The New Normal: Harvest Time

Aack!

Despite the calendar that says summer is here, the weather isn’t due to change until next week.  But that doesn’t seem to matter to the garden!  It’s amazing how one minute everything is almost ready, and then all of a sudden everything should have been picked yesterday!

This week, the snow and sugar snap peas seem to have exploded with pods, the strawberries have yielded almost a pound every couple of days, and the broccoli is blooming all over.  While I’m keeping an eye on those, the spinach still hasn’t bolted, but instead is ready for another big trim, two massive lettuces have bolted and will go to the chickens, and the beets are bulging.  There are salad greens to be collected all over the garden, but I’ve been too busy eating broccoli, peas, and the last of the garlic scapes and scallions to find the energy for salad!  Which I’d better get over, because there are heads of cabbage getting fuller everyday, which means we need to either eat some coleslaw–stat!–or start looking up sauerkraut recipes…

Although it will be a while before the true summer crops are producing, the tomato vines are looking almost threatening in their vigour.  Luckily, the bush and pole beans will only be producing leaves for another few weeks at least, and the cucumber, zucchini, and peppers are still barely out of the seedling stage.  Thank goodness!

All of this means a couple of things: it’s time for the new morning and evening harvest ritual to begin again, and I definitely need to get my act together and decide how I’m going to handle the excess.  Because without a channel for all this produce that’s so much more than I can eat, harvesting just feels like a chore.  How quickly I go from the spectacular joy of seeing the garden in full production to being overwhelmed by how much needs to be done all at once!

For a little while longer I may be able to pass a few items over to the neighbours; Skipper hasn’t been around for dinner this week (which more than halves the dent I make in the harvest 🙂 ), and we’ll have a houseguest next week for a few days.  So that should stave off chaos briefly.  But after that, I either start freezing or I beg the Skipper to make my farm gate stand his next project!

So if you can’t find me in the garden this week, look for me under the dining table in the fetal position, rocking back and forth, muttering to myself, “remember that this is what you did all that work for…this is what it’s all about…this is what you wait all winter for…you WANT to do this…”

Can somebody please get to work on adding a few more hours to the day?

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2011 Spring Garden Misses

Sigh.  There are always some things that just don’t do well at all, aren’t there?  I think my annoyance this year is that none of my misses so far have to do with the weather or other factors beyond my control.  My big lesson this year is–again–that starting seeds outside of the garden makes a huge difference.  So here are the crops that have, shall we say, not gone according to plan!

Squash

I can’t seem to grow a cucumber to save my life.  Every year I dream of rows of pickles in pretty jars lining my pantry.  Last year I eagerly planted seeds next to my tomatoes, some sprouted and then most died.  I went to the nursery and bought seedlings.  The plants grew anemically and eventually produced about 5 cucumbers total.  My suspicion last year was lack of water; we didn’t have our irrigation set up at quite the right time.  I was ready to try again.

This year, with great optimism, I planted 3 varieties in 9 holes, 3 seeds in each hole.  One clump came up!  Weeks later, I dug around in the holes, wondering if the seeds might have rotted.  Guess what?  There was not a seed to be found!  Birds had gotten all of them. 😦  I went to the nursery, but by this time all the cucumber plants looked terribly root bound and sickly.  I decided to cross my fingers that it wasn’t too late–I planted 6 more seeds in blocks in the greenhouse to transplant out.  They are starting to sprout, and I have my fingers crossed for pickles this year–or at least a few cukes for salad!

My lonely cucumber sprouts

I had the same problem with all the sunflower seeds I planted–lots of empty shells scattered about…and one of my clumps of zucchini seeds disappeared as well.

The other squash were being severely chewed as they struggled to put out their true leaves, but I’m hoping their vigorous nature will take over and they will outgrow the slugs soon. 🙂

Carrots

Last year carrots were one of my no-brainer crops.  Seeds went in, a little thinning, and then carrots came out.  I was sold.  This year, not so much.  I planted the first couple of rows in April, and a few seedlings struggled to emerge.  Most of the row stayed blank.  I thought it was probably a soil crust issue–and fearing so, at one point I tried to rough up the surface of the soil a little to “help”, but I suspect that probably disturbed any seeds that were trying to push through and doomed them with the rest.  We’re just eating the few that made it now as mid-sized baby carrots.

