Sunday, May 6, 2012

My Backyard Garden

I dream of a day when all my summer grocery shopping will be done outside my back door. I love growing things, as my forest of houseplants will attest, and one of the things I was most exited about when we bought our house was the prospect of our own vegetable garden.

The first summer in our house, our garden was nothing to write home about. I was actually out of the country from mid-May until early July. I wanted a garden anyway, so I bought some plants and threw them haphazardly in the ground before I left. Why haphazardly? Well, we bought a house with a lovely established perennial garden. Since we hadn't seen much of it in action yet (we bought the house in November), we didn't want to mess with it too much. I ended up planting my tomatoes in gaps between sprouting plants (all of which turned out to be weeds, so my caution was unwarranted) and then traipsing off to Canada. Poor Jeff didn't really know what he was doing (and my descriptions of the plants and their placement was weeks out of date - "the tall plant in the back" doesn't mean anything once all the plants have grown tall!). It was a pretty big flop. I wasn't daunted, though, and began anew the next year.

Our next garden was a bigger deal. I spent the winter reading about succession planting and crop families and was raring to go once spring hit. I had an extensive garden plan that I only partially followed, since Home Depot didn't carry seeds for everything I wanted to plant. Still, we had some great successes, particularly cherry tomatoes, bell peppers and basil, and I learned quite a bit about the idiosyncrasies of our yard. I had done well, but I could do better.

This year, garden planning started early again. I was determined to get the most out of our little patch of dirt. Jeff and I began in late February (when the temperature was in the 50s) by breaking up the soil and laying down compost. We also got rid of the pretty but incredibly intrusive rose bush in the center of our raised bed (I was tired of getting thorns in my hair as I bent to pick peas). I also ordered my seeds online around that time, to ensure I'd get what I wanted (I went with heirloom varieties from the Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds). My focus this year was on productivity: plants that would give me a lot of bang for my buck (no more waiting months for a single baseball-sized cauliflower to come to fruition): lots of leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers and squash. Also root vegetables like radish and carrot that could be planted several times in a season.

I've been working on these plantings for awhile, but Jeff and I finished things off today, now that danger of frost seems to be past.

The nice raised bed, now rose-free, looks like a real vegetable garden. From left to right, I have rows of curly kale (I tried starting these indoors and failed miserably. Afterward, I planted a row of Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch from seed. When I thought the seeds weren't coming up, I bought four larger plants from Whole Foods. Now everything is coming up, so there is a row of tiny kale almost in line with the purchased plants. I have yet to decide what to do about this.), Paris market carrots (a small, round heirloom variety), rainbow chard, spinach (the America variety), yellow summer squash, early Purple Vienna kohlrabi, Brandywine tomatoes (from Cranberry Hall Farm at the Trenton Farmers Market), and early Scarlet Globe radishes. I've been staggering the radishes, carrots and kohlrabi, planting half-rows at a time. The first half row of radishes is ready, so some of those have been harvested already. If it looks like there are a lot of weeds around, that's because there are. I refuse to use any chemicals on the garden, so all the weeding is done by hand. As long as the weeds aren't taller than the veggies, they'll be fine.

In the wonky section next to the raised bed (which used to hold a field of purple coneflowers interspersed with weeds - we reclaimed half of it for garden last spring and finished the job when the coneflowers died in the fall - they've been replanted elsewhere), I've carved out space for quite a bit of produce as well. From left to right we have another row of radishes, spinach, bell peppers (also from Cranberry Hall Farm), kohlrabi and winter squash. The winter squash is going to be interesting - I had saved seeds from last year that I was going to use, but I ended up just transplanting the plants that naturally sprouted from my compost (apparently my composter doesn't get hot enough to kill the seeds). I have seven or eight plants growing now that I might whittle down as the season continues. I'm keen on finding out what sort of squash gets produced! I also have some tiny tomato plants near the back of my row of peppers that came up the same way. I decided to let a few grow and see what comes of it. Nearer to the front of the bed, I have two cherry tomato plants (Sweet 100s from the farmers market - I forget which vendor) as well.

My herb garden is the only part of the yard that's been going well from the beginning. I cleared out some of the irises last year to make a little more space. In a few weeks, the early spring bulbs along the right side of the herb patch will wither down and it will be much roomier. So far, I have thyme (the only thing I planted in my first summer garden that really thrived - still going strong!), Greek oregano (from the Rutgers master gardener plant sale last year - competing with the thyme for king of the garden), chives, lemon thyme, a tiny rosemary plant (replacing the enormous rosemary bush that died during our second snowy winter in the house), parsley (all of which came back from last year - some was transplanted from the raised bed in February and is still doing great!), sage and newly-planted basil. I also tossed a tomato plant in there today, since I had more than my containers could hold. In the bare space at the bottom of this picture, I just planted a few rows of green onions, which will hopefully really thrive once the flowers die back.

I have two more cherry tomatoes in small bare patches on either side of this path. Also on the right side is our strawberry patch, in and among daisies and hostas. The strawberries were here when we arrived, but I've filled them in a bit by transplanting the shoots they send out into the lawn back into bare patches in the bed. We ate our first ripe strawberry this morning and hope to get some more big ones soon!

Last year I tried growing bush beans in our raised bed, with mixed results. This year I decided to put runner beans in (Painted Lady Improved - gorgeous bi-color flowers and beans good eaten fresh or dried) along the side of the house. I put in some small trellises to get things going, but I'm hoping they'll take off and climb up the honeysuckle (which is looking spectacular this year) and clematis. This area gets full sun all day long, so this could be a brilliant decision.

Up on the deck I planted a few pots with my extra seeds. One of the long containers has spinach and the other chard. The round one in the middle has another summer squash. 

Finally, the tomatoes. We've had a fair bit of luck growing regular tomato plants in containers (rather than buying patio tomatoes), so we're continuing with that. I'm hoping to do a better job pruning the plants this year so we end up with more fruit. I have three plants to a container. The varieties are Yellow Stuffer (supposedly these will be about the size of a bell pepper and hollow inside - I can't wait to see that) and Yellow Pineapple (both from Cranberry Hall Farms). We will be getting a ton of tomatoes from our CSA as well, so we tried to choose varieties they don't plant. This should give us a nice mix later in the summer. Over in the far corner is another small container of chard. 

Finally, our last two containers are overflow: Yellow Pineapple tomatoes and bell peppers. These planters drain poorly so the plants tend to produce less, but these plants are extras anyway, so anything we get is a bonus.

Overall, I'm really excited about this year. Jeff and I are improving our gardening skills by leaps and bounds every year, so this is promising to be a good one (the few things we've been able to harvest already back this up). We have over twenty varieties of produce in our backyard. This may not be the year we can feed ourselves from our own produce, but some of those plants are bound to be successful. Fingers crossed!

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