Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hot Picks in a Cool Summer

I’m gradually developing a set a principles for gardening as a nest egg, or an investment in food security. They include things like minimizing purchased inputs, such as fertilizer, by making your own compost and keeping chickens for manure, finding and developing methods for simplifying the work, so that even into old age, one can continue to garden, planting perennial fruits and vegetables, such as berry bushes, asparagus, and multiplier onions, and planting what I call “sure bets.”

“Sure bets” are crops you can count in, in good times and bad; crops that will produce in poor soil or when the weather doesn’t cooperate. In some cases, a “sure bet” may be a specific cultivar. In others, it may be a method of growing that can be counted on as a “sure bet.”

Here in Madison, Wisconsin, the summer has been unseasonably cool, frequently with night-time lows in the 50s and daytime highs only in the 70s. We had a record low high in mid-July of only 66 degrees F. Because I kept a fairly good gardening journal last year, with lots of photographs, it’s glaringly obvious that my vegetable garden is far behind where it was this time last year. If I really needed to produce a significant proportion of our vegetables in our backyard, (as I think many of us will have to do in the future), we’d go hungry this year.

However, I did actually harvest some warm weather vegetables last week-end, during our record low high. How did I do it? I grew those vegetables in clay pots placed on stone pavers. I learned this lesson last year when I grew jalapeños along a southern facing wall, hoping for reflected heat and light. They limped along and produced a few chiles, but the outstanding performer was a single Anaheim in a clay pot. We harvested dozens of chiles from that single plant. I was astonished because, although I knew the clay pot would be warm, I thought the southern wall strategy, that I’d used to good effect when we were living in the Pacific Northwest, would work as well, or better, since the plants were in the ground. I had no idea that a vegetable in a container could be so prolific.

So this year I planted all my chiles in clay pots (I have half a dozen – jalapeños, Anaheims, and poblanos), harvested the first 8 during our record low high week-end, and enjoyed some fresh salsa. I had a similar experience with eggplants last year, planted another in a clay pot this year, and have already harvested and grilled the beautiful fruit you see in the photo above.

Containers are invaluable in small gardens, where space is at a premium. Clearly, clay pots are also about as sure a bet as you can get when it comes to improving production in cool climates. Don’t waste precious time, like I did, learning the hard way how best to use containers. Get Rose Marie Nichols McGee and Maggie Stuckey’s terrific book The Bountiful Container.

I've picked up other, more lavishly illustrated container gardening books, with gorgeous color photographs, for just a few dollars on remainder. They're worth almost what I paid for them when it comes to advice for actually producing a significant crop. McGee and Stuckey’s book is packed with useful information, including which vegetables and fruits are worth trying to grow in containers and which are not, which varieties grow best, methods of planting, plant diseases, garden design, and recipes. It’s the only container gardening book I’ve found that is serious about food production.

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