A Winter Garden

Things are well underway. Most of the winter/spring crops are in the ground and so far doing well. I decided to move the schedule up a bit and see just how much I could overwinter. All these crops have done well so far. Planting garlic, onions and strawberries in the fall for spring harvest is not that unusual, but I have never tried any other veggies on a serious basis. After watching the success of a volunteer spinach plant that sprouted in the fall of 2022, lived through the winter and put on a lot of growth as soon as there was just a hint of spring in the air, I decided that I might go all in on ‘winter’ garden. So I started and planted out kohlrabi, spinach, lettuce, mustard, kale and fava beans. The weather so far has been mild and all the plants are doing well, and in some cases better than I expected. There is a lot of lettuce that is ready to be harvested. I am hoping it will just hang out at least for a couple of months. I think the lettuce will be fine until there are some really warm days, maybe mid March, and then there might be some bolting. It will be interesting to see how the other veg does. I am even thinking there may be time to slip in some catch crops if I can time it right. I have a few ideas that I am working on incorporating, but this is a learning year. Of course, isn’t every year a learning year?




Max Dogwood

There are a lot of little things going on in the garden that hint at the spring days ahead. The dogwood is the big undeniable thing, shouting that Spring has arrived. When we first moved in, there may have been a bloom or two that first spring. As the trees have been thinned out and the tree has gotten more sun, it has responded with a big show. If I had begun this garden as a blank canvas, this is not the location I would have placed this tree. But it is the one tree in the entire yard I have never contemplated cutting down. Everything else has to work around it.



February Flashback

Although only two or three days shorter than other months, February always seems to fly by. Of course I was busy and even though I wanted to to grab some pictures and post a few, no posting happened. I did manage to snap a couple of pictures, but not as many as I should have. Spring has really taken hold and I love finding all her surprises while wandering around the garden. There was also work to do. I had a crew come and cut down a couple of trees and trim a few others. They left me with these nice piles of firewood and wood chips. I’ll have to wait a while to put the firewood to use, but the chips are spread around the front yard and things are looking tidy.

Bigger than it looks!
Wood chips down, daffodils up!

Although I admire the joyfulness of daffodils announcing spring, the elegant Lenten rose is the first flower in my garden to shake off its winter slumber. I am always glad to see it bloom.

Helleborus ‘Frost Kiss Moondance’

Another flower that surprised me in February was this peach. This tree is a volunteer from the compost pile and seems to like the spot it has made home. I am not sure when I first noticed it, maybe it is 5 years old now. I’d love to get a peach (or two!) off of it, but it is in a shady spot, so I am not getting my hopes up. The flowers are a beautiful and welcome surprise, nonetheless.

A Spring Surprise

February flew by and March seems to be on the same pace. I have been busy in the garden, both planting and building. This time of year is always so hopeful. I know the garden I am going to get in a few months time is nothing like the garden I have been planning all winter. Spring is here, though, and it is time to see what happens when my plans and Mother Nature collide!

Spring Plans

I sketched out my planting plans a couple of months ago so I could go ahead and order any seeds I needed. Of course I was well aware that things could change, but I was feeling pretty good that I had made thoughtful, well reasoned choices. I am focusing a lot on the Spring season this year. Previously I had limited the Spring plants because I wanted to get the warm season plants in and then out for the Fall plants. But Fall is terrible in this garden, too much shade and too many bugs, and sometimes that doesn’t matter because it is just too hot to get the seeds started anyway. So the plan is to let Spring ride for a while and get the Summer crops in later than in the past and try to keep them producing for longer. Basically I am abandoning the Fall season, though I’ll probably put out some kind of cover crop if there is open space due to whatever complication (insects, weather, rabbit, deer, etc.) arises. So I filled the Spring plan with a couple of my recent winners and a couple of new items, like kohlrabi and shelling peas, ordered the seeds and was ready to go.

