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Monday, August 23, 2010

A First Year Gardener's Lessons Learned

These last several days have been busy with harvesting and putting things up, and getting the garden ready for fall planting.  It's also been spent thinking about where I've been failing and what I've been learning about producing food for us.   I'm not getting near enough food put away for this winter, and some of my crops have been a near-total bust.  I also find myself re-examining the idea of a French potager, with its focus on producing fresh food directly for the table, versus the American way of growing a ton of stuff for putting up and consuming later.  Not that the French don't have their confitures and brandied fruits, mind you.

I knew going into this that people who are serious about maximizing their food production keep some sort of records, and I really meant to do that, but fell down on the job there.  I also knew that to really get the most from the smallest area, and have continual food, and not a glut of lettuces that won't keep, no matter what you do, you really have to succession plant.  I'm good at getting stuff into the ground, but really stink at getting stuff harvested at peak.  And isn't growing your own all about harvesting and eating fresh food at its peak?  Well, it isn't entirely for me.  For me, it's learning how to replace a lot of store-bought food with home grown food, because I really believe that in the not too distant future, food prices are going to skyrocket, along with everything else whose economy of scale is based on cheap oil.  It is just plain going to be harder and more expensive to get stuff, food included, and I don't plan on going hungry, or letting my loved ones go hungry.  So getting better at growing and reaping is really important to me, and to that end, I must get better about succession planting and keeping records.  And just plain managing everything.

It also seems to me that although there are scads of gardening books written on the subject of vegetable gardening, a gardener really has to learn by trial and error in his or her own garden what will work for them.  That garden is also set in a particular agricultural zone, but at the same time, has its own microclimate, so the time to plant what and when has to be learned.  In addition, the gardener has his or her own likes and dislikes and/or needs, when it comes to what to plant.  And the weather and its vagaries will determine what survives, when to water, when to harvest, and what goes in next.  It's a lot to learn.

So if you'll indulge me, I'd like to pass on what I've learned with this year's garden, and why.  Maybe it will help you.  It will most certainly cement the lesson for me, at the very least.

Tomatoes: tomatoes are about the most important crop to us (after all, Friday Night is Pizza Night), and ours are nearly a bust this year.  I chose a variety with higher acid for canning, and did not stay on top of the suckering.  I also didn't take notice when they were to bear fruit, and didn't pay attention to whether they were determinate or indeterminate.  Knowing whether or not they were parthenocarpic  (self-fertile) would have been good to know as well.  The result was that for seedlings started in mid-February, my tomatoes did not start bearing until a full six months later, and most of the tomatoes are hardly bigger than cherry tomatoes.  Thank goodness I also planted Burbank for slicing, which are determinate and covered with larger fruits; I think these will wind up saving my bacon, so to speak.   Next year, I'll choose an early-bearing variety that is determinate and parthenocarpic, and an all-purpose variety would be nice to have as well.   At this writing, Siletz, which is an extra-early bearer of four to five inch fruits that weigh up to seven to ten ounces each, and Gill's All-Purpose, which is an early bearer of three to three and half inch fruits, are tomatoes of interest.  I'll also plant them by off by themselves, and stay on top of the suckering. 

Bell peppers: I won't do mini-bells again.  I thought they'd be good to have on hand frozen for when you need just a little bit of bell pepper for something, but they seemed to be a waste of space, and were just a pain to process for freezing.  I'll look for a heavy-bearing regular sized variety next year.

Carrots: The Nantes type seem to be the perfect length and size for my beds at only six or so inches long, and they were delicious freshly pulled out of the ground.  I did learn that when they say that carrots shouldn't be transplanted they mean it- don't try it.  I have two groups of carrots to compare: one was perfect, the other was forked, and not with just two forks- some had as many as five.  They were planted in the same imported soil in two different raised beds; the only difference was that the nice group were direct seeded and the awful group was transplanted there.  You may draw your own conclusions, but I'm not transplanting carrots, or any other root crop for that matter, again.  The other thing that I learned was that I definitely need to pay more attention to getting them out of the ground on time. And succession plant- I use a lot of carrots.