The hole where the rest of the carrots should be

Then, in early June, determined to do a better job, I planted 3 varieties and about 12 row feet.  I covered them with lightweight row cover to help the crusting issue and to prevent any pests, just in case.  I’ve been watering carefully these last weeks, and the result is looking reasonable.  But there are still big gaps, and I’m still not happy with the results.  Early July is apparently the time to plant the fall/winter crop, so I’m tweaking my system.  A friend has tried the Zero-Mile Diet trick of planting 12-15 seeds across a pot, thin a bit, and then plant out the whole pot as a clump, at a spacing that allows the carrot roots to grow away from each other.  So far her results with this system look good, and I may try this next year, particularly in the spring.  But I think for my next planting I’ll try another option: make a furrow in the soil, then mix my seeds with a few tablespoons of compost (or in my case this year, worm castings), and spread the mixture out in the furrow.  I think this will solve the crusting issue, help with more even seed distribution, and hopefully encourage slightly faster growth.

Slugs

It’s  too bad I’m not trying to grow slugs as a food crop, because I seem to be doing a good job this year!  The new raised beds have hardly been touched, but my back bean and corn patch has a lot of holes.  This is a bed that’s right at ground level and that I had spread unfinished compost on earlier in the year to finish breaking down.  I think the compost is the culprit–lots of wet straw with slug eggs sat waiting for the warmer weather.  I have been out in the evenings hand-picking the critters, and they are mostly babies that I’m then feeding to the chickens (!).  I think I’ve managed to stem the tide, and although I’ve lost a few seedlings I suspect, I don’t think it will make too big a dent in the overall crop.

Something enjoyed those fresh leaves! But the true leaf lives on...

So my big lesson: take a page from those with more experience, and start those seeds outside of the garden beds as much as possible!  The idea of direct-sowing as much as possible is great, and worthwhile with some key crops, but if the pests prevent the seeds from ever starting, you haven’t gained any of the advantages of never transplanting.  And, although I’ll do another post on them, working with soil blocks this year has sold me completely on this technique as mitigating most, if not all, of the disadvantages of starting seeds indoors.  Here’s to improvements for next year!

2011 Garden Hits

Now that summer is here (no really, 10:16am mere days ago!), and most of my crops are (or should be) coming along nicely, I am taking stock of what’s doing well, where my best-laid plans have are not coming to fruition as I had imagined, and what I’m already thinking of doing differently next year.  One of my resolutions this year is to take better notes and keep better records, so I’ll do a little of that with pics here to help my memory next year!  Here are some of the year’s top performers so far, and next up, my more…ahem…challenging garden crops.

HITS

Tomatoes

My pride and joy this year (though looking around at some other blogs, I see there is always room for improvement 😉 ) are my tomatoes.  I ordered my seeds from Two Wings Farm (how I narrowed my picks to 7 I have no idea! They are Ailsa Craig, St. Pierre, Poire Franchi, Aurega, Black Prince, Soleil Cherry and Sweetie Cherry), I used soil blocks for the first time with a 4:1 mix of seed starter mix and worm castings, and transplanted them out under hoops covered with row cover mid-May during a relatively warm spell.  We set up a drip line and I mulched with straw.  Result: my germination rates were amazing–almost 100%–the seedlings were vigorous and healthy, and the plants are now flowering and one or two plants even are starting to set fruit.  I know some gardeners in similar zones are probably still ahead, but for me, this is thrilling!

The varietes are all heirloom, open-pollinated types, but what was new to me is that they are also all indeterminates, which means they are all climbers.  So as the plants were starting to look highly confined by their hoop covers, the time came this week to start a serious trellis system.  As you may remember, we have no soil, hence the deep raised beds.  This also means that we can’t dig stakes down into the ground by the beds, as one might normally do for tomato trellising.  So the Skipper came up with a system that we hope will be able to withstand the weight of the hundreds of pounds of fruit that these plants could will be producing.

