Monday, June 29, 2015

Garden Progress, May/June 2015 - Improvement and Refinement

I've enjoyed the amount of time I've had to relax and watch the various bugs fly around and march along in my backyard garden. They seem particularly unconcerned about my presence there, and I get a sense of accomplishment knowing that, by growing edible plants, I'm helping them in their daily activities as well.  

It's especially noticeable this year, as I've made a variety of improvements to my garden and added a generous amount of new plants and varieties to my collection.  It seems my garden is becoming more and more of an insect haven as the biodiversity of the plants I grow improves.  I think that is a good thing.

That said, the "improvements" to the garden that seem to attract various pollinators were initially for my benefit, in order to increase the amount of food I can grow for my family.  Today, I want to share some of the things I made improvements upon from last year, as well as some brand new techniques for this year that have helped tremendously.  In this update, I will also showcase some of the plants I have been eating over the Spring season.

Expanded Garden

I found some more trashed lumber from the local high school, so I expanded the original frugal veggie garden by a few feet for more planting area.  The new space was obtained by relocating the compost pile from last year to a different spot.  As you can imagine, the ground there is quite fertile after having the nutrients from compost sit there for about a year.

The extra space amounted to roughly 20 square feet, which allowed me grow a few more varieties of vegetables and greens than last year.  In addition to the usual spinach, beets and carrots that I sow every year, I was able to have several varieties of lettuce and a new batch of kale growing at the same time.  I also saved a larger area of the new space for some determinate tomatoes, which are currently battling early blight, unfortunately.

We had enough lettuce to eat a large salad every day
Extra space meant I could grow an extra crop of carrots
The increase in production from reclaiming garden space has been modest, but definitely noticeable.  Having fresh lettuce for salads every day added great amounts of nutrients to our diet that we would have otherwise not consumed.  Although low in calories and relatively inexpensive, we tend to eat a lot more lettuce when it's grown right in our back yard, which made it a worthwhile crop to grow in that space.

Designing Swales

The weather has been alarmingly dry and hot this year, which is what strongly encouraged me to research water conservation strategies for vegetable gardens.  I still don't have a rain barrel, but I have employed more buckets to capture water that falls off my garage for use in my garden.  It helps, but having a lot of plants means using a lot of water, and that water disappears pretty quickly after giving the garden a good soaking.

After some initial skepticism, I decided to take a permaculture approach to the problem and dig out swales directly in the paths of my garden. The only problem was implementing them in an already-established garden.  Fortunately, the pathways were large enough to double as swales, so I dug out trenches in each of them.  Some testing with a water hose revealed where the water naturally flowed when the swale took on too much water, so I added in a few drainage channels to lead the water from one swale to the next, until it finally reaches a final catchment area at the bottom of the slope.  I recorded videos on the entire process over on  Check it out for more information on smaller-scale garden swales.

How the swales' water flows

Rocks found when digging are used to direct more water into this drainage ditch

Since the swales were dug out, there's only been one heavy rain event that actually filled them enough to reach the final trench at the bottom.  I used the chance to make some adjustments to catch even more water.  However, every other time it has rained, it hasn't been enough to even fill the swales slightly, so the beneficial effects it might have for the garden haven't been fully realized yet.

I anticipate that the swales will have a more dramatic effect next year, as the winter rains fill them and allow the soil moisture to completely recharge.  Still, if any heavy rains happen during the summer and fall, the swales are there to capture that water and let it infiltrate into the soil, which is a good thing at any point in the year.  With any luck, the swales will make the garden less reliant on additional watering from me.

Something Old, Something New

Kale can survive in just about any weather, even under a foot of snow
If you remember my article from last year discussing my successes and failures of 2014, I talked about which plants I would be planting this year based on how well they grew.  I grew (or am growing) all of those plants again this year, and aside from Sugar Snap peas, I've had success with all of them.  Kale once again takes the prize for easiest plant to grow for the amount of food it reliably produces (although I've had to kill cabbage moth worms this year, too, although not as many).  Beets and spinach were grown once again, and produced just as reliably as the years before.  My pole bean plants are also doing quite well, although they are just now forming beans.  

This year's garden motto, however, is "More of everything!"  Thus, in addition to more of the old stuff, I also have quite a few new plants that I am growing to see how well they produce and how good they taste compared to the effort it takes to grow them.  I'll briefly cover each of the new additions below.

Asparagus - I've started including more perennial vegetables in my garden as my understanding of permaculture has improved, and one of the most ubiquitous of edible perennial plants has to be asparagus.  I planted asparagus sometime in mid April, and after waiting impatiently for at least a month (assuming my crowns were dead), a few tiny spears have shot up out of the ground from a few of my crowns.  I purchased both a purple and green variety.  Unfortunately, asparagus takes at least two years after planting to establish itself well enough to harvest spears and not harm the plant, so we won't be eating it for quite some time.  However, once it is established, it will continue to come back every year for up to 20 years.

One of my tiny asparagus crowns.  The spears turn into fern-like leaves.

Sorrel - Another perennial vegetable that forms clumps of small, tangy leaves that are a good addition to salads.  I planted it from seed this year and it was one of the fastest growing plants I had this Spring.  It did well in a partially-shaded, moist area in the back of my garden, which is a good thing since a large section of my garden shares these conditions.  At this point in the year, it has mostly died back aside from a few leaves.  I anticipate it popping up again early next year, and possibly even later this year in the fall.

