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Gardening 2009

Last view of the garden covered in frost in October

Winter has finally taken hold in full force here in Toronto.  There has been snow on the ground for several weeks and overnight temperatures are regularly in the double-digit negatives but I’m thinking about gardening.  Last year I had started seeds (parsley and  lettuce) by Valentine’s Day and while I don’t know if I’ll be quite as ambitious this year it is definitely the right time to start planning the garden.  But first I need to do a final wrap-up post for last year’s garden.  I hope this will at least provide a green reminder that the ground isn’t always frozen and white.

Peas dried and saved from the 2008 garden

Peas: After a pretty successful crop in 2008 I saved some peas and planted them this spring.  This first experiment for me in seed-saving had very mixed results.  I’m confident that the peas were properly dried and stored because they germinated in the ground and produced healthy shoots.  I was surprised and frustrated to return to the cottage one late-June weekend to find that all of the shoots (along with their handful of nascent flowers) had disappeared.  I strongly suspect that birds who managed to foil the pea defenses that I improvised from bent sticks (a la Jamie Oliver) ate the tasty shoots.  I haven’t yet seen a bird in (or even near) our garden but vigilance is definitely not constant at a weekend, cottage garden in the spring.

Peas are a contender for garden space in 2010.  Working both for and against them is the fact that they make such a delicious in-garden snack–I eat my fair share and it makes it easier to recruit weeding helpers but it cuts into crop size.

A pile of daikon

Daikon: This large, Asian radish did very well in the garden.  Its unusual leaves spread quickly to shade the surrounding area and keep down the weeds.  Five weeks after seeding I had a crop of large-carrot-sized white radishes.  The only problem was finding something to do with them all.  Pickled they tasted alright but the smell from the jar was absolutely atrocious.  Unless I can find a good use for them–I’m open to suggestions–daikon will not be returning in 2010.

Beets and their very useful tops, straight from the soil

Beets: It seems unnatural to use seed tape in a mostly-organic, mostly-heirloom garden but beets benefit from it.  The tape (actually a biodegradable fabric) keeps the large beet seeds the recommended distance apart and at roughly the same depth.  Seed tape really shines early in the season when neighbourly dogs dash through the garden in pursuit of whatever stick or frisbee catches their attention and disturb the beds because so long as the seeds haven’t put out roots the tape can just be stretched tight and recovered.

The yield from the beet patch was about four pounds.  This year to account for pickling and fresh eating I’ll be increasing the garden space devoted to beets and adding different varieties like a chiogga and perhaps a gold.

This is what a ten-pound pile of carrots looks like

Carrots: The garden at the cottage has a shallow layer of soil on top of bedrock and not only do the edible parts of the carrot extend deeply but the taproot we don’t see (it’s very fine and breaks off when the carrot is picked) is apparently one of the deepest in the garden so I didn’t have high expectations for this crop.  But one of the most popular books on companion planting is called Carrots Love Tomatoes so I couldn’t see the harm in seeding the spots between the tomato plants in the garden’s largest bed with rows of carrot seeds.

Through July and August I was pleased to see that the carrot tops were doing a good job of shading-out most potential weeds around the tomatoes.  The bigger surprise came in October on Thanksgiving weekend when the carrots were the last crop to come out of the ground and I found I had a much-larger-than-expected ten pound pile of carrots.  Some were a little knobbly (or forked) and they varied from quite large down to enough that were small enough to collectively fill four pint (500 ml) Mason jars.  Stored wrapped in newspaper in the cold room the carrots (barely) lasted until Christmas and were great roasted with parsnips (in duck fat) and served with our holiday roast.

Obviously, carrots will be back next year and I’ll be adding some colourful, heirloom varieties.

We only managed to produce four lonely potatoes this year

Potatoes: The mild, wet weather that we had so many complaints about through June and July should have been perfect for potatoes.  Evidently, the ones in our garden didn’t get this message because when I started digging around with a pitchfork in late September I could only find four potatoes.  A less-than-stellar result was pre-ordained by the very scraggly and sparse plants growing in the potato patch through the summer. I was originally willing to blame the unsuccessful year on my lack of planning–instead of ordering, chitting, and planting seed potatoes in May I threw a few store-bought potatoes that had sprouted into the garden in June–but our neighbours (“the competition”) who were more on the ball had similarly-disappointing results.