I started planting this weekend. Of course, this being the second year of this ‘full’ garden, I had no idea how many seeds I needed. Usually a pack of seeds might last 2 or 3 seasons. Unfortunately, the peas I got only filled about a quarter to a third of the space allotted. I wasn’t going to purchase more seeds. I was looking through my bin of old seed for alternatives, when I had my genius idea of the week. I’d planted a few strawberries in a shady front bed where not much grew as a ground cover. Of course they took the place over in a couple of years. They flower and send runners everywhere and I see some fruit which of course always disappears before I can get to it. But what if I dug some of those plants and moved them the garden on plastic the way the pros do? Spread them out, protect them? Worth it? I guess I’ll find out. A harmless experiment. Around here the PYO strawberry places run for about the month of May, so I’m hoping I can get a few strawberries around that time and then be able to move them out. Sweet Potatoes go in these beds for the Summer so they’ll have to share the space for a month or two, but it should work out OK.

strawberries planted on black plastic
Very Professional!

I love being able to make changes in the garden and try new things. Although things don’t always work out, I learn and move on. Maybe my experiments are more successful than they used to be, maybe not. It is nice to think I might be getting better at this gardening thing, but it doesn’t take long to be brought back to reality when the season really gets going!

Spring!

This time of year I am full of optimism about the garden. It is full of life and energy, and I love walking around seeing all the plants waking up!

Already going strong:
Plenty of lettuce
Cilantro
Cabbage
Garlic
Peas
Onions
Carrots and Radishes just starting to come up

I harvest herbs – green onions, parsley, thyme, oregano and mint all through the winter, but it is now time to start harvesting some lettuce. I have tried to keep track of my harvest in the past and have failed to do it consistently so that is really going to be a focus this year.

Still early but things are growing!

It is going to be a good year!
Future blueberries

A Plan

I am starting this year with a plan.  I won’t say I never start the garden without a plan, but I usually don’t start with a well thought out, good plan.  The garden is usually just an idea in my mind.  Of course my vision is lush, beautiful and productive, though I am well aware of what the vision usually turns into. Regardless, I kind of know what I want to accomplish and then I see what happens as the season develops.  I decided this year would be different.  I decided to commit to something, by putting it down in writing and then spending the money.

I am prompted to do this because I have a lot more area this year, and it deserves more than just a haphazard attempt at a garden. After the last couple of years of trying to get the backyard in shape, I finally have an area that could be really productive.  So rather than just grabbing a few plants from the big box store and sprinkling seeds around wherever I could, I sat down with  some seed catalogs and a garden map and made a plan.  Then, I actually ordered the seeds. And today I went and got some new seed starting trays and cells.

I bought a lot of seeds. I have just about used up my stash of old seeds doing random cover crops, but there were still a few old seeds that I worked into the plan, as well.  I am not sure how these older seeds will work out.  I plan on going overboard with the seed starting, anyway, and adjust depending on how it goes.  I also think my rotation plan might be overly optimistic with some of the turn around times. Overall, I reserve the right to make changes as the spring goes along.

This is the plan for now, though. It is a better plan than I have ever had before.  I am not one to press on through when things don’t go right though, so the garden that I end up with may look very different from the one presented here.  It is always an adventure and a surprise, and that is why I enjoy gardening so much.




2021 in the Rearview

January 2021

It was an eventful year in the garden.  Like most of the garden seasons lately, it was a transition year.  I have been cutting down trees slowly over the past three years maybe, 2,3,4 at time and this was the year that a few key ones came down and portions of the backyard went from shady to possibly partly sunny with maybe 4-5 hours of sun at the summer solstice.  This is a big deal.  One 4 x 8 bed on the south side of the house only gets possibly 3-4 hours of sun in the summer and that has been the sunniest spot for years and the main productive area of the garden.  This newfound sunlight was like opening virgin territory for expansion.  True, it is not the recommended 6 hours for vegetables but I didn’t let that deter me.

