Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Sustainable Garden

In a recent survey, the state’s Master Gardeners indicated that they’d like to know more about sustainable gardening.  One big hurdle will be figuring out exactly what “sustainable gardening” means!

Some gardeners are going to want to see a focus on ecological sustainability – such that the garden’s soil develops a healthy mix of microbial and other life, and as many pests as possible are “handled” by resident populations of beneficial organisms. Such a garden might rely a lot on things like cover crops, local composts, and crop rotation and use very little in the way of purchased inputs, while staying as far away from any non-renewable resources as possible.

However, there will also be a group that prefers to emphasize that a sustainable garden is one that the gardener can most easily create and maintain. The selected inputs are reasonably priced, the planning and physical workload are easily manageable, but the garden still produces plenty of the desired foods. Non-renewable inputs are used prudently, but they definitely have a place in this version.

And then there's probably a group that will not consider a garden to be sustainable if it can't be maintained productively through a serious hard time (think "zombie apocolypse"). This group might (I don't know for sure) use a mix of several strategies, ranging from keeping a stash of stored inorganic nutrients and other inputs for just-in-case, to the setting up of composting toilets as a source of nutrients and organic matter.

All will agree, I think, that a sustainable garden should be sized so that the gardener isn’t overwhelmed by the work of maintaining it. After all, if the garden is over-run with weeds, or if it becomes like a deep dark pit into which money and time disappear, the gardener may opt to “throw in the trowel” and return the space to something like turf. The overly-consumptive garden isn’t at all sustainable.

A garden also can't continue if its soils become depleted of nutrients.The most easily obtained (for urban and suburban gardeners, anyway) and inexpensive inputs tend to be inorganic fertilizers, like a bag of 10-10-10. Over time, though, if not enough is done to improve - or even just maintain - soil health, yields will drop. Our experience at the Plant-A-Row-For-the-Hungry garden shows that fairly well.

In the first several years we mulched with newspaper and fallen leaves (saved over the winter for use in spring and summer), and we followed fertilizer recommendations that came with our soil test results. Over those several years, yields dropped a little very year. Then, we switched to organic sources of nutrients and grew a winter cover crop of Austrian Winter peas. After just one winter, yields went back up to almost as high as those in the very first year of the garden. Talk about a turnaround!

The original plan/method turned out to be not sustainable in terms of the garden's continuing productivity - but the 50 pound bag of kelp meal wasn't cheap, and we had to travel a ways to find the giant bag of cover-crop peas for our 4,000 sq. ft. garden. If we had had a tighter budget, the garden might have suffered for another year.

It's a pretty safe bet that there will be huge areas of disagreement in what a sustainable garden would look like - or whether it's even possible to create one - and in the end, creating a garden that is acceptably sustainable is probably going to require a bit of a balancing act. It probably also will look different for different gardeners.

In the near term, my mostly-organic, home vegetable garden is an OK size. I can manage its ~350 sq. ft. of various beds mostly on my own, and it provides a decent amount of food for my family.

Some years, I am less good about managing it in a way that requires fewer inputs, because the environmentally sustainable way, the way that builds soil organic matter and encourages a diverse and abundant liveliness within the soil, usually requires some planning. It requires cover crops, as much compost as my yard can deliver, and good crop rotations;  it requires planning for pollinators and habitat for beneficial insects; it requires enough forethought to get the nutrients into the soil soon enough that the microbial life can make it available to transplants, and more.

Even in my best, most "on" years, when all the planning happens and when I actually manage to follow through, I'm not sure the whole enterprise is completely sustainable - but the food is good, being out-of-doors is great, and for me, anyway, it's close enough.

Friday, October 26, 2012

State of the Garden Report

It's been a great year for peppers in my yard, but the season is just about at its close.

We'll be pulling up the pepper plants (see pathetic plants in photo below) this weekend, because the cool nights have taken their toll on the heat-loving plants. It won't help that the forecast includes a dip down into the mid-thirties within the next few days.

Other plants due for removal this weekend include the last of the eggplants.

If all goes well, I'll get the garlic planted - it's time - but it's probably better if I don't absolutely count on getting that done.

At this point, most of my cool-weather crops are looking very promising. The broccoli will be big enough to harvest soon!

The extra-cold weather heading my way can only help.  There are enough of these in the garden this year to make several good meals-worth of the central heads.

If this winter is anything like last winter and we don't get any hard freezes (with temperatures down into the teens or below), we could get more meals from the little side-shoots, too.

Joe, though, is looking forward to the cabbage harvest. He LOVES sauerkraut, and last year he wasn't able to make enough from the cabbage that was available.

This year, we have a dozen of our own plants to add to any harvested from the little farm where we volunteer on the weekends.

He will have to wait a few more weeks for the cabbage, but the first heads should be ready by Thanksgiving. At our house, the best batches of sauerkraut are the ones that are made in cooler weather. I don't know if that is because the whole process procedes at a slower pace or if it's because the mix of bacteria/fungi in the air is different.

