Saturday, October 24, 2009

Trial and Error, Part II

As promised, here's a more detailed report of my experience growing various fruits and vegetables this summer.

Apples: Of my two apple trees, I got about five crisp, sweet-tart apples from the young Cortland and absolutely nothing, not even so much as a blossom, from the small tree I was attempting to grow using the espalier technique. I think I'm going to transplant the espaliered tree to a different area and give it a bit more room to grow. I'm sure it's too young to bear fruit.

Berries: I harvested a trivial amount of blackberries and a handful of late-season raspberries. I also noticed several volunteer raspberries popping up around the yard, which may or may not be a good thing. Got no blueberries at all. Next year I'll focus on fertilizing the berry shrubs with vermicompost and pine needles. On a different note, I pulled a volunteer raspberry inside several days ago and I'm now trying to root it in a cup of water. We'll see what happens.

Carrots: My big mistake with the carrots was planting them too close together. I wish I would have spread the seeds more sparingly. This error resulted in some very large carrots surrounded by a half dozen teeny tiny, useless carrots. A few of the big guys resembled hairy, multi-legged beasts more than vegetables. I'm storing most of the remaining carrots in my basement, in a 5-gallon bucket filled with loose, dry potting soil.

Container fruit trees: My dwarf fruit trees and shrubs (pomegranate, fig, blueberry, orange, pictured to the left) did well. They quietly grew all summer long in containers on my front porch steps. Some of them doubled in size, and one of the pomegranates even grew a few tiny flowers.

Cruciferous Vegetables: The cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage) mostly grew well, but they were attacked by slugs and cabbage worms, which rendered most of the crops inedible toward the end of the season. The three Brussels Sprouts took forever to get going, and the few sprouts that finally grew big enough to eat were riddled with holes.

Grapes: My white and concord grapes grew by leaps and bounds along the chain link fence, but didn't flower or bear fruit, which leads me to wonder if I need more of them for pollination purposes.

Herbs: This year I focused on growing the herbs I use most: basil, oregano and cilantro. The cilantro was useful in June, but by the time the tomatoes were ripe and ready for salsa-making, the cilantro had gone to seed and wasn't of much use at all. The oregano did very well, as did the basil. In fact, I was able to bring a few of my basil plants indoors and they are now growing in my mini-greenhouse in the kitchen. I also grew lemon balm, lavender, dill and chamomile. I dried the chamomile and some of the lavender. They are currently strung up with twine in my kitchen, along with a basil plant from the Lincoln Vegetable Patch that had gone to seed.

Onions: The onions I planted on the side of my house (pictured at right, half-sliced and almost ready to go into a zucchini stew) were small things, barely bigger than the onion sets. That said, they were fresh, potent and delicious.

Okra and Pole Beans: Both of these veggies (fruits?) yielded little -- hardly anything to cook with. I blame the cold, dry season. I'm wondering, also, if okra doesn't grow well this far north.

Potatoes: I don't know what went wrong. Seems like ants might have gotten to a good many of them. I did manage to get a bowl full of red potatoes at one point, but by harvest time most of the golden potatoes had disappeared.

Pumpkins: I wasn't expecting much, because I hear growing pumpkins from seeds is rather hit-or-miss. I learned that this is somewhat true -- we did get some pumpkins from the garden at my parents' house in Illinois and I grew about nine little guys on the sunny side of my house. But vines we started from seed at the patch at the Lincoln Patch were fruitless. To the left is a photo of one of the pumpkins I grew at my house. It's sitting on my desk, next to my printer. Right now our pumpkins are being used for decoration, but we may carve them and bake the seeds for snacks.

Sunflowers: Hands down, the sunflowers were my favorite plant of the season. I think the trick to getting a lovely crop of beautiful, elegant "Velvet Queen" sunflowers was starting them indoors and then transplanting them when they were old enough to no longer appeal to rabbits but not so old that they'd become spindly and floppy. I didn't harvest the seeds for consumption (not sure if this was the best variety for saving the nuts) but we enjoyed them tremendously -- it was especially fun watching the yellow finches and mason bees go at them.