I guess potatoes go into the “maybe” column for 2010.  On the plus side, after planting and with a bit of hilling (pulling soil up around the bottom of the growing plants) they pretty much take care of themselves and can produce a large and noticeably delicious crop.  Negatives are they have to be ordered separately and from planting in May until harvest in September they take up a large chunk of garden real estate without producing much through the summer.

Part of the 16-pound harvest of tomatoes basks in the September sun

Tomatoes: This crop has become a specialty of mine.  This year’s tomato seeds were started inside, in a seed tray on March 22, were potted up on April 19, went into the garden on May 16, and don’t produce their first crop until the last week of August.  In May I posted a profile of the heirloom varieties that added to a couple cherry/grape varieties and a yellow tomato increased this year’s total from six plants to ten.

Even I have almost tired of all the talk about how backyard-grown, heirloom tomatoes taste better than the red cardboard orbs shipped by refrigerated truck from California (or further).  But then I force myself to remember what the first, impossibly sweet, cherry tomato tastes like in August or the smell that a light breeze causes the tomato to produce.

For about four weeks starting with the last one in August the tomato plants put out enough fruit to satisfy our demands and on September 19 I harvested a main crop of sixteen pounds.  About a third of these were under-ripe but when wrapped in newspaper and stored in a dark place lasted until the end of October. The remainder went into the tomato conserva that is still doing excellently in the fridge.

This year I’m planning to switch to heirloom, seed-started varieties for the cherry tomatoes, add the Amish Paste variety, and possibly a black tomato.

Arugula: Like the other quick-growing greens and lettuces planning is the tricky part with arugula.  Planting needs to be staggered so that the whole crop doesn’t hit that one-week sweet spot when the leaves are balanced between immature and unpalatable all at once.  I let some of the arugula go to seed so I won’t be too surprised if it’s part of the “weed” crop in future years.

Swiss Chard: Rainbow Lights Swiss Chard is one of those crops that present a familiar gardening conundrum: They look so nice standing in the garden that is difficult to pick them.  Fortunately, chard will happily stand in the garden longer than other greens so long as it is given a consistent supply of water to help protect the leaves from the sun and marauding insects.

Zucchini, both yellow and green, that probably are a bit bigger than ideal

Zucchini: A newcomer to the garden this year we put a zucchini plant in a few of the garden’s corners as well as into two large, black plastic containers just outside the edge.  In line with the cliche about bumper zucchini crops we only barely managed to keep up with our bounty of summer squash that averaged between a pound and three for about the six weeks starting at the end of July.  Homegrown taste sweeter and have a more delicate skin when they are plucked to order from the garden compared to the vegetable aisle at the grocery store.  We had traditionally-shaped yellow and green ones last year but for 2010 I’m attracted by the variety offered by William Dam Seed’s Summer Melody Hybrid mix.

The plants in the ground did better than the ones in pots so I think the key here is remember that while they look small in June they grow much bigger by August and to stick to one plant per pot.

The "wild" dill was easily the tallest plant in the garden this year

Dill: I didn’t actually sow any dill seeds in the garden this year (or last) but obviously some were deposited there from past years or other gardens because by August the garden was full of six-foot tall, thumb-thick stalks of dill.  The stuff smells amazing and obviously gets put to good use with all of the pickles that I make.

Pests: The purloined pea shoots were an aberration in the garden.  A few leaves (mainly spinach, chard, and beets) fell victim to insect feeding but we only lost three or four tomatoes to horn worms or slugs (compared to last year’s three or four pounds).  The only anti-pest measures we take are spreading hardwood ashes around the garden’s cedar-lined edges (crawling pests are apparently loath to cross either of these).  I experimented last year with spraying the potato leaves with a hot pepper and detergent solution to deter flying, feeding pests but I don’t think I had the mix right.  Also, the larger horn worm population in 2008 necessitated manual, flashlight-equipped plucking of the nasty buggers at night when they come out to feed.  If they return this year I’ll also try setting out some scrap 2X4′s

Appearance: Our garden got a facelift this summer with the addition of a rustic, cedar-and-stone “fence” (see the picture at the top of the post).  The single rail is about knee height and on top of creating a visual barrier for the garden keeps out the aforementioned dogs and provides some extra support for tomato-laden vines that have grown beyond their cages.  Many thanks to my cousin Alex who helped bring the fence into existence–especially the fine “chainsaw-chiselling” he did to create notches in the points where the cedar logs meet.

