Saturday, December 31, 2011

Year's Ending, and Beginning

Here at the end of the year, and the end of a warm December, the garden still has plenty to offer. I've brought in this cauliflower to go with the dip for tonight's celebration. We usually go in for more healthful meals, but we are making that Velveeta Cheese and Rotel Tomato dip to go with a lot of fresh veggies (I have carrots and broccoli, too). Of course, I also bought a bag of chips...

Overall, this year's garden seems to have been successful. We certainly still have plenty of dehydrated tomatoes, even though we've been using them every week, ten or so jars of jam, half a basket of sweet potatoes, squash and green beans in the freezer, and more.

However, some of the squash and a lot of the green beans are actually from a local farm where we go to help out on the weekends. This is the first year of our working there, but we have been getting "paid" in produce. Tonight's carrots, for example, are from my friend's farm. That extra produce has made it harder to judge the relative success of my own garden.

To help keep better track of how much food I am able to bring to the kitchen from the yard, I really am going to weigh most of it (at least, I hope I remember to weigh most of it). Tonight's cauliflower, which won't actually count since this is still 2011, weighs 510 kg, which is 1.12 pounds. Seeing it on the scale made my gardener's heart happy. I will be happier still to see it being eaten!

The scale is going to stay on the kitchen counter as a reminder. Right now, out in the yard, there is a little more broccoli (side shoots), another big cauliflower and one little one, some winter radishes, a few carrots, an assortment of greens, several parsnips, several beets, a few lettuces, and herbs. The onions and garlic that will be harvested in 2012 are already out there, too, but most of what gets harvested in the coming year will be planted in that year.

The scale isn't sensitive enough for lighter harvests, so when we bring in little bits of food, like a few lettuce leaves for sandwiches or a sprig of rosemary for the roasted root veggies (for example), those won't be weighed to add to the year's total, but I think that's not going to make a big difference in what my Mom would call "the grand scheme of things."

I know that a lot of gardeners already have been tracking their total harvests for several years, and I have always admired their persistence in getting the task done. Let's hope I can manage it!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Nonconforming Freely

A casual perusal of my blog will show pretty clearly that my garden is right out in the front yard. The backyard is dark with trees, so I didn't have many options for garden location when I set out to grow my own veggies. There are a lot of neighborhoods, though, where this choice would be a major problem.

One of my friends gave me a great little book over the holidays that, on one page in particular, illuminates the reason behind so many neighborhoods' lawn-care rules. The book is "Weeds," by Richard Mabey, and this is the relevant passage about lawns in the United States:

The pressure to conform to orthodox standards of lawn perfection are huge. There are no hedges to hide behind. Your tolerance of a tuft of plantain is not just a sign of your own slovenliness, but a public insult to your neighbors. Your lawn is a visible extension of the whole community's proudly maintained estate. If you default on its maintenance, you have opted out of the social contract. (page 175)

A big, nonconforming square of corn out in the front yard is probably a much larger blight on a "proudly maintained estate" than a few tufts of narrow-leaf plantain! Luckily for me, the social contract in my neighborhood isn't a formal document that lays out rules concerning appearance beyond keeping that lawn below ten inches high and not using the lawn as a parking lot.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Early winter in my Southern garden

With all the summer crops gone and the fall crops just scattered here and there, things are looking pretty bare in the garden, but there are a few spots of color. The tall chrysanthemums, that have flopped over onto the sage and oregano, are still in bloom. It will take temperatures lower than 29 F to stop those flowers!

The broccoli is doing what it's supposed to: keeping on making little side shoots after the main head of florets has been harvested.

The garlic has settled in nicely, sending up the shoots that will remain all winter, continuing to grow on days when the weather warms. Way in the background of the photo is the first patch of onions, planted from little dry bulbs. In another part of the garden I planted some slender green "sets" that a friend gave me. He had ordered 2,000 from a place in south Georgia, and we had a few left over after planting two big beds out at his place.

We've been using the cilantro on "taco night," so there isn't as much here as if I had just left it alone, but we grow it to use it. If last year's success repeats, by spring this patch will be amazingly tall and lush.

The Camellia japonica has been in bloom since about Thanksgiving. When the temperatures drop to more wintry levels, the flowers will turn all brown and mushy, but here in the early winter, we get to enjoy the pink. I have one of these flowers in a little vase in the kitchen window, to enjoy while I work. I like this plant even though it isn't edible. (If I grew the tea Camellia, I could use the leaves in the kitchen, but my Camellia japonica came with the house. It's more than 25 years old.)

Things have slowed way down in the garden, but there is still plenty going on. We've been eating the winter radishes, using the lettuces and spinach for salads, stir-frying the bok choy, adding the collards and kale to soups and watching the chicory as it begins to form heads. A gardener's life is never dull, and when all goes as planned, there are healthful veggies to add to meals every day. As the name of a particular seasonal movie proclaims - It's a wonderful life!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gardening for the harried

In the summertime, the traditional Southern garden staples - tomatoes, peppers, squash, green beans, cucumbers, and okra - all need to be picked and processed (either eaten, frozen, canned, fermented, dehydrated, or given away) on a schedule that is all their own (constantly!); the plants need to be kept watered, which in a drought can be a huge chore, and the plants need to be checked for pests and diseases fairly frequently. Sometimes, those pests and diseases require some kind of immediate action on the part of a gardener.

