2018: Our Garden In Review
What a fantastic second year growing in our new garden space. Garden productivity by and large was quite robust, fungal diseases much lower than the previous year, and the diversity of insects, both beneficial and pestilent, were at what I would consider an all-time high, which made for a lively summer of observation, research, and action. We implemented several biological strategies for pest management that seemed worth their investment, beneficial nematodes in particular come to mind, and have enjoyed the quiet space around the New Year to reflect on our successes and failures. Here are some of the highlights.
The Tale of the Three Sisters
Oh, the three sisters, the historic Native American trio of corn, beans, and squash growing harmoniously where the corns stalks provide structure for the climbing beans, the beans provide nutrition for the developing corn, and the squash provides mulch. Alas, it just didn’t happen like that for us.
It was more like two sisters. Or, one very big sister and a teeny little runt reaching for what sunlight it could find.
To be fair, I did research this concept the very morning I sowed the corn, despite having planned this out in the middle of winter, and chose what felt like a good planting strategy: I sowed corn on the perimeter of mounded hills, hills spaced about 3’ apart. I sowed beans below the sprouted corn about a week later. At the same time, I germinated three varieties of (pie and carving) pumpkins in pots, telling myself this would help them get a good start, and transplanted them in between the corn mounds when first true leaves formed. Then summer rains and heat arrived and the corn took off, and soon began to shade out the pumpkins — and the beans, which were bush and not runners, remained in the understory so at least had a chance at some of its own light.
The resulting massing was an 11 foot high hedge of corn. It was absolutely impressive - did I mention massive? - wall of green. It amounted to more glass gem corn than we really know what to do with - and about a quart of black beans. There were absolutely no pumpkins to speak of, and this was undoubtedly my biggest flop of 2018.
What I can say with certainty about this experience is that sowing an entire package of glass gem corn was WAY more ornamental corn than we needed; in addition to all the gifting we’ve been doing with it, I suppose I could have been more proactive about possibly selling it locally. In the end, we had the space for it, and it was not only a beautiful harvest, it matured into a lovely screen for our garden patio, creating a private, secluded seating area where we felt completely immersed in the garden. And, unwrapping the dried cobs never failed to lift the spirits of the unwrapper, though we are now left with dozens upon dozens of ears of glass gem corn. To date, we have not successfully popped it, though we will keep trying!
The Right Winter Squash Balance
Butternut is our very favorite winter squash. We use it in soups, roasted, in Indian dishes, and we all enjoy it immensely. For the past few years, our butternut plants haven’t produced very many fruits, especially when compared to our delicata variety we grew in 2018 which blew any former productivity goals out of the water! We have been getting about 3 butternuts on average from each plant; by contrast, one delicata plant produced 30 fruits. Yes, it was insane, and probably a fluke and likely never to be repeated. The other delicata plant, by contrast, produced a mutant winter squash that was neither a butternut nor a delicata, but they were enormous and we have roasted one and given one away; they seemed to be a spaghetti squash meets delicata in texture.
Needless to say, one plant producing 2 1/2 dozen fruits was an overwhelming and humbling bounty, and we are still enjoying it for dinner about once a week.
The Brassica Successions
Well, we did it. We achieved a steady stream of some type of cabbage from early June through October. Be it savoy or red, napa or green, we were inundated with cabbages and had enough to make several large batches of kimchi sauerkraut, and give away to neighbors and friends any chance we could. My husband has been eating our kimchi kraut daily for breakfast since Summer, and it is bittersweet to relay that he is on the last quart jar, though homegrown/homemade kraut for 5 months of the year is a pretty good start toward our very loose self-sufficiency goals.
The boys, who weigh in on the regular at dinner time, would rather see more tomatoes and less broccoli (they’d be okay with NO broccoli), all potatoes and no brussels sprouts. While their voices are heard loud and clear, we are adjusting our planting successions to serve our processing needs while growing as much of the goodies they love as we can, within reason, all the while ensuring a healthy mix of seasonal veggies for as long as possible during our short frost-free growing season.
