WARNING: Long, photo-heavy post ahead!
This year’s garden theme was supposed to be “Pretty and Low Maintenance.”
Turns out that “low maintenance” actually means “chaotic and overgrown with weeds!”
I almost didn’t share an update this year, because my garden is such a mess. But I truly believe that everyone with access to dirt should take responsibility for producing some of their own food. Over the past several years, watching the supply chain issues in our modern just-in-time industrial food distribution has just reinforced my conviction. So here is my ugly garden, 2022 edition.
(If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might notice this update is significantly later in the year this time around. But that’s OK, because I’ve been slower to start everything in my garden so it’s behind as well.)
Garden Bed A1
This year, I moved the tomato plants back to the garden beds. Last year, planting tomatoes around the chicken coop proved to be more trouble than it was worth (especially with hens eating leaves and unripe fruits alike). In years long past, the raised beds proved problematic for tomatoes, with the plants actually drowning one year because the clay soil couldn’t drain fast enough for the roots to get air.
I’m using a hybrid trellising approach to my indeterminate tomatoes this year. Previously, I’d used the “Florida weave” almost exclusively. (I only just learned that this technique had an actual name.) This time, I’m using the “weave” to hold up stakes, around which the main stem of the tomato plant is wrapped. This is referred to as the “string method.” (This photo shows one of the two “Mortgage Lifter” tomatoes in this bed.)
I’m not using string because I don’t have a crossbeam to suspend a string from. The stakes are strong enough to stand up without being held from above, and the “weaves” (plastic-coated clothesline) add stability. The weaves can also be used to support the weight of the growing fruit.
The two tomato cages in this bed are for the two determinate Roma tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes reach a certain size then stop, so a small, inverted triangle support is perfect for them.
I have yet to see any tomato hornworm caterpillars this year, but yellow striped army moth caterpillars have done their own fair share of damage.
I’m currently researching natural, plant-based insecticides, and will post an update if I find anything which seems to work especially well.
Garden Bed B1
More tomatoes—cherry varieties this time—and a seemingly endless supply of holy basil. I struggle to remove these “weeds” because of their beautiful fragrance, health benefits, and attractiveness to bees.
Does intercropping holy basil help the tomatoes grow via companion planting? No idea. Maybe they help attract pollinators. Or maybe they encourage fungal growth because the soil can’t dry out under all that ground cover. I guess time will tell.
Garden Bed C1
Currently this bed lies fallow. Ish. Earlier in the summer, this bed was dominated by potatoes (harvested in mid-July) and parsnips I’d allowed to go to seed because the pollinators loved the flowers so very much. In August, the bed’s edges are still fringed by green onions (left) and red veined sorrel (right). For the record, I have no idea where the red veined sorrel came from. It just showed up in the bed one day—like many other plants you’ll meet in this account—and since it’s an edible perennial, I couldn’t bring myself to pull it up as a “weed.”
After the next several days of summer storms and 90+ degree heat, I plan to broadcast fall root crops through this bed. The double-decker raised box provides plenty of room for roots to grow large. I almost exclusively use my double-decker boxes for root crops now, although that provides extra challenges for crop rotation.
Garden Bed A2
Say welcome to the weeds! The only thing I planted in this box can’t even be seen for the “volunteers” crowding every space. Most of the plants are actual “crops”. The marigolds self-sowed from last year’s flowers. The holy basil, well, the holy basil has found every possible opening in my garden. The amaranth, while wild, has been encouraged for several years. The one “crop”, a mammoth dill, is hidden behind the real prize of this bed: greater mullein.
The mullein represents the culmination of my many “gardener’s dilemma” posts because most of the weeds I can’t bear to pull up are small. The mullein, by contrast, dominates this bed. And I have allowed it.
Garden Bed B2
Bed B2 also looks like it is overrun with weeds, but these I planted. In the foreground grows a lemon balm that has gotten out of control; behind it towers green onions that were “supposed” to be annuals. But this is year number two for them.
Oh, all that purple flowered greenery in the foreground? More holy basil. Only it’s not in the bed, but rather clogging the path between A2 and B2.
Garden Bed C2
Bed C2 seems tame in comparison with the others you’ve seen so far. A few weeks ago, summer squash flopped about dramatically but since then the plants all succumbed the to the squash vine borer. All that remains are the interstitial bush beans. For the record, planting bush beans around the squash was a terrible idea. The large, sprawling squash plants crushed many bean seedlings as they tried to grow.
Have I harvested many green beans? No. I planted these Bush Provider seeds way too late, and they are only just now (early August) beginning to set fruit.