Three Sisters:  the experiment was good for getting more food out of the same space and I would try it again, but the soil has to be a lot more fertile to begin with, and the beans planted have to be second stringers, not main crop. The Quickie hybrid corn, which is an early variety, was delicious when it was just ready, but I left the remainder on the stalk too long and they got starchy.  On the Country Gentleman heirloom corn, which is a later variety, I may never see ear one- they're lodging, which is to say that they're falling down.  I also noticed before that happened they were a bit anemic-looking.  And then finally, we had a set of terrifically windy days, so instead of the pollen blowing gently down and onto waiting tassels below, the pollen appeared to be being blown clear of the cornfield.  I'm not sure anything could have fixed my pollination woes, but I am pretty sure that a fish buried underneath each mound would have gone a long way toward fertilizing the whole thing; I mean, if I'm going to stick to the Native American way.  By the way, if you do use buried fish or fish guts in your garden, be certain to cover them amply in wood ash to keep raccoons from digging them back up.  I learned that from a great organic gardener who learned it from his mother, who was Creek Indian.  So at this point, I'm not sure if I'll have sweet corn or not next year.  I would like to try a field corn if for no other reason than to have it for my own cornmeal and chicken corn.  We'll see.  On the bean front, the Romas I planted were delicious, but I didn't plant nearly enough, which is why I think the Three Sisters field should be kept for second stringer beans.  Green beans are super easy to process for freezing, and we like green beans a lot, so next year, I'll plant an area with just Roma beans.  The beans coming out of the Three Sisters will just be a happy extra, maybe for immediate eating, but I won't base my freezer stash on them.  The jury is still out on the pumpkins, because it will be awhile before I can harvest them.  I will say that they look great, and were prolific- at last count I have sixteen little pie pumpkins, and over the weekend, I found a second Triamble squash.  I wouldn't do any other pumpkin than a pie pumpkin, because I'm not into jack o'lanterns, so why waste the space?  I'm just not into Halloween.  Spend one of them as staff in a nightclub and you'll be cured of that, I promise.  Alcohol and costumes do strange things to people's inhibitions.  But I digress….

Cabbage:  the cabbages were good, although I had to fight the slugs and cabbage butterflies for them.  They might do better in the ground, rather than beds, however.  They need a lot of space.  I also think that where I've chosen to grow my fall and winter crops isn't going to work- it's too close to the fence and they won't get enough sunlight.  I'll plant the winter cabbage in the beds currently occupied by the cucurbits, and keep my fingers crossed.  Then next spring, I'll plant a couple for making summer slaw wherever I think one can be tucked in, and next summer, I'll plant the autumn sauerkraut-making stock in the large bed currently occupied by this year's Three Sisters.  I'll plant the garlic where I'd planned the winter cabbage, instead.

Garlic:  this year's was my first, and boy- did I learn a lot. I planted the entire head, six inches apart on offset rows.  I think my spacing was alright, but a great majority of the garlics I harvested were way too small.  What I've since read is that you plant only the largest cloves off the head.  I saved the four biggest heads of the Oregon Blue I was able to harvest this year, and then ordered a pound of Music, and a pound of California Late White, which is supposed to be a super long keeper. I'll plant them directly into the ground, rather than waste the space of a raised bed.  Garlic just takes too long for the beds. 

Onions:  there was nothing I could have done about the onions making flower stalks.  That was a trick of the weather, and all you can do is shrug your shoulders.  I did get a few braids from them, and dehydrated some more, and the rest of the little ones are piled in a colander awaiting their fate as part of dinner or onion marmalade.  Of the three varieties I planted, Borretana, a flattish Italian variety, Copra, and Redwing, a purple variety, I think I like the Copra best.   When it made large onions, it made really large onions.  They are also supposed to be one of the longest storing varieties.  I had planted my main crop of all three varieties in the same bed with the tomatoes, which I have learned not to do;  I think they would have done better and been ready sooner if they hadn't been overshadowed by the tomatoes, and if they'd been ready earlier, perhaps they wouldn't have developed flower stalks, which onions are not supposed to do until the next year.  Huge lesson.  I'll have to figure out just where to put them, though, because at the rate that I use onions, and the rate at which they grow, they are going to take up a sizable chunk of real estate.  Maybe pull out the hydrangeas out front and replant that bed next to the garage in onions.  Hmmmm....

Summer squash: I mentioned in an earlier post that I didn't like the Eight Ball zucchini.  The Flying Saucer patty pan squash were great, however, so I'll do them again next year.  However, I think I'll keep it at a maximum of two plants.  

Melons:  the melons are small, which I think is the result of too many plants; I couldn't bring myself to thin them.  The plants are, for the most part, also fading due to verticulum wilt (at least, that's what I think it is).  Interestingly, the Hapless Honeydews, which did not receive the benefit of bubble wrap when the late spring kept temperatures too low and protection from the late hail, are doing way better than the other two varieties that did get covered.  The HH, which were confined to just two plants (because that's what germinated) had at last count five good-sized melons on them, and no signs of wilt.  Since none of the melons will be ready to eat for awhile yet, I can't say if I have a favorite out of the bunch, but I will say that I won't grow too many of any single variety, and I'll start them much later and not worry so much about covering them.  They are evidently a lot tougher than I gave them credit for.

Beets and turnips:  the only way that I really like beets is oven roasted in olive oil and sea salt, and since I don't like to run the oven in the summer because it heats the house up, why the hell did I plant beets so early?  Now I have a bunch of woody beets.  Next time, I'll wait and plant for a fall harvest, when I'm more likely to pull them out and roast them.  Ditto the turnips, only I like them for a fall or winter vegetable medley cooked with carrots and leeks in butter with black pepper.  So beets and turnips get planted later for autumn and winter.  That will leave a lot of room in the beds.

