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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sunday morning saw a few hours without rain, so I trudged back and forth through the muck to get this new bed underway. A pile of soil was delivered Friday and I hoped to have gotten it all moved over the weekend, but it was not to be. I’m just about halfway done. The forecast keeps changing, but this coming weekend is looking pretty good at the moment. It would be nice to get everything done, as the next several weekends after are booked with other commitments.
There has been a lot of rain this year. So far, to date, we are 3.12″ above normal with a total of 8.52″. That is enough to leave my yard a soggy mess, and the low space between my house and the neighbor’s has been a pond for the last couple of weeks. This weekend really piled it on, too. Although I wanted to get out and get some things done around the garden, the cold (30’s) and steady rain kept me inside. I did find time to relax, which was nice. In a few more weeks when spring gets in full gear, there will be plenty to do, both in the garden and in life.
The peas are making progress, but the mustard and pak choi don’t seem to have budged in the four weeks since they sprouted. In the attic, the tomatoes and cucumbers are sprouting. I have lettuce sprouts that need to find homes, and a bunch of brassicas, too. Soon enough there will be green everywhere.
I know come August I will be hoping for a nice cool rain, but at the moment all I can say is ‘Enough already!’
I saw the first robins of the year over a week ago. Seems a bit early, but there are other signs of spring all around.
It was a busy weekend. The tree guys didn’t exactly leave a mess, but there was a bit to clean up. Their work was also a roadblock holding up some other things. When they moved out, I got busy. I laid out the new hugel bed, cut a couple of smaller trees myself to add to it, spread the leaf/compost pile around the poly-corner, moved about 1/2 the wood chips they left, putting some in the poly-corner and some in the strawberry/wine-cap bed around front and if that wasn’t enough, I planted some seeds, both outside, under the new bit of row cover, and some in trays in the attic. Hopefully, I will get the soil delivery during the coming week and finish this all up next weekend, although the weather continues to look a bit rainy.
Planted in about a six foot section of the hugel:
sugar snap peas
Black Seeded Simpson
Planted in trays in the attic:
Tomato, San Marzano
Cucumber, Pickle Bush
Jalapeno, saved seed
Bronze Fennel, saved seed
The hugel section planted about 4 weeks earlier is doing well but seems to be in a wait and see mode. The mustard and pak choi have not put out any true leaves and the peas, while standing tall, are not shooting up. Maybe they are just waiting for longer, warmer days. I can’t say I blame them.
Some of the plants that are overwintering, like these purple mustards, are starting to perk up a bit and enjoy the sunnier days. Spring is coming to the rescue soon!
It is hard to believe, but I have cut down a lot of trees in my backyard. When we first moved in 15 years ago the landscaping could best be described as a thicket. There were a ton of small sweet gum trees in the 4 to 12 foot tall range that blocked the whole back half of the yard off like a great green Berlin Wall. Within the thicket, there were tall spindly pines, quite a few already dead, starving for light. And, of course, the gravy on the biscuit, the icing on the cake, the cherry on top – poison ivy was crawling and climbing over everything. Over the years I managed to clean it up, at least enough so it doesn’t appear to be such a thicket. I have gradually thinned it out, focusing on the northeast corner since it was the most open to begin with and because my neighbors to the south and southeast have their own thickets it is the spot with the most potential for open sky. Too many trees, that is a problem most people don’t have out here in this suburban sprawl. For whatever reason, this neighborhood was not clear cut when it was built and there are a lot of big old trees all over. Things are done differently now though; most new subdivisions are scraped and flattened, everything gone before the houses start to go up. More sun in my yard would be nice, but I don’t think I would be happy in the barren wastelands created by these so-called developers.
I have cut down some quite large trees myself, but I am beginning to reach the limits of my confidence. I had a crew come out and cut down five trees yesterday. It is a hard decision to cut down a tree. I know a lot of people don’t like to do it. Trees are remarkable, yet sometimes they just aren’t in the right place. I have thought a lot about how I want this yard to ultimately be, and there are several big trees that are part of the plans. There are others, however, that must go. I take it slow (obviously, going on 15 years) and see how removing a few trees affects everything else, before choosing the next ones to cut. Right now I think I know the next ones to come down, but until I see how the remaining trees leaf out and the light falls, I won’t know for sure. In case you are worried, I did a basic tree inventory not long ago and had about 50 significant trees in this quarter acre. I am overstocked, and it is not healthy for the trees. A fair number of pines have died over the years. The sweet gums get contorted and unbalanced, trying to find some kind opening in the high pine canopy. Nothing else gets enough light to grow.