Skipper has screwed the base of these (constructed) T-posts right to the cedar box of the bed, then screwed in a cross-bar the length of the bed to stiffen the structure.  Then we’ve strung wires at the top of the edges of the posts running the length of the bed, to which individual plants are strung with jute twine.  I’ve tied the twine loosely at the base of each plant, then woven the twine around the stalk to support it as it’s pulled upright.  The twine’s then tied with a slipknot on the wire at the top.  Fingers crossed that this works!

Peas

Thanks to the long, cold, spring, I planted my peas almost a month later than last year, and they have been slow to really get going.  But now that they’re going, look out!  We’re going to have a LOT of peas–and I ate my first one off the vine yesterday!  Look for these for sale at my doorstep in a couple of weeks as we struggle with the onslaught. 🙂

Note the Skipper behind the row as he reinforces our original trellis with something beefier!

I love these Dwarf Grey Sugar Snow Peas.  They’re open-pollinated, hugely vigorous even in the coldest soil, and who can resist those spectacular purple flowers!  In fact, they’re not my favorite eating pea, as I prefer the sugar snaps, but I don’t think I’ll ever plant a garden without them again.

Drunken Woman Lettuce

I didn’t have any luck with this lettuce last year; when I planted seeds in August almost none germinated.  But then, magically, one head appeared in the spring!  I was so impressed with that cold hardiness, it was my lettuce of choice when I was starting some seeds in the greenhouse in March.  In April, I transplanted the starts outside, and some ended up under cover.  With that little bit of extra nurturing, these lettuces have been amazing.  I started harvesting huge heads the first day of June, and each time I made a little more room by taking out a head (or 4, as I finally had to for the neighbours!), the remaining heads got bigger still.  One giant head keeps us going all week, and here we are at the end of June and the remaining few heads in the garden still look succulent, with no sign of bolting.  And, as a looseleaf lettuce, some baby greens are growing prettily out of the stems that were left in the soil after harvesting.  Definitely a keeper.

Other crops doing well:

Spinach–I planted a one foot strip across my 4 foot bed of Bordeaux spinach (a variety that outperformed all the others last spring), and I have harvested about 7 lbs of greens over the last 3 weeks!  And even after the last ruthless pruning as the plants looked like they might bolt, there are still salad green-sized leaves appearing again (that’s them springing up at the back in the picture below).  Yowza!  Next to the spinach, I planted 2’x4′ of beets, and they are also thriving.

Brassicas–This is my first time growing spring cabbage and broccoli.  I started several varieties in soil blocks in March, and they are now beautiful and starting to get big enough to harvest.  Yum!  I learned my lesson last year about the gap between spring crops and tomato season, which here doesn’t kick in until mid-August (well, I’m hoping to improve that a little this year!).  This year, we’ll be eating cabbage and broccoli, chard, kale, beets, leeks, and peas with our salad until late summer.

So those are some of my garden stars at the moment; next up…the misses.  I’ll give you a hint–I’m off to the nursery today for some squash seedlings. 😦

What’s doing well for you this time around?

Planning the Fall and Winter Garden

Apologies for the long absence! What can I say? I was ready for a new spring look.

We came back from our trip and hit the ground running!  We have been catching up on the weeding, the planting, the weeding, and the harvesting.  We’re also getting ready for a sailing trip this weekend, and then I go back to work next week.  There are many blog posts yet to be written on all we’ve been up to, including my continuing work on the Grand Master Plan…

But Monday I picked up an excellent local book (the author is on Saltspring Island, which matches our local microclimate almost exactly) on winter gardening at the library, and now that all the summer crops are in, I’m turning my attention to planning for the next harvest.  Last year we had some greens and tomatoes through the end of November, but my meager attempts at having the garden produce beyond that didn’t come to much.  I planted some brassicas (cabbage, brussel sprouts, etc) by direct seeding too late, and then the slugs got them all.  I tried some nursery seedlings, but again, it was late in the season and they were all root bound and didn’t really produce before the weather turned.

