Friday, August 15, 2014

Learning From 2014's Successes and Failures So Far

The weather has been strange lately.  Very strange.  The last week of July produced temperatures cold enough to need a comforter on my bed during the nights.  We normally expect to turn the AC on around this time of year, but it felt more like a nice, cool week in the fall, not smack-dab in the middle of summer.  So we decided to open the windows instead, to save money on electricity and to get some fresh air in the house.  It seemed very unusual, but we were welcoming of lower temperatures none-the-less.

My garden has gone through a number of changes over the past few weeks.  Most of my cool season vegetables have produced what they could and died off.  A majority of the summer crops are now producing ripe, delicious food.  Beautiful flowers that attract pollinators and predators have started to bloom, and I've started to sow more veggie seeds for the fall.  It's been a pretty bountiful gardening season, but despite that, I'm already starting to plan and design how next year's garden will be set up.

Today's post is going to be a review of what worked (and what didn't work) in my garden this season.  It's important for me to keep a record of these things, because I can further improve upon my successes, and either fix or avoid the failures that I had this year.  I think I have mentioned before that I would like to eventually have 80-90% of my family's food grown from our garden, and accurate record-keeping is necessary to move towards that goal.

So let's take a look at my successes and failures over the spring and summer this year, and how that will influence my garden's design for the next season.

Successes of the Season

Best Vegetables Grown

Way back in January of this year, I made a post on determining what vegetables to grow in the garden as part of my frugal veggie garden series.  In that article, I listed all of the crops I intended to grow when I was first planning out the garden for this year.  As I'm sure we all know, sometimes things don't always go according to plan.  I ended up growing a good majority of what I had listed, and a few things I did not put on the list.  In any case, there were a few vegetables that stood out from the rest.  These are the vegetables that either were just ridiculously easy to grow, or produced a huge amount without much effort.

Kale - Without a doubt, I would say kale was the most successful edible plant that I grew this season.  On top of being delicious and very nutritious, kale is also very pleasant to look at.  Initially it did take a bit of damage from slugs and bugs, but after growing up just a little, it is quite resistant to most insect attacks.  Just four plants produced enough leaves for my wife and me to eat some every day and still have enough left to give away to friends.  It never needed additional nutrients to keep it growing, and required only a minimal amount of watering in addition to rain.  Kale also had no problem with surviving the heat when temperatures got into the 90s for a week or so earlier in the summer.  I've heard that it is cold-hardy as well, although I have yet to see this for myself.  If all of that wasn't reason enough to grow it, my kale plants are also still producing new leaves after all this time!  Talk about production economy.

The kale just keeps on comin'

I must admit, before growing it for myself, I was never really a fan of kale.  I've had a complete change of heart, though, since harvesting from my own organically-grown kale plants.  The taste is fantastic, especially when cooked.  I've eaten kale with eggs, pasta, green beans, salads, pizza and sometimes just by itself and it tastes great every time.  If you've been put off by the taste of store-bought kale, try growing your own... you might just change your mind, too!

Peas - If you've been following my blog, you already know how bountiful my peas were this year.  Even without any additional compost or fertilizer, my pea vines grew to over eight feet tall, and produce lots of delicious, sugary pea pods that were good to eat straight off the plant.  They were very easy to germinate and took up relatively little space in the garden.  Never once did I see any damage from bugs or diseases, either.

My pea vines produced a ton of pods

Peas don't mind having cold feet, so you can plant them out pretty early in the season to get a crop before all the other veggies mature.  I wasn't able to grow as many of them as I would have liked, as I ran out of seeds.  Next year, however, peas are going to be one of my staple crops for sure.

Beets - Personally, beets are just "OK" to me as far as taste is concerned.  The reason I have it listed on my most successful crops is because it takes little to no effort to grow.  It germinates easily and reliably, grows pretty quickly, and doesn't take up much space so you can grow a lot of them.  The leaves are also edible in salads, which makes it two foods in one.  They don't seem to mind cold or hot temperatures, and the bugs almost completely avoided it.  Mature beet leaves make a great mulch for other plants as well.  And to top it all off, the nutrients in beets that give it that deep red color are extremely beneficial for human health.  So despite the only "OK" taste of beets, it still makes it on my list of most successful crops.

