Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Successes & Failures: Part I

During the last couple of years there has been a proliferation of news articles on gardening for food production. Some focus on producing healthier food locally, but others on the bad economy and the money-saving potential of raising some of your own fruits and vegetables. One news story from last year that stayed with me featured a woman who reported that she spent just $50 on seeds and supplies to start a garden and expected the value of her harvest to far exceed that.

I always wonder how many of those people are still at it a year later. Because the truth is that gardening to produce a substantial return on your investment of money and labor takes time. Time to build up your soil. Time to learn where in the microclimate that is your particular garden to best grow which vegetables and fruits. Time to learn which cultivars are most successful for you – and which you prefer to eat. Time to learn how to deal with the pests that plague your part of the country. Time to figure out the best strategies for succession planting and maximizing production in small spaces.

I planted my first garden in 1981 when I was living in Washington state and have gardened off and on since then. I raised vegetables in my first garden; in some years I just grew flowers and herbs. Some years I lived in an apartment and had only a few pots on the deck or patio. But I always grew something. I began the project of learning to grow a substantial proportion of our fruits and vegetables last year. I realized then that despite all those years of hobby gardening, I still have a lot to learn – including patience – which is the hardest for me to master!

So, as I did last year, it’s time this year to sit down and assess what worked, and what didn’t, what I learned, what different strategies I want to try next year, where I will plant which vegetable, and so on. I’ll do it in two posts, starting with failures, so I can end this exercise on a positive note!

I’m chagrined to report that I failed spectacularly with a usually easy-to-grow family of vegetables. I planted buttercup, spaghetti squash, and scaloppini squash and pie pumpkin. I have ONE buttercup squash, ZERO scaloppini, TWO tiny spaghetti squash (of which one got brown spots and had to be removed and laid to rest last week) and just ONE small pie pumpkin. What happened?

To begin with, I only planted one each of these squash. Big mistake – if you only plant one, and it doesn’t produce, you get zip. Another factor contributing to low production is that I squeezed these in where I could. The original plan was to build one or two more raised beds, but building the chicken coop took all our available time, money, and energy. So I tucked these vegetables in where I could. Last year I had more zucchini than I knew what to do with, dozens of perfect yellow crookneck squash, and large, gorgeous pie pumpkins. The pumpkins were so big I got a pie, a batch of muffins, and a bit left over for a small pot of soup from each one!

But last year’s squash were planted in raised beds Rick built that year and that we filled with good quality, purchased garden soil. This year’s scallopini and spaghetti squash were planted in the bed with the poorest soil. It’s next to the garage, and the previous owners had for years covered it with heavy landscape fabric and gravel. It was practically like busting concrete to even turn the soil the first year. Then last year it was heavily infested with earwigs. We got that under control, but it still is the least productive of all our beds. (I’ll write more about what we’re doing to build up the soil in a future post.)

The buttercup squash and pumpkin were also planted in less than ideal soil. The prior owners had a large portion of the backyard professionally landscaped, mostly with ornamental shrubs, but including some perennial flowers. Gradually we’ve been taking most of them out to make room for fruits and vegetables. For years, this area had been heavily mulched with free bark produced by the city from shredded tree branches. In some places it’s difficult to even turn a spade in the soil because of the deep layers of decaying bark. I planted the pumpkin and buttercup squash in some of the most improved parts of this previously bark-mulched area, but clearly this soil still needs some building.

Finally, I think the cool weather also stunted the productivity of these warm-weather vegetables. If I had it to do over, I’d have kept them under hot caps longer. My plan this winter is to build some cold frames using old windows given to us by a neighbor.

Sweet peppers
Like the squash, these were a victim of cool weather and my planting them out too soon. I grew beautiful, sturdy, healthy plants from seeds under grow lights in the house. But I put them out too soon, without protection. (Note to self: Even if it’s after the official last frost date, WAIT until the weather truly warms, OR use a cold frame.) After awhile, they looked sickly, and insects attacked them. At this point, I have two of the original eight left. The banana peppers are really starting to be productive – we’ve had a half dozen of them already and more are developing. We have ONE green pepper near ready to harvest on the other plant.

I’m seriously considering growing them in clay pots next year. I’ve had a lot of success doing that with the chiles. The sweet peppers appear to be more vulnerable to cool weather than even tomatoes.

Another easy-to-grow vegetable that I have been successful with in the past (good grief, who can’t grow beans???) but managed to bungle this year. My excuse here? During an unusually cool summer, I tried some new (to me) cultivars, that appear to be more tender than the beans I’ve grown in the past.

We had loads and loads of beans last year and ended up freezing at least a dozen bags. However, it seemed that no matter how early we tried picking them, they were always a bit stringy. So this year I tried some Green Snap Tenderpod and some Stringless French Filet. The Snap Tenderpod packet advised planting extra beans because this cultivar has a lower germination rate than other beans. They weren’t kidding! I thought I planted enough to account for this, but apparently not. I got a somewhat better germination rate from the Stringless French Filet.

Another difference is that these beans are bush beans and so require continuous plantings. (The nice thing about pole beans is that you plant them once, train them up a trellis or teepee of poles, and they keep producing). I failed to keep up with the continuous planting.

The beans we did get are wonderful – exactly what I wanted. Slender pods, very tender and delicious. I will plant the Stringless French Filet again next year, but this time, sow plenty of extra seeds, mark the calendar to remember successive plantings, and use cold frames.

Until last year, I had never planted onions, and assumed they would be easy to grow. But last year’s crop was a dismal failure. This year was somewhat more successful. I managed to actually harvest some onions, but they are just medium to small in size. I had, what is in retrospect, the really bone-headed idea to plant onions around the perimeter of a raised bed. Why I didn’t realize that the tops would constantly get bumped and knocked about when tending the raised bed, I do not know. I think if I just plant them where they aren’t in the way next year, I should finally be successful with this vegetable.

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