Last year we added another large bed to the garden that increased the size by about forty percent.  This year I’m going to try to better use the space we have through more exact planning–like staggering arugula and other greens–and consistent labels.  The white plastic markers seem like aesthetic heresy in May but they are soon hidden and are a small price to pay compared to accidentally weeding out a potato plant when the seed potato’s exact location is forgotten in July.  In each section I’ve written a bit about planned changes for 2010 but if you have any suggestions please feel free to comment.

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4 Comments

  1. mochapj says:

    That’s a beautiful looking plot of land you’ve got at your cottage.

    I’m surprised that you had trouble with potatoes this year – I planted an 80 gallon garbage pail with some organic ones I got from Pfennigs and I ended up with about 12 lbs by the middle of September (and they were only eating potatoes, not chitting ones).

    As for the beets, I’ve grown both Chioggia and Touchstone several years in a row and find them both to be quite tasty. One thing to note if you plan on canning the Chioggias is that if you are pressure canning, the lovely candystriping tends to leech out during the process and you’re left with a completely white beet. Still tastes fine, but not as visually stimulating.

    I have Carrots Love Tomatoes, and it is very true; I grow the two together every year. If you haven’t read it, I’d suggest picking it up, as it delves into the symbiotic relationships between many different plants, which can help in planning high intensity yet small space gardens.

    Lastly, thank you for reminding me that I wanted to grow chard this year. I’ve been poring over various seed catalogues since before Christmas, and there’s always something I’ve forgotten to write down!

    Good luck!

  2. foodwithlegs says:

    Hi Porsha:

    Thanks for the comment. Especially for the beet tip. My thought was to save the chioggias for salads and roasting and can the golds.

    I’ve read about building fairly complicated (and expensive) frames for potatoes that involve adding a new layer of lumber and soil as the plants grow. I assume that the garbage pail is left intact but I’m wondering how the plants get any light before they grow above the lip of the pail? Do you have a post on your site about growing potatoes?

    Chard is great and I was reminded by your comment that are red kale varieties which are just as good-looking in the garden and even heartier than chard.

    Cheers and good luck to you as well!

  3. mochapj says:

    Hi Dave,
    Actually, I learned about the garbage pail idea over at You Grow Girl:

    http://www.yougrowgirl.com/thedirt/2009/05/22/chitting-potatoes/

    I tested out potatoes in-ground at my Hellman’s Community plot when I won it in 2008 and it was really the simplest thing; just throw a couple of sprouted potatoes in the ground and mound the dirt up around them every few weeks.

    With the garbage can (which stays intact) I just condensed that principle into a smaller space. In mine I did both potatoes and sunchokes last year, but I think this year for maximum yield I’ll just stick to one variety per container. Basically you just add a 5 or 6 inch layer of soil on the bottom of the pail, then a sprinkling of the sprouts, another few inches of dirt, then sprouts and, well, you get the picture.

    I can’t really explain how they still manage to grow without direct sunlight (but I’d guess it’s from the residual warmth of the dirt) but if I remember correctly potatoes generally prefer darkness (hence the constant hilling of dirt). By the end of the season when I harvested in September, the potato stalks were close to 4 above the top lip of the can. These pics are from mid-July:

    http://www.foodieandtheeveryman.com/2009/07/05/how-does-your-garden-grow/

    http://www.foodieandtheeveryman.com/2009/07/16/verdancy/

    I would highly suggest devoting some space to your garden to potatoes this year. There’s really such a huge difference in taste between the ones fresh from the garden and what is available at the store.

  4. foodwithlegs says:

    Porsha,

    Many thanks for all the links. I had actually gone over to your site and tried to search for them but you have so many posts and potatoes are such a common ingredient that I was spoiled for choice (and didn’t find those two posts).

    I have also heard of gardeners building a potato enclosure with old car tires. Same idea as the wood frame in that as the potatoes grow you add another tire and more dirt. The aesthetics and cleanliness of old tires has kept me from trying this but now that I hear that a fixed height container works just as well I will definitely have to bring potatoes back to the garden this summer.

    Totally agree on the flavour difference. Not to mention the variety bonanza.

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