Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Garden in the Second Part: Broccoli, and Garlic, and Greens, Oh, My!

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. 

One thing we didn't do when we built the beds was to put hardware screen in the bottom of each one to keep out the voles.  THAT was a mistake and it is an issue that is going to have to be remedied, slowly, bed by bed.   Two beds in particular need to be reworked:  sweet potatoes and strawberries.  Voles are a real problem when we try to grow sweet potatoes - we've lost entire crops to the voles.  They like the strawberries, too.  Voles take some of the berries, which is bearable (berry-able?!), but their tunnels introduce a lot of air around the roots, drying them out faster, which is not good in our climate.  Interestingly, the voles don't seem to bother regular potatoes, of any variety that we've grown.

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.

Being "blessed" by several bouts with polar vortexes (vortices?) this winter, the individual forms of protection simply didn't provide enough warmth to keep the plants from freezing and dying.  BUT, the plants that Greg managed to establish in the straw-encircled raised bed struggled through the cold spells and started growing luxuriantly in late winter.   He's been harvesting enough kale, spinach, and lettuce for green smoothies every day now for weeks, and we've had some broccoli to liven up salads, too.

Good friends Flip & Shelley heard about our experiments with cold frames and gave us a real, honest-to-goodness, official, cold frame as a gift at Christmas.  Greg got it put up and, as soon as broccoli and cauliflower starts became available this spring, he planted them.  THAT coldframe is a real winner - the broccoli has nice heads forming already and the cauliflower is starting to form baby heads too.  The photo below is of the broccoli and cauliflower that grew under the official cold frame (which we took off last weekend).  I suspect more of these cold frames are in our future, even if they do cost more than discarded double-paned windows....

Meanwhile, sometime in mid March, Greg seeded spinach into the biggest two of the individual glass light globes.  The spinach germinated well and is now producing excellently.  We took all the cold frames off last weekend and I don't expect to have to put them back on again until fall.

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.

Next to the big plants of cauliflower and broccoli that grew in the cold frame, we've recently added a few plants of specialty cauliflower varieties from Johnson's:  Graffiti (1), Cheddar (2) and Veronica (2).  Those went in earlier this week.  Greg is out planting small onion plants, more broccoli, and more cauliflower this morning.  We have a small patch of multiplier onions in the end of one bed, which I received as a start from Sid Wise several years ago, just as the big drought was beginning.  Despite less than stellar care on my part (as in, during the worst of the drought and heat, I just gave up even walking out to the vegetable garden), the patch has survived and seems to be thriving.  The onions have a delicious bite to them!

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.

With the exception of the multiplier onions, everything I've mentioned so far is an annual, but we have 4 different perennial patches going on now in our vegetable garden, too.

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.

I'm happy to say that the Jerusalem artichokes were much hardier than the sweet potatoes, when faced with the same enemy!  Despite an obviously thriving vole colony that still seems to be happily  ensconced among the roots, the Jerusalem artichokes are coming up strongly this spring.  Next winter I'll harvest them without fear.  Meanwhile, if anyone finds a garter snake they want to rehome, I have the perfect location!

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!


greggo said...

Cindy, I enjoyed your post. I too enjoy vegetable gardening, mostly potatoes, onions, and tomatoes. I used some water teepees when I planted the tomatoes a month ago.

Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

I find too that when people ask someone if they're gardening, they mean vegetables. When I think gardening, I think of all the space I have to plant something in.

I am lucky that we don't seem to be bothered by voles. No fun!

I like how you made a cold frame with the bales around for insulation. Your "official" cold frames seems to be the thing though. My cold frames don't have the insulation to handle much cold. Mostly, I get the soil warmed up inside faster to protect a few things from those cold snaps in late spring.

I hope your tomatoes and peppers do well. I haven't planted any of that stuff yet. Suppose to get chilly next week again. Today, dust storm. Ick.

Asparagus sure is nice in the landscape. I think it's pretty. I have just one patch and this is the first year we could harvest it. It has been yummy!

I have not tried Jerusalem artichokes. Sorry some of your got Rounduped--is that a word? My hubby leaves all the spraying to me so we don't have that issue. Make a big sign!

Good idea on putting the wires across plants to protect them. Even us people need a reminder of where we plant some things! I've stepped on stuff and then remembered it was there. Sigh.

Thanks for the edible tour of your garden.