Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last of the Winter Radishes

In the weeks since the last Lettuce update, the temperature has swung from high sixties to low twenties and back up and down again, and we’ve had some good rain. Somewhere in that time-frame, the lettuces all froze, then thawed to little limp clusters of leaves. This is sad, and if I had been clever I could probably have covered them all up and saved them for another week or two, but we’d already eaten most of what was out there, so it could have been worse.

Even with the rain/freeze combination, I have been able to bring in some radishes in the last few days. These are (probably) the last radishes of the winter, but I could be wrong because a few that were planted in the side yard, in new raised beds, are still in the ground. They just never “radished”—they are still skimpy leaves on skinny roots. The radishes that I brought in were mild and tasty, and people here were a bit sad that there weren’t more of the Muncheiner Beer radishes. Those are really good sliced thin and salted. I will have to plant more of them at the next radish-planting time.

Other survivors of the recent freeze/heat cycle are spinach and chicory, and, of course, the other root vegetables that are still out there. Parsnips, rutabagas, and tiny carrots are still doing well, sweetening in the cold and staying fresh without my having to worry about harvest and storage. When I want them, I just have to go out and pull (or dig) them up.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Plan A

Having a plan, a sense of purpose for a veggie garden, can help a gardener stand firm against the nearly irresistible allure of the seed catalogues. Not that there is anything wrong with ordering seeds for the tomato that is “another genuine Russian treasure!… small to medium oval fruits… very juicy and ripen[ing] to a beautiful, deep garnet red color” (Totally Tomatoes 2009 catalogue, page 26, variety Black Prince). However, when so many varieties sound so great, having a plan can help in saving money and using garden space well.

Part of planning is knowing space limitations. In past years, I have had about 315 square feet of space for growing vegetables. Last year, we—well, my husband did all the hardest work—added about 120 more square feet, but in an area that gets more shade. About thirty-five of the original 315 square feet is given over to asparagus, so I won’t be planting anything more there. What this all means is that, for me to grow everything that I want to grow, I have to modify my “wants” and grow only a little of most veggies.

Another consideration when planning is keeping in mind, or maybe in giant letters on a piece of paper tucked into each seed catalogue, the major goals for the garden. For example, At the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry garden where I volunteer, we grow crops that don’t require refrigerated storage and that are easily recognizable and usable by most local citizens (so they will know what to do with the food we grow). If we grow lettuce, it will just wilt before it can be handed out to the people who need food, because the pantry we deliver our produce to doesn’t have facilities to keep foods like lettuce cool. If we grow less well-known veggies like salsify, there is a big chance that the veggies (and effort put into growing them!) will be wasted as few people will know how to prepare them.

As a result, at that garden we grow a lot of tomatoes, peppers, squash, okra, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, and beans. One year, we grew many heirloom varieties of tomatoes. These turned out to be less productive, generally, than the standard hybrids sold in most garden centers, so we went back to growing more of the hybrids. The major goal for that garden is to provide food for as many people as possible, and experimenting with heirlooms wasn’t going to help us meet that particular goal.

Other gardens will have other goals. Some gardens may be intended to provide gourmet varieties or “baby” vegetables that are normally hard to find and/or expensive. Other garden goals may be to provide organically grown foods or special ethnic foods that aren’t available in stores.

For my garden, major goals are that it will save us grocery money and provide some nutritious additions to our meals. In the peak production times of mid-June through mid-September, we don’t have to buy produce at the store, but we do buy some tropical fruits because we like them. We could get by, though, on what is growing in the yard. In the month or so on each side of those dates, we get enough vegetables to eat them often with meals each week. Before that, beginning in April, the garden starts to provide some cool weather veggies-- not enough to brag about, but we get some asparagus, peas, lettuce, spinach, and other greens, at the least. In Fall, we get additional regular but small amounts of the same cool weather crops.

In no way does our garden produce all of our daily calories for any one month, but I have managed to meet my goals most years.

Crops that help meet the “saving money” goal are tomatoes and peppers. We eat a lot of these, and they don’t seem to come down much in price even during peak production times in the summer. Almost everything else out in the garden helps meet the second major goal. Another, less major goal is to eat something from the yard every week of the year, at least a couple of times each week. With the garden being small, this can be tough, but note that I specified “yard,” so that blueberries, one of my most productive crops, are included. Another crop that helps meet this goal is sweet potatoes; they keep in a basket in the kitchen well into Spring. Seminole “pumpkin” squash is another productive veggie in my yard, and it lasts unspoiled for a full year just about anyplace. I usually also manage to freeze and can/bottle some other produce—some of this as jam— so meeting this goal hasn’t been too hard most years.