A second hugel bed was built within the first giving me approximately 300 square feet of garden bed.  I went with a hugel style since there was a good deal of wood left from the tree cutting.  I hauled in a lot of soil and compost and filled the hugel as well as topped up the older one, now going into its second winter and really settling in.  I began planting early, in January, with some cold weather crops under row cover and seedlings up in the attic under lights and on a heat mat.  The cold weather crops began with peas and then later, lettuces, mustard, kale, cabbage and bok choy.  The inside seeds were tomatoes (San Marzano), cucumber and jalapeno peppers, which were planted in a large amount because I wanted enough of these to preserve.  There were also some butternut squash, chard, basil and maybe a few other random things that I had seeds of laying around.

The spring garden started out great, albeit slower than I wanted.  Although many of the outside seeds sprouted, they seemed to be in suspended animation as the weather cycled through very cold days into warmer days.  This didn’t harm the peas or the mustard or lettuce, they just hung out until it got warm enough to really get going, which was probably early March.  The bok choy was not happy and never grew beyond a couple of inches, and then just flowered when it warmed.  The season was great though, bug pressure was minimal and the new sun was amazing to follow through the garden. As it got higher in the sky, with no deciduous leaves and the pine needles still thin, sunlight really filled the garden.  I was excited to see what the summer would bring, but as the trees filled out, I realized that peak sunlight was sometime in mid spring.  I noted the trees that would need to be cleared for maximum sunlight return in future years.

March 2021

The spring also brought a project that had been in planning for several years, a new patio.  The job was hired out and it turned out great.  It represents a major piece of the backyard puzzle and  left some areas that needed to be planted.  As I only have a rough schematic of the future of this garden, I had no idea what would need to go around the patio, but seeing the finished space really helped to inspire me.  I wanted to create a room like feel, and, since the patio is close to the neighbors, soften the view of their house, if not screen it.  So perennials that had potential to fill out, while leaving space to walk and not overwhelming the patio, was my main goal.  Another goal was to have a variety of flowers throughout the seasons, and I wanted to get some bee friendly natives in, too.  The existing large dogwood and camellia, which was saved by building the patio around it, gave the space a good start. I settled on Clethera alnifolia as a ‘wall’ plant. It has the potential to grow to seven feet which, while not enough to totally screen the neighbors will do much to soften the view.  It is a native and has lovely fragarent flowers that bees, especially native bees, seem to love and stay busy with through several weeks in early summer.   Other plants that went in this spot, what I am calling the patio garden, were Magnolia figo and a few hydrangeas.  The Magnolia is not a native, but it is on the smaller bushy side.  Since we have wanted a magnolia for a while, but lacked the space, this seemed like a good compromise.  It’s flowers are small compared to a real southern magnolia, but they are supposed to be very fragrant.  Unfortunately, it was planted after it had flowered, so I’ll have to wait to see about that.  The hydrangeas were a mix of what I could find a big box store.  I have been happiest with the oak leaf hydrangea.  Depending on what happens with the others, one looked pretty sickly all summer, I may add another oak leaf.  It held up great through the summer and my poor watering habits.  It did not flower, however, but it’s leaves turned brilliant reds and oranges and lasted for a few weeks in the fall.

May 2021

Another area that was opened up by the tree trimming was the back corner, what I am calling the food forest. It also got a few plants.  I bought two paw paws and two serviceberries to anchor this area.  They were mail ordered and a little scraggly.  The paw paws adjusted pretty well, though they didn’t grow much.  The serviceberries were more suspect.  Although they were healthy upon arrival, they both dropped most of their leaves.  Some new growth appeared later in the summer, so I am hopeful they will come back strong next year.  Although I call it a food forest, I didn’t get much else into it, except a few random seedlings that had no other home, like bronze fennel and butternut squash.  There is also a peach that volunteered by the fence where an old compost pile was.  I put in another volunteer peach that I had to keep it company and squeezed in a fig cutting I had that was outgrowing its pot.  The peach and fig are doing great in their new spots.

