Garden Update: July 2013

Garden as of July 8th, 2013
Garden as of July 8th, 2013

Welcome back to the "Garden Update" segment, I hope you are excited, because we are! A lot has happened in the garden since the middle of June. We went on a vacation and left our garden in the hands of a friend and any folks willing to water over at Vedgewater. There are bright yellow paint sticks with the words "Water if Dry" written on them. This is an indicator that the plotholders are out of town and their water may need some love.  

We've been blessed with a good strong crop of green beans and a delightful team of kale plants. The kale is a Russian variety, and the leaves are coming out to be larger than your hand. The green beans are just getting started, and I'm pretty sure we will see a second flowering from them before they are done. We've eaten at least a couple dozen green beans each and I've been throwing them into stir fries and pastas for extra green crunch.

First picking of green beans!
First picking of green beans!

We have a couple square feet of beets which are not getting terribly large, but we pulled one for tasting last week and it was the sweetest beet you could imagine. It was slightly smaller than a ping pong ball, but totally worth growing for the flavor. I will probably pull the beets in the next week or so to make room for a fall planting. I had planted some little beets in and amongst the spring beets, but they were shaded too much and haven't done a lot. Hopefully, I can make some room for fall beets which will give us a little more sustenance going into the winter times.

Baby beets, almost ready to eat!
Baby beets, almost ready to eat!

Our tomato plants are really coming along, even the ones I thought were goners. We also recently discovered that our broccoli plants, which seemed basically worthless up to this point, are trying to flower. I'm pretty excited about the prospect of broccoli florets, but it's nice to know that if we never get traditional looking broccoli, we can still eat the leaves and the stem. Yum!

We have cucumbers, corn, peppers, and eggplant starting to bloom as well. It's a bit late for many of these plants, but for our first year out, we're pretty proud of what our little plants are doing. The cucumbers have taken quite a hit from the recent heat wave. Even when we water more than once a day, they are looking a bit wilted and sad. We had a couple days last week, when it was really hot, that it was pretty touch and go for a few of our plants. Some things really do not like heat. To help with keeping the ground cool and retaining water, we mulched with cocoa shells. I do not recommend cocoa shells to anyone who has dogs or has a garden frequented by dogs, as they can be dangerous to dogs (It's basically like feeding chocolate to your dog, if the dog tries to eat them off the ground). However, Peterson Garden Project does not allow dogs in their gardens, so we were able to try out cocoa shells for mulch. It seems to be going ok, but even with the mulch, the bed dries out pretty quickly. I'm looking forward to more rain and some slightly cooler weather.

These berries are better than candy.
These berries are better than candy.

The biggest surprise for me in this garden has been our volunteer strawberry plant. It has re-bloomed twice and continues to produce the sweetest and tangiest strawberries I have ever eaten. We were pleased to see that the previous owners of the plot had planted strawberries the year before, because strawberry plants do better after their first year. We have harvested a berry or two every couple days from this plant and the trend seems to be continuing. The heat did get to the strawberry plant a bit too, some of the berries appeared to be almost cooked on the bush, but I think this is mostly a lesson to think about how to provide shade for plants in a shade-less garden. Next year, I will probably add in a bit more infrastructure and plan my planting to have larger plants protect more delicate plants. In the meantime, we will continue to live and learn with the garden, and hopefully I'll be back in August with some gratuitous tomato porn.  Tomatoes are comin'!

Garden Update: The Setup!

If you have been following us on Instagram, you know we have a lovely 4’x8’ garden plot in Peterson Garden Project’s Vedgewater garden. Vedgewater is at the corner of Broadway and Magnolia and has ~180 plots. The land is on rent from Loyola, and this is their second year in operation. I’m hoping--pretty securely because I’ve seen several groups from Loyola working in the garden--that PGP’s lease on the space will be renewed. This is the closest community garden to our house and it’s almost like having a backyard garden. I started my garden planning back in March. I knew I would be growing things this year, because it was the first time in four years I would not be picking up and moving somewhere else. I got a huge stack of urban/small space/container gardening books out of the library. My favorite of all was definitely Grow Great Grub by Gayla Trail. Briefly, because this was not meant to be a book review post, this book is great because it goes through prepping a raised bed or container garden, the pests you might encounter, and the natural fertilizers you can use. Plus, it has plant-by-plant breakdowns of what you need to know to raise them. It’s super informative, and while I read it cover to cover once, I wanted to reference it so many times after returning it to the library that I just went and bought it.

