Friday, August 28, 2009

Successes & Failures: Part II

There are two good reasons for always including “sure bet” cultivars in your Backyard Nest Egg. One, obviously, is to ensure that you actually produce something to eat, even if the weather doesn’t cooperate or the stars don’t align properly that year. The other is the psychological boost you get from successfully producing food for the table.

That’s why I advise people who are starting their first garden to plant at least a few cultivars that are easy to grow. Otherwise, I’m afraid they might give up. There’s nothing like success, or even a partial success, to hook a person into trying again next year. I can’t be the only gardener, who at the end of every summer thinks, next year, this garden will be FANTASTIC. I can’t wait to show it off!

I have a neighbor with a gorgeous garden, all ornamentals, but beautifully laid out and cared for, with a huge koi pond he built himself. It looks like something you’d see at a professional botanical garden. But, according to him, it’s not “finished.” He still has a long list of projects to work on. His wife said she finally grew exasperated, and told him, “It’ll never be done! Let’s just invite people over already!” I relate this as a cautionary tale – it may happen to you, once you start gardening and get a few successes under your belt!

I planted carrots in a large planter box on the deck. Because I’m still trying to find a cultivar I really like, and they take awhile to grow, I didn’t want to commit too much space to them just yet. My first planting was ruined by squirrels and chipmunks rampaging through the planter box. These varmints are a serious problem around here. We got the rabbits under control by building a fence and staple-gunning chicken wire to it. But the squirrels and chipmunks party on! They appear to especially love digging through soft, freshly turned soil. However, once the plants are established, they usually leave them alone. I covered my second planting with chicken wire, and now have a very healthy crop of carrots that should be ready to harvest soon.

In an earlier post, I wrote about
my success with chiles, so I won’t continue bragging here, lest I bore my readers. I’ll just note again, that the key, in this cooler-than-usual-summer, was that I grew them in clay pots. I harvested enough for many batches of fresh salsa over the summer, and even canned a small batch last week-end. (Oooops! Guess I couldn’t help myself with the bragging!) It was my first year growing poblanos, and I found them less productive than the Anaheims and jalapeños. The poblanos started strong, but then growth slowed and the size of the peppers declined. My solution for next year is to grow a few additional poblanos, and put them in larger pots.

In my earlier post about chiles, I also reported
success with eggplant in a clay pot.
However, as with the poblanos, production and fruit size declined as the summer wore on. These, too, will get a larger pot next year.

I tried Butterking lettuce this year, and it grew beautifully. We had more lettuce than we knew what to do with, even though I planted two groups of seeds two weeks apart. I decided that next year I would grow individual lettuces in small pots. I’ll plant them at different times to spread out the harvest, and plant more varieties of lettuce. Using small pots will also allow me to move them to cooler spots once the weather warms up. The goal here is to delay bolting and extend the lettuce season.

I’ve also
written about our potato success in an earlier post. (Isn’t it interesting how many posts about successes manage to get written?) I feel really blessed with the potatoes, given the late blight that has plagued potato crops in many parts of the country this year, including Wisconsin. I grew Red Norlands and German butterballs. I have one more patch of Red Norlands yet to be harvested, and so far, no sign of blight. We were so thrilled with our success in growing potatoes in large pots, we’re going to try growing even more in potato towers next year.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about our
success with the Juliet tomatoes. The Amish paste and Beefsteak tomatoes have finally started ripening. I have many fruits on all these cultivars, but the Beefsteak are nowhere near Beefsteak size. I’m guessing the cool weather was the problem here. Given the cool summer, and the late blight afflicting tomatoes this year, I consider our tomato crop a raging success. I canned a small batch of salsa with our tomatoes last week-end and expect to can at least one more batch, as well as a large batch of pizza sauce.

I debated whether to list herbs as a success. They’re fairly easy to grow, and I have more experience growing them than any other type of plant. Even in years when I lived in an apartment, I always grew herbs. So is it cheating to count them as a success? I don’t know. What I can say is that my herb garden is full and lush. I have rosemary, thyme, sage, lemon verbena, oregano, chives, parsley, cilantro, and mint.

Here I include a few words about plants that appear to be doing well, but are too early in their development to be called “successes.”

· Asparagus. I planted my first ever asparagus crop this year. They got off to a slow start, but are looking healthy now.

· Apples. We planted two columnar apple trees this year that are leafing out beautifully and have doubled in size.

· Blueberries. We planted dwarf blueberry bushes in raised beds last year. They started off well, but later looked anemic. Eventually I learned that I needed to correct the pH and add iron. The bushes perked up right away, but I’m going to have my soil tested again. Blueberries require acid soil – it’s a little tricky to get it right when your soil is not naturally acidic. (Hence, the raised beds, to better control soil pH.)

The books recommend removing all the blossoms the first couple of years to promote root and foliar development. There were loads of blossoms on them this year, but I pulled them off, especially because the shrubs didn’t look as healthy as I’d like. However, I must have missed a few blossoms, because we found four ripe berries later. We ate them – they were sweet and delicious! I have high hopes for next year’s crop.

· Raspberries. We planted summer-bearing raspberry canes last year and were rewarded with some fruit this year. Summer-bearing raspberries fruit on the previous year’s canes. Since we just had a few small canes from the initial planting, we got a small crop of berries. This year, lots of healthy new canes developed. With any luck, we’ll have more berries than we know what to do with next summer.

· Strawberries. I planted strawberries last year, and although they were moderately successful, I wasn’t satisfied. The cultivar I planted was second choice – they were out of what I wanted at the garden center – and I planted them in a large planter box. Strawberries are often depicted as a great plant for a container, but my experience last year indicated otherwise. This year, I planted the cultivar I wanted, in a special bed in the ground. They look amazing. If all goes well, we should have a great crop in the spring.

· Sweet potatoes. These require a long growing season, so most cultivars probably cannot be successfully grown in Wisconsin. However, I heard about a cultivar called Porto Rico that is supposed to do well in northern climates. I couldn’t find it locally, so ordered some slips from a seed catalog. When they arrived they were limp, light green, partially brown pieces of plant tissue. I couldn’t believe they’d actually grow, but I planted some in a large container.

Only one survived, and for a long time I felt like I was watering a dead plant. Eventually, improbably, it started to grow leaves. It’s now a lush, beautiful plant, but it got going too late. I doubt there are any sweet potatoes of any significant size in the pot. However, I now have healthy plant material to save for next year. I’ll follow Denckla’s advice in The Gardener’s A-Z guide to Growing Organic Food for harvesting and rooting plant material for the next crop.

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