I was at the Boalsburg Market last month, where one of the vendors had black balls about the size of golfballs on his table for sale. He saw me looking at them and asked if I knew what they were. Ha! My hours of poring over seed catalogs pay off! I correctly identified them as winter radishes and when he looked surprised, I confessed I had bought seeds to try but hadn’t gotten them planted. I bemoaned that I hadn’t planted much of anything last year, to which he replied “Be grateful; it was a terrible growing year” and then went on to tell me of talking to two major CSA/market gardeners (I knew both names from PASA but now can’t recall them) who both said they had never experienced such awful harvests.
This was my second year being involved with the Learning Garden, and I was quite spoiled in 2010. I swear, if I accidentally dropped a seed, it didn’t just grow, but it produced the biggest, best vegetables I’d ever seen. I had to keep upping the size of my table at the Farmers’ Market to get all the produce on it, and the weeks we didn’t get around to picking for the food bank in the middle of the week, we had squashes the size of caveman clubs!
Fast forward to 2011 when we harvested hardly a zucchini...
But allow me to do this more systematically, and I’m hoping any of you who either grew your own or bought local last season will share your experiences.
Overall, we were later planting than we had to be. It was a rainy spring if you remember, and I was judging by my own flooded garden, and did not take into account the fact that the Learning Garden is both on a hill and consists of much better soil that drains well. Consequently, we had hardly been working there before the year-old asparagus was pretty much done.
For that other spring perennial, rhubarb, we planted a nice new crown this spring and kept it well watered all summer. It looks like it has taken root very well and we can expect to harvest some rhubarb to go along with our strawberries next year. At least, we’ll get the strawberries if we find a way to keep the rodents from taking nibbles off each and every berry! It’s a pretty small patch (something we can rectify when we enlarge the Garden this year perhaps), so volunteers working in the Garden got to taste them, but that was about it.
To trellis the spring peas, we brought in a couple of cattle panels. On two-thirds of the panels, we grew sugar snap and snow peas, and they both did well. On the final third, we put in cucumbers. We put them in twice and lost both crops to downy mildew or bacterial wilt (I’m afraid no one identified the scourge before pulling the plants), although not before the one variety, the soyu, had produced a few very long, very ugly fruits that no one would buy at the Market, although I was able to give away a couple. I’m hoping for a better year in 2012 and am already setting up a bag to take with me that includes all my garden books and insect/disease references to keep better track of what’s happening.
Under the peas and cukes, we planted some lovely head lettuce. After weeks of rain, ad just as the heads hit harvest size, the heat ratcheted up through the nineties and turned the greens bitter.
After the peas were done, we put in a couple varieties of pole beans. Slow to take off, they produced right up until the first freeze but for most of the season not in enough quantity to sell.
My garden at home continued to stay wet, so I brought my sun-starved onion seedlings to the Learning Garden. After a week or so of not being sure if they liked their turn of fortune, they perked up and produced large globes of candy and storage onions.
At Warren’s suggestion we interplanted potatoes and sweet potatoes. The potatoes were harvested at least a month before the sweet potatoes, which allowed the sweet potato vines to keep right on spreading. The potatoes gave a pretty good, but not spectacular, harvest, while the sweet potatoes produced amazing large, blemish-free tubers. I don’t recall ever having dug sweet potatoes that grew like the ones I dug from the Learning Garden: although the vines had spread for yards, the tubers formed directly below where the seedling had been planted, six or so 8–12 inch tubers growing straight down. A definite notch in the win column. They were (are) also absolutely delicious.
At the end of the potato row, we planted the scarlet runner beans...at least three times since whatever was nibbling on the seedlings kept getting to them as soon as they popped through the soil. I finally put a circle of fence around the bamboo tepee. Harvest of these beans was much smaller than last year, although after seeing Jennifer Tucker’s photography of their progression as they ripened I’m thinking I never really “saw” them during the season. Gorgeous! (Check them out at the end of this post.)
Speaking of beans, we also planted a small patch of Vermont cranberry beans, which is used as a dry bean. Unfortunately, the bushy plant quickly covered the sign identifying it, and a few enthusiastic harvesters picked the pods thinking they were green beans. And by the time we were ready to pick the (supposedly) dry beans, the rains had started up again. We lost many to mold.
Next to the cranberry beans, we had planted soybeans for edemame. Warren warned us that soy beans bring in the varmints, and only one seedling survived whatever it was that found them.
Lisa Beherec planted the square foot garden beds with a wide variety of flowers, herbs, and veggies, including beans, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, turnips, chard, radishes. She said it was mostly an experiment in planting of old seeds, and I’d say the experiment paid off handsomely. We harvested quite a bit of produce from those 2 little beds, something folks with little space should definitely think of when you’re trying to decide if you have the room for a garden.
Probably the most dramatic sight in the Garden were the row and a half of corn. We planted as many varieties as I could find of corn for parching and grinding into flour and meals, and they all did really well. Some of the Hopi blue ears were over a foot long, and all were impressively beautiful, especially the Oaxacan green corn, the multi-colored painted mountain and the deep red Bloody Butcher. Another subject of Jennifer’s fantastic photography, you will get a chance to own some of her work and support the Garden this next year because she has generously offered some prints to be sold at the Market.
I had learned my first year at the Learning Garden how to plant the tiny carrot seeds, making sure the soil covering them was fine and knowing they needed to be kept moist while germinating, so I was extra careful planting the row of root crops, which included 3 varieties of carrots, 2 types of beets, turnips and parsnips. I waited, and breathed a sigh of relief when they began to emerge. Then a week later....nothing but a couple of beets! I have a notoriously bad memory, but I was so sure there had been some of everything growing. When the next week even the beets were gone, I belatedly and with some relief realized something had gotten to them. We replanted and covered the patch with shade cloth, harvesting a nice quantity of each. Some of the carrots went to seed, so if we’re going to keep them covered, we have to keep an eye on them and harvest earlier.
Among the Hopi blue corn, we planted a nice variety of winter squash: jarradale, sweet meat, and sweet dumpling, and at the end of the row we put in some summer squash: costata romanesca and straightneck yellow zucchinis. We managed to harvest a few of the zucchinis, but well before the winter squash were ripe, we lost every single plant to an army of squash beetles. We tried planting a summer squash on the other side of the Garden, but the squash beetles found it too.
Somewhat late in the spring we planted a selection of cole crops—broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts—as well as some kale. An early heat wave turned them all bitter before we could harvest much, and the Brussels sprouts never formed firm heads. We tried again late in the season to get a fall crop of broccoli and cabbage, but were too late for them to form good size heads. The kale, on the other hand, after looking mighty sad most of the hot, hot summer, quickly started growing again in the cool and rainy fall and gave us a pretty nice harvest over the last few weeks of the Market. Some colorful chard planted nearby also did well, and it was one of the last things I harvested before the first hard freeze.
In the rows under what will be the hoop house, we planted tomatoes and peppers and basil. The basil went gangbusters, but the market for it was weak. Way too much was lost when it went to seed. It took a couple weeks beyond ideal for us to get the tomatoes tied up, and they all but covered the peppers. Tomatoes split and we bug eaten, and the pepper harvest was sparce.
In the other row, we had our eggplant on shiny mulch experiment, which did very well, although I had trouble telling when the white eggplant was ripe. The pretty lavender eggplants were very popular with customers. We also grew some smallish melons, which were so hard to harvest exactly at the right time for market!
How did your garden grow? And what are your plans for the coming year??