Friday, March 22, 2019

The 2018 Garden: In Review

Our garden last August: Butternut squash, sunchokes, tomatoes, and greywater garden hoses

I’ve had this post in my “drafts” folder for ages, so I thought that I’d dust it off before I dive into the next growing season (which will be a learning experience, since Portland’s climate is so incredibly different from St. Louis’s!).

Here are my biggest successes from the 2018 garden:

Sweet potatoes! After we built them a nice raised bed, these beautiful vines required almost no maintenance, and we harvested 120 pounds. We would still be eating them if we hadn’t hastily pushed them off on people before we left for the Northwest.

Sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes). With no help from us, these shot up into towering sunflowers, sheltering birds (including our chickens) and attracting one of the biggest assortments of bees, butterflies, and other insects that I had ever seen! They can be stored in the ground, and we ate ourselves silly with the tubers before replanting the pieces (which will, no doubt, blossom into an uncontrollable forest in our absence).  

Sweet 'taters!
Butternut squash. They got attacked by every conceivable pest and still managed to give us over a hundred pounds of storable food.

Cucumbers. These were a little too exuberant— we couldn’t eat them quickly enough! (See: Making Pickles below.)

Radishes. These are my new favorite garden vegetable, and the only spring crop I considered a success. They grow quickly, they’re low-maintenance, and they give you a two-for-one deal: roots and greens.

Tomatoes. After a feeble tomato harvest in 2016, in 2018 I committed to mulching, deep-watering, and pruning. Our sheet mulch eliminated the need for much weed control, we watered the plants with our bathtub greywater, and I pruned them down to nearly bare stems a total of five times over the growing season— with fantastic results. They created an incredible edible forest, the vines nearly breaking with delicious tomatoes. I was harvesting like mad up until the first frost in October, and several of the green ones I picked ripened indoors, meaning I used my last “fresh” tomato to make food for Christmas Eve.

Kale. My dinosaur kale succumbed to frostbite after a couple single-digit nights, but the dwarf curly kale lasted— and even put out new growth!— all the way until we left, despite one night so cold that our house pipes froze and the wind chill was -23ºF. Kale for the win!

Biggest failures:

Making pickles. With our glut of cucumbers over the summer, it felt like I was making pickles day and night. The first few batches were great, but something went wrong after that, and we ended up composting more than two gallons of too-tough or too-mushy pickles. I’m not sure what I did wrong, but I’m determined not to grow that many cucumbers again, since labor-intensive pickling is pretty much the only way to preserve them. Give me something like tomatoes— which you can freeze, puree, crockpot, dehydrate, or ferment— any day. 

All spring vegetables. We had frequent frosts right up till mid-April, and two weeks after that it hit 95ºF, so our spinach, carrots, arugula, peas, chard, and asparagus never stood a chance. We got paltry harvests that drove us into the forest to search out wild alternatives. After working with abundant wild-growing stinging nettle, I swear that I’ll never grow spinach in the Midwest again.

All fall vegetables. With a lingering summer and early snow, fall was the same problem as spring in reverse. We meant to get garlic in the ground, perhaps some late-season greens, maybe a cabbage or two... nope. After a few growing seasons, I’m beginning to feel like the only annuals that really do well in St. Louis are summer crops.

Red currant and an apple tree. They both just flat-out died. We thought one of our hazels had died, too, but last I checked it was hanging on with tiny little buds. Go, hazel!

My favorite parts about gardening:

For me, gardening is much more than a hobby. In fact, the actual day-to-day operations of gardening, such as weeding, watering, and pruning, aren’t things I’d choose to do if I was just planting crops for fun. The main thing that keeps me focused and dedicated to gardening is my growing understanding of how very screwed up the industrial agriculture system is. Although there are many ways to opt out of the most destructive practices— buying from the farmers market, for instance— growing your own food is the most cost-effective way to start escaping the practices that are steadily turning the world into a desert. It’s a tiny step, but an important one. When I eat a tomato, grown from seeds I got for free at a community seed swap, planted in the my garden, watered by my bathtub greywater, and harvested by my hands, I feel an immense sense of gratitude. 

While that is the driving force, the immediate reward is also clear: my favorite part of gardening is sharing it with people. Whether it was sitting in the backyard while people laugh at the antics of my chickens, making summer pizza for my friends with fresh basil and tomatoes, or simply working together with Zach, the sharing aspect of gardening was truly what I found most rewarding in the 2018 growing season. This realization is encouraging me to think about how I can share the joy of growing food with other people in a more frequent and intentional way.

Although the 2019 growing season is going to be completely different, Zach and I have prepped some beds, scattered some seeds (I get the feeling that spring crops will actually do well here), and are looking forward to seeing what the garden has in store for us this year.

P.S. The chickens were also a complete success. And adorable.

P.P.S. Sheet-mulching both yards was pretty cool too...


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