Annual Garden Update

I almost didn’t post a garden update this year. My garden is just shy of a hot mess, and I’d like to believe that after *mumble* years of attempting to grow my own food I’d have something more to show for my efforts.

And yet.

I can attribute my garden woes this year to either of two factors: my compulsion to constantly try new techniques (you may recall this started as a “lifehacking” blog), and the awful, awful weather. Oh, wait, and COVID-19. This year everything that goes wrong can be blamed on COVID-19.

Without further ado – a photo-heavy post, showcasing the best and worst of my garden this year. Mostly “worst.”

This box was supposed to contain my perennial alliums (potato onions and Egyptian walking onion) and garlic. You may notice a lot of something else? That would be potatoes. One of my few double decker boxes with vole-excluding wire across the bottom, this box happened to be where I planted Yukon gold potatoes last year. Apparently, I failed to harvest a few… ok, a lot.

Box C1 - Alliums and volunteer potatoes
Box C1 – Alliums and volunteer potatoes

I probably should have pulled up the potatoes like any other weeds while they were still small, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill free food in this fashion. Hopefully the alliums don’t suffer too badly from this intrustion!

Behind the allium bed, I have … wait, more alliums. And butternut squash of the variety called “Honeynut”. They produce individual sized fruit, which is cute, but they take just as long to grow as full sized butternut squash, and they don’t store since their low surface-area-to-volume ratio means they dry out quickly.

Box C2 - "Honeynut" squash and bunching onion seed crop
Box C2 – “Honeynut” squash and bunching onion seed crop

The honeynuts are trellised over overwintered green onions, also known as bunching onions. We had a relatively mild winter 2019-2020 and a handful of biennials survived the cold with little assistance. When these little guys started to bloom this spring, the local wild bees went crazy with delight, and I couldn’t bring myself to cut them down. Then I realized I could easily harvest the seeds! Bunching onion seeds are only viable for about a year, so being able to resupply with my own plants is pretty awesome. This only worked in the spring however. Right now there are red onions blooming as well, and I don’t want to harvest seed that may have cross pollinated between the two varieties.

My asparagus bed. I rotate most crops each year – or at least try to, as it can be challenging with such a small garden – but since asparagus is a perennial this is its permanent home.

Box C3 - Crowded, cramped asparagus
Box C3 – Crowded, cramped asparagus

For the record, a four foot square box is NOT enough room to grow asparagus. Also, the asparagus patch shouldn’t be in the garden at all, as the fronds constantly flop into the pathways making it difficult to maintain other plants.

Also also, two feet in between beds is WAY too little space to maneuver between them, especially with a wheelbarrow or once the plants start pouring over the sides as plants are wont to do. If I could go back and change any one thing about my garden, it would be to design it with much wider pathways.

Here is my raspberry patch. Another crop of perennials, so they stay in the same place despite the potential for disease vector accumulation. Last year, I only had primocanes (first year canes) in the raspberry patch because the floricanes (second year canes) were too sickly to bother with a double-cropping strategy.

Raspberry patch
Raspberry patch

You can see the floricanes starting to fade to yellow and brittle brown as the summer heat sets in, but they are still producing a few raspberries here and there. Unfortunately the birds and insects love raspberries almost as much as I do!

The last bed in this row contains my, um, lettuce seed crop. A row cover provides shade and desperately tries to keep the local deer from munching the flowers off before the lettuces can set seed. All the wild lettuce in my yard has suffered the same fate by hungry hooved marauders.

Box C6 - Seed lettuce crop, apparently
Box C6 – Seed lettuce crop, apparently

Technically this was supposed to be a garden salad bed, but the lettuces failed to thrive in the cool wet spring, and then 90 degree temperatures descended on us all at once and they bolted. At least here, failure can provide new opportunities in the form of seed saving.

Next, we find one of the two tomato beds. The green uprights hold wires to which the tomatoes are clipped as they grow inexorably upwards. The uprights also support pole beans, making this a dual purpose plot. Marigolds and peppers are mixed in as well.

Box B1 - Tomatoes, peppers, and pole beans
Box B1 – Tomatoes, peppers, and pole beans

The green plastic fence is a new feature this year, but unfortunately isn’t as helpful as I’d originally hoped. In addition to the deer menacing the garden, walking by and chomping off the tops of whatever plants they fancy, we’ve also been infested with rabbits. I do believe that COVID-19 and the stay-at-home orders of this spring resulted in a higher than normal “vermin” population because fewer cars and commuting resulted in less roadkill. (No dainty way to put that…) I’ve never had so much damage that I felt fencing to be necessary.

