One of the Joys of Maturity
A Year in Our Garden
I started writing this review yesterday while watching the first appreciable snow of the year fall on our yard and garden. When I broke for lunch, I dined on spinach salad left over from our Christmas dinner. The spinach was picked on December 18, which may give you some idea of what a wonderful gardening year we've had. There were, of course, a few disappointments and at least one outright blunder along the way. But even with mistakes and drought, 2011 was one of our better gardening years.
The video at right is a collection of still images taken from our sunroom window of our main garden throughout the year.
We got off to a good, early start in our gardening season, seeding our onions on December 30, 2010, and observing them germinate around January 5, 2011. I'm planning to wait just a little longer this year to start onions, as ours last year got pretty big in the tray before we got them transplanted.
Things quickly took a turn for the worse when a nasty winter storm knocked out our power for a couple of days in early February. I'd just replaced a failed heating mat and got our geraniums seed started. Surprisingly, the geraniums survived the cold temperatures while we were without power, and we ended up with a nice bunch of them for our garden.
Through the cold of January through mid-March, we didn't get any outdoor gardening done, but did get most of our transplants started. We rarely buy any plants at garden centers or discount stores anymore, opting to mail order seed and grow our own transplants under fluorescent lights in our basement. Growing our own transplants allows us the choice of many varieties of flowers and vegetables that never appear on vendors' racks.
By mid-March, we had some of our hardier transplants outdoors under the cold frame hardening off. I've used a simple, homemade cold frame I put together a number of years ago with great success. I do have to give it a new covering of plastic each spring, but also have put it to good use protecting fall crops from early frosts.
The cold frame measures around 27" by 6' and is actually a little small for our needs. But if you make them much larger, they become rather cumbersome to move around. While I've linked above to the plans to make a similar cold frame, I keep thinking of how to use lighter lumber, possibly 2x2's, to make a larger cold frame that is a bit lighter to move around.
Some unseasonably warm weather in mid-March popped up our garlic plants!
It also produced a light, early picking of asparagus. We just got a few spears before cold weather returned and interrupted our picking, but fresh asparagus that early was a real treat. This was our first year to pick asparagus in quantity from the patch.
Since I didn't get our pea bed prepared in the fall, we got our spring peas planted a little late this year. I like to push them into the ground sometime in March. But in a last minute decision last year, I used the area I'd planned for our peas for garlic and ended up having to prepare a new bed for the peas in early April.
We seeded our peas on April 3 and transplanted broccoli on April 6! I ended up re-seeding the peas several times, as some of our seed was old and didn't germinate well. But we were cutting lots of broccoli by mid-May.
April and May always become a blur of planting and transplanting outdoors when the ground is dry enough, still starting some seed indoors (tomatoes), and harvesting. We planted or transplanted onions, carrots, and radishes, beets, and potatoes during an April that produced over eleven and a half inches of rainfall.
When things finally dried out enough in mid-May, we transplanted the first of several successive plantings of melons. We also got some peppers, green beans and kale, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and sweet corn planted. We continued to harvest asparagus and broccoli and also brought in some beets, cabbage, spinach, and lettuce.
And with all of that activity, I still found time to commit a major blunder in our garden. Our planting of seed potatoes had come up a little spotty. In a moment of, well, whatever, I noticed some lovely potato plants growing in our compost pile. Without thinking, I harvested the plants, roots and all, and transplanted them into our planting of potatoes in the main garden.
Now there's a reason why folks spend good money buying certified disease free seed potatoes each spring, even if they still have good looking potatoes left in storage. It wouldn't be until August that I admitted to myself that I had transplanted potato plants with late blight into our main planting. We got less than a bushel of potatoes this year, and I only have myself to blame!
Things dried out in June, possibly a harbinger of the mini-drought coming later in the summer. Our plantings continued to do well, possibly because most areas in our garden were thoroughly mulched with grass clippings to hold in soil moisture. And our flowers, planted as row markers until seed came up and as borders around our gardens, simply exploded with blooms.
