Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Getting real in the garden

It's that time of year again: the 2013 seed catalogues have come in from my favourite suppliers and now it's time to figure out what the heck I'm going to do in the garden this year.

I really didn't know anything about growing vegetables before we arrived here, and so the last four years have felt like a big experiment, full of the novelty of any new adventure. But now it's time to get real. Or at least real-er. Not that it won't still be fun - it will. But I think I have enough data and experience now to be more realistic about what I can successfully grow. Here's what I'm thinking.

Thought #1: Alliums are the stars at Mucky Boots. The very first thing we planted even before we had moved in was garlic, and we have loved it from the start. There is nothing like home-grown garlic and onions, and somehow the conditions here seem suited for it. So we grow a lot of them: garlic, leeks and shallots, and red, green and yellow onions. I'm very happy with the varieties of red (Redwing) and yellow (Copra) onions in particular - they are indestructible in storage. It may not be the most economically wise thing to do, to devote such a large amount of garden space to growing things that are so inexpensive to buy, but we continue to do it because the quality is so much higher and because it means we get the satisfaction of cooking almost every day with something we grew.

Thought #2: I should only grow what I'm willing to eat. Take beans for example. In my first year's garden I grew lots and lots of beans. Pole beans and bush beans. Yellow beans, green beans, purple beans. Soybeans, filet beans and beans for drying. Consequently I preserved a lot of beans. I pickled beans, I blanched and froze beans, I dried beans. And I learned a few things - namely that there is only so much pickled anything I am willing to eat (I'm much more likely now to reach for something fermented than traditionally pickled), and frozen beans have an awful texture. So awful that most of that first year's frozen beans ended up being given to the chickens. I thought maybe I did something wrong (I blanched for a short period of time, then shocked with ice water, then used a vacuum sealer) so the next year I followed a different set of advice and didn't blanch, I just cut up and vacuum sealed. Still awful.

And the dried beans! My third year I wanted to see how much protein I could get out of the garden so I grew two different varieties of beans for drying. They did pretty well, and I'm happy to know it can work, but it was too much bed space and labour for the result. So last year I planted four measly feet of pole beans for eating fresh, and that was even more than we wanted to eat. This year: three feet.

On the other hand, I keep planting more and more carrots and more and more hardy greens, like chard, bok choy and (gasp!) kale. Between interplanting with onions and covering seedlings with remay cloth I seem to have found a way to produce pretty decent carrots, which we can't seem to get enough of. Ditto for the greens, which seem especially suited to our climate. I can grow them, we like to eat them - this is a recipe for success.

Thought #3: Pelleted seeds are wonderful.  Last year I planted my first pelleted seeds: carrots and lettuce. If you have grown either of those vegetables you know how tiny the seeds are. Which means, unless you have much greater dexterity and better eyesight than I do, a lot of thinning. With the right mindset this can be meditative, but it more usually feels like very fiddly torture. So when I saw seeds being offered with an organic pelleting I decided to give them a try. It's kind of like a candy coating on each seed, which makes them easier to space when you're seeding them in the garden. The seeds cost a bit more, but there's much less wastage. I'm sold on them, and will continue to buy them.

Thought #4: We live in a forest. We better get used to it. You can probably tell from this photo that our vegetable garden is in a clearing carved out from the surrounding forest. Which means it gets pretty good light, but not great light - which limits the kinds of things we can successfully grow. I've figured out we can grow pretty much anything, but not necessarily really well. Eggplant and peppers turn out puny, and winter squash seems to be a hit-or-miss proposition. So I've decided I need to be more strategic in my garden planning, and factor in the amount of sunlight each bed gets when I am figuring out crop rotations.

One crop that needs to be abandoned is grapes. There are three mature vines along one side of the vegetable garden, and we have yet to get anything resembling a harvest. There's just not enough sunlight. And they're grapes for making wine, not for eating, and neither of us is interested in wine making. To top it off, they contribute to the lack of sunlight for the vegetables. Verdict: they're coming down.