Joke’s on me! The rabbits can chew right through the plastic. The fence lingers because it has been too hot outside to pull it all down. I briefly investigated an electric fence, but honestly? I am not sure this garden produces enough actual food to warrant the expense of a fancy electric fence!

Moving on, we find one of my garden experiments for this year: attempting to “hide” summer squash from the deadly squash vine borer by planting other fragrant crops in the same bed. In addition to the flowering bunching onions, this bed has red onions, johnny jump-ups, holy basil, dill and a marigold.

Box B2 - Squash, aromatic herbs and yes, more bunching onions gone to seed
Box B2 – Squash, aromatic herbs and yes, more bunching onions gone to seed

I’ve already lost one yellow squash this year, although I am not sure if its death was due to SVB or some other factor. This bed lacks the vole-blocking mesh on the bottom, and perhaps tunneling exposed the roots or who knows! The yellow squash in the foreground is now kept company by a cucuzza (in the far corner); unfortunately they are different plant families (Cucurbita versus Lagenaria) so they cannot help pollinate one another.

Up next: another box of experiments. I had hoped to cover up the scent of cabbages and cauliflower by planting a dazzling array of other crops around them. That way the various Brassica predators that always plague my garden would be unable to find and destroy them. I’m constantly searching for techniques to garden without any pesticides at all, and I have heard of some farms that use this obfuscation strategy. Alas, it did not work for me this spring.

Box B3 - A random assortment of greens, enjoyed by me and the cabbage worms
Box B3 – A random assortment of greens, enjoyed by me and the cabbage worms

You can see an extremely mangled cauliflower there on the left. Additionally, as much as I love cauliflower and eat it regularly, I have never successfully grown a head of cauliflower worth eating. This year, of several plants only one formed a head and it was only two inches across before it started turning brown.

Swiss chard? I can grow the heck out of Swiss chard. Unfortunately, I’m the only person in this family who could eat cooked greens more than once a week!

Here is my second tomato / pole bean garden bed. This one is slightly different from the first in that it has one of the fancy boxes with wire mesh on the bottom. I also opted to avoid hardwood mulch on this bed. Yet another garden experiment!

Box B4 - More tomatoes, peppers, and pole beans
Box B4 – More tomatoes, peppers, and pole beans

My husband heard a radio report from Mike McGrath saying that hardwood mulch can contribute to tomato diseases and one should mulch with compost instead. Here in Maryland, that advice can be dicey, given that hardwood mulch is so helpful in keeping weeds out and the soil moist. But, I figured it was worth a shot. I’ll know (and plan to post) later this year whether this bed had healthier tomatoes than the other one I mulched more traditionally.

Look! Another garden experiment! This is my first serious foray into chaos gardening. Well, it’s hard to truly have “chaos” in a four foot square raised bed! Basically I just … threw a bunch of seeds onto the soil. I didn’t keep track of what I planted, or how much I planted, or where exactly in the bed I planted.

Box B5 - My first attempt at "chaos gardening"
Box B5 – My first attempt at “chaos gardening”

This is like, “aggressive intercropping” (my garden theme last year) taken to a new level! Chaos gardening is both liberating and stressful for over-planning control freaks like myself. You also have to be intimately familiar with what the baby plants look like … or just let the weeds join in on the chaos as well!

Did it “work”? Still to be determine! I am hoping to write a “chaos gardening year in review” post later this fall, once I actually know!

So the mess you see here is my blackberry bed. The canes in the back/right of the photo are all dying. I don’t know if they succumbed to a disease or if the drip irrigation failed to provide them enough water, but either way they are goners. I actually removed them the day after this photos was taken.

My poor, poor blackberries
My poor, poor blackberries

Actually, the death of these blackberry canes is a blessing in disguise. At first I took it very personally – how much do I suck at gardening if I can’t even keep blackberries alive?? But honestly, this black satin blackberry has produced nothing but mouth-puckering sour fruit, that no one at all ever enjoyed eating unless it was cooked into a dish with significant sugar! Now I have an opportunity to replace it with something tastier.

In the middle of the blackberry bed hides my one remaining globe artichoke. I’ve never tried them before … and apparently neither had the local rabbits because they LOVED them. Hence the wire cage protecting this last little guy.