We began picking Sugar Snap peas and lettuce early in the month. I prefer the original Sugar Snaps over the newer, dwarf varieties, as I find them easier to pick. Steamed Sugar Snaps starred at our dinner table many evenings and are always a favorite of our grandkids who know they may pick and eat them off the vine at will.
We also were pleased with a new lettuce variety we tried this year. While romaine lettuce is still our favorite, the highly touted Skyphos butterhead lettuce lived up to its billings. The soft heads produce sweet red tinged leaves that add flavor and color to salads.
Some welcome rains mid-month made tilling for weed control in our sweet corn impossible, and despite our best efforts, deer kept biting off the tassels of the corn stalks. I really thought we'd lost the crop, but enough tassels survived to pollinate enough ears that we had corn for the table and a little left over to freeze. Blood meal and red blinking night lights provided some deterrence, but spreading the contents of our sweeper bag seemed to be the best deterrent!
We also began our annual battle with bacterial spot and anthracnose in our tomato plants in June. Regular sprayings of Serenade, an excellent biofungicide, allowed us to pick a good many tomatoes. It effectively suppressed the anthracnose, but the bacterial spot rebounded when I got sloppy with our spraying regimen. We hot water treated all of our saved tomato and pepper seed this year to make sure we didn't carry over any disease organism on the seed. But sadly, both diseases can remain in the soil for years. I'll try to plant our tomatoes next year on "clean ground," but may also have to use one of our "heavy hitter" fungicides.
As June wore on, we began picking peas for shelling and freezing, dug the first of an exceptional crop of garlic (planted in November), and took the first of what proved to be our best crop ever of carrots. Our carrots from our 2010 garden wintered over in our refrigerator quite well, lasting well into April. We dug at least twice as many carrots this year, but are almost out of them now. Our grandkids love carrots, and well, so do we. I guess we just need to grow more of them in 2012.
I finished up digging our garlic on July 1. If you use garlic but don't currently grow it, let me recommend it as one of the easiest, low maintenance crops one can grow. It goes in the ground in late fall (around here, folks in the far north have to spring plant) and comes up early in the spring. We use a heavy grass clipping mulch to suppress weeds and get great crops year after year.
We dug more carrots in July from a mulched softbed that itself is a thing of beauty (to a gardener). Our raised beds allow us access to most of our garden, even in wet weather. We have to use "walking boards" to get to the interior, but at the ends of our main raised bed, we have soft beds we try never to step into during the gardening season. Staying out of the plantings prevents soil compaction, a definite no-no for carrots. And we use intensive gardening techniques in the softbeds, often with just six inches in between rows of crops.
We continued to harvest broccoli sideshoots, Sugar Snap peas, carrots, and began getting some nice yellow squash. By mid-month, we were picking, enjoying, and canning green beans. Our onions were well enough along that we seasoned our green beans for the table and canning with Walla Walla sweet onions from the garden.
July quickly turned hot and dry. When we did get a heavy rain late in the month, it came on the day my son-in-law had a thin layer of rolled roofing protecting our leaky back porch he was fixing. Strong winds blew the rolled roofing away, and it rained in our kitchen and dining room!
The winds also helped our nearly mature onion stalks to tip over, so we only had to bend down a few stalks to get the first of our onions to finish bulbing and begin drying a bit. We also began picking the first of our cantaloupes, "personal-sized" Sugar Cube melons that were a hit with our whole "neighborhood." (Note, we live way out in the boonies, so anyone within a mile who waves when they drive by is a neighbor.)
I picked our first full sized, fully ripe tomato at the end of July. Annie and I celebrated by having BLTs for supper with fresh from the garden corn on the cob. Sweet corn was the crop that got me started gardening long ago and remains one of our garden favorites today.