Check out our seedlings!

Check out our seedlings!

Armed with knowledge, I set about the process of buying seeds and starting seedlings. I got seeds from three sources. First, I found organic heirloom seeds from Kenyon Organics on Etsy. I bought eggplant, cucumber, kale, chard, peppers, broccoli, basil, and three different types of tomatoes. Around the last week of March, I planted tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and broccoli from seed indoors. I used toilet paper rolls as seedling packs, and filled them with organic seeding soil. I had also purchased a seedling pot maker from Burpee, and used that when I ran out of toilet paper rolls. The toilet paper rolls seemed like an awesome idea; it was re-purposing, biodegradable, and about the right size. However, all the toilet paper rolls developed mold on the outside. They also started to unwind, which made watering difficult because the water would just pour out the top. I recommend the pot maker or just saving the containers from store bought seedlings, which is what I will mostly use next year. Kristl has an Ott lamp for crafting which I used as a makeshift grow light. I wasn’t growing that much, so it was the perfect size.

Back to the story... The peppers and eggplants never came up. The tomatoes all sprouted and grew pretty well, as did the broccoli. We went to the orientation before April 22, when the gardens opened. We got a garden plot assigned to us. We were ready. Peterson Garden Project had a giant plant sale the weekend of Mother’s Day. We bought two more tomatoes, four cucumbers, two eggplants, and three pepper plants. I also got two kinds of lettuce and arugula for our porch plant boxes.

Look at that fresh garden

Look at that fresh garden

It was starting to get warm, so I began to get antsy about planting, even though most of my sources were saying to wait until after Memorial day for transplants. I got Kristl and all the seedlings outside to the garden one evening mid May, and we put everything we had in the ground. Later that evening, there was a huge storm, and it really knocked our plants around. Only two tomatoes and two peppers survived from that initial planting. Our plot belonged to someone else last year, so there were strawberries, oregano, and parsley which were wholly unfazed, but it was back to the start for almost everything we planted. Lesson learned.

Luckily, the farm we have our CSA through--Angelic Organics--sent us an email offering free seedlings out at the farm. I also learned that the Bonnie plants sold at Home Depot are raised organically and they have heirloom varieties. I purchased some organic bush bean, beet, and lettuce seeds from Burpee, and calendula (a flower used to speed healing for burns and cuts) from Seed Savers Exchange. We came home from the CSA farm with beets, corn, green onions, and a couple small tomatoes. We grabbed some kale seedlings from Whole Foods, broccoli from Matty K's on Lincoln, and eggplant, tomatoes, and a jalapeno from Home Depot.

By the first of June, we had planted almost everything except the hot weather plants (peppers, eggplant, tomatoes). I took a beginner class from PGP, and they said to try not to plant those types of plants until it’s good and hot or they won’t thrive. So, I didn't put them in until June 10th.  At the moment, I feel like things are going pretty well. All the plants look relatively healthy and all the seeds I have planted have come up. The strawberries have already given us six impossibly delicious, plump berries. We have had enough kale to serve as a vegetable at dinner, and we've been sprinkling fresh oregano into lots of things.

Our little deck garden really grows

Our little deck garden really grows

The lettuces on the porch are going wild! Kristl had a poached egg and arugula sandwich on her sourdough bread and it looked delicious. The real question now is how these hot weather plants will deal with the persistently cool temperatures. We have had some really discouraging moments so far in this growing season, but the best advice I probably got at my beginner’s class was not to get emotionally attached to the vegetables. If they die because of weather or some hungry critter, that is out of my hands. My job is to make sure they are fed, watered and protected from weeds. If they don't make it, I can always plow them under and start over with something new.

Going forward, I will try to give you a garden update every 2-3 weeks. I want you to keep up with the mistakes and victories I am having on the agricultural front. I’m trying to be conscious of mistakes I may be making. I’m not trying to come off as a master gardener (although I would very much like to become one someday). I’m just an amateur trying to grow some food to fill my kitchen. Hopefully, I will learn some tricks to make the produce produced outweigh the cost of seeds, seedlings, and supplies. And hopefully, it will get into the 80's for a couple months so our big yield, hot weather crops will have a fighting chance!

Until next time, happy growing! And eating!

Everything's lookin' good!

Everything's lookin' good!