A few beautiful "Detroit Dark Red" beet leaves

Spinach - Just like kale, spinach is loaded with healthy nutrients.  In fact, spinach has one of the widest spectrum of nutrients from a single plant.  Relatively easy to germinate and grow, spinach also handles pest attacks well, although not quite as well as kale or beets do.  The mild flavor of perfectly ripe spinach make a good addition to almost any dinner entree as well.  My only gripe with spinach is that it bolts very early in the season, so I can't enjoy it as long as I would like.

Spinach is one of my favorite foods to grow

Still, the huge array of nutrients, ease of growing and flavor of spinach make it another clear choice in my list of most successful crops.

Runner (Pole) Beans - Green beans require more nutrients from the soil than all of the other plants I have listed so far, but the payback is well worth it.  My "Kentucky Wonder" runner beans are about the easiest seeds to germinate out of all my veggies, reaching well over 95% germination rate.  Once they get growing, they get quite tall (possibly as high as 10 feet), yet take up a relatively small amount of space.  They also provide a decent amount of shade at their roots, keeping weeds from sprouting.  Beans are also good at controlling soil erosion from high winds when they are grown upwards.  When mature, they form dozens of bean pods on each plant, making the production economy of this veggie excellent.  My wife and I are constantly finding more green beans to eat every day.

A very unruly bunch of bean vines

Japanese beetles seem to enjoy the taste of green been plants, so they take a little more damage compared to the other plants I have listed here.  The plants themselves seem largely unaffected, though.  And greens beans have long been a favorite food of mine, landing it a solid spot on my most successful crops list.

Depending on your location, these plants may or may not grow as well for you as they did for me.  Still, out of everything I've personally grown, these five plants take the cake when it comes to ease of growing, loads of production and nutrient content.  These are the first plants I would recommend for someone trying to grow their own food.  If you haven't yet grown them, give 'em a try.  I bet you won't be disappointed.

Mulching: One of the Best Things You Can Do for Your Garden

Mulching seems to improve my plants' vigor, like these beans
In my last post, I talked about trying out the permaculture method of keeping all bare soil covered as a way of reducing moisture loss and preventing the soil from blown away by wind.  I also mentioned trying to keep the resource loop closed, by using the weeds pulled from the garden directly as mulch.  I've been putting these measures into practice around my garden, and I am happy to report that much of my fears about this method were unfounded.... at least in my experience so far.  The garden hasn't seen a lot of slug damage as a result of mulching.  As far as weeds are concerned, a few strong specimens have poked up through the soil here and there, but they are so obvious that it is easy to walk up to them and pull them up for even more mulch.

I feel as though mulching has also provided a boost to my plants. It appears to make them grow faster, larger and more lush than the plants without mulch.  This is only speculation on my part, however, as there are dozens of other factors that could have been at work.

The blueberry bushes have taken off since applying grass clippings as mulch
I think the greatest advantage of mulch is that it helps water seep down into the soil, without washing the soil away away or causing compaction issues.  These two problems are a big issue with my native clay soil.  Combined with weed reduction and cooler soil temperatures, mulch is a powerful tool to help improve the soil's fertility.

Unless I find a good reason, I am going to continue keeping the soil covered with whatever mulch I can get my hands on from this point on.  And using the weeds I pull up as mulch helps me avoid having to buy bagged mulch from the store, saving money and resources.

Winter Sowing

I tried the winter sowing method for the first time this year, and I will definitely be using it again next season.  This approach to gardening makes it super easy to grow just about anything from seeds.  I didn't start any vegetables like this, but I have several different flowers grow and eventually bloom this season which were all started from seed using winter sowing.

A pollinating insect enjoying my asters

What makes winter sowing so great?  Well, compared to using plant pots, it is cheaper.  It also eliminates all the hassle of growing plants indoors, such as hardening off and transplanting seedlings into bigger pots.

When you winter sow, you know the plants that are growing in you container are the ones you want to keep.  I am terrible at distinguishing the differences between plants I'm trying to grow intentionally and weeds, especially when plants are in their seedling stage.  Winter sowing gave me confidence that what I was growing was what I sowed and not just some weeds that finally saw the light of day.

So far this season, I have been able to grow a variety of pollinator-attracting plants, including bachelor buttons, asters, marigolds, sweet williams, and gypsophila.  I highly doubt I would have been able (or wanted) to grow any of them from seed without using the winter sowing method.  That's why it gets a hardy recommendation from me... it's frugal, simple, easy and effective.  Can't ask for much more than that.  In the coming season, I'm going to attempt to grow veggies using this method, as well as many more flowering plants.