Last year my major stumbling block was getting my head around the idea of planting for fall before the summer had even kicked in!  But this year I am prepared and determined.  Our infrastructure (new beds, better soil, irrigation, hoops) has set us up for so much success, I have no excuses!  And now, with Linda Gilkeson’s small book Year-Round Harvest: Winter Gardening on the Coast to help, I’m ready to start my seeds.

The book walks readers through what crops work here, which ones need any kind of cover, and what kind works for the author, and when and how to harvest.  It’s a nice local and simple (empowering!) complement to some of the bibles of year-round harvesting, usually a la Eliot Coleman.  Gilkeson also helpfully confirms Steve Solomon’s crop rotation suggestions for the Maritime Northwest.  The process, which I really got my head around as I was doing my garden planning this past winter, is much easier than trying to adapt the conventional rotation schedules to our 3-4 crop growing season.

The jist is that early spring crops are usually done by sometime in July (with this year’s late spring, I’m estimating late in the month), and can then be followed by fall or winter plantings.  Those early crops could include those that have been overwintered, like garlic or fava/broad beans, also usually done in July.  Summer crops–long season ones like tomatoes, potatoes, squash, etc–need to go in the ground in May or June, and so usually need to follow either a cover crop (like winter rye that goes in the fall before and whose spring growth gets tilled under in early spring), or in a lucky year, a very early planting of salad greens or other quick early crops.

So rather than focusing on following a particular crop with another particular crop (ie roots follow leafies), I look at my beds and what’s in them.  I have a list of the early crops (peas, spinach, beets, spring lettuces, etc) and pick one to plant that hasn’t been there in the last few years.  Then I pick a fall crop that hasn’t been there before and put that in next.  When that crop is done, I can either mulch for the winter/early spring, or put in a short spring cover crop early in the new year.  This bed will become a long-season crop the next year, to be followed in October-ish by an overwintering crop (sprouting broccoli or a cover crop), that will then be replaced by a spring crop come March/April.  Still with me? 🙂

My next step today was to figure out how much to plant.  Remember that for winter crops (I’m planning November to March to be conservative this year), plants are surviving, but not growing.  So you need to plant enough that will be full grown by November (or by the first killing frost) that you can consume the whole plant when you harvest it.  Some plants will start to regrow in the early spring as soon as the weather warms up a little, but they will be slow.  Chard and kale, for instance, will be harvested to the stalk as mature leaves for cooking, but will regrow small leaves in spring that can be used for early salads.

I’m anticipating having salad greens, tomatoes, beans, carrots, parsnips, zuchini, cucumbers (?), chard, and kale (and possibly a fall pea crop?) from my summer plantings right through until frost (or close to it), so I’m really planting now for the post-frost harvest: winter brassicas (cabbage and brussel sprouts, plus overwintering broccoli and cauliflower), extra kale and chard, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, beets, winter Asian greens, spinach, arugula and other mesclun, etc.  My winter leeks were started in February and are already in the ground, growing slowly but surely.  Some of these crops will get a hoop house when the cold temps hit, some will be fine without any protection (unless we get an unusual cold snap), and I’m also planning to do some greens in pots in the greenhouse.

I’m estimating how much produce I think we’ll eat each week, and planting accordingly.  So in a given week, I’m projecting we’ll eat: 1/4 cabbage, 6 carrots, 1 lb brussel sprouts, 1/4 rutabaga, 2 parsnips, 1 turnip, 2-3 bunches of chard, kale, beet greens and/or spinach, 2 beets, plus salad greens and stir-fry greens.  Multiply these amounts by 20 weeks, and then I hope I have enough space!  These winter harvests will be supplemented by crops in storage (onions, garlic, apples, potatoes, squash, canned tomatoes, and possibly frozen summer produce and berries, and hopefully our own dried beans) and probably a few purchased veggies like mushrooms.  I’m also determined to harvest and dry more of our herbs this year–they are so much better than what I usually have in the pantry!

