January 10, 2021

Pandemic Gardening: Lessons Learned in 2020

The biggest difference in our garden was that we were physically in it more than ever. Here's what we learned, and how we're planning for 2021.

Pandemic Gardening: Lessons Learned in 2020

This was our biggest gardening year yet, and I can't remember a time when my husband and I planted more varieties or learned so many new methods. The biggest difference in our garden was that we were physically in it more than ever. Here's what we learned, and how we're planning for 2021.

What We'll Continue Doing

  • Order seeds early. We ordered most of our seeds during the winter, and that meant that we were well covered before the pandemic closures had everyone scrambling to plant vegetable gardens.
  • LED grow lights on a timer for our indoor crops and starts. Good lights aren't cheap, but for people like us who have a basement space instead of a consistently sunny window or proper greenhouse, it's essential. They're not a once-a-year tool, either: having good lights in place lets me grow microgreens and propagate expensive perennials from cuttings in the fall and winter.
  • Rain Barrels. I had three 55-gallon barrels that I finally hooked up to the gutter. Even though it was a literal and figurative pain in the arse to get this done, it was amazing to see how much we could capture. For 2021, I want to perfect the irrigation system for distributing the water.
  • New beds and towers, including a pair of Greenstalk vertical planters. (More about those when I plant them up in Spring!)
  • Tool sanitation and sharpening. I kept rubbing alcohol by my pruners and snips, diligently wiping them down before and after cutting greens and flowers. It made a huge difference in reducing disease pressure and extending vase life.
  • Winter sowing annuals from seed. I'll share more about that as I plan my 2021 sowing!
  • Cut and come again. There's an unspoken rule in the city and suburbs that flowers should be left to decorate your pots and beds, but I have zero regrets about enjoying every flower I could cut.
  • Tons of research. I leveled up this year with books, blogs, Pinterest, YouTube, and the University of Illinois Extension's Master Gardener course. Next up, Floret Farm's Online Workshop!

What We'll Start Doing

  • Seed starting with soil blocks to reduce transplant shock and the tedium of sterilizing plastic pots.
  • No-till/low-till beds created with weed solarization and soil occultation. I will have a lot more to say about this, so stay tuned.
  • Paper mulch and loose straw to control weeds and hold moisture in any exposed soil that doesn't have bark mulch.
  • Better plant marking so I know what varieties are coming up and where.
  • Planning the entire season of cut flower ingredients in a more organized way, instead of just thinking about height, color, bloom time, and space. Those attributes are fine for planning ornamental beds, but making arrangements is a different exercise that takes some forethought on the mix of flowers and foliage you'll have over the course of a season. Getting this right is my biggest goal for 2021!

What We'll Stop Doing

  • Starting transplants indoors too early. On a few seed packets, I used the "10-12 weeks before frost" sowing date, which isn't the best idea in our zone. Even though it felt good to have seeds to fuss over in February, it was hard keeping rootbound peppers, milkweed and tomatillos happy indoors until May. Once they did go out, it took a long time for them to recover from transplant shock. OOPS.
  • Sunday custom lawn fertilizer subscription. Starting with a soil analysis and custom plan, I got their regular shipments of liquid fertilizer. Applying it forced me to stare at my lawn more than usual, and I realized two things: 1) I have so many weeds that I need to start over, and 2) I actually hate grass. We're adding more garden beds in the back yard instead.
  • Indoor microgreens. Even though I enjoyed learning the process, I had so many problems with moldy growing medium. Early on in the global pandemic, I thought being able to grow salad greens indoors would mean fewer outings for produce, but that never worked out. If I do these at all in 2021, it will be in smaller batches, or completely outdoors where nature controls the light and air flow for me.
  • Overhead watering with a hose or sprinkler past the seedling stage of new plants. I'm going to switch to more drip irrigation to save time and avoid foliar diseases that thrive on soggy plants.
  • Handmade raised beds. Lumber costs are high right now, it was hard to get the wood delivered and cut for the 4 huge beds we added. For 2021, we're switching to more bags, kit beds, and trialing no-till beds.

I'd love to know your biggest lessons learned as you gear up for 2021.