Tomatoes: My cherry, roma and beefsteak tomatoes did great on side of house and not so great in the backyard. The vertical growers in the square foot gardens didn't do as well as the near-wild tomatoes I let go crazy, without cages or stakes, on the sunny, dry side of my house. I barely watered them and they yielded tons. The upside down planters were highly disappointing. In fact, though I did see about two or three tiny tomatoes growing from each one, I didn't even bother harvesting the sad little fruits from either my homemade upside down planter or the real, patented "Topsy Turvy" planter. I'm not sure what went wrong: too much water, too little? Not enough sun? Either way, I'll likely not try this technique again.

Watermelon, eggplant, bell peppers and pepperoncini: Got nothin'. Absolutely nothin'.

Zucchini: Other than my many tomatoes, my zucchini plant was the biggest winner in terms of crop size, but it spread far beyond the confines of its allocated square foot and ruined the chances nearby peppers had of bearing fruit, covered as they were by the large and prickly zucchini leaves. The zucchini seemed relatively pest-resistant and drought tolerant, which meant huge zucchini fruits with which to make many-a-loaf of sweet zucchini bread. I also used it on pizza and in a couple of stews. I learned from the stews that if you let zucchini grow too large, the skin gets tough and the seeds grow so big they can be a little overwhelming. Next year I'll harvest them sooner, rather than later.

So that's about it. Am I happy with the way things turned out? Yes and no. I was able to grow a fair amount of food, even if I didn't really bother with canning this year. And yet, I was disappointed with the failure of so many plants to produce edible fruits and vegetables. Overall, though, I'm not really depressed about the way the season ended, because I've learned so much. Thankfully, we still live in a time of relative abundance in America, so as many "transition movement" folks have said, if we're going to make mistakes, now is the time to make them. Looks like I made mistakes aplenty this year, but that only gave me a better education at the school of hard knocks.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Trial and Error of Gardening: Part I

The harvest is winding down and frosty weather is upon us. Now I'm reflecting on the growing season past and considering how I might change things next year.

If you've been reading this blog since its inception in the spring, you know that I had ambitious garden plans that were derailed by concerns over my health that cropped up (pun not intended) mid-summer.

Even though the year didn't turn out the way I hoped it would, my efforts weren't all for naught. I did get a tremendous yield of tomatoes as well as a good deal of basil, oregano, carrots, zucchini and a few other things. And most importantly, I learned many lessons throughout my second edible landscaping season.

For example, I learned that while the four square foot garden beds I created in the back yard did bear fruit, they were not nearly as fruitful as I expected. The biggest problem with the SF beds was that larger veggies ended up exceeding the space of their squares and choking out nearby vegetables and herbs. Next year I'll probably focus on using the square foot gardens for onions, carrots and other smallish root vegetables and grow wider and taller plants elsewhere.

I was also reminded this summer of a lesson I am apt to forget: the virtue of taking baby steps. Next year, instead of biting off more than I can chew, I hope to focus on fruits and vegetables I know I can grow successfully. I'll limit my experiments to one or two novelties and focus on the tried and true with most of my energy.

I was also reminded of the importance of staying on top of watering. The summer of '09 was very dry. Between mid-June and mid-August we hardly received any rain at all. My rain barrels were empty almost all summer, and I hate moving around a hose, so I admit that things got a little, shall we say, parched. Thankfully many of my plants seemed to do OK in spite of this, but I wonder how much better things would have been if I had used my sprinklers more.

I did nothing to deter pests this year, and while I didn't have a problem with rabbits or other mammals, slugs and cabbage worms did a fair amount of damage. Next summer I'll get serious about deterring pests using organic home remedies.

One of the greatest of my discoveries this summer is that vermicompost rocks! Whenever and wherever I use it the plants seem happier, bigger, and more disease resistant. It's worth battling occasional outbreaks of fungus gnats and fruit flies to keep my bins going. I just moved my two vermicompost tubs to the basement and I'm back to the routine of fertilizing our indoor plants with a weekly dose of vermicompost tea. Depending on how much I want to trek out to the backyard compost bins this winter, I might just start another worm bin or two in my basement. It'll be much easier to compost kitchen scraps indoors in the winter, and I'll have more luscious vermicompost to use on my gardens next spring.

For my next blog post, I'll share a more detailed report on the various plants I grew in my garden this summer and how they turned out. Stay tuned!