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Posted on Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 5:57 a.m.

Reaping the rewards: 5 things I've learned from my first vegetable garden

By Lizzy Alfs


I planted seven different tomato plants in my garden, including several heirloom varieties.

Lizzy Alfs |

I’ve never eaten so many tomatoes in my life.

What were once six-inch tall tomato plants in my first-ever vegetable garden have grown to five feet tall, and are producing more tomatoes than I know what to do with. I roast them; I eat them plain for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I give tomatoes to neighbors.

Three months after I decided to start a garden outside my Old West Side apartment, I’ve come to love the hobby. The $50 I spent in the beginning of the season on gardening supplies and plants has paid off, and then some.

I’ve made salads with my lettuce, batches of pesto with my basil and roasted potatoes using rosemary from the garden. I cut up chives on my eggs, and when I am feeling stressed out, I smell my lavender.


Gardening has been a rewarding hobby for me this year.

For someone who, three months ago, was unfamiliar with a spade gardening tool, this season has also been a learning experience. Here are 5 things I’ve learned from gardening:

Appreciate the smaller things

Sure, I only have two pepper plants — one green pepper plant and one hot pepper plant — so I have to appreciate the few peppers those will produce.

I have a newfound respect for vendors at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, with their gorgeous flower bouquets, overflowing tomato supply and delicious blueberries. Every week, I buy fresh flowers at the market to put in vases around my apartment.

I’m also noticing other peoples’ yards now, and I take inspiration for my own garden. One thing I want to look into for next year: the upside down hanging tomato plants.

It’s a relatable hobby

I’m pretty certain I have talked about gardening with anyone who gardens. Gardening helped me make new friends, meet neighbors and connect with people in my family.


My garden, pictured here in late July.

Lizzy Alfs |

Since the National Gardening Association reports more than a third of American households grow food, it’s not hard to find people who share the interest.

Bugs…they’re just bugs

To say I was disturbed when I found tomatoes covered in slugs in early July is an understatement. I was also disappointed and I was nervous for the rest of my plants.

Want to start a garden?

Here are some resources

After talking to gardeners, I realized there are methods to control bug infestations. First, I had to make sure all my plants were tied up and tomatoes weren’t grazing the ground. For about a week, I also sprinkled coffee grounds around the plants to deter the slugs and other pests. I never saw them again!

There’s no such thing as normal

When I first started gardening, I wanted my plants to grow at the same pace as everyone else’s. If a neighbor had tiny green tomatoes sprouting on her plants, I wanted some on mine, too.

But as time went on, I realized that there’s no such thing as “normal” in a garden. Plants take on a life of their own. The soil, the climate, how often you water, how much sun the plants get — it all affects how the plants will grow.

Tomatoes taste good plain!

My favorite lesson: a fresh tomato is best on its own.

For the first time in my life, I'm eating heaping bowls of just plain, diced up cherry tomatoes, or sliced-up purple heirloom tomatoes.

Lizzy Alfs is a business reporter for Reach her at 734-623-2584 or email her at Follow her on Twitter at


Kellie Woodhouse

Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 2:36 p.m.

This year was a great year for tomatoes! Not so much for squash though. The squash in my garden has dowdy mildew-- and I've seen it on squash around Ann Arbor. I've tried using an organic spray and a homemade milk spray, but the mildew persists!


Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 2:59 p.m.

I got horrible powdery mildew on my zucchini and cucumbers this year. It was a bad year for cucurbits indeed :(


Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 12:08 p.m.

Vegetable gardening makes you realize how "different" summers are in the Midwest based on which items do well, and which do not. For me and some others, this was a bad tomato year (cooler at the wrong times) but great for carrots. Last years heat was fantastic for tomatoes if you irrigated, but not so good for salad items.


Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 3:30 a.m.

If you grow tomatoes in the same ground again next year, test your soil for nutrient levels and make sure to add compost. They are hungry plants, and they will quickly deplete nutrients out of the soil.


Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 12:09 p.m.

That's very true, but this years weather just wasn't as good for tomatoes. Personally I enjoyed a cooler July and August, but the tomatoes did not.


Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 3:24 a.m.

I am just grateful that I don't have to rely on organic gardening for my living. I have fairly large garden and every year some things do really well and some others not so well. Last year, we canned over 60 quarts of tomatoes. While this year, suddenly my 6' tall tomato plants have one of the blights and the leaves are dying. I hope that the green tomatoes will continue to ripen but I doubt I will have new ones. Last year my green beans didn't do so well, this year I have tons. And so it goes.


Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 1:39 a.m.

Make sure to use your delicious homegrown tomatoes in a BLT. Best meal of the summer. Try the bacon from Biercamp. You don't even need mayo, just bacon, lettuce and tomatoes.


Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 1:06 a.m.

Can them! I've put up a good dozen & a half pints of simple tomatoes (like the kind you might buy at a store, minus all the chemicals in the can lining & whatnot) and look forward to enjoying them in soups and stews once the season is over. It's far easier than you'd think. Really, nothing beats a taste of your homegrown tomatoes in the dead of winter. My tomato plants aren't producing as much I had hoped for, what with all this foul weather; I would love to have the excess that you have. Don't let such a wonderful bounty go to waste!


Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 12:39 a.m.

Thanks, Lizzy, for starting one of the most constructive conversations on that I've ever seen. 1/3 of households growing food sounds really high to me. If it is 5% in my neighborhood, I'd be surprised. On a really shoestring budget, you don't need 50 bucks. You can get a 4-pack of small tomato plants for about a dollar. If your soil is even halfway decent, you can get by with just occasionally watering them, and in a good year, 4 plants will yield several pounds of tomatoes. I have the best luck with Roma. I tried to grow Cherokee from seed this year, and most of my plants died, and I'm still waiting for the first tomato. The plants work better for me. Oh, and Project Hope, I hear, gives out plants in the spring, and the fees are on a sliding scale. Bon appetit!

Lizzy Alfs

Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 1:41 p.m.

@Kate: The $50 also got me tools I didn't have - trowel, fence, string, buckets for the herbs, etc. In the Old West Side, it honestly feels like everyone grows food! Even in front yards, which surprised me at first, because where I grew up in Birmingham there are no food gardens in front yards. Walking around the neighborhood, it's really fun to look at other people's gardens.


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 9:55 p.m.

Fried green ones are great & easy. A little milk & egg in one dish, a little flour mix like Drake's in another. Sliced tomato into milk then mix then hot frying pan with little oil. Fry until soft and crusty. Yum! Also wrap green tomatoes in newspaper (if you can find some!) and layer carefully in box in basement. They ripen to a nice pink and you can have them for Christmas!

Eduard Copely

Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 9:34 p.m.

Cute article. I did my first container garden this year and look forward to trying different crops next year. Let's hope we get slightly less rain.


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 8:38 p.m.

Kudos on the garden! Fresh tomatoes are delicious. Try cutting them into reasonable chunks, mixing in some sliced onions with a bit of balsamic and rice vinegar and a touch of salt and pepper. Or do some homemade salsa with smaller tomato chunks, diced onion, diced jalapeno pepper (careful!), diced green/red pepper (if you like 'em), salt, pepper and the secret ingredient: a bit of leftover red wine from a night or two ago. Mash slightly if necessary.


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 5:13 p.m.

We wait all year for those tomatoes, basil and parsley from our little garden and go through our seasonal menu. Even with a large rodent eating a lot of our tomatoes we still have had a lovely run starting with caprese salad onto --armenian bean salad with cherry tomatoes -- sardinian artichoke tomato pie --bacon lettuce tomato sandwiches --golomki (stuffed cabbage with tomatoes) --tomato,egglplant or grilled chicken,spinach, pepper, cheese foccacia sandwiches --eggplant parmesan with fresh tomato sauce (uncooked sauce) --marinated tomato onion salad --ratatouille --gazapacho finishing with September--swiss steak with tomato, celery, peppers onions. Then we patiently await next year's tomatoes while rotating into our seasonal fall menus and onto the Hoilidays. Bon app├ętit


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 2:51 p.m.

Most people start with growing tomatoes and peppers first because they are the easiest to grow. Suggestion: get your friends to grow different things and then trade. Cucumbers and different squash are fairly easy to grow as well. Don't plant too much of kitchen spices without reading about them first. Some will take over a garden, I prefer to grow these in planters. Mint for example will grow all over if you turn your back on it. For excess tomatoes, steam them, put in a cold bowl of water to shock them, this makes it easier to peel them. Remove as much seeds as possible (seeds make sauce bitter) Food process them with peppers, onions and spice. Simmer on stove (I do mine in a crockpot) for hours. Cool, place in double freezer bags or can using canning method. Excess tomatoes, those that are nasty, semi-spoiled can be used for compost, I don't recommend this for you if you live in town as you don't want to attract critters. Excess tomatoes can be donated to places like Starry Skies Horse Rescue or whatever Pig Hoppers goes by nowadays (Great Lakes Rabbit Sanctuary?). Call them to see if they take stuff like that. Or any farmer that keeps pigs. This goes for your plant clippings etc.