August is always a strange month in gardening. We continue harvesting lots of spring planted crops, but also begin to try to plant fall crops. This year, August proved to be bone dry, so transplants we'd started earlier inside were put on hold until the drought broke. Sadly, it never did. We got just .32 inches of rainfall in August, so what little we planted fared poorly if we didn't water from our well that often runs dry for short periods during the summer.
Our melons, peppers, and tomatoes came on like gangbusters during the month. The grape tomato plants we put in at either end of our tomato row bore more fruit than we could pick and eat, give away, and even overwhelmed our grandkids. Sugar Snaps and grape tomatoes are the two crops the grandkids know they can pick and eat right off the vine at any time without permission.
One fall crop I couldn't put off transplanting until later was our fall brassicas. Broccoli and cauliflower take a certain number of days to mature, so I transplanted our fall crop mid-month to have time for them to mature before winter set in. The planting area looked like a desert, and I spent the rest of the month hauling water out to our East Garden where I'd planted them.
I did something this year when I planned our East Garden that I'm sorta proud of. I guess I really shouldn't be proud, but it made me feel good, anyway. I planned to plant way more melons than we could easily use or share with families and neighbors. And our cantaloupe, watermelon, and honeydew all produced bumper crops.
My plan was to donate our excess melons to the Lighthouse Mission in Terre Haute, Indiana. Annie knows the founder of the mission, and they do good work with the homeless and needy in this area. I thought that when the main harvest came on, I'd haul a bunch of melons up to Terre Haute.
Little did I know that we'd have such a bountiful harvest. I ended up driving three small loads of melons and whatever else we had a surplus of (peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, etc.) to the mission over the summer. I guess the Lord knew my purpose and smiled upon our efforts...even in the midst of a summer drought.
While I earlier bemoaned our disease problems with our tomatoes, we canned enough for our winter use and had lots to share much of the month of August.
From mid-summer on, our row of sweet potatoes really began to put out vines. We had some problems with deer browsing the vines, making them look like someone had run a hedge trimmer over the top of them. A package of Sweeney's All Season Weatherproof Deer Repellents my wife had given me more as a joke (after the deer pruned most of the tassels off our sweet corn) than anything, turned out to do the trick. With almost no care from me, other than an occasional hand weeding and blowing grass clippings up against the vines, the sweet potatoes grew and grew.
Most of September was as dry as August. When rain finally came late in the month, it produced quick tuber growth that caused many of the sweet potatoes to crack and split. But since this was just our second crop of sweet potatoes grown in the Senior Garden, we were quite pleased with our harvest. We didn't get all of them dug until early November!
Our sweet peppers that had put out some nice fruit early on began yielding large peppers once again when the rain returned in mid-September. We ate and froze a lot and gave away even more. I generally plant for a "bad season," so we'll get enough for our purposes even in a bad year. While much of this summer wasn't conducive to good crop growth, our peppers overwhelmed us before and after the drought.
The image above is just the picking from one day, although I hadn't picked peppers for a week. So maybe it's more a week's worth of peppers. Along with our usual varieties of bell peppers, we tried a pimento type pepper, Lipstick, for the first time this year. They're the smaller, non-ribbed peppers on top of the stack. Their flavor is like a bell pepper, touted by seed catalogs as even better. They were good, but in our experience, not better, than our usual bell varieties.
I finally began transplanting our fall lettuce in the middle of September. The drought really hadn't broken yet, but if I waited any longer, the lettuce transplants were going to die in the flat. As it turned out, we got rain just a few days after transplanting.
We'd also direct seeded some fall spinach into one of our softbeds in August. It, of course, did almost nothing in terms of germination due to the dry conditions. The few seeds that did germinate quickly withered and died in the dry weather. Later, I had a couple of our grandkids sprinkle more spinach seed into the same furrow that I reopened with a hoe. When I reopened it, I could see the seed I'd planted earlier, but we went ahead and put in a whole lot more seed. By early October, I had a lot of thinning to do in the spinach row, as almost all of the seed seemed to germinate.
