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: 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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.