Garden Bed A3
Technically more “weeds”. You can’t see any of them for all the catnip (also a “weed”) but trust me—they are there. Again, nothing in this bed was planted on purpose. But the red clover and catnip and (yet more) holy basil all provided their own benefits, if not to me and my health, then to the waning pollinator population in our area.
And look at this happy little honeybee! How could I deprive it of this source of pollen?
Garden Bed B3
Garden bed B3 contains two summer squash (one zucchini and one yellow) who haven’t yet realized they are dead. Large enough plants, in optimum growing conditions, can survive the wounds caused by squash vine borer larvae gnawing inside their stems. But both plants have stopped setting fruit, and I know their days are numbered.
By the way, this is another bed with the ill-conceived placement of bush beans between the squash plants, like in C2. Here you can still see how the beans are struggling to find room enough to even exist. I will not make this particular intercropping mistake again.
Garden Bed C3
Still asparagus. Just like every year. Yay, perennials!
Also (like every year), the asparagus is unwilling to allow a mere raised bed to constrain it. Next garden, the asparagus will be planted as a hedge, and trimmed (or foraged) to stay within its boundaries.
Garden Bed A4
Two words describe this bed: herbal madness.
We’ve got the volunteer catnip (center front), which is forcing its way through creeping thyme, which is fighting for space with oregano, whilst mammoth dill towers above all the chaos. Aside from the dill, these herbs are all perennials. The madness will continue next year unless I take decisive action this winter.
… And clearly I haven’t taken decisive action at any previous point, so don’t hold your breath!
Garden Bed B4
A month ago, bed B4 was dominated by wild prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola) towering towards the sky. In spring, I allowed the plants to stay, with the intention of harvesting them for medicinal purposes right as they were going to flower. Now that the lettuce is gone, this bed has been taken over by more volunteers: Swiss chard, from seeds which apparently failed to germinate last year, and yet more amaranth.
I need to decide on some fall crops for this bed, and get the seeds planted before any more volunteers take the choice away from me.
Garden Bed C4 & 5
The raspberries are my favorite garden crop, but they have struggled a lot over the past several years. Between insects, fungus, and rabbits chewing the bark in the winter when they lack other food, it’s amazing I get any berries at all!
Garden Bed A5
I didn’t plan to plant sweet potatoes this year. I’ve had poor luck with them in the past. Plus, sweet potatoes have a complicated curing process that I’ve never mastered. But my mom had extra slips after planting her bed this spring, and I can’t say no to free plants!
Sweet potatoes also have edible leaves, so they are a great-dual purpose crop. If trying them for the first time, consider adding young leaves torn up in a fresh salad with spinach and romaine. Alternatively, you could sauté more mature leaves in a dish with other leafy greens.
As you can see from the vines spilling out of the bed and across the paths, I need to eat more greens!
Garden Bed B5
Ah yes, Bed B5. What did I plant in here again? In fact, this bed is one that was actually planned and planted last fall with garlic and perennial onions (Egyptian walking onions, specifically).
Unfortunately, the garlic suffered an affliction of onion maggots which completely destroyed my crop.
I suspect the perennial onions are likewise compromised, but I have yet to pull them out and learn for sure. They are still perfectly passable as green onion substitutes… although clearly, I have plenty of actual green onions, so I don’t need substitutes!
A few carrots also grace this bed. Amazingly enough none of the swallowtail caterpillars have found them yet.
Garden Bed A6 & B6
This double-size bed is supposed to contain blackberries. You can see one blackberry plant in this photo, tied to the stake on the lefthand side of the screen. And then there is… everything else!
Snuggled up against the blackberry we have: purslane (volunteer); cilantro (volunteer); mammoth dill (planted); amaranth (volunteer); and chamomile (planted). I know you can’t see the chamomile for all the “weeds”, but it’s still hanging on, if only just barely.
Garden Bed C6
A whole bed of butternut squash. They have solid stems, so ought to be safe from predation by the local squash vine borer menace.
Unfortunately, these squash plants appear to be suffering from what I call “non-specific failure to thrive”. In other words, they aren’t doing well with no obvious explanation.
The fault probably lies with a combination of factors. Soil quality, the erratic weather promoting fungal infections, and insects finding a cozy home in the neighborhood’s one pesticide-free backyard garden are all possibilities.
Other gardeners proposed that bacterial wilt may be the culprit. This particular disease is spread by cucumber beetles. While I have no cucumbers in the garden (intentional or otherwise), cucumber beetles are a permanent feature of the landscape anyway.
The garden trellis is built on the frame of what used to be a cheap plastic greenhouse. The “canvas” long since ripped to shreds, but the metal poles support plastic pieces which provide the perfect playground for vining plants. This year: scarlet runner beans.
