Sunday, May 17, 2020

My 2020 garden

Each spring when I start planting my garden I have an extended bout of mild panic. Nothing will grow because I'm bad at this, is basically my fear. I've wasted a ton of time and effort, and money.

And then, magically, plants start popping out of the ground. Their first little cotyledons, many of which still have the shell of the seed attached in the beginning, burst forth like, "Here I am!" Plants in the allium family send up straight shoots, so spindly and tiny that it's hard to believe it will ever be worth eating whatever it grows into.

This year my first planted crop, peas, was a total failure. Even pre-soaking my seeds to help with germination didn't help in the least. It was disheartening, mostly because I don't know what went wrong. Maybe it was too early? I planted again and the same thing happened, though I was absolutely certain that conditions were right for peas. There were marks in the soil, so perhaps birds and beasts and bugs ate most of the seeds? I have a few very spindly, very bug-eaten plants that grew up from my crop of garden peas and that's it.
Bush peas growing in a pot I
got for free because I saw
landscapers about to throw them away.

Thankfully, that's one of the reasons I plant such a variety of seeds. My main garden peas failed, but the rest are fine. I have a small teepee structure for the sugar snaps over in my herb garden, and those are doing just fine. My snow peas are popping up in the front yard, in one of the garden boxes, and those always produce so much that we honestly have trouble keeping up with eating them. Last, this year I ordered a Tom Thumb variety of shelling pea. It's a bush rather than a vine, and only grows about a foot tall. They look to be all that they were promised, though none has started producing just yet. They don't take up much room and don't need a trellis so they've been easy to fit in among other crops, most particularly my potatoes.

I also proved to myself that row covers are very much a worthwhile investment. Every crop that I planted under a cover is doing far better than the ones that didn't have that benefit. I'm still giving some leeway due to the fact that things are in different parts of the garden--perhaps getting a bit more sun, and thus having slightly warmer soil, was also a factor. But even with that it's plain to see that the plants started under covers are far healthier and more vibrant. They have less insect damage, and more of them germinated. I still have my tomatoes and peppers under row cover, though it's warm enough to do without. I want them to get a big bigger before they have to face the scary world.

I did two different versions of a row cover this year. One was fabric over PVC pipe stuck into the ground on either side of the row, with the fabric clamped to the pipe to keep it in place. It was fussy and difficult, mostly because I didn't have enough clamps so the fabric kept separating from the frame. And it took a fair bit of time and effort to set it up. We had quite a few windy days--part of the reason I wanted a cover in the first place!--and the lack of clamps meant that I'd have to go back out to re-set things most mornings.
Row covers in the hail. You can see the pre-made cover
held up far better than my flimsy homemade one.

The other was a row cover that I purchased on clearance from a local hardware store. I so, so wish that I'd bought a few more of them! For $6, that row cover has already paid for itself. I've so far used it in four sections of the garden but there were a couple of times when I wanted it to use it in two or more places at once. The only thing I don't like about it is that it has a built-in wire frame, so it can only be so big. Several of my rows are too wide for this cover.  It's also much shorter than my PVC cover, so if I wanted to use it for season extension into the fall and winter it would have to be for short crops only. My other cover is far more modifiable, so I could even use it around the corners if I needed to, which would be harder with the pre-made cover. All in all, I'm glad that I have both. I just need to get more clamps for the homemade one.

The last change I made to my garden this year was small, but I think it's increasing my growing space by a rather incredible amount. Last year I left pathways for myself along the entire lawn side of the garden. This year I mounded up soil in what was previously pathway just about a foot deep along the paving stones, planning to plant low growing plants (bush beans, vines) that it would be easy to step over to walk between rows. It felt like such a small change when I planned it but seeing how many more plants there are in my garden this year it turns out to have been a rather major change. The vines are my pumpkins, so instead of growing all over the middle of the garden this year they will grow out into the lawn, where no one cares how much space they take up.

The Kinder Garden

When I was gleefully looking through seed catalogs at the beginning of the year I noticed a trend of seeds for tiny plants, such as those small pea plants. An idea blossomed and I asked my older daughter if she wanted to have a garden of her own this year. She jumped at that chance (mostly, I think, because it will give her an excuse to play with the hose) and we happily picked out a bunch of seeds for her. We found the pea plants, a mini bell pepper variety, and a cherry tomato--all of which only grow to be about a foot tall and are suitable for containers. We also found mini bok choy, which should only grow to be about three inches tall, and Little Finger carrots--so named because they're about the size of an adult's finger when fully mature. My kids love to snack on carrots so those will be a godsend. I can tell them to pick those all they want, whenever they want, and we should be able to get several crops of them over the summer.
Most of the garden is planted and popping up! The bare
patches are waiting for tomatoes and peppers.