Lizzy Alfs

Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 1:38 p.m.

Thank you for all the tips, I really appreciate it. I did start with tomatoes and peppers this year, but next year I want to expand. I have some more room in my yard, too. I think I can double the size of the garden next year.


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 7:51 p.m.

Chives will also spread all over the place! I have had that happen. I love the purple flower that they get in the spring so I'd always say that I was going to wait until after the flowers and then I'd pull most of them but I'd forget to do it. At one time I had chives growing everywhere, even in the grass!!

Glenn Galler

Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 2:44 p.m.

I have a rule that my cherry tomatoes should never make it into the house. I eat them in the garden. This year I have many green cherry tomatoes because the weather was not hot and humid like it normally is in the summer. My gardening friend told me to bring all the green tomatoes inside at the end of the season and they will ripen in the windowsill.


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 1:25 p.m.

Welcome to the club, Lizzy, and thanks for the tip about the coffee grounds and slugs! Try some pole beans next year, they are really easy and so good. It has also been a great year for our Swiss chard and beets.

Chester Drawers

Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 1:15 p.m.

I used to have a friend who would sneak up to people's front porches in the dark of night and leave excess vegetables (better than puppies!).

Homeland Conspiracy

Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 10:34 p.m.

Maybe back in the day...try that today & you might get shot


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 6:50 p.m.

Zucchini, right?

Vivienne Armentrout

Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 12:54 p.m.

Lizzy, try using your tomatoes in gazpacho. It isn't hard. Congratulations on your efforts and successes!

Lizzy Alfs

Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 1:37 p.m.

Thanks, Vivienne! I will definitely try.


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 12:49 p.m.

Freezing tomatoes is easy. Wash,bag & freeze. Lay them flat in the freezer.


Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 1:34 a.m.

I freeze tomatoes all the time -- you can dip them in boiling water, slip the skins off and freeze. Then I pop them in soups, stews, chilis or just stew them with herbs and they're delicious. You can thaw them and make a great winter tomato soup. I use them until summer the following year, then start over again.


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 7:47 p.m.

I've never heard of freezing tomatoes. How do you use them after they've been frozen? How long can they be frozen? I'm off to do some googling but would also love to hear from others who freeze tomatoes.

Nicholas Urfe

Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 12:33 p.m.

Next up: Lizza gets a cow and makes fresh Mozzarella

Lizzy Alfs

Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 1:36 p.m.

Ha, I'm not sure my landlord would like that too much..maybe I need to move to a farm?

Nicholas Urfe

Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 2:06 p.m.

Sic: Lizzy, sorry.

Paula Gardner

Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 1:40 p.m.

If she does, she needs to share with her favorite coworkers. Hint, hint!


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 11:34 a.m.

You might try a trade with neighbors who garden. You can also take extras to Food Gatherers - they love to receive fresh vegies from folks' gardens.


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 11:31 a.m.

I really need to attempt this one year! It would be an adventure for the whole family..


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 10:44 a.m.

This year the heavy rains caused havoc with most gardens. Lousy season.

Lizzy Alfs

Tue, Sep 3, 2013 : 1:35 p.m.

I think this could go back to one of my lessons: There's no such thing as normal! I've heard from people who had a bad season and others had a great one.

Jack Gladney

Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 8:51 p.m.

Worst year? How about best in about 5 years, especially for tomatoes. We quit weighing our yield when we surpassed 100 lbs. Better Boy and Early Girls have been the best in years.


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 6:22 p.m.

Same here Tim. Still picking beans with lots of blossoms on the plants. Sliced tomatoes and cukes with each meal and beans about every three days. But the rain did impact my garlic crop, I'm afraid. I did get nice sized soft neck bulbs (storage) but most of my hard neck was middling. But with in excess of 10 dozen cloves planted last Fall, we won't be lacking. I can't decide which is better, fresh 'maters or garlic.

Tim Belcher

Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 3:20 p.m.

Actually, this was my best year in 10 for green beans, and I'm still picking. Tomatoes and peppers are coming in strong and I've had more cucumbers than I know what to do with. I've canned enough pickles to last a couple years as well. So all in all not a bad year for me and my backyard garden.


Mon, Sep 2, 2013 : 10:31 a.m.

Learn how to stew them as well as make your own sauce and you will never have too many tomatoes.