The tree guys are kind of expensive, but I am glad I had them handling these five trees. There were a couple that I contemplated long and hard doing myself, but I opted to let the pros do it in the end. These guys are crazy, though, that is all I can say. Having some experience in what they were doing, I couldn’t help but be stressed out watching them trying to wrangle these things. Everything went off without an issue, though, and it was simply amazing how quickly they did the job. Now I can move on with getting ready for the spring!
2/1/2021 Waning Gibbous Moon | Hi 38 | Lo 33 |Rain 1.06″
There is always a little thrill to discover a seed you had planted has germinated and is bringing forth new life. This is especially true in the middle of winter when everything is so dead and lifeless. The peas I planted on New Year’s have finally begun to poke their little green heads up. The mustard and pak choi, already up for 2 or 3 weeks, look fine but they seem to be in some kind of suspended animation, waiting for a little more warmth, a little more sun, a little more – spring, maybe? Definitely not more water, we have had plenty of that, somewhere around 5 inches of precipitation for January. At least it is too cold for the snails and slugs, but I am fearing an explosion come warm weather. I am plotting my counter attack, but in the meantime, I’ll enjoy these little gems in the garden and a few others that are basking in the soft fluorescent glow of the attic.
1/27/21 – Full Moon! | High 53 | Low 40 | Rain .30″
The tree guys were supposed to come on Monday, but due to the pretty crummy weather, they have been unable to come out and take care of the trees I have scheduled for removal. This doesn’t really put me behind, but as I mentioned in the previous post, I am feeling like I have a lot to get done and the clock is ticking. Today did turn out pretty nice in the afternoon (although snow is in the forecast tonight), so I decided to get the drone out and take some ‘before’ pictures for posterity. This corner of the property is where my focus is going to be this season. First, four trees come out. Then I’ll build a hugel bed with some of the wood just inside the current one. I plan to put the wood chips from the trees in the corner and begin to build the soil for a polyculture bed, probably adding some Wine Cap spawn to speed break down of the chips. Right now, I am thinking a couple of paw paws here and maybe a hazelnut, but I really haven’t worked all of that out yet. They aren’t visible in the picture, but against the fence behind the blackberries, there is a volunteer peach and a fig from a cutting I planted. Although maybe not this summer, I will probably have to add some trellising for those two fruit trees to be espaliered on. If I come across an interesting blackberry, I might add that to the current bed. I definitely need to upgrade the trellising I have in place for the blackberries. It is just 5 foot T posts and a few wires. It barely kept things under control last year. This is the second season for the blackberries, so I expect them to really put out some growth this year.
In a few months, I will try to post the ‘after’ portion of this entry. Everything will be green and alive and much more interesting than these drab pictures!
Sometime in December, the last of the leaves are raked, all the dead plants are composted and things are cleaned up and put away from another year in the garden. It is an odd feeling when the weekend rolls around and there is nothing to do. Of course, something to do can always be found, but maybe it is just the time of rest that me and the garden are looking for. I am always thinking and planning and shuffling priorities and ideas around in my head but I am content just to let things be for the short days of mid winter. Then, as the days start getting just a little bit longer, I start to feel anxious that I will run out of time. The days and weeks until the garden springs to life are beginning to count down, slowly, steadily. Before it is too late and keeping the garden under control is a full time job, there are things to be done.
When I was a kid, winter was wood cutting time, and somehow I have been able to keep that tradition alive. I don’t use wood for heat and my woodlot is not that big, but there sure are a lot of trees on my little lot. In winter, I prune and cut, moving always toward that perfect blend of shade and privacy and sun in the garden. There is always a lot more shade than sun, so every year some more trees come down, more limbs are pruned back. I have reached the point where there are only a few trees left that I am comfortable taking down. What is left are a bunch of 50 – 80 foot pines, any one of which could hit my house or either of three neighbors’ houses, not to mention assorted fences and sheds. So I pay some one to do the tricky part of bringing them down to the ground. I’ll clean up a lot of the mess, sorting out the wood for its highest value and cycle back into the garden, as chips or mushroom logs or the basis for hugel culture mounds or firewood for next fall’s camping trips. The tree guys are coming Monday. Winter break is over. They will cut up and chip most of the trees they bring down. This will provide most of the raw material for some of the things on this to-do list. The list is ambitious but doable. I am looking forward to getting started.
Winter 2021 To-Do List
Build new hugel
Wood chips into ‘polyculture corner’
Top up existing hugel
Remove landscape fabric from under Japanese maple
Unload compost tumbler
Build firewood rack
Wood chips in front beds
Prune corner holly bushes
Rear fencing on blueberry bed
Girdle gum by fence
Cut 2 gums (by raspberries, by playset(enough for shiitakes?))