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2009 growing season disheartening for new gardeners

An estimated 7 million new gardens were planted in 2009.
An estimated 7 million new gardens were planted in 2009.
Amy Schauland

Uncertain times often lead people to find new ways to become more self-reliant.  One obvious course of action is to plant a vegetable garden.  The National Gardening Association estimated that 7 million new gardens were planted in 2009.

Unfortunately for these eager new green thumbs, 2009 gave us one of the worst growing seasons seen in decades.  In the Green Bay area, a wet and cold spring gave forth to a parched and cool summer.  While it was a good year for cool-weather crops like lettuce and peas, heat-lovers such as pumpkins and corn suffered.  Even old-hat gardeners experienced some defeats; how much more so for greenhorns with virgin soil and myriad questions?  How many threw in the towel, disgusted and disenchanted?

A word of encouragement for those waffling about a Round 2: new beginnings are often hard, but don't give up!  There are steps you can take to make each garden season better than the last (in the case of 2009, most anything could be an improvement.)

First, and most imperative, build your soil.  Good soil is the foundation of healthy and productive plants.  Unless you were uncommonly blessed with a backyard of foot-deep fertile loam, your first season's soil was probably light and nutrient-poor.  Start by adding organic matter, and lots of it.  There really is no such thing as too much compost.  Make your own at home by piling together kitchen scraps, leaves, and untreated grass clippings.  Keep the contents slightly moist, turn often, and in a year's time you will be rewarded with black gold.  Aged manure is also an excellent fertilizer.  Instead of buying it by the bag at a garden center, try to locate a nearby farmer - they are more than happy to give the stuff away.

It takes years of work to transform plain dirt into crumbly, rich, perfect veggie-nurturing soil.  While improving your plot of earth each season, hedge your bets by choosing plant varieties that perform even in less-than-optimal conditions.  Look for words like hardy, resistant, tolerant, adaptable, and reliable in the seed descriptions.  In Wisconsin, 'cold-hardy' and 'short season' are very good characteristics.

Don't give up on your budding garden just yet.  If you persevere, you still may have victory.

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