If that gardener has about a million other responsibilities at the same time, he or she can go nuts trying to keep up.

As a gardener with a job, family, friends, and volunteer work (and the blog!) all needing to be fitted into my daily life, I can understand when some people just give up on the garden, which can be seen as that “last straw” for a person who already is struggling to get everything done.

I am lucky in having family and friends who are happy to help when my schedule gets overwhelming, but not every gardener has that backup. For even the most harried of gardeners, though, there are food-plants that can be grown with a bare minimum of work on the part of the gardener.

For the truly stressed-out gardener living here in the South, I would choose the sweet potato as the easiest-to-grow garden crop. In my area, there is a big window of opportunity for planting, stretching from around May 10 to June 10 or even later. For a gardener who has trouble finding time to plant, this is a great gift. It is likely that somewhere in that four or five weeks, a planting day can be found.

Sweet potatoes will be plenty productive with just one side dressing of fertilizer that can be applied anytime within four to seven weeks after planting. The big window of time, again, is great for busy gardeners who can’t always manage to get the gardening done in a tighter time frame.

The plants don’t have to be watered two or three times each week; one really good drenching once every ten days to two weeks is enough for astonishingly good production.

The crop is relatively disease and pest free, and after the vines have spread across the garden, very few weeds survive the dense shade created by the leaves. Not having to weed is another great gift to the busy gardener.

The harvest window for sweet potatoes is as big as the planting window. As long as the plants have been in the ground for around 110 days, they just need to be dug up before the first frost. If I get my sweet potato slips into the ground in late May, I can dig them up anytime from the last week in September to the last week in October. If one week is too busy, I can wait for the next one.

I keep my harvested sweet potatoes in a wicker laundry basket in the kitchen. There is no canning, dehydrating, fermenting, or freezing necessary to preserve the harvest. The spuds are handy to use whenever I want them, and they keep for months without any extra effort on my part.

The harried gardener who has planted sweet potatoes will have plenty to smile about all winter long: a harvest of healthful food from his or her own garden, and it required hardly any work at all!

Other root crops are also easy-on-the-gardener, but not quite as easy as sweet potatoes. Potatoes, onions, and garlic all are time-savers in terms of their being harvested all at once and not requiring elaborate processing in order to “keep” for several months, but those crops need a little more tending.

“White” potatoes need more watering than sweet potatoes, and they will also need to be hilled-up and given a fertilizer boost at least once in their growing season. When white potatoes are harvested, they just go into a basket over which I will drape some towels to exclude the light. However, they are more prone to pests and diseases, which means they need to be checked fairly frequently while they are growing. If the gardener has to leave town for a week or two, this crop will need a minder, unlike sweet potatoes that will be fine on their own.

I have onions and garlic growing now, and there will be some weeding to do (some chickweed has started coming up between the plants), and they will need a fertilizer boost at some point, but otherwise the most they will need in terms of my attention is for me to remember to go out and harvest them in spring (onions) and early summer (garlic).

The harvest window is a little tighter than for potatoes, but onions and garlic left in the ground a week or two after the tops have fallen over and begun to dry will be fine, as long as the ground isn’t wet.

The onions I don’t eat right away will keep for quite a while if I’ve remembered to leave them spread out in the shade to dry for a couple of days before bringing them inside. Garlic is easier to peel if it’s been left to dry for several weeks, but that isn’t much of a drawback.

For gardeners who are not quite so harried, cool weather crops are a good choice (leaving summer to the sweet potatoes). In fall and spring, less time needs to be spent watering since there is usually more rain. Right now, for example, my yard is squishy with rain.

Cooler weather means that crops are growing more slowly, but weeds are growing more slowly, too, reducing time that needs to be spent weeding.

Even more helpful - a lot of cooler weather crops can be left in the ground and harvested when needed. The parsnips, carrots, beets, and winter radishes that I have growing now are good examples, and so are leafy greens like collards and kale. Most of the winter, I can go out and harvest what I need, when I need it.

There is some weeding to do, and the plants will need a fertilizer boost or two, but there isn’t as much “tending” as in the hot summer months, and the plants won’t go to seed until warmer weather returns in the early spring. That leaves a pretty big harvesting window, and if the plants are left for a week or two or three without any attention at all, they’ll probably be fine.

Broccoli plants will begin to flower if left unattended too long, and so will cabbages and cauliflower, so those cool weather crops probably are not great choices for gardeners whose other commitments make finding time for gardening more difficult.

Gardening does take some time, and for the most busy among us that can be a big problem, but for me it is worth the effort on a lot of levels. I like having produced some food for my family that I know is healthful; it helps that the food is cheap to grow; when I work in the yard, I’m getting exercise that I know I need; being outside is good for my vitamin D levels, and I like that the time spent outside has also been productive; sometimes, when I am having trouble thinking of what to make for supper, the garden supplies the inspiration – and ingredients – that I need; and my family eats a lot more vegetables than if we didn’t have the garden, because there is no way I’m going to waste the effort of having grown the food by letting it rot away unused. There are more reasons, but that’s probably enough for now.

In addition to enjoying the relatively easier-to-come-by fruits of the fall gardening season, this is a good time to do a little planning for the 2012 garden. The seed catalogs are starting to arrive and the yard-work is at a minimum (assuming the fallen leaves have already been moved to the compost). Thinking now about how much time will be available to work in the garden could help prevent some major stress and loss of crops in next year's garden.

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