Friday, December 22, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: The Changing of the Garden

In accordance with our new holiday tradition, Brian and I brought the Fedco Seeds catalogue with us on our long drive out to Indiana to see his family, so we could go over what we'd like to buy for next year's garden.

It looks like we won't be actually replacing too many of varieties this year. Although some crops didn't do very well, they're mostly varieties that we've grown just fine in the past, such as the Marketmore and Cross-Country cucumbers that produced so bountifully in 2016 we were scrambling to try out new cucumber recipes. This year, by contrast, most of the seeds we planted didn't germinate at all, so we had only a few skinny vines and not many cucumbers. We're assuming the problem is simply that the seeds are too old, so we're planning to get more of the same varieties and not try replacing them. The same goes for the basil, which gave us only a skimpy yield during the summer and none at all to preserve for the winter, and the Cascadia snap peas, which gave us a generous crop in 2016 but then mostly failed to come up this year.

Another crop we'll need to buy more of is the King of the Garden lima beans. We neglected to buy any this past year, so we decided to try planting some seeds we'd saved from last year's crop, and most of them didn't come up at all. So at this point, we don't see any reason to mess around with trying to save seeds in the future. Buying them is a lot easier, and the seeds are a lot more reliable—and as long as we're placing an order with Fedco anyway, adding another $1.70 for a packet of lima beans is a negligible expense.

So the only crops we're actually planning to change up are the peppers and tomatoes. Our new pepper varieties this year, Carmen and Gilboa, gave us mixed results. The Carmen, a mild frying pepper, gave us nine good-sized peppers from just one plant—easily outstripping our trusty Jimmy Nardello, which gave us about a dozen peppers from two plants. The Gilboa, by contrast, yielded only one pathetic little green bell pepper all season.

Based on those results, we concluded we should plant at least two of the Carmen peppers next year and ditch the Gilboa. In fact, since Gilboa was about the seventh bell pepper variety we've tried without any significant success, we decided that maybe we should just stop trying to grow bell peppers at all and concentrate on chilis and frying peppers, which tend to do much better. So we combed through the Fedco catalogue and settled on a promising-looking chili pepper called the Czech Black, which is just a trifle milder than a jalapeƱo. We're also planning to try again to grow the Klari Baby Cheese peppers, which gave us a good yield but somewhat unexciting-tasting fruits. They weren't great for cooking or eating raw, but Brian thought they might be good for pickled stuffed peppers. (This was what he was making during his canning experiment a couple of weeks ago, which I didn't disclose in my previous entry because they were going to be a Christmas present for his dad. He opened them today and we all tried them, and Brian is now keen to try making more.) So we're planning on two Carmens, one of the new Czech Blacks, and one Klari Baby Cheese. We'll keep one of the Jimmy Nardello variety if we can figure out where to squeeze in a fifth pepper plant; otherwise we'll drop it.

As for tomatoes, we are definitely keeping our new Pineapple variety, which was both incredibly tasty and incredibly productive. However, our new Mr. Fumarole paste tomato was a lot less impressive. Like pretty much every Roma-style tomato we've tried, its yields were unimpressive—about 10 tomatoes total, most of them quite small. The other new one, Black Prince, was somewhere in between: tasty and reasonably productive, but not extraordinary. Fortunately, our trusty Sun Golds gave us plentiful yields as usual.

Looking over our tomato selections, we thought what we really lacked was a reliable early tomato (aside from the little Sun Golds) and a reliable paste tomato. Flipping through the catalogue, we discovered a variety called Heinz that looked like it might meet both needs: "An early red plum type that often ripens all its 2 1/2-3 oz fruits before frost" and is fairly disease-resistant. So we're planning to get some of those, and just for fun, we're also trying a cherry tomato called Honeydrop that's supposed to be "much less prone to cracking in wet weather than Sun Gold." To hedge our bets, we'll plant one of each; even a single Sun Gold plant should give us plenty of fruit, in case the new one is a complete bust. If, on the other hand, it turns out to be as good as the Sun Gold or better, we might just switch over completely.

That was all we needed for seeds, but our shopping didn't end there. The new Fedco catalogue also includes a separate section for its sister brands, Organic Growers Supply and Moose Tubers, so we paged through that as well. We skipped over the grains and cover crops and went straight to the sections on "Plant Protection and Pest Control" and "Orchard and Garden Health," looking for things that could help protect our plum trees from the twin scourges of brown rot and felonious squirrels. I found one product called "Tree Tanglefoot," which is a sticky substance meant to stop climbing insects from reaching your tree buds and fruits—but I'd also read on the Briggs Garden site that it can deter squirrels from climbing trees, since they don't like the way it feels on their paws. It might not work, but at any rate, it can't hurt. We can also pick up a bottle of fungicide to fend off the brown rot. This article recommends either a copper fungicide or a sulfur powder, both of which are available.

We still have a few other patches elsewhere in the yard that could do with some filling in. I'd like to beef up the herb bed, which right now is much thicker toward one end; we planted several plants in between the big bushes that used to be there, which have since spread out and are crowding each other, while the space where the last of the big bushes used to be is almost completely bare. I keep trying to persuade Brian to move one large rosemary plant down to the other end to relieve the crowding and fill in the bare spot at one stroke, but he insists on leaving it where it is because it's thriving there and he isn't sure it would in a new spot. So I guess we'll need to find some other useful herb we can stuff into that spot. There are a few—lemon balm, lovage, skullcap, summer savory—that should do okay in our soil and look nice, but I'm not sure what we'd actually use. We'll have to look into them a bit more and, if we can't decide on a useful one, maybe just go by looks.

I'd also like to choose some new flowers for our flowerbed. The all-perennial mix we planted this year has proved disappointing, with only a few scattered blooms that couldn't compete with the weeds. The echinacea flowers were nice, because they attracted goldfinches, but the others were pretty unimpressive. I went through several lists of plants that thrive in clay soil and came up with a list of five perennials that should, in theory, be able to grow with relatively little care and give us blossoms from spring through fall: drumstick primrose, Japanese primrose, coreopsis, yarrow, and Autumn Joy sedum. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find any nursery anywhere that can sell me all five of them. Fedco has two of them in seed form, so perhaps my best option will be to add those to my order and try and find seeds for the others elsewhere, then plant everything at once and hope for the best.

So, once we manage to go through our actual collection of seeds and see what else we're short on, I'll be able to draw up my order and send it off to Fedco. And with that, we draw up the covers over our 2018 garden beds. Sleep well, little garden, until spring.
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