Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lessons learned from this summer’s community garden plot

  1. Brussel sprouts are pigs. Well, they aren’t actually pigs or Jay would achieve his dream of harvesting bacon from the garden. But for what they provide (those little cabbage nuggets of goodness), they take a long, long time to grow and take up a lot of space.  I could get more out of the small plot with other vegetables. I’m thinking garlic and onions. 
    Eight brussel sprout plants took up A LOT of room in my 10x10 garden plot.
  2. Garlic planted in the spring yields, but not much. I was warned that garlic planted in the spring would not yield much, but I’m happy with what I got for an early June planting. I can’t wait to see what October planted garlic produces!
    Garlic planted in late spring yeild small but tasty crowns. For 2012, I'm planting in late October 2011.
  3. It’s ok to trim back an indeterminate cherry tomato plant. We planted one sungold cherry tomato plant which took up half a garden bed alongside our garage. It produced like crazy, and in October, it was still blossoming flowers. Had I trimmed it back, we would have gotten more fruit off less plant.
    Yes Virginia, that's ONE sun-gold cherry tomato plant.
  4. Indeterminite tomato plants are not good for canning. Well, they are and we did. But we didn’t get a lot of ripe fruit at any one time. Next year, one indeterminate slicing tomato, and several determinate beefy and paste plants.
    We made marinara sauce with whatever was on the vine at the time.
  5. Careful when co-planting. I read that nasturtium plants ward off a disease (or insect, can’t recall) from eggplant. So I planted several among my eggplant. The nasturtium grew faster and I think competed with and did little to help the eggplant. In August I tore them out and if I’m not mistaken, it seemed that that’s when the eggplant really started to thrive. It was too late for those blossoms to turn into anything but compost.
    Nasturtium flowers - tasty but aggressive
  6. Give the Malabar more trellis. My friend Diane shared two of these viny spinach plants. I tastes great, nothing seemed to kill it, lasted all summer and into autumn and gave the nasturtium next to it a run for its money. We are definitely planting this one next year. But it needs a bigger trellis and we need to more aggressively nibble at its succulent leaves.
  7. Buy vs. start. I’m still 50/50 on this one; because I haven’t done the math, I don’t know if it’s more cost-effective to buy and start seeds under grow lights or purchase plants from the farmer’s market, etc. I spent $10 on seed packets for basil, eggplant and some flowers. But that doesn’t include electricity spent on lights and heat mats. I spent $50 at the farmer’s market for the rest of what I put in the garden. The thing about starting from seed is I have all these leftover seeds, and I have to buy many packets to get the variety I want. I think the key is to plant what I need lots of (basil, eggplant) and buy what I want a few of. OR, I’d like to get into a seed starting cooperative, i.e. I start the basil for everyone, someone else starts tomatoes, etc., or I just get people to pay me for plants I start? Oh boy, that sounds like trouble.
    Nothing says "spring" like loose soil and seeds under grow lights.
  8. I love to be in the garden at 6 in the morning. It’s quiet and peaceful. Sometimes it’s foggy and a little mysterious. I have the whole place to myself, yet I’m sharing it with lots of other people. The day is just starting, and I have time to prune, pick or care for the plants. The hawk watches me, the chipmunk, me, the rabbit, me, the ground squirrel, me, the mouse, me, the mole and then me as I drive off to start my day.
    An early morning sunrise casts long shadows on the sleepy community garden.
  9. If the world goes to hell, we could provide for ourselves. If an economic, social or military apocalypse happened, I’d scrape together some seeds and move to my parents' farm in western Wisconsin where Jay and I, along with my family, could grow and preserve our own food. Variety would be slim and we’d have to be thoughtful about getting a balanced diet (what is high in vitamin C that grows at our latitude?). But I learned that I could do it.
  10. Top 10 lists need 10 entries. Letterman’s 10th item is usually the ringer, the gotcha, the really good one. Mine? Mine is the obvious – I learned that I have much to learn. Why did every single Japanese truffle tomato split on top and get this black stuff in the splits? I don’t know, but I’m not going to plant them again.  Why weren’t my eggplant prolific? I don’t know, but I’m going to try again. Why oh why did I not stick to my “plant cilantro every other week all summer” plan, again? I don’t know, but I’ll make an effort again next year. And so on. Perhaps this is why people garden up until they are dead, because there is much to learn, but despite not knowing much, at least I got a few tomatoes.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A garden and a CSA box

“You have a garden and a CSA box?” I get that question a lot.