One single well-protected globe artichoke
One single well-protected globe artichoke

We’ll see if the growing season is long enough for him to produce his tasty flowers before frost hits.

I sometimes forget how many garden beds I have until I try to describe everything in them!

This box holds more random greens and root vegetables – carrots, kohlrabi, lettuce, turnips, cabbage, cauliflowers and this year’s failed attempt at peas. (Damn deer.) Turnips and romaine were the best I got out of this bed.

Box A1 - Another mess!
Box A1 – Another mess!

Behind this box, we have another one with extreme intercropping (or some might call it companion planting) in a desperate bid to hid the squash from the nefarious SVB. This bed holds two zucchini plants (center front and center back) and two tomato plants because … well, honestly I started too many tomatoes this year and ran out of places to plant them! More aromatic herbs are planted around the main plants, to help confuse the predatory insects.

Box A2 - More summer squash, tomatoes and aromatic herbs
Box A2 – More summer squash, tomatoes and aromatic herbs

Unfortunately, just days after this photo the zucchini in the back started sliding downhill FAST. I don’t know if the culprit is the SVB (I didn’t find the typical frass at the base of the vine), or block driplines preventing the squash from receiving sufficient water. Temperatures have reached over 90 almost everyday the past week, so the garden is definitely taking a beating. It could also be root damage from that darned vole – you can see a hole in the bed where the little [CENSORED] has been digging!

Oh no, my zucchini!
Oh no, my zucchini!

One route to deal with SVB is to plant squash varieties with solid stems, which includes butternut squash. Yes, I have two more plants in my garden. They will produce full sized fruit, as opposed to the “honeynut” squash I mentioned earlier.

Box A3 - Hey, more butternut squash!
Box A3 – Hey, more butternut squash!

Because the butternut squash are growing up a trellis, the space beneath them is freed up for a different crop. I decided to plant sweet potatoes here. Well, technically I didn’t decide. I inherited a handful of slips, and this was the only vole-protected bed with any room left in it.

Under the butternut squash – some sweet potatoes

I don’t know if the dirt in this box is deep enough for decent sized sweet potatoes, unfortunately. This is one of the tradeoffs from having the wire across the bottom. There’s nowhere for the tubers to go if they run out of room!

In previous years, I had a box of bush beans in addition to some variety of pole beans. This year, I’m only growing pole beans so I ended up with an empty box. I decided to plant it with buckwheat… and some wild amaranth felt like joining in as well! I haven’t decided yet whether the buckwheat will be “just” a green much, or if I will let it flower to attract pollinators, or if I will let it set seed and actually try to harvest the groats. (Buckwheat is a “pseudocereal”, or “pseudograin”, so opinions vary wildly as to whether it’s “allowed” on a paleo diet.)

Box A4 - cover crops of buckwheat and, um, volunteer amaranth
Box A4 – cover crops of buckwheat and, um, volunteer amaranth

Behind the buckwheat is the bed where I planned to grow potatoes … as opposed to the volunteer potatoes which invaded my allium bed! This particular variety, Keuka gold, is a mid-season potato which means they will stay in the ground longer than what I grew last year (which were ready to harvest in mid-July). Having two different potato crops is actually a plus, because some will be ready to eat, and the rest can be saved for winter storage.

Box A5 - Mid-season potatoes
Box A5 – Mid-season potatoes

Last but not least is the skeleton. OK, not a great name! But five years ago we tried adding a small, fabric covered greenhouse to our gardening approach. I don’t remember why it didn’t really work. But the skeleton of the greenhouse still remains, and today has white plastic lattice attached to its back. This year, I planted cucumbers (left) and ridge luffa squash, and then a volunteer hybrid showed up and started taking over the joint! You can’t see the luffa behind the huge leaves!

The "Skeleton" - cucumbers, volunteer squash and luffa
The “Skeleton” – cucumbers, volunteer squash and luffa

Unfortunately I’m not sure the volunteer will produce edible fruit … we’ve had a lot of “volunteer” squash in the compost pile behind the garden, and many varieties readily crossbreed. Only time will tell what we get with this one!

As I wrote this post, I continuously checked back to the 2019 Garden Update and found myself marveling at the drastic difference between the two years. Despite very similar crops and the same location and the same gardener (me!) the two years turned out very differently. It just goes to show that you can’t learn gardening from a book, you have to dig into the dirt and experience the seasons year in and year out to really learn how it works (or fails, as the case may be). Also, I am very grateful that we still have grocery stores, just in case!

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