The 2014 Garden in Review

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October 30, 2014 at 9:49 pm

A secondary goal of my gardening hobby is to see how long I could feed my family of four (plus a vegetable-loving dog) from the nearly 450 square feet of fertile soil in my front and back yards, should the need ever arise. When I began this experiment, I might have kept us from starving for a few weeks. As my skills improved, I might have staved off cannibalization for well over a month, then two months. By 2014, I figure I’ve grown enough to feed us all for nearly four months. Although the reality is that the dog and I would have gobbled up the veggies while the kids held out for the promise of microwavable burritos. Even better, though, I’ve learned to preserve and can food. Although this requires an investment in vinegar and sealing lids, if I could convince everybody to eat pickles, dilly beans and thawed collard greens, we could extend our hypothetical, miserable, vegan lives another few weeks. Then the dog would envision us as large, walking turkey drumsticks and probably eat us while we sleep.

Fortunately, I don’t need to worry about these prospects. My primary goal with gardening has never been survival, but

  • To enjoy the freshest organic produce possible
  • To secure bragging rights on my ability to grow lots of stuff
  • To help build a sustainable northern Illinois food system

I like that my kids understand what crops grow well in this climate and that we can make a spontaneous breakfast of peapods and cherry tomatoes on a July day when the weather is right and the harvest seasons overlap for these two easy-to-grow treats. I have overloaded neighbors and friends with bags of heirloom lettuce and other expensive treats. And in my own modest way, I feel like every pound of food I growin Cook County is one less pound that must be shipped from a drought-stricken acre in Fresno County, California. I also help run a farmer’s market, and help introduce residents of my village, neighbors, and passers-by to the charms of locally grown produce.

Below are the results of my 2014 growing attempts, ranked from worst to best.

2014 Worst Results

Artichokes
I tried growing these indoors last winter and hoped to plant them outside by spring. They didn’t survive past January. I even bought a special LED growing light, but to no avail. Total investment in artichokes: $15

Brussel Sprouts
One lesson I’ve learned again this year is the capriciousness of climate. For several years now, former Brussels sprouts haters have changed their tune after eating my fresh-from-the-stalk sprouts and became Brussels sprouts players. My dependable Brassicas yielded ginormous harvests every fall. But the 2014 excessive rain combined and early attacks by caterpillars conspired to blacken and destroy the budding sprouts on the stalks before they could repair themselves. In prior years, wasps rescued me by destroying the larvae before they could grow and reproduce.
But this year, the entire crop reached a point of no return, and the remaining gnarly, knobby stalks look like misaligned spinal columns. At best, they may serve as creepy Halloween decorations.
Total investment in Brussels sprouts this year, $10.

Potatoes
The taters were delicious but few. I planted these in pots rather than in raised beds so as to isolate them and limit the spread of soil disease. However, the top soil I planted them in may have been too dense and lacking nutrients. Each pot yielded two or three decent spuds. Barely a single meal and not worth the investment of $6.50.

Eggplant
These nightshades didn’t do so great either. Although the stalks and leaves looked healthy, the flowers didn’t see much pollination and the heat and sunlight didn’t arrive when needed. We harvested four or five medium-sized eggplants for an investment of $4.

Not So Great Results

Tomatoes

Some heirlooms with a carrot

Some heirlooms with a carrot

Other gardeners I know had a great year for tomatoes. Most of us did not. Of my 10 plants, I probably harvested no more than 4 lbs. of heirloom and run-of-the-mill fruits. I think this may be the result of bees not being available when the flowers opened. Even as the cold weather approached, some unpollenated flowers were desperately calling out for insects that never came. And the bulk of the crop were tough and green by the time I pulled them out of the soil. Although I saw a last-minute bumper crop of red cherry tomatoes on a few plants, the frost hit them, and they tasted awful. Tomato plant investment was about $15.

Peppers

Green but not as tasty

Green but not as tasty

As fall sank in a few weeks ago, the nightshades took advantage of any warm sunny days to make a last-ditch effort to reproduce by sprouting a whole bunch of tiny fruits. The peppers made a desperate attempt at this and gave us just enough to pickle and sautee a few. They did not taste terrible, but were not memorable either. Total cost: $8.

Raspberries

After two lean years, we finally got a cup of raspberries out of the thorny bush. We only discovered this because Tesla found them first. Guess that’s one more fence we have to build. The original plant was free–taken from a relative’s yard, so even a single berry is a bonus. But after Tesla took his share, there wasn’t enough for the humans to enjoy even a small pie. Total investment: $0.

Wheat Grass
I have previously written about Ringo and the aquafarm. I am happy to report that he found a new home with our dog sitter, but they disposed of the plastic fish tank and growing medium because it was attracting small insects. Plus, nobody in my house (except the dog) likes wheat grass that much. Total investment: $100.

Good Results

Carrots

Carrots, cukes and beans

Carrots, cukes and beans

In the loose, well-fertilized raised beds in which my carrots grew, they did wonderful. Some were purple; some were orange. All were tasty. I was loathe to give them away because I enjoyed eating them so much. If they hadn’t been so hard to clean, few might not have made it as far as the kitchen before being eaten. We ended up with five or six healthy bunches. Even the kids enjoyed snacking on these. There’s nothing like a home-grown dragon carrot to remind you what a farce those nubby little pre-cut orange things really are. Total investment: $6.

