Monday, December 22, 2014

Gardeners' Holidays 2014: The Changing of the Garden

My annual winter solstice post, which wraps up my year of gardeners' holidays, couldn't get written on the actual solstice this year, as we spent that entire day (or at least 13 hours of it) on the road between New Jersey and Indiana, where we always go for Christmas with the in-laws. But even if we couldn't spend any of the solstice actually out in the garden, we did spend part of it discussing the garden. I'd packed the Fedco seed catalogue for the coming year among our effects, and we occupied ourselves with it for the first hour or so of our trip. As Brian drove, I leafed through the catalogue, reading out the names of different crops and descriptions of interesting varieties, and we'd discuss whether we wanted to include them in next year's garden. By the time we reached the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we'd identified several types of changes we'd like to make next year:

New varieties to try. We discovered, as we flipped through the section on "edible podded peas," that the Oregon Giant we've been growing this year is actually a snow pea—best eaten while the pots are still slim and immature—rather than a snap pea, which tastes best when the pods fill out. So in the interest of getting as much eating as possible off each plant and making the most of our limited trellis space, we've decided to switch to the Cascadia variety, a snap pea that's described as sweet-tasting and very easy to grow.

We're also looking at expanding our selection of lettuces. This year, my favorite "Tom Thumb" butterhead lettuce let us down badly. We planted it at our usual time, but not a single head actually came up (and the seeds were only a year old, so we can't blame it on them). A new seed selection we bought last year, called Summer Lettuce Mix, produced an interesting variety of salad greens all through the cooler-than-average summer, but it didn't include any butterhead lettuces. Looking at other butterhead varieties to try, we saw several that looked very intriguing. First, there's one called "Winter Marvel" that can, supposedly, keep producing all winter long here in USDA Zone 7—not just in a greenhouse, but in an outdoor garden (though presumably under some sort of row cover to keep it from being buried under snow). Its only drawback is that it bolts as soon as the warm weather hits in spring, well before the Summer Mix has come into its own. So to fill in the gap, we thought we'd try Blushed Butter Cos, a cross between a butterhead and a romaine lettuce that's fast-growing, attractively colored, and described as "remarkably crisp for such a buttery taste."

With all three of these varieties, we figure we may be able to keep ourselves in lettuce all year long, even in our limited space. We can plant the Winter Marvel in the fall and let it grow until spring, then replace it with the Summer Mix when it bolts. Meanwhile, we can plant the Blushed Butter Cos in a separate area to see us through the spring, and possibly even grow a second crop of it in the fall.

Old varieties to grow more or less of. We had waaaaaay too many cucumbers this year; in fact, we actually ended up bringing a jar of homemade pickles with us to Indiana because we still haven't eaten them all. So next year, we're planning to cut down our dozen plants to eight. This will free up two square feet of trellis space for either a fourth butternut squash vine (since we got only about half-a-dozen squash off the three we planted this year) or perhaps some more lima beans, which looked beautiful out in the garden but didn't yield us enough beans for more than one or two meals. We're also planning to replace some of our parsley, which we didn't come anywhere close to using up (although it's still out there in the garden, despite the frost) with cilantro. Although I'm not a fan of cilantro myself, it's handy to be able to throw a sprig or two of it into certain dishes without having to buy a whole bunch—and if it bolts in the summer, which it usually does, you can always harvest the seeds for coriander.

Crops to grow in a different way. This is the third year in a row that we've had disappointing results growing pepper plants from seed. We keep trying new varieties, starting them early, using a special potting mix, giving them plenty of light, whatever we can think of, but no matter what we try, they never thrive. So after three years in a row of devoting eight precious squares of garden space to pepper plants and having hardly any peppers to show for it, we've decided to drop an approach that clearly isn't working for us. Next year, we're just heading out to the Rutgers plant sale as early as possible, so we can choose from the widest possible selection of nice, big, hardy pepper plants for our garden, grown by people with much better resources than ours.

We also have a few packets of seeds that we're not ready to give up on yet, but we think we need to change up our growing methods a bit. For instance, our first attempt this year at growing Brussels sprouts was a complete bust; we got six nice healthy plants, but no edible sprouts. However, we suspect the problem is that we trusted a garden guide that said to start the seeds in early June, and the Fedco catalogue advises, "start indoors no later than early April." So we'll try that next year, and we'll also try direct seeding a few straight into the garden beds and see whether they do better than the indoor seedlings. We'll do the same with our leeks, which yielded only a small crop this year after being started indoors in February. As for tomatoes, we plan to keep the varieties we have, but start more seeds of each variety to make sure that we have enough healthy seedlings for planting—particularly with the Sun Golds, normally our most productive tomato, which we got none of at all this year because all the seedlings withered. And lastly, we'll be keeping our lima beans, but picking them when they're fresh and green, rather than trying to dry them on the vine.

Crops to drop completely. We're going to give up on growing celery. We've tried two different varieties now, Ventura and Redventure, and while both produced nice healthy plants, the stalks were simply too strong and bitter for eating raw. They're okay for cooking, but a tiny amount of it goes a long way, flavor-wise—and that sort of defeats the whole purpose of eating celery, which is to fill up on a healthy, low-calorie vegetable. So we'll be turning over those four squares of garden space to something more useful next year.

New crops to add. In the spot where the celery used to be, we're thinking of trying some broccolini. We've tried growing regular broccoli before without much success (we got only four teeny-weeny heads), but broccolini doesn't have to produce big heads; instead, it has long, tender stalks with little clusters of florets on top. Every time I've tasted it, I've found it more tender and succulent than regular broccoli, but it isn't easy to find in stores, and it's usually pricey when available. So growing our own, if we can do so successfully, is the logical solution.

Another intriguing crop I discovered in the catalogue is Good King Henry, also known as Lincolnshire spinach. This is a perennial crop, which means that you only have to plant it once in order to keep harvesting it for years. In general, I've found perennial crops to be a good investment of time and money; our asparagus, it's true, has been a bit of a disappointment as far as yield goes, but our rhubarb has more than made up for it, producing pounds and pounds of the stuff each year. (We even ended up bringing some with us to Indiana, because we couldn't spare any more space in the freezer.) And unlike real spinach, which we've had some trouble growing in the garden, this stuff stands up to summer heat and continues to produce all season long. The only difficulty is going to be figuring out where to put it, since a perennial crop can't simply be plopped into a square of garden space; it has to go down someplace where you're prepared to keep it for the long haul. The back corner of the yard is a possibility, once we manage to clear away the big pile of concrete chunks left over from the demolition phase of last year's patio project.

So that's a rough outline of what we plan to change up in our 2015 vegetable garden. Of course, there are also a few crops that were a complete success and require no change at all. We're sticking with our Raven zucchini and our two varieties of butternut squash, Waltham and Ponca Baby; there are tons of other summer and winter squash options, of course, but none that are so productive, easy to grow, and easy to use. And we'll also be planting some more of the Vanilla marigolds that we picked up on a lark from Fedco last year, mostly to make our order big enough to qualify for free shipping. They turned out to be splendid cutting flowers: big, creamy, frothy white blossoms that lasted for literally weeks. I don't know whether they were actually any help at repelling pests from our tomato plants, but they've earned their keep in the garden just by looking nice.

Goodnight, little garden. Sleep well. See you in the spring.
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