Nov 19 2010

Garden Year-End Harvest and Lessons

First, the good stuff. We really had a pretty productive year in the garden, even though we neglected it later in the summer. Our harvest included:

  • 1/2 lb. of radishes
  • 1 lb. of carrots
  • 1 lb. of beets
  • 6 gallons of potatoes
  • 1/2 gallon of lima beans
  • 1 quart of shelled beans, frozen
  • a few gallon of grean beans
  • 4 heads of cabbage
  • 1 head of cauliflower
  • a half-dozen onions
  • a dozen tiny garlic bulbs
  • several servings of Swiss chard (including many old leaves for the chickens)
  • several dozen peppers
  • 16 quarts of crushed tomatoes, canned
  • several buckets of tomatoes for the chickens
  • all the sage, oregano, and basil we could use
  • some marigolds and lots of zinnias for vases

I’ve always wanted to keep an accurate measurement of a year’s harvest, with exact weights and so on, but that’s hard to do. Maybe next year. In any case, I’m quite confident that we paid for our seed and trellises several times over. The green beans alone probably did that. The chickens also got loads of scraps and trimmings, to the point where they ate hardly any of their regular feed some weeks. It shows in the eggs, too. I want to see if the County Market down the street will let us have their discards from the produce department, so we can keep that up through the winter.

Now, some lessons learned from this year’s garden, and things to do differently next year:

Ignore the suggestion in Square Foot Gardening that you select the squares randomly, sticking a square of carrots here, a square of beans there, and so on. It’s nice and whimsical when you’re planting, but there are important reasons to arrange things in particular ways. For one, each square will tend to shade the square to its north, so the taller and earlier things should be planted on the north side, working toward the south as you get to the later and shorter plants. But you have to think ahead, because a square of early radishes may be gone by May, and if there’s something a foot tall on their south side by then, it may be hard to get something new started in the radishes’ place.

Don’t plant full squares next to the trellis. The book said 9 green beans per square. That might be fine for bush beans, but pole beans normally recommend one plant each 3-4 inches. If 9 plants have to climb a 12-inch-wide section of trellis, that’s way too crowded. Better to plant 4 pole beans along the side along the trellis side of the square, and fill in the rest of the square with something else that doesn’t climb.

Be flexible when the squares don’t seem to fit the plants very well. A cabbage plant is going to take more than 1 square foot. So do you plant it in the middle of a 2×2 section, and waste some of that space? Or do you plant it in the middle of one square, and then leave some space next to it in the neighboring squares? I think some give and take is necessary, especially when it comes to plants that will overflow a square.

Get a soil test. We don’t know yet why things got so tall. It even happened somewhat at the community garden, where our zinnias got really tall and fell over, so maybe it wasn’t just our soil. But when you’re working with almost pure compost that’s very rich with chicken manure and grass clippings, it’s probably a good idea to test it and see if it needs potash and/or bone meal to balance the nitrogen.

Give up on peas, or prepare to build a cage around them. I don’t know why, but we’ve had terrible trouble the last two years with birds eating the pea plants. I’ve never seen that anywhere else, so maybe it’s just something our neighborhod birds learned to do, but it’s happened two years now. If we’re going to grow them in our backyard, they’re going to have to be protected from attack by land and sky from day one. Or maybe we could grow late ones, and the birds wouldn’t notice them when there are plenty of other things to eat. Haven’t tried that yet.

Use stronger poles for trellises. It gets pretty windy around here sometimes, and a trellis that’s solid with beans or tomatoes catches a lot of wind. I almost built them out of 2x4s this year, but I thought the conduit would be more elegant and take up less space in winter storage. I was also afraid that 2x4s simply nailed to the beds might pull the beds apart in a really strong wind. The ultimate would probably be to bury 2x4s a couple feet, and also nail them to the beds. I think that could look pretty nice. The part in the ground probably wouldn’t last more than a year, but 8-foot 2x4s are cheap. Another option would be to use poles of a naturally rot-resistant wood, like hedge or black locust.

Don’t plant stuff you don’t have a definite plan to use. I like beets okay, but Angel doesn’t like them, so I never got around to harvesting them when I should have. I wouldn’t have that problem with something I really like, like radishes or turnips. Ditto on the carrots: they’re too carby to eat a lot of, but I thought I’d grow them to use in making beef and chicken stocks. But since I wasn’t eating them, I forgot about them until they were past their prime.

Give up on lettuce, mostly. It just never works out for me. I thought I had a chance this year, when I transplated over a dozen healthy-looking head lettuce plants, and they did well for a while. But they bolted as soon as it got at all hot, like my lettuce always does. On leaf lettuce, it’s always the same story: it all gets ready at once, and there’s more than we could possibly eat, but we manage to have a couple salads. Then the rest bolts and it’s gone. So at most we should plant one square — four plants — which would be plenty for that short span before it bolts. I probably won’t be able to stick by that in April, though.

Plant more green beans. We didn’t have any extra green beans to freeze or can this year. That’s partly because they were crowded, and the bush beans seemed to choke themselves out and died early. So maybe the same amount would be enough if they were handled better, but we should also plant more of them. You can’t have too many green beans canned and frozen.

If we grow squash, climb them up a trellis. The squash we grew were supposed to be bush squash, but they just kept trying to vine out of their territory. Apparently “bush” is a relative term where squash are concerned. I kept cutting them back for a while, but I think that just stunted them so they didn’t produce any squash until late fall. I think the only way to fit them in our raised beds will be to run them up a trellis. Which then raises the question of whether there’s room there, since we also have pole beans and tomatoes that need to climb. Choices, choices.

When pruning tomatoes, don’t prune cherry tomatoes. Our cherry tomato didn’t make much foliage, and it had room to produce a lot more little tomatoes if it’d had more branches. The other tomatoes should be allowed 2-3 branches each, and should probably be given two squares each, so they have room to climb and get some sun. Also, don’t plant two different plants on the same section of trellis, because one will tend to smother the other. We would have gotten a lot more tomatoes from 4 fuller plants in that same space, instead of 8 crowded ones competing with each other and morning glories.

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I think that’s everything for now. Next job is to get those soil tests done, adn get shallots and garlic planted for winter!

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