The last seed that was chosen? Well. My daughter took the seed catalog to look through all of the pictures and then told me, very seriously, that she wanted one more seed for her garden. A turnip variety. Why did she want it? Maybe her tastes are maturing. Or maybe it's because they've got purple tops. Or maybe it's the fact that the little girl in the photo, about the same age as my daughter, was holding a turnip bigger than her head. That's right, we ordered a turnip variety that can grow to the same size as a pumpkin.

I can't say I blame her for her choice. I ordered an onion variety that commonly grows to about 5 lbs. so....

The Other Kinder Garden

Early this year, anxious to get outside and work on growing things, I offered to be the parent volunteer in charge of the school garden that the Munchkin's elementary. I started coordinating with interested teachers, planning out when we'd clear out plants and what we'd plant. And then this virus began ripping through our community and schools were closed. School grounds were closed.

Now, even worse, there is hunger. Food is being thrown away even as people go hungry because supply and demand are off kilter. Food banks are desperate, people are becoming desperate. The price of food is rising, which will lead to even more hunger.

My kid's school is a Title 1 school. In other words, it's a high poverty school, with much of the population receiving free breakfast and lunch. Many families go home with bags of food on Fridays to help see them through the weekend. At least one student in each class has experienced homelessness. There was need even before the pandemic caused a massive, instant recession and a catastrophic wave of unemployment. I kept looking at the headlines and the articles, then working in my own garden and thinking that there must be something I could do to help.

There is. I emailed the principal of the school and asked if I could please work on the school garden, by myself, to grow food for needy families in the area? I let her know that I'm perfectly willing to donate seeds, time, or whatever else this garden needs. And I received a yes! Even better, she mentioned this plan at a staff meeting and several teachers mentioned that they are willing to help. And best of all, someone connected with the school is on the local food bank's board, so I will have an easy way to distribute whatever food we grow to people who need it. !!!! This is a pretty incredible feeling, so much better than the hopelessness and despair that spawned my idea in the first place.

Bearded iris

The original school garden was going to be something for kids. It would grow food, yes, but that was going to be a secondary consideration after the kids' learning. Now, growing food is the name of the game. I'm able to work on maximizing food production in the garden boxes so that we can get as many pounds of food to the food bank as possible. I'll let you know how that goes when we see what results we get. Right now I can just say that if this garden matches my enthusiasm then we'll be sending many hundreds of pounds of food to help people in the community.

What am I growing this year?

Beans - Six different kinds
Peas - sugar, snap, and garden
Potatoes - Yukon gold and German butterball
Carrots - Four varieties
Turnips - The giant ones and a Japanese variety that looks like it will be my first major harvest (soon)
Corn - A different variety this year; it should be purple, and good for grinding into meal
Tomatoes - Five varieties, plus I'm on the lookout for some paste tomatoes since my little girl
                  dumped out my seed packet of them before I got a chance to plant any
Anaheim peppers
Mini bell peppers
Bok choy

Oh, is that all?

This year I also got two new blueberry bushes. The raspberries we planted last year filled in their garden boxes beautifully and are already starting to set fruit. I got more strawberries, though I'm still not expecting a big harvest of them for a few more years, and we got a grape vine, for which my enterprising spouse built a beautiful trellis. It won't produce any grapes until next year at the earliest, but as always with fruit it's more of a long-term investment.
Raspberries. We might get enough for my family's
wants this year. Maybe. Probably not.

For Christmas we ordered my brother-in-law a lion's mane mushroom kit and, while I was at it, I also ordered us a shiitake mushroom kit and spores for red wine cap mushrooms. The latter grow on wood chips and, thanks to last year's leftovers from building the garden, that's something we have in abundance. I still need to spread the spores but we should be harvesting our own mushrooms (which can grow to be 10 inches across!) for at least a few years.

I'm ridiculously proud of this
picture my kid took.
In addition to all of this, I'm continuing to plant more flowers and other interesting plants. I'm particularly interested in planting more natives to help out birds and bugs. I had a large list of plants I wanted to buy but then the pandemic hit and the rest of the world started gardening also. I'm unsure whether I want to try to get as many plants as I can this year, or wait and go for them next year when I've had more time to think about placement, and perhaps there won't be such a shortage of available plants. Perhaps, since I'm also working on the school's garden, I will hold off on many of them. The ones I did get to this year are: a honeysuckle (native variety, good for bugs and hummingbirds), a hydrangea, and a fine tooth penstemon (another native that's good for pollinators and birds). We planted more herbs (marshmallow, borage, horehound) and more wildflowers.

This year was going to be the year that we put in a greenhouse and rain barrels. I'm not sure how much of that is on hold, but I'm still hopeful that it will get done this year. We have a long, long way to go before things start feeling "right", in so many ways. And I know that a garden is always a work in progress, but each year I'm happier with how beautiful and alive my yard is.

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