I think that I need to decide what I want to grow for putting up, and then find places in the ground away from the raised beds for those crops.  The raised beds should be used for intensive potager gardening.  I didn't have things like lettuce this summer, and I understand that there are varieties that can be grown through the summer.  I didn't have scallions; I didn't have the easy radishes, which Steve loves.  I don't have enough eggplant- I think a minimum of two plants would have helped.  I could have used far fewer slicing cucumbers- the other morning I harvested nine big ones off of six plants, and was only able to find homes for four of them.  I have way too much French sorrel.   If I intensively gardened fewer beds, I could let lie fallow the remaining beds and build up the fertility in them.  Or maybe turn at least one of them over to June-bearing strawberries.  I guess I just had a bad case of beginner's enthusiasm. 

Since I really believe that each gardener has to learn on his or her own terms what will work best for them, I don't expect that anyone reading this should find it a huge help.  But if it helps at least a little, then I'm glad of that.  What did you learn this year that you can pass on?


Jennifer Montero said...

Paula - It's just nice to hear how your garden grew, so to speak. On the whole, it sounds like a pretty successful harvest.

As a dyed-in-the-wool record keeper I'm biased, but it really does make a difference (and it's like garden porn for reading on those freezing winter nights while you're perusing next year's seed catalogues)

Paula said...

Jen- I am really going to try to be better about that. I think a one-page-per-day type calendar would work the best.

Miriam said...

I kept sketchy records last year, and almost none this year. For a very organized person, this is uncharacteristic! But somehow I just wanted to DO it and not worry about it so much. All the gardeners I most admire keep good records and I know it's something that pays off in productivity, but maybe that's another imperfection I'll cultivate for a while...

Anonymous said...

Paula, to the best of my knowledge, there are no parthenocarpic tomatoes. Parthenocarpic doesn't mean "self-fertilizing", it means "setting fruit WITHOUT fertilization".

That having been said, all tomatoes can be self-fertilizing, and most of the problems with fruit-set are probably caused by the weather. Check out this page from Washington State University:

Paula said...

Anonymous- You have a point about the meaning of parthenocarpic, although the article you cite doesn't clarify that. The first sentence in that article is "Tomato flowers come complete with both male and female organs and are self-fertilizing." However, according to the Random House Dictionary, parthenocarpy means "the production of fruit without fertilization of an egg in the ovary."
(Modern Language Association (MLA):
"parthenocarpic." Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 25 Aug. 2010. .) To further muddy the waters, an article from the Extension Service at Oregon State University indicates "Plant breeders classify tomatoes such as these as "parthenocarpic," because they set fruit without fertilization. This means that the cool weather of western Oregon summers that slows down pollinators won't affect the fruit set of this type of tomato plant; parthenocarpic tomato plants set fruit without a pollinator's help.

"We think that parthenocarpic varieties are earlier because they are setting fruit when non-parthenocarpic varieties are dropping their blossoms, because cold weather prevents fertilization," explained Deborah Kean, a research assistant at the OSU vegetable research farm outside of Corvallis."

I also found several tomatoes in the Territorial Seed catalog that were described as parthenocarpic.

But I'm glad you brought this up, because what really seems to matter to fruit set is the temperature and humidity, which I didn't know before, and I'm also glad because looking into this further has uncovered a variety developed at OSU called 'Legend' that has me more interested than 'Siletz', because it fruits earlier and is more resistant to late blight.

And since gardening really is a crap shoot after all, I can use all the help I can get.

Toni aka irishlas said...

I've had a terrible garden year. I've had small successes and big failures. But, most importantly, I think I learned something.

I'm fairly good at keeping some records. This year, with all the problems we've had, I got discouraged and stopped logging what was going on. I know I shouldn't have, but, I know the soil for the new beds turned out to be crap and we've had the worst summer heat and humidity on record. I knew the causes. I guess I didn't want to be able to look back and re-feel all the discouragement and failure.

I'll be posting about it in the near future, so, you'll be able to read the "full rant" then :-)

morgaine said...

Keep records!! Here it was a cool long spring. Then it got hot! Learned that its really too hot here for the garden in the summer. Just nothing happens. By the time it starts to cool again, its too late in the year for anything to set and ripen fruit. From now on, its start early, use wall-o-waters, cloches, row covers, what ever to get that jump start. Harvest and process all I can before the heat. then start seeds for the fall. This is the earliest lettuce has been in the ground. Greenhouse has beans, a tomato plant, and potatoes for thru the fall. Next year, MORE!!

Julia Posey said...

Thanks for sharing, Paula. And instead of giving up on beets, embrace outdoor roasting with either a bbq or solar oven. What beet lover wants to give up roasted beets a cause of the weather?

diane said...

I used to be pretty bad about harvesting and using what I grew but my daughter whipped me into shape. Now I try to pick every other day unless it's pouring and I keep a sheet of paper tacked to the inside of the cabinet door where I keep my kitchen scale. It's fun to add up the ounces at the end of the year and come up with the pounds.
About the "three sisters": I think the Indians were raising corn and beans for drying so they would all be ready more or less together and timing would not have been as critical. Sweet corn and green beans might be easier to tend and pick if grown separately.