Thought #5: Berries are way easier to grow than fruit trees. When we moved to Mucky Boots we inherited a small orchard with three venerable apple trees (Pink Lady, Cox Orange Pippin and a crabapple) and a number of younger trees (cherry, Asian pear, peach and plum). We added a whole bunch more: pear, fig, more apples and plums. And we quickly learned that there is a disease and a bug for every season for every one of those fruit trees. It's hard to grow fruit!

Berries, on the other hand, seem to practically grow themselves. We have all kinds here - strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, gooseberries and red currants - and they all do well. Every year some types do better than others, but we've never had a bad year. Plus the investment of time before they begin to produce is much shorter. So we're going to replace the casualties in our orchard (between diseases and bears we have had a few) with more berries, not with more fruit trees. We're going with the flow on this one.

Five thoughts in one day. I better quit while I'm ahead.


Natalie, the Chickenblogger said...

Sensible, inspiring business!
Thank you.
It's good to 'keep it real.' As cute and satisfying as it may be to grow radishes, I cannot stand eating them! And last year our spinach was amazing, so more, please.
Oooh... I want a seed catalog, too.

Alison said...

That is a bunch of good lessons, right there. I've just fully learned my own version of #2--only plant what I myself will eat, because Miss Chef is completely disconnected from the garden. I planted, picked and even roasted beets for her, and she only ate the one that I put on her salad. So now I'm cutting back to peas, carrots, garlic, peppers and tomatoes. If I have extra room, I might try corn again (a total crapshoot if I'm not willing to irrigate).

A good alternative to my own poor growing abilities is the local pick-your-own places. We depend on them to make up for all the berry thickets that have died out. (Who can't keep a raspberry thicket going?? ME!)

Lindsey at NW Backyard Veggies said...

YES! This list is exactly what's been bumping around in my head since January 1st.
I'm growing more berries, more tomatoes, less purple beans, more spinach and chard, TONS more pumpkins and more potatoes.
Less root veggies (my beds are new and not deep enough).
I'm also growing more animal meat - b/c I can and I'm good at it.
What's with freezing green beans, anyways?? Mine always turn into mush - blanching or no.

jeanives said...

I love common sense and pragmatism. Good on ya.

Paula said...

I should probably take a hint from you on the trees front , but I don't have to contend with bears (just raccoons) and I haven't given up on cherries, which I love. So it may be a few years yet before I follow suit on the berries. Raspberries I can't do, but blueberries, strawberries and boysenberries I can handle. The only thing is that I really want fruit that's coming ripe in the autumn as well, so I need to keep at the apples.

I'm also with you on the alliums- them I can do too! I think anything you can replace with homegrown you should, just in case you can't get them anymore.

Anything you learn to make your ground more productive is a good thing, even if it means concentrating on some things and letting others go. I'm giving myself a few more years on that part.

You, on the other hand, are way ahead. Five good ideas ahead.

Erin said...

This post was actually VERY helpful. This will be my third season and I have a lot to learn.

Anonymous said...

About the alliums, cheap they may be at the store but you can't buy the pleasure you get from growing them for *any* price. Think of how that lowers your blood pressure! An unforeseen bottom line bonus... Thanks for sharing your growing adventures with us. Hello from the U.S. south.

kara said...

Kale! That little plant is so determined it can convert anyone! I had never heard of pelleted seeds... that is such a genius invention! Love this post-- such a great reminder to accept what works in the garden (and abandon what doesn't).

Shim Farm said...

Those are all very interesting observations. It takes time to develop a plan, and keep fine-tuning it as the years go by.

Every time I tear out something planted by previous owners, I do it with a generous amount of guilt, as though it's a personal short-coming.

I hear you on the fruit trees. We've got quite a few, and if I get my way, we'll soon have just a handful. It's simply not worth the bother, in my opinion. I've got one unidentified apple tree that consistently produces blemish-free apples, the downside is that they taste like crap. (We don't spray any of our trees). They're only edible transformed into applesauce with a ton of sugar added. Not sure it's worth the trouble, other than for the novelty.

I guess the best thing to do is simply keep track of what works, what doesn't, and don't feel guilty if something needs ripping out. All easier said than done!

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