Friday, October 31, 2014

Vegetables have much to teach us

Not all experiments succeed. But, I did learn a lot this year.

Fall-planting young broccolis in raised pots did not work.

Since I'm putting the garden to bed now for the upcoming winter, I wanted to post an update about my raised pots experiment. When I first got into the garden this spring to do cleanup for planting, I found that every one of my six broccolis I had planted the previous fall were gone. Dead. Five of them also disappeared, and only a one inch stub was left of the remaining one. I don't know if they froze and then got eaten by slugs, or if the slugs got them before they had a chance to freeze.

Growing spring/summer broccoli in two-gallon pots did not work for me.

I bought six new baby broccolis as soon as they appeared in the garden stores, and potted them in those same pots, stirring up the soil when I did, to make sure it wasn't particularly packed down. The new brocs grew, but quite a bit more slowly than all the brocs I had grown in previously years, and attained less than half the typical size. Their little heads were so small they were hardly worth cooking, so I ate them fresh in the garden. They were quite tasty.

Peas in pots did great.

I also tried growing my snow peas in one-gallon pots, completely buried in the ground, to keep the moles from unearthing them. That worked great. The peas grew well and I got lots to eat from them.

My greenhouse cantaloupes also failed.

I also tried growing cantaloupes in ten-gallon pots in my little glass greenhouse. They took a while longer than I expected to sprout, but once the weather warmed up, they grew very well in the pots (three per pot) and got to a respectable size. Despite the fact that they only got sun until about 1pm, they even flowered, producing dozens of male and female flowers. Sadly, they never got pollinated, even though I left the greenhouse vents and upper doorway open, hoping to encourage some of the million flying bugs in my yard to do the pollinating for me. I'm guessing that proves that if you grown melons in enclosed spaces, you're going to have to do the pollinating. But I also wondered if it's actually crawling bugs that do the pollinating on melons.

It was another good year for strawberries, too, but not so much for my strawberry bed.

Never put a wide bed where you don't have comfortable, easy access on all sides.

I planted 3 alternated rows of strawberries in my 2.5' wide bed, but placed it less than a foot away from my back fence because I wanted it to get as much sun as possible. Bad idea. Bending over to harvest strawberries is really hard on your lower back. If I had left enough room to sit or even kneel  on that side, I would have been a lot happier.

High beds are much better than low ones.

Bending over, period, is really hard on your lower back. I'll never bother putting in a low bed again. Too much work for too little gain. But again, if I had left more room all around the bed, I could have sat in my weeding seat and still had excellent access to every plant, strawberry, and weed in the bed. Lesson learned.

But there was some good news:

Once you get one good crop of potatoes, you'll never have to plant them again.

Despite the fact that I planted no potatoes this year, I had as many healthy plants as I ever had in the previous three years. Purples, reds, and fingerlings—all sprouted and grew superbly all year. Most of them are still in the ground; I'll probably start pulling them out soon, now that my garage is cool enough to store them for a while. It really surprised me that I got so many, because I did what I thought was a really careful and thorough job picking out every single tiny tater I could find when I harvested last year, and pulled up the first few dozen potato sprouts this spring.

As a result of all this negative—but nonetheless constructive—feedback from Mother Nature, I'm going do major reconstruction in my garden next year, in order to solve what might be the biggest lesson of all:

Don't put water where you don't want anything to grow.

My entire garden, including the veggies and orchard, are on a slope. Consequently, no matter where I put water, some amount of it always ends up going downhill. Because I have always planted veggies right up to the lowest part of their garden—so they can get the most sun possible—part of that water flows on top of the underlying clay into my neighbor's field, where it supports the largest and healthiest crop of weeds in his whole five acres. And all of that is my fault, because I'm the one who's watering them. The plastic sheeting I put up over the fence and bury into the dirt effectively keep my sprinkler from watering the surface of his dirt, but it does nothing to keep the water in my soil from seeping downward. And because I've created a wonderfully moist patch of garden uphill from him, one of the nastiest invasive weeds in the western US keeps spreading from his field into my garden: Russian thistle.

Russian thistles spread both by seed and by long white rhizomes that grow deep beneath the surface of the soil. My neighbor minimizes the production of seed by mowing his field one or two times a year, but that doesn't stop the rhizomes that are happily growing uphill toward the water I'm inadvertently providing them. I dig them up when I can, and spot treat them with roundup in the spring, but I can't stop new ones from coming.

So, I'm going to take some drastic measures next year. For starters, I'm not going to plant anything in the ground. I've bought some big plastic tubs I'm going to use for nice, tall, planting tubs, for everything I want to grow next year. Much cheaper than I would have to spend for the wood for raised beds. Even the potatoes will go into the tubs. No more in the ground. That means I'll probably be pulling them up all spring and summer.

Second, I'm not going to grow anything in the bottom half of the garden, next to the fence. I'm going to keep it as dry as possible, and I also plan to cover that area with a woven black plastic fabric used a lot around here by nurseries who grow their plants in pots. That will keep the thistles from coming up and growing, and it should also slow them down from spreading into my yard. I don't know how long that will work, but making sure that dirt gets none of my veggie water during their growing season should help a lot.

I only had to water my small orchard of fruit trees twice this summer, and next year their roots will be even longer. There are a few thistles coming there as well, but I can't dig those trees up and put them in pots—they're too big.

Diminishing returns

Sadly, my veggie garden faces one major threat I can't do anything about: it's surrounded by healthy, growing Douglas fir trees. In a few more years, my downhill neighbor's young firs will be tall enough to block the early morning sun from reaching my garden. As I mentioned, they already get no sun after 2pm at the latest, from the already 100-ft-tall firs in my South neighbor's yard, and the same size firs in my own yard. I've been thinking of moving all my strawberries up closer to my house, where they'll get the maximum afternoon sun I can give them. But every year that sun gets less and less, because the surrounding firs grow 1-2 feet every year. If I can't get the money to take down some of my trees, it won't be many years before I won't even have enough sun for my blueberries.

That's what happens in a forest.

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