What this likely means for our planning is that we will do two successions of brassicas instead of three (or four!), clustering two very early in Spring (I sow the very earliest cabbages in early February and will sow the rest March 1) and the second large succession will be a big, gorgeous fall harvest for the root cellar and hopefully a second round of kraut. We have definitely not got the timing right on our fall cabbages, and I will probably sow them in mid-June this year as July has, for the past two years, proven too late. Yes, it took me two growing seasons to learn this lesson.
The Great Peanut Experiment
This was definitely a highlight of the growing season, and no doubt the result of a stir-crazy Winter, long and snowy Spring, and sultry Summer. I have the Instagram community to thank for taking the risk and achieving this success, as it never dawned on me before gazing admiringly into other’s gardens around the globe to push my season with crops I’ve not thought of as “Minnesota” crops, but that long Winter seduced me down this delightful path. And it was worth every ounce of energy and resources.
I highly recommend trying peanuts, wherever you reside. We grew a Valencia-type peanut, which matures in 110 days (similar to brussels sprouts), though they require a long period of hot days and warm nights to set those pods. They are a legume, and so in addition to being extra exciting to harvest, they also fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil. They are probably a new steady for us, even if just a 4x4 space.
Deer Resistant Cut Flower Garden
I had a lot of people telling me it’s not possible, but I’m here to say it worked. The champion of cut flowers is of course the zinnia: sturdy, enticing for the pollinators and butterflies, and deer resistant. We grew a diverse mix of wonderful cut flowers outside the deer fence, and I have silent but determined plans to expand these gardens with each passing year, as these are the first flowers you that greet visitors as they enter our property — and there’s much room to sprawl and expand the welcome wagon. I will dedicate an entire blog post to this very soon, so stay tuned for more in-depth analysis and thoughts on deer resistant gardening.
Raising the Bar on the Summer Green Bean
Our bush beans, which are a second succession planting of string beans in our summer garden, were one of many crops in the eastern half of our garden that fell prey to little rodents feasting on ground-level produce. Many of our bush beans were nibbled on by the vole population, undoubtedly contributing to their population’s well-being and prolificness. In order to minimize this damage next year, I’m setting a goal of staking individual plants, neatly, tying them to a bamboo stake or some other vertical system. Ours flop right down once they are producing, and honestly besides feeding the rodentia, my back could use a break wherever I can give it one, and this is one such place. I’m planning that this will be a task for the children to complete, both the staking and the subsequent harvesting.
Fruit for the Freezer
We managed to freeze about 20 pounds of strawberries and raspberries from the summer garden, in addition to snacking and eating fresh fruit to our heart’s and belly’s content. It is a goal of ours to preserve (read: throw into the freezer) enough fresh fruit for year round smoothies and general enjoyment. Our raspberry patch is still establishing itself so we believe productivity will be increasing for the next sevearal years, and we are hoping our strawberry patch increases productivity in the coming year, which should be achieved as we are doubling the space where they grow.
We are still enjoying our summer fruit, so it’s lasted a good 4-5 months so far, which is awesome. Our 17 fruit trees are several years out from production, but when they start producing, we are going to be swimming in fresh fruit. And that will be a welcome problem to face. We can’t wait to process and share the bounty.
Trellising and Raised Beds
Our second year in and we have already made several significant changes to our space. We decided to give the strawberries the run of the orchard and by late fall had added compost to just about the entire orchard for those strawberry runners.
On the other side of the garden, we have a steep slope in the northwest corner of the garden where our herb garden and blueberries reside. When we initially established our beds, we built those beds as terraced simply by mounding the soil higher on the downslope side. After a year of trying to keep that soil in place, we decided to terrace our blueberry hill in a more formal cedar raised beds. The first of two beds was completed during summer, and the second one will be done hopefully in spring. We will likely build beds up around our 50 foot long raspberry patch, but that wouldn’t be until 2021. After that, we will consider converting every bed to a raised bed, but that is about 14 more beds that vary in length from 20 to 60 feet. That’s a heaping expense.
All in all, we feel nothing but immense gratitude for the bounty our land has produced. We have dreamed so long of gardening on this scale, and are deeply humbled that our dreams have been actualized. We have some fun new projects on the docket for 2019, and I look forward to sharing those ideas, dreams, and goals with you in a few days.