This marigold was a cinch to grow using the winter sowing method

Not sure what winter sowing is?  Take a look at this website to learn how to winter sow seeds.  It has simple instructions and lots of pictures to make it easy to do it yourself.

Failures and Mistakes of the Season

Low Soil Fertility

I think the most critical mistake that I made this year was expecting certain heavy-feeding crops to produce optimally without any compost.  While most of my veggies grew and produced without issue, a few of them hardly produced anything.  A couple of examples would be my corn and squash plants.  Neither of them have produced a very worthwhile crop.  I also did not give my runner beans compost, and although they still produced quite a few beans, it was nothing compared to the bean plants that my wife grew in her garden.  She fertilized with composted chicken manure and the two plants she grew absolutely got out of control.  They produced a huge harvest initially, and then it puts out about a dozen new pods every few days.

Comparison of two different beans plants

My corn needed some extra compost, but it still produced a few ears

The first picture above is comparing her bean plants (left) to mine (right).  Keep in mind, both plants were started around them same time of year, and hers are in mostly shade.

Obviously, all I need to do to correct this problem is make more compost and add it to everything next year, instead of just adding it all to the square foot garden.

Dry Gardening

I wouldn't necessarily say that my experiment with dust mulching on my tomato plant was a failure.  In fact, I still managed to get beautiful, flavorful tomatoes ripened right on the vine for the first time since I started gardening.  And, to the credit of this method, I only had to water this tomato plant once in the entire season, during a dry spell back in early June.

The reason I won't be doing this method again is because it is simply too much work for the same results as using mulch.  Weeds had to be vigorously pulled up inside the drip line of the plant, and they germinated relentlessly over the months while I waited for my tomatoes to ripen.

Even without any additional watering, this tomato plant is still producing lots of fruit

Had I just used mulch from the beginning, I probably wouldn't have needed to water even once, and aside from the initial job of putting the mulch around the plant, I would have had to do far less work.

Furthermore, I came across an interesting article that describes multiple studies comparing dust mulching to organic matter mulching.  In almost every study conducted, organic matter mulched over the roots of plants was more beneficial to the plants than was dust mulching.  This article confirms the experiences I've had this season in my own garden.

So despite still obtaining some success with this method, I think use of organic mulch (such as pulled up weeds, grass clippings and wood chips) makes more sense in my climate.  My garden would seem to agree with me based on much more vigorous growth, but as I said earlier, it's only speculation on my part.

Pear Tree Pollination

I've recently learned that pear trees of the same variety do not pollinate each other.  My pear trees are still alive and putting on new growth, but I didn't get a single fruit to grow this year, despite multiple blooms on each tree.  I plan on either purchasing another tree in the fall or grafting a different variety on to one of my existing trees.

My pear tree had lots of flowers, but never formed any fruit

Broccoli and Cauliflower Woes

Although I've had success with broccoli in the past, this year was not a good year for it.  The insects that attack either plant were just too numerous and all of the broccoli ended up dead, despite my best efforts to control them.  I still had cauliflower growing up until about two weeks ago.  At that point, the plants were taking up a large useable portion of the square foot garden and had not produced even a single head of cauliflower.  I decided to pull them up to make room for other stuff that could be eaten, and I used them for mulch around my other plants I have growing.

The cauliflower I tried to grow this year was constantly under attack from worms
I will try broccoli again next season, but I'm afraid I will still purchase cauliflower from the grocery store.  It uses too much space and has too many pest problems to make it worth the while to grow.

Final Thoughts

Here in the mountains of North Carolina, the lower daily temperatures are signaling that autumn is quickly approaching.  That means the last of the vegetables still growing will be forming their fruits, and we will begin the task of preparing for the winter.  Although my goal of growing most of my own food still seems far out of sight right now, I know the experiences and lessons I learned from this year will only help me produce more food next year.  Eventually, I believe I will accomplish that lofty goal, bringing me one step closer to being self-reliant.

This season is not over yet, though!  In a few days I will be posting another update of my square foot garden and the other gardens I have growing on my property.  I'll show you what kind of food I have growing at this point in the year, and some ideas on starting and maintaining a fall vegetable garden.  Thanks for reading and visit again soon!

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