Beets

A mature beat pops up above the soil, ready to harvest
A mature beat pops up above the soil, ready to harvest

 

As I write this, my second planting of beets–growing under glass in a raised bed–is doing quite nicely. Between the delicious greens and the sweet roots, we had several wonderful meals and two large pots of Russian borscht soup. The third pot was a snafu because I accidentally planted turnips and they were hard to distinguish from the beets until we tasted the result and agreed it was best to dump the entire pot down the sink. It was THAT bad. And I HATE to waste food. Total investment: $6

Parsley

I planted the herb at the end of the growing season, and as of November 1, several lush, green bouquets of aromatic parsley are spread out among the garden. I can’t give the stuff away fast

enough. As a garnish, most of us can only consume a little bit of it. A co-worker froze and dried a bag, but even he protested that I gave him too much. Total investment: $3.

Peas
Can a person get sick of eating sweet peas right off the vine each morning for breakfast and then as an after-work snack? You betcha. Fortunately, a co-worker LOVED them and would share a handful each day for about a month. These things wouldn’t stop growing! In late August, they should have been long gone, but they kept coming back over and over again, tasting just as fresh as they would have in late spring. I saved a huge pile of shelled peas to plant in 2015, but I hadn’t let them dry enough, and mold set in. I dumped them out, but my co-worker offered to buy seeds next year just to ensure I’ll keep growing more snacks for him. Total investment: $4

Asparagus

Fresh asparagus grows among kale

Fresh asparagus grows among kale

Yay asparagus! When we first planted these years ago, there was no guarantee we’d ever see a return on our investment. After a fallow year, though, these have been springing up reliably each spring. Oddly, we were getting new shoots in September! I let these fern out and collect the sun insead of eating them. Hopefully this will contribute to an even healthier crop in 2015. Total investment: $0.

Kale
As with other produce, we grew morethan we wanted to eat and had only a few people who would take it off our hands. Even in November, these continued to grow. Some grew through the fence that we use to keep the dog out of the garden, and he nibbled the leaves down to the stub. Total investment: $6.

Sunflowers
Sunflowers are also volunteers that I’ve let grow where they want to help attract pollenators. The birds and the bees and the squirrels clean the flower heads of seeds pretty quickly, and the sturdy stalks provide ladders for climbing vines. Total 2014 investment in dill: $0.

Wildflowers
I’m not a flower kinda guy. I like to plant practical edibles. But I’m aware that I need bees to help me out, so I devoted an entire 4 x 10 bed in the alley to what looks like a hot mess of brightly colored petals planted by absent-mindedly scattering a bag of seeds with no plan whatsoever. The result was a lot of bees buzzing around the flowers and hopefully my vegetable flowers as well. Although the bees did not show up in early spring when they were needed. Nonetheless, the flowers worked, and if the bees live to see 2015, maybe they’ll remember me and come by earlier. Total investment: $6.

Green Onions and Chives
I planted these years ago and they keep coming back. I love their flowers and I love the audible POP they make when I break off the stem. They are mild and tasty, hearty and they grow back quickly (what with being hollow like bamboo and all). They’re one of the first plants to appear in the spring and the last one available in the fall. Total 2014 investment: $0.

Fantastic Results

Lettuce

We had far more lettuce than we could deal with. Because the cool and rainy spring stretched into the summer, and because we planted lettuce in a semi-shady zone, the tender leaves grew back as quick as we could tear them off. We gave bags of the stuff away, ate until we could eat no more, and left the bulk of it to grow unharvested until it finally bolted in August. If I estimate a value of $3 a lb. and that we harvested and gave away at least 30 lbs. of lettuce, I’m guessing the value of the harvest was $90. Even in November, arugala continues to grow on the front lawn and tastes as fresh and delicious as the expensive bags you find at specialty grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Total 2014 investment in lettuce: $12.
Cucumbers

Two ways to dispose of extra cucumbers

Two ways to dispose of extra cucumbers

We would have given more cucumbers away, but most people who tried growing them this year DID grow them, and didn’t need any handouts. I overplanted cucumbers from a single packet of seeds, and almost every seed wound up as a vine so thick that its leaves concealed some of its offspring and many fruits were able to grow to ridiculous sizes before we found them. Although they tasted better small, the big ones came in handy and my sons chided me several times, “Please, dad. Don’t make ANOTHER gazpacho!” Total investment: $3

Beans
Growing among the cucumber plants, these bush beans were equally as hard to find sometimes amidst the overgrown leaves. Often when we did, they had grown to gigantic proportions. Some of them were almost a foot long. Some tasted good raw. We roasted and sauteed others. I canned a lot. The dog enjoyed them as well. We gave some away, but found few takers. Just not a popular vegetable, but really easy to grow. And I saved enough so I don’t have to buy new seeds in 2015. Total investment: $6.

Garlic

Garlic dries on the porch

Garlic dries on the porch

The garlic harvest was wonderful. I didn’t pay a dime for the cloves because I planted the biggest from last year’s harvest. I was able to give a garlic bulb to anybody who asked, make a whole
bunch of jars of dill pickles and beans and still have plenty leftover to plant again in the next few weeks for next year’s harvest. Total 2014 investment in garlic: $0.

Dill

Dill weeds grow amok

Dill weeds grow amok

Dill is also a plant that I spent nothing to grow. It is officially a weed (or a volunteer, if we’re trying to be politically correct) and has gained a foothold all over our back yard and alley. The woody
stalks help the cucumber vines find sunlight and the seeds and fronds go into the dill pickles and beans. Total 2014 investment in dill: $0.

On top of the money I spent on seeds and seedlings, I purchased a little organic fertilizer, top soil and wood to build new raised beds. However, I feel I’ve managed to limit my spending on perennials and to save seeds and thus cost year after year.

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