I have subscribed to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) box of vegetables for more than five years. While I’ve been dabbling in herbs for years, only recently did I start a vegetable garden. Because my garden is small and I have limited free time, I only plant what I want lots of: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil and brussel sprouts.

On the other hand, we get a wide variety of vegetables with our CSA box from Tipi Produce. For those who don’t know what a CSA is, here’s a brief CSA primer. A CSA entails buying, or subscribing to, a local farmer for a box of vegetables every or every other week. CSA farms have various lengths of growing seasons (ours has one of the longest at 26 weeks). Some provide vegetables only, some have fruit add-ons, and others add honey, mushrooms and even meat to their boxes.

Jay and I share a box with another couple and we split a new box of vegetables every Thursday from early May through mid-November. The box in spring has lots of leafy vegetables and, as the season and plants mature, we get your typical radishes, beans and peas. Later in the season we’ll find heartier corn, potatoes and squash in our box.

But among these typical vegetables, we also get garlic scapes, arugula, Italian frying peppers, Jerusalem artichokes and celerac. Don’t know what some of these are? Neither did we. Which is precisely why despite growing a productive garden, we intend to continue subscribing to our CSA. I grow the few things I want lots of, and we never quite know what vegetable surprise we’ll find in our next box. Thanks Tipi Produce for another great year of veggies.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What if gardening lengthened summer and shortened winter?

In February of this year, I got out my seed starting equipment; flats with clear plastic lids, heat mats, and built a temporary table in the basement and then hung grow lights over it. In March, I started several flats of seeds; basil, eggplant and some flowers.

A few weeks later, I came home from a greenhouse with flower seeds to direct sow in the ground. I spent much of April planning both how to build beds in our 10x10 foot community garden plot, and got through May planning where to put plants in dirt.

On June 3 our community garden plot was open for planting, and Jay and I loaded our car with pots, plants and planks to start our community garden. With the late start, June and July were all about water and growth. I started harvesting peppers, eggplant and tomatoes in August. 

Production slowed with a cool September, but I been steadily harvested tomatoes and peppers and a few more eggplant. We gained two more weeks of ripening by covering the plants, twice, to protect from frost. But with October’s shortened days and unpredictably frosty nights, it’s time to strip the peppers and green tomatoes and wait for a hard frost to sweeten the brussel sprouts.

There’s still garden work to do. Later in October Jay and I will clean out the garden, loosen the soil with a pitch fork and add horse manure and compost to fill in the settled beds. Then we’ll stake out two rows with string and plant nearly a pound of garlic (three varieties) which equates to somewhere around 30+ cloves. Finally, we’ll spread out a light layer of hay to protect the soil.

As I was grieving the end of the gardening season, I realized that this year, the gardening season was a full nine months long, significantly lengthening what I usually think of as a three-month summer of June to August.

Our garden provided planning, anticipation, birth, growth, harvest, preserving and completion. It provided great joy, a learning experience and an abundance of food for us and a local food pantry. I got to know more of my co-workers by gardening with them. And looking ahead, Jay and I will eat the fruits of our labor (salsa, baba ganoush, pesto and marinara sauce).

As the garden goes to sleeps, we’ll enjoy autumn leaves, carve pumpkins for Halloween, gather with family for Thanksgiving. Before you know it, we’ll move right into Christmas. The New Year will be upon us and I’ll have to trudge my way through the long, dark month of January. And in February, I’ll get out those seed flats and lights. Maybe winter isn’t as long as I used to dread it to be.