps I just need to tweak one aspect of it and try again.

I’ve always thought of organic gardening as a creative endeavor, but perhaps it also appeals to me due to the rational, scientific approach I can take towards testing my many hypotheses.

Also, there is no such thing as a failure if you are just experimenting! What experiments are you conducting or going to start? Stop by Amber Burst any time to check in on what I am currently experimenting with.

Rachel Stutts began yearning for a simpler lifestyle more rooted in family and community after having two children and continuing in the corporate rat race.  Following conversations with her husband over drinks one date night, they agreed to search for a new property where they now work toward some serious gardening and “lite homesteading” pursuits.  Connect with Rachel at her Amber Burst blog.  Read all of Rachel’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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