That yummy-looking winter diet (all too familar as we’ve been eating it until VERY recently!) also has some implications for my Grand Master Plan, which includes selling some produce through the summer.  In order to figure out how much I can sell, I need to know how much of the summer crop I need to save to sustain us through the winter.  The answer seems to be, in this climate, not much.  We have gone through most of our stored tomatoes, but still have a few cans of both sauce and diced, and that was in a poor tomato year.  I don’t tend to cook with a lot of frozen produce through the winter as we try to eat seasonally anyway, but I was pretty frustrated when the grocery store brussel sprouts and chard that I was buying this Februrary were from Mexico!

So we’ll see how this goes–there’s no way to plan perfectly when it’s all new territory, and I know many PNW gardeners preserve a lot more than me to be self-sufficient in produce year-round.  It’s probable that they know something I don’t!  But we all have to start somewhere!

Happiness is…

A warm June

Trading a surfeit of spinach and salad greens for fresh eggs from the neighbours

Trading more of said greens for fresh oysters from some marina neighbours

Being almost finished with the spring/summer planting (just in time to start the fall/winter planting!)

A handy husband with some extra surprise days off

Waking up without an alarm clock

The garden in full spring bloom: purple magnolias, wine-coloured rhodos, every shade of columbine

Bees on every blossom

Watching fruit blossoms turn into blueberries, cherries, currants, raspberries, strawberries…

Chickens playing hide-and-seek among the towering perennials

Two birthday cakes!

Two cakes are better than one! 🙂 (both for me--and good only for the soul ;))

Awkward Transitions

We’re home!  After a wonderful trip to Nova Scotia (pics and food stories forthcoming), Skipper and I are back in our Island home.  It was great to be away, and it was a little awkward coming back.  There is a 4 hour time difference, and it was a long day of 3 flights and then a drive to get here, and by the time we got home we were thoroughly discombobulated.  Flying east to west is always a little weird; it gets later and later for your body, but earlier and earlier in the day!  There was still a little daylight when we finally arrived back in our homestead, and we spent a little while in the garden just taking in all of the changes to the plants and the chickens.

The yard was barely recognizable!  There must have been some kind of weather for those 10 days, boy, because I picked almost 3 lbs of spinach from 8 row feet of what were tiny sprouts in need  of thinning when we left!  Yesterday I picked another pound of salad greens in the form of beet green thinnings and about-to-bolt arugula, and today I sent my neighbours home with six large heads of beautiful Drunken Woman lettuce.  Last night I started talking to the Skipper about building me some kind of farm gate stand!

Despite my joy at seeing the garden having exploded into life, I felt quite strange for a day.  It’s as if I’ve missed my child’s first steps–after paying such detailed and careful attention to every aspect of the garden before we left, there was something jarring about coming back to see it so much farther ahead then when I’d last seen it.

And of course, we were immediately overwhelmed by all the tasks that jumped out at us after just that cursory glance around.  Harvesting crops, weeding, seeding, transplanting, planning, building, mulching, trellising…all of it needed to be done immediately!

I started getting in touch with key people in my life the morning after we got home–part of my process to get grounded again.  But many of my friends and family are in the middle of major life transitions and moves, and they were just as overwhelmed as I was! 🙂

Today, a couple of days after arriving home, I’m feeling rooted again.  The weed whacker cleaned up the bulk of the excess growth, and after spending a couple of days with the chickens, they don’t seem to have changed so much after all (except in size!).  Gradually, we’re getting through the pile of laundry.

A good friend of mine talked to me once about how every place has its own particular energy.  As we spend time in a place, and as our cells are regenerated out of the material of the new space, we are changed and align with that energy.  This makes complete sense to me.  When I go to Mexico, all I want to do is sail away, wander, laze in the sunshine, and hang out.  When I am here, all I want to do is farm and grow things.  When we were in Nova Scotia, that feeling disappeared and new ones took over.  And now, I’m feeling the transition process in a visceral way, as I literally change again.

The transition isn’t always comfortable or seamless; there are some cranky moments as Skipper and I each go through our own process, and of course we don’t always sleep well along the way.  But now that it’s been a couple of days, I can say with confidence,

I’m so glad to be home!

And, I don’t think I want to go away again during the growing season.