I’ve always wanted to be a successful gardener, but I’ve never been good at gardening.
When we lived in California, my step-mom gave me big pots and gardening tools for Christmas one year so I could grow tomatoes in our tiny, sand-filled townhouse backyard.
Believe it or not, those tomatoes were the only successful thing I had ever grown out West. No matter how “easy” everyone said it was to grow zucchini or green onions, I could only grow tomatoes (and one variety, at that).
That’s why when we planted a summer vegetable garden, my goal was simply to keep the plants alive.
My First Summer Vegetable Garden in Georgia
With my black-thumb gardening history AND living in a new area, I didn’t want to take on too much with my first summer vegetable garden. I thought two types of plants would be sufficient, with a few different varieties of each so I could see which ones did best.
My two “it would be so cool” goals for my first summer vegetable garden in Georgia were this:
- Grow enough tomatoes to make homemade pizza sauce for a year (we make homemade pizza every Friday night)
- Grow enough cayenne peppers to make homemade Frank’s hot sauce for a year (my son really does put it on everything!)
But really, I just didn’t want to kill the plants.
I started with 16 tomato plants, 4 hot peppers, 4 bell peppers and zero expectation of getting any fruit whatsoever. I fully anticipated bugs, worms, squirrels and all sorts of blunders to come and devour it all.
BUT… if I had just one plant make it through the summer, it was a win in my book.
We started from seed, but my pessimistic gardening self I never really thought the seeds would actually sprout. However, just over a week later, they did. The tomatoes were first, then the peppers.
I’ll admit, watching a plant grow from nothing but a seed is pretty exciting. They got bigger, grew more leaves and started to look like actual plants!
And then they started to die. The leaves were turning yellow from too much water and the cups were too small for the roots to grow.
This didn’t surprise me really though. I was used to my plants dying, remember?
BUT, my goal was for SOMETHING surviving to the end of the summer, so I kept going anyway.
Gardening in Georgia’s red dirt is not easy unless you’ve spent years working the soil to increase the nutrients and such. So I went with my tried and true: pots.
I ordered my pots online and had dirt delivered from a local landscaping yard – both were MUCH cheaper than the local hardware store.
We carefully transferred the dying plants to the pots, put them out into the yard where we got the most sun, watered and waited.
And with each passing day, the plants looked worse and worse.
The leaves shriveled up. Some plants were down to just the stem. Some disappeared altogether making it look like there was never a plant there in the first place!
Then suddenly, everything turned green.
Honestly, it was a miracle. I thought they were goners, and yet they survived. Don’t ask me how, because I really don’t know!
Maybe the transfer shocked them. Maybe it was the sudden bout of heat. Or maybe that’s just the way it’s supposed to be?
In either case, over half of the plants survived the transplant. This meant there was a good chance one of them would make it to the end of the summer!
At this point, the garden is a waiting game. There isn’t much I can do to make them grow faster or bigger, so I just waited.
Weeks went by and the plants grew at a steady pace. Nothing earth-shattering going on, but they were still alive and that’s progress in my book.
However, when a couple empty pots suddenly sprouted new tomato plants, my hopes of having just one surviving plant blossomed into possibly having fruit!
Here my black-thumb self had not only grown plants from seeds, but I somehow did something right to bring them back from the dead!
Mr. Crumbs and I had a 10-day trip planned in June. Since the plants were still growing despite me doing NOTHING to them since the initial transfer (not even watering, and I know these tricks on watering your garden for free!), I felt confident that they would survive on their own until we got back.
Besides, there was rain in the forecast and still a long ways off from the plants even flowering…
Which did concern me.
Here we were approaching the halfway point of summer and there wasn’t a single flower on any plant. What were the odds there would be fruit in time?
Well, color me surprised when we came back to find the plants not only alive, but the tomatoes had grown OVER the 54” tomato cage, half of the tomato plants had flowers AND a hot pepper had started to grow!
And then it hit me – I was actually growing a real garden!
Here’s where we are today. Everything is flourishing!
Two more “dead” tomato plants have come back, for a total of 14 tomatoes.
