What is a garden to you?
Having just walked through my vigorously blooming front flower bed on the way to the front door, a visitor last summer asked me sincerely, "Are you still gardening?"
I have to admit that I was taken aback. Ah, yes, what else would you call that array of flowers and plumed grasses that you just traversed between the car and the house? It took me a minute to realize that she meant, "Are you still growing vegetables?"
Yes, I was still growing vegetables, although I was having significantly more luck and fun with the flowers!
Gardening is different things to different people. Indeed, the entire point of this series of posts is that sometimes gardening is even different things to the same person! Almost everybody, though, considers growing foodstuffs to be gardening.
Over the last 7 years, our vegetable garden success has swung, year to year, from wildly successful to wildly unsuccessful. Too much rain, not enough rain, not enough heat, too much heat, grasshoppers (oh, lord, the grasshoppers), blister beetles, late freezes, time constraints, voles, Bermuda grass, bindweed and vacations - the list of challenges varies from year to year, but I can guarantee there will be a multiplicity of challenges to getting a good crop of anything every single year.
Most of our vegetables are grown in a series of raised beds that Greg has constructed out of wide cedar boards. We are up to 9 raised beds now, all 8' long, varying in width from 3' to 4' and varying in depth from 6" to 10". This photo, taken on March 12th after we'd done our spring clean-out, shows our basic bed layout in all its winter starkness. There is a large cedar to the south, casting the deep shade you see in this picture, but during the summer that's not really an issue.
Late last fall, Greg decided to add a couple cold frames to see if he could grow greens over the winter. We went to the Habitat ReStore to see what we could find, bringing home several discarded double-paned windows for $5 each and a couple large glass light shades.
Surrounding one of our raised beds with straw bales, Greg dug out one end and left the other end at its normal soil level. In the deeper end, he placed kale and broccoli plants; in the shallower end, he added spinach and lettuce. Then he laid the double pane windows across the bales. (If you look at the photo above, you can see this arrangement on the far left bed.) Under the various sized glass light shades, he put in individual broccoli plants. He also used some plastic caps that we had to try to shelter four chard plants that we already had growing, putting one cap over each plant. It didn't look pretty (that's an understatement - it looked really trashy), but it was an experiment. In this view, taken shortly after we put everything up on November 11th, you can see the glass globes with broccoli under them and the individual plastic caps over the chard in the far bed.
In the photo below, the back bed has garlic on the left end, the two patches of spinach from the glass globes in the middle, and masses of (leftover) garlic on the right side. The front bed is the remnant of the strawberry bed, with new plants added in to fill it back up. We'll be mulching that soon, just right after we get a decent rain. (We WILL be getting a decent rain soon, won't we?! Please?) The big plants in the path in front of the strawberries are Brown-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba) that I just enjoy leaving and walking around, benefiting from the pollinators they draw in once they start blooming. Greg and I don't always agree on the appropriateness of my leaving them in the path to grow up, but so far he's been indulgent in letting them be.
In the same raised bed as the multiplier onions, we've planted just a few potatoes - Yukon Gold and Red Viking. We put them in late and they are just now putting up leaves, but that's okay. We usually don't eat many potatoes. It's nice to have a few, though, now and then.
One thing we have PLENTY of this year is garlic. Last fall, we bought a couple cloves from Hillside Feed & Seed to plant, but the majority of our garlic is from leftover bulbs that were missed when I harvested last summer. I've taken the time to space out a couple of those clumps, which resprouted and grew over the winter, but there were too many for me to replant all of them. So the rest remain growing in huge, vibrant jumbles of garlicky chaos. I doubt we'll get any useable garlic out of the leftover clumps, but it will be interesting to see what we do get. Surely some of it can be used for sauteing or in salads.
We put in 9 tomato plants last weekend, knowing that we were gambling a bit as we did so. And we put in one jalapeno pepper, too. Greg added another 6 jalapenos this morning, but we'll wait to plant the majority of the summer stuff for another week or two...or three...or four.
First is the asparagus. There are officially 3 patches of asparagus around the yard. Patch #1 is a single, large., wild asparagus plant by the front driveway gate that seeded in on its own as far as I know. Probably a bird plant. It never gets watered, gets weeded only sporadically, competes against both big bluestem and a pretty little creamy yellow iris patch...and comes up faithfully (and strongly) year after year. We usually take at least one harvest of spears from it each year - and they taste great.
Asparagus Patch #2 is the bed I put in a year or two after we moved in, next to the lagoon fence. Its location was a fatal error, as the Bermuda grass that runs rampant through the lawn is also rampant around the lagoon and has moved thuggishly into this asparagus patch. Combined with bindweed, which also grows in the lagoon area and which has joined the Bermuda in the bed, it has made dealing with this small bed a nightmare. The weeds have officially won. I abandoned the patch this spring. I'm tired of messing with it.
Which brings me to Asparagus Patch #3.... This spring I decided to start a new asparagus bed in one of our raised garden beds. I dug the bed out to below the bottom of the cedar boards, carefully searching out every stray root I could find. This is one of our original 4 raised beds, which were placed directly on the old "lawn" when we built them, right after we moved in. We've fought a bit of Bermuda and bindweed in these beds, too, but after many years of religiously weeding it out, we're finally winning the battle. I did my best to make sure that I stacked the odds in our favor for the new asparagus patch. Then I got new asparagus crowns from Johnson's and planted them as directed. I'm in the process of backfilling the bed as the new spears start shooting up.
Strawberries are the second perennial patch in our food gardens. They have a raised bed of their own, too. We had a great strawberry harvest last spring, but between the voles and the drought over the summer, we lost over half of the strawberry plants. The bed had only been in for about 2 years, so I decided to backfill it with new plants this spring...and pledged to myself to be better about watering this summer. Next time I start an entirely new strawberry bed, I plan to have hardware cloth underneath it to keep the voles out.
The third perennial patch is a crossover between vegetables and natives: a patch of Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) that I planted last spring. Actually I planted 2 patches last spring - one behind the back garage and one by the compost pile. Both were doing really well until Greg decided that the ones behind the back garage were weeds and sprayed them with Roundup. As soon as I said something about how strange it was that they were all yellow and dying, he looked guilty and confessed that he'd forgotten I'd planted them there. I may try them there again - it still seems like an excellent spot for them to get a little wild! This time I'll put a sign up....
The patch of Jerusalem artichokes by the compost pile did well last summer, but about the time I thought I'd dig up a few to eat, I noticed several vole holes. Deciding that the voles were quite capable of eating all of the tubers on their own, I refrained from harvesting any for us and waited to see what was left for us this spring. By the time I took this picture of the holes less than 2 weeks ago, new plants were germinating and I knew that I hadn't lost them all.
Note: the wires across the Jerusalem artichoke patch are simply to keep the dogs from running through the young plants as they grow. Huge German shepherd feet are not kind to tender plants. The wire also helps to keep the lawn mower at bay....
Our last perennial patch is brand new this spring: raspberries. Greg built a trellis, based on a design he found on the internet, and we purchased/planted 5 'Royalty' raspberries at the Outdoor Landscape & Living Show last month. Royalty is the variety that was most highly recommended for this area during the talk on small fruits that I attended 2 years ago during the Annual Master Gardener Conference in Manhattan. All 5 plants were bare root; 3 have leafed out and are looking good. Two have no signs of life yet (but the roots looked fine when I planted them).
So, enough again. Next on the spring tour will be the native plants and flower beds. It's a good thing I'm getting these garden over-views done now, because enough insects are coming in to the native flowers already that I can see I'm going to be quite busy this summer, photographing and identifying everything I find in the yard!