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September 2010

Garden Update

[NOTE:  I drafted this about a month ago, and have just managed to find some time to edit and post it.  Some updates are included as you read along...]

So we're nearing the end of summer, at least as measured by the calendar. Ironically, after a summer filled with overcast skies and cool weather, it's actually hot (90's) today. That's important for peppers and tomatoes, which really crave the warm weather.

This was the year of the expanding plan, to obtusely reference Steely Dan (who are themselves rather obtuse). It's time to step back and look at what went well and not so well.

The Good

The new beds worked swimmingly. They added about 200+ square feet of garden to work, which meant that I didn't feel compelled to jam as much stuff into the beds as possible. It allowed me to grow a lot more tomato plants than I did last year, and still be able to space them three feet apart (which they definitely need).

I was able to grow a number of vegetables I hadn't grown before: kohlrabi, carrots, radishes, Asian greens, red onions, shallots and pak choi.

And for some of the "returning favorites", I was able to grow more than I could handle. We have so much Swiss Chard that it's basically feeding the chickens (and whatever animal continues to dine on its succulent leaves). We've got plenty of corn, and it's certainly a pleasure to pick it and be eating it half an hour later. The potatoes did quite well, as did the red onions.

I was successful in getting tomatoes to grow from seed. All of the heirloom varieties still come from Love Apple Farm, but I started a number of Super Marzano's that have survived into adulthood.

I've been (so far) able to keep some green tomato varieties going. The plants developed fusarium wilt early on, and I managed to dust them with sulfur and isolate them so that they and the entire group of seedlings were able to survive. You know you're a dirt farmer when you go to Orchard Supply and ask them for powdered sulfur.

Upgrading the watering system really helped. I was able to run additional lines in each of the beds, expanding my production. And adding a shutoff valve for each bed means I've been able to shut down beds without cutting water off to others.

The Bad

The headline in this category has been the peppers and tomatoes. Cool weather early in the Spring meant that the peppers I started from seeds never really got off to a good start. I tried planting them anyway but the shock of planting killed most of them. Then, the cool weather since they were planted has delayed any pepper growth. I've had a few survive, along with the two I bought from OSH out of desperation. And they've responded to a couple days of heat by really gaining ground and showing some fruit. So I'm crossing my fingers that we'll have enough warm weather in September and October to get some peppers to harvestable size. (Update: it's now late September and we're on our third or fourth day of 90+ degree heat.)

The other heat lover, tomatoes, has also suffered in the cool weather. The plants adapted to the cool weather and have fruited up quite nicely. But without a run of hot weather, nothing is ripening. I joke that even the ground squirrels have given up waiting for the tomatoes to ripen. I've harvested a few Sungella's (kind of a golf-ball sized Sun Gold) and some Yellow Pears. Beyond that, everything is in "green" stage. And, now wilt is spreading among the plants. I got a few Rosalita's before the plant shut down, and I can see wilting leaves on other plants now.

Ironically, its' the plants I quarantined, putting them in wine barrels in the back yard, that have done better. I've harvested a few Super Marzano's and some wonderful Amazon Chocolates.

I really should have hilled up the potatoes. They went from too small to too large before I could get out and do anything about it. I thought it wouldn't matter much, but a number of the potatoes got exposed to the sun, which turns them (and other vegetables, like carrots) green. Plus, hilling them would have made it harder for the ground squirrels to feast on them.

The Asian greens grew really well; very prolific and easy to grow (along with the Pak Choi). The only problem was that they apparently weren't the dim sum veggies I had in mind when I bought the seeds. The stalks were about as tender as eating a twig. At first I thought that I had let them get too big. But even the small greens were tough. So it's back to the drawing board on that front.

The flea beetles, once they found the Asian greens and Pak Choi, really went to town eating the plants. As I learned with the arugula in the next bed, the best approach is to put a row cover on the bed when I plant the seeds, and then leave it there. I'll have to do that next year.

Another disappointment has been lettuce, spinach, and related greens. These grew great last year, but hardly grew at all this year. It's too bad, because they're one vegetable that appreciates the cooler weather. I blame the seeds, but it could be a case of over-watering. (Update: confirmed. When I moved the planter box recently, I figured out that the soil under the planter wasn't draining, so the dirt in the bed was waterlogged.)

And on that topic, I discovered the lesson about too much of a good thing. In the lettuce and some other beds, I ran four irrigation lines with emitters spaced every six inches. I had dreams of harvesting dozens of baby lettuces. For the longest time, I couldn't understand why the ground around these beds was so squishy; I was sure there must be a leak. Eventually I had a "duh!" moment and realized that putting that many lines with that many emitters in one space was causing the soil to get saturated. I think it's time to go to the stick-type sprayers for my lettuce.

My obsessive-compulsive attempts to start everything from seed saw its limits, especially with herbs. Basil started out nicely but promptly died when transplanted. Marjoram and tarragon never really made it out of the plant nursery. I think this is a category where buying starter plants make a lot of sense. And the flowers (yes, things you don't eat) that I started were a mixed bag. Lavender did the best, but it took FOREVER to get those suckers to grow.

The Ugly

Remember last year, and Navy Dry Beans? These plants completely overwhelmed the eco-friendly bamboo tripods I made for them, and continued on to use the corn as their personal trellis. We got a pound or so of cranberry colored beans that cooked up deliciously. So I was eager to plant a bunch more of these guys, and went for industrial-strength trellis materials (think galvanized).

Perhaps it wasn't fair to plant half the row with Navy Dry Beans and the other half with Green Beans. But where the Green Beans shot up and took over the whole trellis, the Navy Dry Beans just weakly went along, barely getting to the bottom of the trellis before the ground squirrels ate through the roots and put them out of their suffering. Maybe inoculation is the answer, or maybe the seeds were too old.

And about those Green Beans. Technically, they're haricots verts, those lovely, thin French green beans that everyone loves (like those lovely, thin French women, but I digress). I quickly decided that it's just too much work to hunt through the foliage looking for skinny, fairly short, green beans on a regular basis. So the beans I harvest tend to be the overweight, overly lanky American cousins of the French varieties. They're not as tender, but taste great all the same.

And then there are the ground squirrels. They (or some other rodent) have strip-mined the Swiss Chard, leaving me with stalks that have almost no leaves. They ate the Kohlrabi, then moved on to both melon plants before the plants could create any fruit. They helped themselves to potatoes, and ate all three cucumber plants and two of the three artichoke plants… so far. We'd be talking chemical warfare at this point except I don't want Wiley's inquiring nose to get him in trouble. Maybe it's time to take Tom up on his sharpshooting offer.

Late September Update

As part of moving (more on that soon), I've shut down most of the original garden. I moved two of the planter boxes. I left the asparagus beds, figuring the casualty rate from trying to move the asparagus plants outweighed the benefits. So someone is going to be surprised next Spring when asparagus plants start popping up! I harvested the last of the corn (yum) and all of the green beans. I've left the tomatoes, hoping that this run of hot weather might actually cause some of the fruit to ripen. I happened to transplant the peppers, basil, thyme and tarragon into some wine barrel planters and took them with me; they're quite happy with our current hot weather. I left the winter squash, to give it a chance to produce some fruit.

With a new house comes a new garden. The new challenges will be keeping deer, wild turkey (the bird) and other wild animals out of the garden. It should be a fun challenge!