2016 Gardens in Review, Part 2

When I was thinking about the past garden year, I was mainly thinking about my vegetable garden. Who knew that I would have so much to say about perennials? But I did have a lot to say, enough to make have an entire post on my perennial gardens. Now, I’ll focus on my vegetable garden.

This year I took the the Master Gardener class and went to a season extension workshop at the North Farm, both of which really motivated me to spend more time gardening this year. It also motivated me to spend more time planning, which I didn’t anticipate but I do appreciate because it allowed me to use my garden space much better than I ever have before. I’ve always been one to push the boundaries of our short growing season by planting lettuce as soon as the snow melts, but I now have a better foundation for understanding how to really get more out of my garden.

My new view on gardening is this: there is not a single garden season. Rather, being a gardener is perhaps like being a professional athlete. Really!—hear me out on this. There is not a single garden season that lasts from May to September, with the rest of the year being dormant for both garden and gardener. Nope, the gardener’s season is like that of the professional athlete. There is a pre-season intended for getting ready; it involves new gear, sore muscles, and even a few pre-season games in the form of early-season greens. The regular season is what always comes to mind: the weekly routine of planting, weeding, and watering where the big stars like tomatoes and peppers get all the press. During the post-season, you reap what you sowed earlier the year; if you didn’t perform well in the earlier seasons, its too late now. And while people don’t talk about the off-season, it’s a critical time for taking some time to relax and recover while also building the foundation for the next year.

Pre-Season

In the 40-50 hours of garden schooling I had this year, the thing that really made me sit up and take notice was an Excel spreadsheet. This particular one showed how a farmer planned multiple crop rotations in a single bed in a year.

The life-changing magic of garden planning.
The life-changing magic of garden planning.

I’d always planted early lettuce and spinach, but never quite had enough foresight to figure out how to use those beds once those early crops were done. Often, those beds would stay empty for the remainder of the growing season. Now, I could see the potential for how to plant multiple crops per year. My plan was definitely not as ambitious as the three-crop-per-year system employed by a farmer, but I figured that I could do two crops in at least a few places, effectively “flipping” my valuable garden real estate.

I planted the typical early crops: lettuce, spinach, arugula, carrots, beets, radishes, chard, and kale. Many things did not germinate, which may have been a result of old seed, but I had a more lettuce and spinach than ever before. I also planted onions this year, obtaining onion starts instead of using onion sets. If you don’t know the difference, I found this video from Dixondale Farms (where I purchased onions from) to be great for explaining the basics. I’d always struggled to grow onions larger than a golf ball, but this year I was able to grow onions the size of… onions!

Lettuce growing between onions.
Lettuce growing between onions.

Regular Season

Given great pre-season preparation, my regular season game left something to be desired. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but it seemed like my garden didn’t produce as much as it should have. I did a really great job of planning, allowing me to use the available space in my garden more effectively than ever before. The weather was extremely good for gardening this year: warm with above-average rain falling about once a week. It was raining weekly, so didn’t use my watering system until very late in the growing season; in retrospect, some mid-week waterings during the hottest weeks may have helped.

But that isn’t enough to explain the relatively poor performance in my tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, squash, and brassicas. I suspect two culprits. One culprit seems fairly obvious to me: my garden soils suck. Although I had them tested several years ago, I haven’t put the time and attention into improving them like I should have. And after nearly 10 years of gardening, I am sure the situation has worsened. Soil improvement is post-season work, described below.

But it’s not entirely soils, since other things did well this year: lettuce, spinach, onions, basil, and green beans. The common thread here is that these are things that I planted from seed. Most of things I listed above that did poorly are things that I buy as starts and transplant into my garden, and both of my local suppliers seemed to have issues with their plants this year. One local grower has the most amazing variety of heirloom plants, growing large starts in quart-sized milk cartons, but they had aphids this spring and I purchased fewer plants from them.The other greenhouse carries more typical starts—the Early Girls, Best Boys, and that sort of thing. I purchased more plants from them this year, but this year’s selection was not as nice as usual. The plants were light green and seemed to have some nutrient issues; eventually I fertilized them a little in my garden, but they were poor-performers from the start.

I also tried to grow the Three Sisters—corn, beans, and squash— this year. But it didn’t really work. I selected an heirloom corn variety designed for short seasons, not realizing that the plants would only grow to be 4 feet tall! This was incompatible with my very productive, hybrid pole bean that grew two times faster than the corn and needed to be staked. The squash plant underneath (also heirloom) also struggled, but I’m not sure why. It may have been a little too shaded or too moist under the massive bean plants. But I got a lot of green beans, which are my favorite, so it didn’t matter too much. My coworker uses sunflowers in place of corn, which seems like a brilliant idea to try next year.

Veggie garden in September 2016, with squash in front, August-planted greens and clover in the southern beds and three sisters in the background.
Veggie garden in September 2016, with squash in front, August-planted greens and clover in the southern beds and three sisters in the background.

Post-Season

The post-season starts in each bed when the main crop is done. This started as early as August for some of the beds that had contained peas, greens, and early potatoes. I planted lettuce and spinach in beds that had previously had peas for a fall harvest. In the rest, I experimented by planting alfalfa and buckwheat to improve soils and keep weeds out. In mid-September, I decided that onions, garlic, tomatoes, and potatoes were unlikely to produce more before the first frost. I supposed I could have gotten a few more tomatoes, but it was more important to amend my soils and plant winter wheat as a cover crop.

20160916_164812.jpg
September beds prepped for a fall cover crop.

In mid-October, I need to continue this work but am reluctant to pull more plants before a frost. I’d like to pull the remaining plants, amend soils, and plant cover crops in the rest of the beds. I’d also like to weed grass from the walkways and experiment with planting wheat or clover and adding straw to see if that will reduce the need to weed next year. (I spend more time weeding the walkways than weeding the beds, which seems silly.) And I need to fix the damn garden door, which has been broken for an entire year and is unlikely to survive the winter. One of the principles of permaculture is that your vegetable garden should be extremely close to your front door so it is as easy as possible for you to access it. I’m making it too difficult to get in my garden: not only is it on the other side of the yard but I have to struggle with the broken door every time I go in and out (being sure to close it always to keep the dogs from feasting in our compost pile).

20161025_185301.jpg
Ready for frost! Parsley, chard, and kale are still unprotected in October, with lettuce and spinach under cover.

Off-Season

I’m not sure what the off-season will bring, but I have a few ideas. I will need to make a new garden plan for 2017, incorporating what I learned this year. This includes:

  • Don’t bother growing cabbages, as the worms and slugs love them and I am not going to be bothered to try to control the pests. It’s better to grow tomatoes; a neighbor’s garden is too cool for tomatoes and he will trade me cabbages for any extra tomatoes that I grow.
  • Always plant more spinach and lettuce. Find more room. Also: more cherry tomatoes.
  • Peas have been finicky the past two years. Why? Figure out this mystery and plant tons of peas.
  • The high tunnel has been great. Decide how many hoops and how much fabric I need for next year.
  • Make a plan for making more compost.
  • Get a new soil test.
20161025_185327.jpg
Garden panorama: October 2016.

I also need to plan how many beds I want to build for next year. Over the past two years, I’ve converted the raised mounds to six-inch-tall raised beds. It looks nicer and makes weeding and planning easier. There are still a few beds that haven’t been put into raised beds, and I need to decide whether to do that in late fall or early spring.

That’s it for me. What was your garden like this year?

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