I generally don't do a very good job of growing spinach. It either doesn't germinate well or it bolts and goes to seed on me most years. This year we enjoyed great spring and fall spinach. As I mentioned earlier, I made our last picking on December 18, and we had spinach salad with our Christmas dinner.
We made two batches of Portuguese Kale Soup in October. Our kale was lush from the late September rains, so I could pick and chose the best looking leaves to pick for our soup. Our original recipe for the delicious dish came from Crockett's Victory Garden. We've only made a few minor changes to suit our tastes and have our recipe posted on this site.
My wife, Annie, wanting to get me something "gardeny" for Christmas looked online for an Eat More Kale shirt. You may have read about the silly hubbub Chick-fil-A created when they tried to force Bo Muller-Moore, a folk artist from Vermont who hand-screens T-shirts with the slogan "Eat More Kale," to stop selling the shirts. The fast food joint sent Muller-Moore a cease-and-desist letter, but fortunately, he stood up against them and refused, as Eat More Kale certainly doesn't infringe on the chain's "Eat mor chikin" slogan.
Possibly a better advertisement for the tasty, nutritious vegetable would be a pot of kale soup or a steaming pot of kale seasoned with bacon drippings, onion, and garlic!
I waited on making the kale soup until a late planting of green beans came in. While the two rows I planted in July and August produced enough for two batches of kale soup and some for fresh use, we didn't get the concentrated big harvest we wanted. I'd hoped to can enough more beans to last us through the winter. We canned four quarts with one picking, froze a little less than four pounds with another picking, and froze three quarts with our last picking on October 24.
We tried something totally new to us this year to extend our gardening season. We've often used blankets and paper painting "tarps" to protect crops from early frosts, but that whole deal gets rather messy in a big hurry. (Imagine the Senior Gardener having to wash all those blankets after their garden duty!)
I ordered an 83" x 50' floating row cover from Johnny's Selected Seeds and used it to protect our late green beans, spinach, and lettuce from frosts. At left you can see the row cover pulled back to expose the beans. We lost some beans (and lettuce leaf tips) that touched the cover to frost damage, but found that the covers were a good investment and got us past those early, light frosts that often spell a premature end to the gardening season. While the row covers we purchased were rated for 28o protection, we had some much colder nights that most of our lettuce and spinach survived quite nicely. The row covers are supposed to be reusable, but after one of our dogs hunkered down on one and a sharp, dead geranium branch tore a hole in another, I'll only be able to reuse this year's row covers for patches next year.
We also tried our hand at growing and drying sage and oregano this year. I didn't get around to cutting and drying most of it until October, but both seemed to withstand light frost pretty well. We also dried parsley a bit earlier. It also withstood frost far better than I'd expected, with only minor damage to outer leaves. There's something special about picking basil, parsley, and oregano from the garden to go in spaghetti sauce made with your own tomatoes. And while I can't devote the raised bed our herbs grew in this year to a permanent herb garden, I'm definitely looking for available space elsewhere.
We continued picking broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, a few paprika peppers, and spinach throughout November and even into December. Having late vegetables is really great, but we eventually began taking out good growing crops such as our kale to allow our fall soil preparation. I ended up tilling our main raised bed, except for the lettuce and spinach softbed, on November 9, immediately afterward planting our garlic for next year.
I chose the center of our raised bed for the garlic, as one minor problem we've had with our garlic is that it can begin to rot in the ground before it's dug. Our raised bed dries out well, and the very center is also directly over a dry sump I installed several years ago to help the bed dry out even more quickly. Don't be terribly impressed with the name, "dry sump." It's just a deep hole dug with a post hole digger and backfilled with sand.
Our garden plots are pretty well put to bed for the winter now. The unexpected snow cover earlier this week just sorta affirmed that there's no more outdoor gardening to be done for now.
Our garden orders for next season have arrived already, and we'll begin seeding onions and geraniums in January.
From the at Senior Gardening
Ads shown on this site do not represent an endorsement or warranty of any kind of products or companies shown.