Possibly because I was so busy with these other areas, I didn’t pay that much attention to the annual garden.  Things got planted out and then were left pretty much on their own.  I harvested plenty of greens and some peas in the early spring, then some beans and a couple of early peppers.  The tomatoes were growing well and setting fruit, but many developed blossom end rot.  The cucumbers, though, were a disaster.  They were a different variety than I had grown in the past and while the seedlings came up nicely, they never amounted to much.  I was able to harvest a few here and there, but nothing like I envisioned when I planted them out.  The winner though was the jalapenos.  Besides some fresh eating, I was able to pickle 3 pints in midsummer and another 8 in the fall.  Overall, though, the garden didn’t feel that productive. I tried to keep track of the harvest, but was unable to keep up with it.  Although I didn’t feel like it was a great success, the veggie garden wasn’t a total failure either.  It provided a somewhat steady flow of produce, if not much extra.

August 2021

I wanted to plant a fall garden, but to my dismay, after the summer solstice, the amount of sun in the garden steadily decreased.  By planting time, it was only a couple of hours at best.  I did manage to get some mustard and sugar snap peas to produce a few meals, but the lettuce didn’t really work out.  I didn’t even bother with the second block of lettuce I had planned.  It was amazing the difference in sun amount between spring and fall, caused of course by the deciduous trees having leaves and the pines having full needles in the fall.  I did not notice the year before since that fall garden was decimated by snails before it ever got going.  So I count this year as an improvement. 

In early fall, I picked up some native perennials from a local nursery.  I added false indigo and boneset to the food forest, a blazing star to the patio garden and some Pennsylvania sedge to a bed in the front.  I also got three blue-eyed grass and some gaura from another nursery that found different homes around the garden.

By late fall, most of the garden was cleaned up and I was ready to give it a rest, but two opportunities came up.  First, a neighbor who was cleaning out their garage, asked if I’d like their ‘greenhouse.’  It is just a 6×8 clear tent with a sturdy metal frame, but free means it is worth a shot.  I put it up in early December, but with the weather beaing unusually warm there hasn’t been much need for it.  It will be a good place to keep the lemon and lime trees for the winter and I am considering using it as my seed starting area.  Stay tuned.

At Thanksgiving my mom announced she would be selling her house and moving to something smaller with less maintenance.  I had been wanting to take a cutting from a rose that was originally at my grandmother’s house, now at hers, but I had never got around to it.  I told my mom I would come over and take the whole plant rather than let her leave it behind. ‘Fine,’ she said.  I came over one Saturday mid-December and ended up with 3 roses, 4 echinaceas, some black eyed Susans, a bag of daffodil bulbs, a rosemary plant, some lemon thyme and a couple of hostas.  It was a pretty big haul and I spent the next day getting it all in the ground.  It will be pretty amazing to see all of that come back in the spring.  Hopefully they all handled the transfer well.

So that was 2021.  It was a great year of big changes around the Quarter Acre.  I am already plotting 2022, and I am getting very excited for it.

December 2021

Swinging into Spring

4/6/21 Waning Crescent Moon | High 76 | Low 42

Dogwood – Cornus florida

I was just out of town for a week and, as usually happens, the plants that I had ordered at least a month before showed up a couple of days before I was to leave. It was only four, two paw paw and two serviceberry and they went into the ground without much fuss. The weather wasn’t great while we were gone. A pretty strong storm moved through and then the temperature dropped, maybe giving us the last frost of the season. We’ll see.

Apple blossoms. Malus spp.

Everything was safe and secure upon return. The new plants seem just fine in their new home. Now the heat is on. I removed the last of the row cover as some lettuce underneath was on the verge of bolting. That part of the bed is now exposed to the rabbits and deer and squirrels, so we’ll see how that goes. Although I was trying to wait until at least the weekend, I couldn’t help myself and today I planted out a few cucumbers. Of course, I had to do it because I needed the pots for some squash that was outgrowing its cells.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail – Papilio glaucus

I have way more seedlings going than I have room for. And I mean in the garden, not just inside. I’ll plant them in any sunny spot I can find, though. If I run out of sunny spots, I’ll just give them away. Too many things can go wrong, and I like to start thick and then thin if there are too many survivors.

Too hot in the attic so the seedlings had to move to the less sunny porch.