About half of the tomatoes have fruit growing. There are flowers on all the remaining plants but one, and I have high hopes that one will produce flowers in the next week or two.
One hot pepper never sprouted, so we have 3 hot peppers. Every hot pepper plant has fruit, and it’s so neat to watch! Did you know that cayenne peppers can grow upside down?
We have 4 bell pepper plants, with fruit on 3 of them. One bell pepper is 2” big!
The fourth plant has lots of buds, so I’m anticipating fruit from that one soon.
I’ve been inspecting the plants daily since we returned from our trip in June, and encountered two bugs: stink bugs and leafhoppers.
Since I started with organic dirt, I wanted to keep the dirt as “clean” as possible. For pest control, I chose neem oil.
According to Wikipedia, neem oil is a vegetable oil pressed from the fruits and seeds of the neem. This articles explains how neem oil is considered a safe, naturally occurring insecticide.
I diluted it appropriately, sprayed it on the leaves of the bell peppers one early morning (those were the only plants that had the leafhoppers) and that did the trick! I’ll keep checking daily, and follow-up every 7-10 days with more spray if necessary.
We sold all of our gardening supplies when we moved, so I was starting from scratch. After much research, here’s where I bought my supplies:
Dirt: 50/50 Organic Foothills Compost and Organic Top Soil from a local landscaping yard
This was recommended to me by a local friend who has successfully grown gardens in North Carolina and Georgia. I recommend asking local gardeners for recommendations if your yard isn’t immediately suitable for gardening. Also, call around for the best price. Buying in bulk from the landscaping yard cost 1/3 of the price over buying bags of dirt from Costco!
As the summer goes on, I’ll be using these free fertilizing ideas to help build the soil in a couple areas I’m eyeing to build on next year.
Pots: 20 gallon and 5 gallon pots from Zenhydro.com
I priced one pot at Home Depot or Costco at $18 on average. Times 16 tomatoes is nearly $300! Zenhydro.com had pots for a fraction of the price.
Shipping wasn’t quite as fast as I would have liked, but now I know. The size and quality of the pots though, has been perfect.
Seeds: organic seeds from Home Depot
I researched the best varieties of tomatoes to grow in Georgia first, and lucked out when I saw 4 varieties in the seed section at Home Depot. Since it’s my first year, I wasn’t too concerned about the variety. I picked 2 cherry tomatoes, one slicing tomato and one heirloom – all organic needs. Each packet was no more than $2, and we planted half of each packet.
Next year I’d like to plant roma tomatoes for sure, and others depending on how this season turns out. If I use up the rest of the seeds in the packet, it would cost me just $8 in seeds for two seasons. Compare this to $15 per starter plant!
I’m also going to look more into incorporating companion gardening as I plan out next year’s garden.
Cages: 54″ steel cages from ALDI + leftovers from previous owners
I had priced out tomato cages online and at Home Depot and they ranged $5-6 each. Then one week ALDI had them on sale for under $2 each! I bought 16 and ended up using two for the peppers too. Previous owners left some cages as well, so those went to the other pepper plants.
Pest Management: my own fingers and neem oil from Home Depot
I flicked off bugs until I had the chance to buy this neem oil. I have the concentrate, and have used only 1/2 tablespoon for one quart so far. The first application used about one cup’s worth, so this one batch will last me about a month. At the rate I’m going, that one 16 ounce bottle of neem oil will last me 64 months worth of gardening. Well worth the $9 investment!
We haven’t harvested anything yet, but there’s lots of green!
I weighed my harvest the last summer I gardened in California. Five plants yielded 222 pounds of tomatoes!
I’ll do the same again this year, weighing as I harvest, so I can track how well the plants perform. This will let me adjust my plans for next year’s garden.
Yes, my first summer vegetable garden in Georgia isn’t over yet and I’m already planning for next year! I want to build some inexpensive raised beds with this tutorial, and plant strawberries along our back patio. I have my eyes on some blackberries and blueberries too.
Even a small harvest is so exciting because every little bit I can save on groceries helps us stay within our budget. I talk about that a lot in Grocery Budget Bootcamp where I teach my techniques to keep our budget at $330/month.