If I needed to produce more of my family’s calories (and not just vitamins, minerals, and variety) I would grow more root crops, which tend to be fairly calorie and even protein rich, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and parsnips. I already grow some of these, but not enough to feed us all year. That would take a dramatically expanded garden and a different plan.

For now, though, I am proceeding with the usual plan, ordering seeds, working out where each crop will go in the garden to meet crop-rotation needs, and hoping for a non-drought year.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Keeping Track

When my oldest boy looked over my shoulder yesterday and realized that I was updating an Excel spreadsheet of seeds that are stored in our fridge, he laughed. The spreadsheet includes variety name, source (Burpee, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, etc.), year the packet was purchased, cost, and notes I’ve made about some varieties. This level of record-keeping may seem pretty extreme, but the spreadsheet helps me know what I have on hand and what I need to order for this year.

For example, I can see that my packet of Cajun Jewel okra was purchased in 2003. The germination rate on those older seeds may be reduced by now, and I should consider buying a new packet even though it still contains plenty of seeds. The packet has lasted five years because I usually grow only seven or eight okra plants each year; those plants (normally) produce all the okra my husband and I will eat.

Keeping spreadsheets for things like seeds, planting and garden chore activities, and whether a particular variety is worth growing again isn’t too horribly painful. My records aren’t spectacular pieces of prose, but they aren’t meant to be; they are just useful. I wish that I had kept better records for more than just the five or so years that I have them (some years’ records are better than others’).

However, Thomas Jefferson, one of my gardening heroes, kept journals, in non-spreadsheet form, about his garden for more than fifty years. He recorded failures, successes, the dates of planting and harvest; he traded seeds and plants with other gardeners. His garden journals are worth perusing, at the least, and sixty-six pages of his garden writing can be read here . Maybe my re-reading them will help this be a year in which my records are relatively complete!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Let Us Eat Lettuces

Lettuce is a cool weather vegetable that sometimes does well here in the Fall; I say “sometimes” because this Fall hasn’t been the best in terms of the abundance of great lettuce. I am not the only one with this complaint---one of my gardening friends also has been annoyed this Fall by the lack of a spectacular lettuce crop in her garden.

Although this is not really generous of me, I am a bit relieved that I am not the only one with a sad looking lettuce patch. Since we both have the same problem, we have decided to blame the weather---the earlier-than-usual temperatures in the 20s.

However, I am also glad that I planted more than one kind of lettuce. The Bibb lettuce and the Tom Thumb lettuce (my absolute favorite variety) look pretty pathetic, but the Oak Leaf lettuce has performed like a champ, recovering quickly after every hard freeze. The big salads that we have had from the garden (not nearly as many as I would prefer) have been primarily Oak Leaf lettuce, with bits of the other lettuces, spinach, chard, chicory, and radicchio mixed in. Oak Leaf lettuce has also been our primary sandwich lettuce.

Tom Thumb is a baby Bibb, so it should not be a huge surprise to me that, when the regular Bibb failed, Tom Thumb did, too. There is a lesson here, and I hope I remember it: that planting more than one variety, and making sure the varieties really are different, can save my salad.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Seed Catalogues!

The seed catalogues have started to arrive. Already, I've received one each from the Totally Tomatoes, Vermont Bean, and Fedco seed companies. This is a bit like Christmas arriving early. Really, if my husband is ever strapped for a gift idea for me, all he would need to do would be to get to the mail before I do in the four weeks before Christmas, hide the seed catalogues, then wrap them up to give on Christmas day. I would have HOURS of entertainment and be totally thrilled. However, I am plenty glad to see the catalogues early, especially this year.

Although I haven't seen confirmation of this trend for the U.S., in the U.K. last year sales of vegetable seeds increased quite a bit over the previous year. According to this article , the increase in sales off racks at stores was 60% above sales for 2007. It seems reasonable that the increase was not isolated to the U.K., and if the economic situation doesn't improve as Spring arrives, demand for veggie seeds could be even higher this year.

With this in mind, I plan to order earlier than usual, to increase the likelihood that the varieties I want will be in stock. Last year, my favorite pea variety was out of stock by the time I ordered (late January), but I had enough left from the previous year's packet to get by. The rutabega that I was hoping to try also was out of stock, so I have a substitute variety out in the yard. Luckily, I have never grown---or eaten!---rutabegas before, so when these are finally ready to eat, I won't have any paragon of rutabega-ness to compare to, so they will probably be fine.
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