A Lusher Garden in 2013

July 14, 2013 at 7:01 am

As a backyard farmer, I think I’m getting the hang of it.

Last year’s crop was perfectly acceptable, considering that we’d recently purchased a fixer-upper house and needed to build the infrastructure of multiple garden plots. We planted perennials like asparagus, green onions and horseradish (segregated into its own pot to keep it from taking over the whole garden). We sowed beets and carrots, Brassicas and Nightshades, Cucurbits and Alliums. The harvested produce was . . . adequate.

Although the early spring in March 2012 gave some plants a head start, the mid-season drought was cruel to others. The Brussels sprouts were a surprise favorite and produced hundreds of tender little heads that we served to guests who swore as children they would never eat the stuff, but wolfed it down in our dining room. Raddiccio and Broccoli Raab came up in earnest. We enjoyed many locally raised beets and their greens and had more chives than we could possibly use.

But the carrots were limp and pale. The tomatoes produced fruit just before the weather cooled and most died still green. The cucumbers never appeared. The potatoes were tiny, pathetic things that ultimately produced just a few forkfuls of food.

A gardening intern holds up a garlic bulb that she just pulled out of the soil.

A gardening intern holds up a garlic bulb that she just pulled out of the soil.

The lettuce grew prolifically, but quickly went bitter and bolted in the heat. And nobody but me enjoyed the complex-tasting Mesclun varieties anyway. The sunflowers grew tall and proud, but were deseeded quickly by birds and squirrels before we could get our human hands on them. We disposed of the awful-tasting squash immediately. (Three varieties, though! All of them inedible.) We passed out baby pumpkins to kids and friends and watched the spindly asparagus open into fuzzy ferns, waving in the breeze tauntingly, knowing they could not be consumed the same year they were planted.

The grandmother who lived next door gifted us bag after bag of produce from her garden, each time making me feel more inadequate.

But in 2012, we had just sunk a bundle into renovating the house. So reaping a negative return on our garden investment was a mere drop in the watering can compared to the flood of expenses required to gut the building and replace the plumbing..

One year later we’ve added

• a whole lot of soil amending
• an extra rain barrel
• a second compost bin
• a hand-built cedar raised table garden

And it has made all the difference.

A raised garden table stands between the Brassicas and the Nightshades.

A raised garden table stands between the Brassicas and the Nightshades.

In 2013 we are lousy with lettuce, which has stayed sweet and green and continued to grow prolifically in the cloudiness and the excessive rain. Our tomato branches are already sagging with green fruit and it’s early enough in the season that we’re sure to enjoy red, ripe treats well before the kids return to school.
Uninterring a single red potato plant provided enough breakfast for three of us (in combination with green onion stalks that make a pleasingly loud POP when the kids break them off).

Although we lost half the garlic in a post-deluge stagnant pool of water, scores of the bulbs survived. Some are curing on the porch, but most have been given away or cooked before they could dry.

Eating fresh peapods off the vine for breakfast has become a morning ritual I perform every day while inspecting the remainder of the garden. They just won’t stop growing!
We’ve harvested two cucumbers and a young green pepper already. The needle-thin yellow chili peppers are growing nicely next to bloated black and purple eggplant that continue to fatten up each day. Also in the Nightshade garden bed are dense forests of Thai and Italian basil leaves surrounding the tomato cages.

The asparagus is thick enough to eat raw, although a few stalks frond out before we notice them and break them off with a satisfying SNAP. It’s hard to believe that a plant like bamboo can grow faster than our 18-inch-long asparagus can poke out of the ground overnight.

The beets are not doing as well as last year’s crop, but their neighbors, the carrots, have tall, busy greens that suggest big orange goodness awaits us under the surface.
One thing notably missing compared to last year are bees. I’ve noticed only a few of them coming to visit this year, and many flowers seem unpollenated. However, what we’ve lost in bees, we’ve gained in wasps.

Let me Tell You ‘Bout the Worms and the Wasps

Our Brassica garden beds hold Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower and rutabagas. As of a few weeks ago, most of these leaves had been made holey by cabbage worms, inch-long green caterpillars that ate some leaves down to the stem, left gaping holes in most of them, and laid eggs across every single leaf. In desperation, I paid my kids a bounty for each caterpillar. The boys eagerly delivered the crawlers to me one-by-one to face a Morton Grove-style execution (cut in half with a piece of bark so that their green innards squished out from both ends). Still, we couldn’t keep up with their reproductive cycle, and they continued to decimate our Cole crops. I refuse to spray pesticides and prepared to write the green, leafy vegetables off in 2013.

And then came the wasps.

Young rutabagas show the effects of insect damage.

Young rutabagas show the effects of insect damage.

At first, the kids were dismayed and asked me to get the wasp killer spray. This wasn’t for fear of being stung. The wasps were competing with the boys to kill the well-camouflaged insects. Soon, the garden bed was filled with yellow-and-black, vicious-looking scabs alighting on leaf after leaf and (I presume) laying eggs in the doomed cocoons and larvae. The boys have since had to find other ways to earn their keep.

For the first time in my life, I found myself cheering on these buzzing pests as the plants healed themselves, growing new leaves and repairing small holes. Within a week, the wasps had done their job and left, and we were serving up a sauteed bed of collards, Swiss chard, (plus fresh green onion, garlic scapes and garlic) that cradled baked eggs. Our brunch guests, who already liked collards anyway, were ecstatic.

Elsewhere, along the fence that divides our yard from the alley, small hills of watermelon seeds have germinated. We plan to train them to snake their vines through the fence around the time when the peas die back.

Volunteer sunflowers, planted last year by thieving squirrels, are already three feet tall and–in a happy coincidence–providing much-appreciated shade to some lettuce plants.

Eating Her Words
Back in June, when both rain barrels were overflowing and the promise of future eating was less obvious, my techie wife (www.themakermom.com) chided the amount of money I’d sank into buying seeds, transplants and wood to build more raised beds this year, seeing as how not much looked likely to come of it. I’d countered that farmers regularly take out loans for a quarter million or more and lose it all to unpredictable weather, but wondered whether I had planned poorly, not built enough drainage in the beds or failed to mix the compost in well.

But now, with the harvest season barely beginning, we’re struggling to keep up with the bounty. One can only eat so much fresh salad in a day. We’re giving produce to our neighbors, family and friends and wondering whether it’s worth keeping some of it for next year’s seed. Whether I’ll recoup this year’s financial investment is unclear and doesn’t really matter. In entertainment value alone, my garden has almost paid for itself. For less than the price of two tickets to Book of Mormon, we’ve got something to show off to friends, a source of perpetual obsession and amusement, a lesson in labor and competition for the kids, and enough fresh, local, pesticide-free food to sate ourselves throughout the summer. And the harvest has hardly even begun.

A sunflower stands between  pole beans and rain barrels

A sunflower stands between pole beans and rain barrels