Regardless, we've figured out that he needs to make his sauerkraut in fall, rather than in spring, even though we can grow cabbages that mature in April.

We've been eating some of the lettuces and spinach (not pictured), too. I've fed some of the tiny lettuces - that were pulled to thin the bed - to my bunnies, but I'm planning for most of the lettuce to feed the humans in the house.

This year's carrot patch is looking like it could be the best I've ever planted in this yard. If I am really lucky, next year when it's time to plant the fall carrots I'll be able to decipher my notes about what I did with the soil to make this happen. It's always great to be able to replicate a success.

Weather reports are calling for some fairly stunning storms (can I use the plural form, when what's really supposed to happen is a collision/combination of two?) north and east of here. I'm hoping for the best possible outcome for everyone in the affected areas!

May your hatches be safely battened down, your larders and water-stores sufficient to meet the need, and everyone make it through un-injured.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Bok Choy! (or, Pak Choi!)

Regardless of how we're spelling it, this cool weather veggie is great in stir fries, and we had one of these beautiful plants in our stir fry last night.

Some of the other cool weather crops are getting close to harvest size, too. I know that plenty of gardeners would already have harvested some lettuces from my lettuce plants by now, and also some of the spinach, but I like for the leaves to be larger and sturdier.

The broccoli is starting to make tiny heads, too. If I had noticed their progress earlier - before dusk - I would have taken a photo to add to the post.

After the (late) tour to check on how the garden was doing and picking peppers for tonight's (late) supper, I planted some veggies that I had bought for a demonstration for work. There was one kale (Winterbor hybrid), one cilantro, and nine or so Red Sails lettuces, all of which I planted by streetlamp-light. There are some tiny new broccoli plants still to go, and I'm hoping to get those planted after work tomorrow.

Hope everyone else's gardens are doing well!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A "Good Year" for Chipmunks

If I had been purposely growing chipmunks this year, I'm pretty sure I could say that I had a bumper crop. I am not alone in this. At least part of the problem was the drought. Chipmunks (and squirrels in some people's yards) all figured out that the gardens were watered and full of moisture-laden produce, which they proceeded to munch on.

The situation could have been worse. In some yards, chipmunks (and/or other pestiferous mammals) took one or two bites out of nearly every tomato produced. At least my tomatoes were spared!  Here in my yard, it turns out that the chipmunks pretty much stuck with the sweet potatoes.

Today was fairly warm, and we've been without rain for several days - all good for harvesting sweet potatoes -  so I dug the sweets up this afternoon. Every plant had at least one big potato with significant munching damage.

It's hard to complain about the approximately 22 pounds of good sweets that I was able to put into the basket to bring in, but  I couldn't help thinking (somewhat wistfully) of one really spectacular year for sweets, years ago, when the plants averaged something like 6 pounds each of total production.

Is it like that for everyone? Do we all look back, with a little regret or longing, thinking about that one really great harvest year, even though the current harvest is absolutely fine? Twenty-two pounds of sweet potatoes will take us pretty far into the winter; it seems like "sour grapes" to complain, but there was that one year...

The sweets I brought in still need to be set up for curing. That typically involves either our small space heater or a small lamp with an incandescent bulb (they get nice and toasty), but I'm not sure yet how to set that up in the new arrangement of my house. Everything is just a little bit different.

One way or another, it will get done, because curing the sweets in a warm place does amazing things to the flavor, but the exact set-up is yet-to-be-determined.

Here's hoping that everyone else had a great year for sweet potatoes and a less-than-good-year for chipmunks!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Not Quite Summer, Not Quite Fall

Even though the summer harvest season is nearing its conclusion, there's still a bit more out in the garden to bring in. Last night and tonight we have temperatures down into the forties (degrees F), which peppers and eggplants in particular don't appreciate. Their leaves all looked a little droopy this morning, so I am guessing that it's nearly time to pull those plants from the garden.

My eggplants haven't done as well this year as last, but the peppers have been performing like champs in more gardens than just mine. Gardeners all over the county are just about bursting with joy over the peppers. I am pretty sure I'm not alone in having many bags of chopped peppers in the freezer and many jars of dehydrated pepper-bits on the pantry shelves to make sure we're well-seasoned all winter long.

This massive storage of peppers is in addition to the numerous peppers that we have eaten grilled, stuffed with cheese, just "on the side" of a plate of salad, Mexican-style beans & rice, and (on a very good day) mole' chicken.

My little family is enjoying its late-summer fling with green beans, too. The little patch that I planted in August, that got tromped through by the workmen who were paying more attention to our house repairs than where they were walking (hard to complain about that ...), has provided quite a few meals-worth of beans. They've been delicious!

The fall-planted garden will be providing more food for us soon. I'm hoping for a little more seasonal-overlap than just radishes, but we'll see how it goes. Hope everyone else's gardens are doing well!
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