Today was also the first real harvest of the year (there are always some herbs out there that I can scrounge up). 10 1/2 ounces of mixed lettuces, with some pea tendrils and mustard sprouts thrown in, just because. Plenty for some beautiful salads, and even more out there if the rabbits don’t get to it first.

First harvest of the season. Delicious!

Lessons Learned

3/22/21 Moon – Waxing Gibbous | High – 67 | Low – 41

As Spring arrives, I have been reflecting on a couple of things I have learned this winter in the garden. I probably should not consider winter a gardening season, but I can’t stop myself. Every season should be a gardening season. Winter always seems to set the tone for the year, anyway. I am not a great planner and winter is the time to plan. To get better at planning, I have been trying to take better notes about the garden, particularly noting when I do things or just when things happen. This is beginning to pay off, especially with seed starting. I have been starting seeds for several years, but this has by far been the smoothest effort yet. I have been using my notes to build a schedule of when to start different seeds, how many, when to pot them up and when to plant them out. There are still some tweaks to be made, but I am very happy with how the seed starting has gone. Next year will be even better!

Lactuca sativa ‘Yugoslavian Red’

On the other hand, I did really push the season this year. I sowed seeds and put out plants way earlier than I have in the past. At first I thought it was great. Things were coming up in January. The growth wasn’t quick, but I thought just getting things established was a good head start. But it turns out just because a plant can survive below freezing temps, doesn’t mean they like it. The pak choi I seeded on 1/1 popped right up, but never grew. A couple of true leaves appeared at some point, but all of a sudden now they are bolting – tiny little flowers on tiny little stalks. It is kind of amazing, actually, but not the result I was hoping for.

Covers off for the picture, but I will be keeping them on well into the spring.

I only have a couple of sheets of row cover. In an effort to plant more of the bed earlier, I removed the cover from the first section planted and started more seeds in another section and covered it. In another section, I started other seeds with no cover. It is amazing the difference in germination and growth under the cover. A few weeks ago I considered buying some cover, but didn’t think it was worth it at that point. It was steadily getting warmer, so the cover wasn’t really needed, I thought. I was wrong. The plants under the cover look so much better and have grown so much more. Yes, some plants can survive the cold, but they don’t like it.

Happy lettuce.

The last lesson has actually been learned over the last year. I have been working at home and have been able to observe what happens throughout the day in the garden. The lesson is this- squirrels will eat anything. They are untamed ravenous herbivores. They shredded my overwintering chard. They ate the flower stalk, then the leaves of a pak choi I was letting go to seed. I watch them nibble dogwood buds. I even saw one munch my daughter’s Venus fly trap down to a nub. I thought their crimes were limited to digging through and tearing up beds, but no, I now believe they are worse than rabbits for eating my plants!

Garden terrorist. Sciurus carolinensis

Waiting

3/4/21 Waning Gibbous Moon | High 63 | Low 34

Over the last couple of weeks, I got most of the heavy lifting I wanted to get done around the garden out of the way. It seems like there are always projects to work on, but at the moment I am going to enjoy a little of the calm before the storm. Compost is spread, seeds are started, sprouts are sprouting, it’s too cold for insects, the weeds haven’t woken up yet and the squirrels have almost given up digging around all over the garden. There is not much to do but wait. I did order 2 paw paws and 2 serviceberries so I am waiting for them, as well. It is nice to enjoy the garden with out feeling as though I must do something. It is fun to watch it come to life. It takes a bit of patience this time of year, though. It seems so slow, but with the warmth and the sun, things are starting to perk up. The next few weeks will see big changes.

Yugoslavian Red Lettuce. About to plant out.
Kale. The seed starting area was getting crowded, so some things had to be moved out.
Sown radish and lettuce coming up under row cover.
The section planted 1/1 has been out from under the cover for almost two weeks. Looking good, but growing slow. Garlic along the front is starting to look alive.
Blueberry buds. Vaccinium spp.
Lacinato Kale. Standing tall through the winter.
Daffodil ‘Dutch Master’. Narcissus spp.