Spring Bounty 2012

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June 9, 2012 at 11:23 am

This was an odd March, as you will recall, and the unlikely heat wave we saw lured some of us into planting gardens way earlier than is advisable. Most edible plants can’t go in the ground until after the last frost has passed, and there was no guarantee that a solid freeze wouldn’t destroy my work.

To bring you up to date, we bought a new house last year and spent the last part of 2011 remodeling it (check it out at www.reluctantrenovator.com). It’s got a good-sized chunk of southern yard and a garage that casts shade on a 4 x 20 garden bed. It also sports a rocking 2nd story deck that gets more sunlight than anywhere else and is an ideal spot for tomatoes, out of reach from all but the most ambitious squirrels and chipmunks. In cooler weather, boxes of lettuce grow nicely up there as well, shaded when nestled up close to the railing.

In summer 2011, we grew squash and pumpkin on the semi-shady west side of the garage. Although the vines were prolific, the fruit was not, and the baby pumpkins made cute table toppers. The squash did okay but was flavorless and unimpressive.

So when the winter heat wave rolled in, I picked up plenty of scrap lumber, vermiculite, peat moss and manure. I built a 4 x 20 box on the south side of the garage and two 4 x 5 boxes against the fence that backed up to the unimproved alley. Also, a massive tree trunk from a neighbor’s tree had fallen into the grassy alley. I sawed it into smaller segments and pieced together  an odd-shaped “box” in the alley. Into that I planted onion sets, sunflower seeds, wildflower seeds and beans.

Brassicas by the Compost Bin

Brassicas by the Compost Bin

Up against the garage I planted pre-seeded tapes of mesclun and lettuce. If it weren’t for a heavy wind blowing the day I embedded the tapes, I would have perfectly straight rows of lettuce today. On the south side of the garage went the beets, carrots, peas, potatoes, garlic and onions and chives, all from seeds, bulbs and potato eyes.

One of the 4 x 5 boxes got asparagus crowns, broccoli raab (rapini), cabbage and pak choi (kinda like bok choi, but more leafy and less like a head) all from seed The other 4 x 5 box got transplants of cabbage, collard greens and broccoli with rows of oregano, basil and dill between.

Additionally, I began growing watermelon and peppers from seed in a southern facing window inside the house. These I either grew in a shoebox of empty toilet paper tubes filled with soil or plastic containers we would otherwise have recycled.

Each sprout lives in its own plastic greenhouse

Each sprout lives in its own plastic greenhouse

The end result, several months later, is enough food that I think—if I estimate from first harvest to the end of the season this fall—I could feed my family three meals a day for about two months. Provided they really really like salad. The lettuce LOVES its location. And while some of the mesclun are quite bitter, the lighter green lettuces are delicious and go great in a salad with goat cheese, pear and walnut. Just prior to eating, we rip off a bowlful of the leaves, carefully pick out the grass growing between the lettuces, rinse it several times (slugs are EVERYWHERE) and dry it in our salad spinner (best $3 garage sale find EVER!). We cannot eat lettuce fast enough to thin the garden out, and we let some of the more bitter species bolt and develop flowers and seeds. They grew to about 3 feet tall and shaded their neighbors until my wife ripped them out, annoyed to have to look at them anymore. Others quickly grew back. Even though I planted them myself, they fit the definition of weeds.

The cabbages, rapini and pak choi were terrific. When they were just barely mature, I’d rip them out and wash them, pick some nearby green onions and stir fry them with balsamic vinegar, sesame seed and honey.

Pak Choi ready for cleaning

Pak Choi ready for cleaning

Ditto for the collard greens and broccoli leaves. After we ate or gave away broccoli crowns, the leaves cooked up just the same as any green. We’re trying to make room for tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, so the brassicas HAVE to go, as they spread out so wide horizontally.

We eat peas for breakfast almost every day. We’ve pulled out baby carrots as we thinned the row out and they’re as tasty as the “adult” version (although I’ll admit I don’t like the flavor of the leafy bits). The beats are wonderful. Not only do the greens stir fry as well as anything, but the beet roots, when roasted with a little olive oil, are delicious in a salad with goat cheese. Sweet without being cloying, and very tender and flavorful.

More lettuce than we know what to do with

More lettuce than we know what to do with

The sunflowers have grown to about 2 feet tall and are always helpful for letting us know where the sun is at any given moment. A neighbor feeds the birds with sunflower seeds, and squirrels have planted more of them in parts of my garden where I don’t want them. They are a hardy lot, these sunflowers, and I can see an entire lawn full of them if the rodents and my neighbor had their way.

Onions are everywhere. Somehow they have also started growing in parts of my lawn where I never planted them. The potato leaves are growing very bushy, and I keep covering them with more soil to encourage more spuds to develop.

The beans have done very poorly. They sprout, push out some 1-inch wide leaves and quickly die away. The herbs I planted between the brassica leaves have done poorly as well, completely shaded out by their larger neighbors. Grass is doing well everywhere, even though I covered the lawn beneath the boxes with weedcloth. But picking the grass out has been relatively easy.

A beautiful head of broccoli about to be eaten

A beautiful head of broccoli about to be eaten

The cucumbers that I grew from seed sprouted very quickly indoors and did poorly once transplanted into the raised beds. Likewise, the eggplant and tomato transplants in the same bed have not fared well. The leaves look diseased in general. Some leaves look droopy from too much heat; others look like they’re not getting enough sunlight (neighboring bushes have been shading them in mid-afternoon).

In general, though, it’s a good garden and we’ve been very excited to give food away. Our overall costs were about $300 for plants, soil components, material and tools and we’ve probably eaten $80 in produce already with much more on its way. My plans to improve on this include

  • Growing more plants from seeds that we harvest instead of purchase
  • Creating cold frames to start and end the growing season earlier
  • Putting the nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers) in a sunnier, better drained location
  • Improving on the first-year asparagus, which has been growing into beautiful ferns. The roots need to be protected for several years. So after this year, I’m going to turn that box into an asparagus-only bed and never till the soil again.

Fortunately, we’ve got a lot more backyard to turn into raised beds.

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