Happy weekend! My name is AJ, and I know Hilary through her sister-in-law and fellow-blogger. I have a periodic blog called Eat with AJ. For this guest blog, it seems like the perfect time of year to talk about gardening.

As someone who loves to cook, visiting farmers markets has always been exciting to me. So, it was only natural that when I moved out of my apartment and into a house, I would have a garden.

Credit where credit is due: I did virtually no research into this garden. My fiancé did a lot of that for our garden. We decided on a raised 4 foot by 8 foot garden broken into square foot quadrants. To keep the plants well fed, we layered the raised garden with manure, peat, mushroom compost and generic garden soil.

Looking through the seeds at the hardware store, we were kind of like two kids in a candy store.

“Let’s grow a watermelon!” one of us said.

“How about a pumpkin?!” the other said.

We had no idea what would work. It was a fun first attempt. Here’s what we have grown and what I’ve learned thus far:

Other than the watermelon — which, yes, we planted! — we avoided fruit. It seems awfully complicated for a first-timer. Here’s what we grew from seed:

  • Red Russian kale
  • Giant Caesar lettuce
  • Spinach – two varieties, both on the ‘baby’ end of the scale
  • Carrots – two varieties, one typical kind, the other rainbow carrots
  • Pole beans
  • Chamomile
  • Zucchini
  • Sunflowers
  • Pumpkin
  • Watermelon

What we grew from plants or starter sets:

  • Shallots – two varieties
  • Tomatoes – cherry, yellow pear, beefsteak, and giant heirloom
  • Rosemary
  • Lemon thyme
  • Garlic

Our most successful plant as of this writing was the red Russian kale. We are in southern Indiana, and I think the weather must have been perfect for it. I had so much kale, I was running out of things to do with it! I made kale chips, of course, and also attempted a couple different egg and kale casseroles. One of my favorite things was tossing the kale and some broccoli in olive oil, lemon pepper and Parmesan cheese, and roasting that in the oven.

I think by next week, our biggest success will actually be tomatoes. I have tons that have grown so far. They just need the temperatures to rise to turn red. I’ll soon have more tomatoes than I can eat.

We did not surround our garden with chicken wire or any other sort of barrier. I’d stick with this moving forward. We did have something — likely a chipmunk — dig around in the dirt a couple times. But by and large, we didn’t have animal problems.

There were some insect issues with our kale after some time. We attracted something that was eating holes into the leaves. This was mostly resolved by removing the damaged leaf and rinsing the plant with a soap and water mixture.

Next year, we will likely start our seeds inside in egg cartons. As novices, we had a hard time distinguishing between legitimate plants and weeds. I’m pretty sure this is how our zucchini and chamomile never grew.

Planting a couple varieties of vegetables also let us learn which we liked better. One of the spinach varieties I loved, and the other I could do without. Same thing with the carrots — I found out that rainbow carrots aren’t actually that delicious (to me), they’re just pretty.

The food from our garden couldn’t compare at all to the grocery store. It was surprisingly delicious, and I was amazed at how long some of the items stayed just fine in the fridge. Given the amount of time our produce typically travels, it’s no real surprise. But, I thought two of us would struggle to eat everything before it went bad, and that hasn’t yet been a problem.

Maintenance of the garden was a bit more than I expected. There’s a lot to do on nice-weather days, between weeding, harvesting and pruning back plants that are getting out of control.

Google also became my best friend. I learned the value in doing an image search for the plant to see what it looked like at various stages. This helped to distinguish between weed and vegetable. It was also was helpful to know when to harvest, especially with the shallots.

Gardening can be intimidating, but with a little bit of research it’s not that hard. It’s good to go into it with low expectations, because inevitably something unexpected will happen.