Sorrel seedlings
Sage - A perennial herb that has medicinal and culinary uses.  It has grown very slowly in my garden, but it seems to have established itself well enough at this point.

Fragrant sage
  Thyme - Another perennial herb.  Although it has culinary uses, I decided to grow it based on reports of it attracting beneficial insects to the garden.  

Thyme seems to grow in thin shoots with tiny leaves

Okra - One of the few new varieties of annual vegetables I am testing out.  I used to hate okra as a child, but my palate has changed and now I like it quite a bit, especially in stir-fries.  Okra is supposed to produce heavily, which is why I decided to give it a shot.  Right now, my plants are just forming their second set of true leaves.

Okra seedling

Molokhia - Also known as Egyptian Spinach, this annual plant is supposed to have a higher nutritional profile than most conventional leafy greens.  It is also supposed to be very heat-tolerant.  It germinates very easily and quickly, but so far I haven't seen it put on much growth.  It's just the beginning of Summer, though, so perhaps it will start to put on some size over the next few months.  If it happens to grow enough to get a decent harvest, this plant might earn a permanent spot on my grow list due to it's high nutritional content.

Corchorus olitorius, otherwise known as Egyptian Spinach

In addition to these new plants I'm growing this year, I am growing (or have grown) some more familiar plants in my garden as well.  This is the first year that my grape vine has produced fruit, which I am just waiting for them to ripen.  I also have some blueberries starting to ripen, as well as three different varieties of raspberries, which all did well.  My wife also pointed out that we have a mulberry tree in our backyard that we didn't even realize until this year!

Two of the many tomato plants scattered throughout the front and back yard

On the annual front, I have a new purple variety of bush beans I'm trying out, as well as four different varieties of tomatoes.  Several basil plants are also growing, and I just planted cowpeas for the first time, for use as food and biomass to use as mulch.

This beautiful bush bean, 'Royal Burgandy' produces purple pods

Not So Self Reliant

Despite all the extra space and all the new plants and varieties I am trying out this year, I still feel extremely distant from the goal of having a self-reliant food supply.  Earlier this Spring, I could eat at least one whole meal from the garden every day, in the form of salads and green smoothies.  Now that the spinach and lettuce have bolted, and the berries have (mostly) come and gone, the only edible thing I have ready right now is kale.  Everything else is either ripening or just starting to grow.  Growing enough of my food on my own property is a much tougher challenge than it appeared to be.  

Have we saved money this year using my own personal frugal veggie garden guide?  On average, I'd say that I ate a salad every third day (sometimes more, sometimes less--which is why I say on average) for lunch, with enough greens to use an entire bin of salad you'd buy at the store... like the "Artisan Lettuce" ones with four heads in it (anyone who shops at Aldi might know what I'm talking about).  I think those cost about $2.50.  As far as money goes, I saved myself about $12.50 between the months of May to June.  Less than the price of a movie ticket at some theaters.  I would have "saved" more if I had harvested lettuce every day, but if I'm being honest, there's only so much salad I can eat before getting tired of it--not to mention the amount of time it takes to wash each leaf thoroughly was getting annoying after a short while.  So it probably wouldn't be worth the time, looking at it in terms of money saved.

Having kale year round means I can get key micronutrients straight from my yard
On the other hand, the amount of berries we've eaten has saved us much more money than if we bought it in the store.  Most of the berries we ate (black raspberries) aren't even available to buy in many stores.  Between me, my wife and my son, we probably ate six pints of black raspberries right off the vine, and had enough left to make a pear & raspberry cobbler.  We ate a good deal of red raspberries too, perhaps one or two pints altogether.

If I look at it from a different perspective, though, I did improve my nutrition considerably over the past few months, a lot of which sourced directly through growing my own food.  Leafy greens and berries are some of top sources of micronutrients, and we've been eating a lot of both.  Additionally, we avoided contributing to pollution, by not buying plastic containers that hold our food, and not having to ship our produce to a store by truck, or having to drive to get the store and back home again.  It's right out our back door and we can store it in reusable bowls or containers we already own.  Finally, we are eating food that completely free of pesticides and herbicides, something even organic food at the grocery store can't claim.

In any case, I don't have enough food to live comfortably if supplies were to suddenly disappear, however unlikely.  That is really my ultimate goal for my garden, realistic or not.  I want to be sure I have an impressive supply of nutritious and tasty food to eat, regardless of whatever future financial status I may have.  I am so far from this goal, even though I feel that I have made great strides in that direction over the past two years.  My hope is that my continued experimentation to find plants (especially edible perennials) that grow well in my yard, combined with my research on permaculture, will lead me to this goal in the long run.  Even if I can't obtain a completely self-reliant food supply, I will definitely substantially reduce my dependence on food from conventional farming sources.

Final Thoughts

Well, if you made it this far, I applaud you!  It was quite an update, given I haven't been updating the blog as frequently.  

Summer has just started up, and I might have a lot more optimism in my next post as all those summer veggies start to ripen!  Tomatoes, green beans, black-eyed peas, grapes, okra and blueberries should all be overwhelming us very soon.  

Thanks for checking out my post.  I would love to hear your comments, criticism and suggestions on my garden so far this year!  My next article will be directed towards people who want to get into permaculture, but don't know what they can do to start.  I will give a few simple ideas to begin practicing permaculture right away.

 Feel free to share, subscribe and drop a line in the comment box below.  Till next time, keep on gardening.

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