The extra short chicken wire fence prevents local varmints from taking a nibble just by reaching over that lowest electric fence wire. Rabbits and groundhogs both show complete disregard for the electric fence. In fact, I doubt the groundhogs can even feel the electric shock through their thick fur. I recently discovered—quite by accident—the chicken wire fence actually touches the electric wire in places, so any curious little noses will get quite the surprise!
Somewhere under all that biomass is the hügelkultur bed I started a few years ago. I didn’t design it very well, and its primary purpose was to use up downed tree limbs. Now it hosts nothing at all but weeds. Er, volunteers.
Everything in this bed is a volunteer, although some plants are wild (lambsquarter), and some are cultivated (the burgundy and gold amaranth peeking through the green). At some point, maybe I will admit that I’m unlikely to post any lambsquarter recipes this year and clear all those weeds to make room for “real” crops.
Well Hand Pump
Our landscaping still features rhubarb gracing the hand pump for our well. This, despite the direct sun and blazing summer heat.
In future edible landscapes, we will make sure to plant any rhubarb in an orchard, or other location with partial shade to protect the plants during the hottest stretches of weather.
The erratic weather has wreaked havoc on even the perennials in our hardscaping. In this photo you can see the black leaves on the sunchokes, which struggled last year as well (though due to insects rather than weather issues).
What you don’t see buried in the creeping thyme and the crown vetch (alas) is my one and only prickly pear. The prickly pear seedlings I germinated last year failed to survive the winter, leaving the original plant’s flowers unable to set fruit.
On the right side of the hardscaping, we find habanero peppers in containers, the dry stalk remnants of this season’s daylily flowers and various other weeds… er, volunteers!
The lowbush blueberries continue to rest secure in their protection against birds, rabbits and squirrels. I’ve kept other precious plants under the netting as well, since squirrels can easily destroy a young plant while burying (or retrieving) food for later.
The fence, unfortunately, is ineffective against chipmunks. They easily slip under the wire and help themselves to the blueberries. Thankfully the one chipmunk we spotted in the fence didn’t do too much damage.
The groundhog was another matter. It dug a huge hole from under the deck, into the bed, and devoured the one seedling I held most dear: the one pawpaw I had managed to germinate from seed.
(Needless to say, this particular groundhog no longer troubles my yard. Or any yard.)
Deck – Container Gardening
Continuing the tour around the yard, we arrive at the container veggies on the back deck. For several years now, I have planted several pots with baby eggplants. Not “baby” as in “seedlings”, rather “baby” as itty-bitty teensy-weensy fruit.
I’m the primary consumer of eggplant in this house, and a full-sized eggplant would be wasted on me. The miniature eggplants provide me with a handful of side courses throughout the summer. Plus, their small size makes it easy to keep them in pots on the deck, safe from the flea beetles that ravaged my earliest attempts to grow eggplant.
Mind you, the eggplants still needed to be protected from digging squirrels. The pots feature chicken wire covers to dissuade furry paws. This photo from earlier in the year shows how the wire is shaped over the top of the pot. A hole cut in the center of the wire leaves room for the stems to grow larger as the plant matures.
My other prized container veggies this year are my Black Pearl peppers. One of my kids just might have liberated a few of the seeds from an ornamental display at an agricultural fair last fall, and I decided to give them a try this spring. Well. They are gorgeous plants, and the unripe glossy black peppers are the perfect level of heat for a wimp like me.
I just have to remember not to eat them all, so some ripen and set seeds for next year’s crop.
This year’s herb wall features (from left to right, top to bottom):
- Flat leaf parsley
- Spearmint (yes, I realize the pot looks empty)
- Catnip (yes, more catnip)
- Holy basil (yes, really)
Below the herb wall, you can see my gooseberry bushes, and another lemon balm (yes, really).
I’ve also learned a new technique for keeping the pots watered when I leave for a long weekend. Using solid braided nylon cord, with one “wick” per pot, a gallon jug can keep the plants watered for several days easily.
In previous years, I would hook up fancy drip irrigation lines on a timer and hope for the best with the schedule versus rain fall amounts. The wicking system, on the other hand, allows the plants to get a constant amount over time, which takes all the complexity and guesswork out of the equation. I learned this idea from a recent issue of Mother Earth News magazine, and it has worked so well that I never put the pots back on the wall. Now I no longer struggle with the tedium of watering them every other day.
What you didn’t see in the above photos: the strawberry bed which previously graced the walkway to the front door. I finally surrendered to the inevitable. I wasn’t doing a great job keeping up with the weeds, and the plants were suffering from the competition.
And now you’ve seen my messy, overgrown, full of weeds, ugly garden in 2022.
…although maybe instead of ugly, I’ll call this year’s garden lush.