Welcome to the second interview of “How Does Your Garden Grow?” series on A Crunchy Life! Today we welcome Rachel of The Times We are Living In.
How/why did you start your garden? When someone asks you why you garden, how do you answer?
I started gardening because it was what I grew up with. My parents had a huge garden and mom would start canning in early spring and keep going until fall. We were pretty self-sufficient out of necessity and I had fond memories of things like sitting on the porch snapping beans, weeding the garden, harvesting the potatoes etc. So I started my own garden the first year I was actually home during the summer instead of in the field (2003) and have had a garden every year I haven’t been in the field (about 4 total years).
Plain and simple, I continue to garden because I love plants, I love watching them grow and produce, and I love the satisfaction of planning a week’s worth of meals during summer and only having to spend $10 at the grocery store!
Could you tell us some information about your garden?
I’m in zone 5 and we have a pretty clay-based soil which I struggle with each year. One day we’ll convert to a raised bed system but for now I buy local compost and rotatill this plus some sand in each year. I have two vegetable gardens…one about 60-70 square feet and another larger one about 300 square feet. I also have 3 small raised beds for herbs that I grow to use fresh and dry. We also have a number of fruit trees on our property that produce a bounty (apples, pears, plums, peaches, cherry…plus raspberries).
This is a shot of my smaller garden (~65 square feet)…which shows 1) I often neglect my garden as evidence by the weeds and 2) how I utilize space to the max. This has 7 tomato plants (4 varieties), 3 tomatillo plants, 4 eggplant, a row of bush beans, brussel sprouts, chard, kale, leeks, onions, and rhubarb. What’s been removed already was spinach, lettuce, radishes, and about 70 garlic plants. I’ll plant some fall spinach and radishes and then the garlic will go back in mid-October.
What types of plants do you typically grow? Are there some you plant every year without fail? Do you grow any perennials? If so, what are they?
The only perennials are herbs and rhubarb. I base what I grow on a couple things: how the vegetable can be preserved and how ‘easy’ it is (I work typically 80-100 hours a week so I don’t have a huge amount of time to process food), how much space is necessary relative to what the plant produces, whether it works for a short season, and I always plant a few ‘new’ experimental things each year. Staples to me are potatoes, zucchini, an assortment of peppers, garlic, tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, bush beans, cukes (pickling and slicers), onions, winter squash, basil, and greens. This year, I planted for the first time tomatillos, beets, carrots, brussel sprouts, leeks and sweet potatoes.
You mentioned working 80-100 hours a week. That’s a heavy schedule. How do you fit gardening into your schedule? I know it’s not your only “recreation” activity, since I’ve seen your beautiful knitting!
Well, as much as I hate it, sometimes things get by me and go to waste or I end up with more monster zucchinis than is probably normal! I’m not the best about weeding so the actual time for maintenance of the garden after the soil is tilled and the plants are in the ground is fairly small for me. For the most part, during the peak, I try to take one evening a week and one day on the weekend and just push to get as much done as possible. It’s not unusual for me to be making jam or canning tomatoes at 1 in the morning so I can get it done. I’ll be honest though and say that’s probably the least enjoyable part of gardening for me…not the processing itself, but how I have to jam it all into short periods of time. It can tend to feel more like ‘one more chore’ than something fun. And of course for about 6 weeks a year, my other ‘recreational activities’ suffer! This time conflict is also one reason I love to grow things like potatoes, winter squash, garlic, peppers etc…you plant, harvest, stick in a cool, dry place (or pop whole in the freezer for peppers) and you have food for now or winter with barely any time invested.
Are there any crops/plants that are on your “wish list” to grow? What are they? Why do you want to grow them?
I’d love to have the space to grow grains and the space to grow beans for drying. I want to grow them just for the desire to experiment and the challenge to go even one step closer to ‘the basics’.
Are there particular beans you’d like to grow for drying? I’ve thought about that as well, but haven’t gone so far to research them. I don’t know, for instance, how much space they require.
I’ve not done the research yet either so I can’t offer suggestions. But what initially got me excited was listening to an episode of The Splendid Table about a year ago where they interviewed Steve Sando and he talked about all the varieties out there and where to get them. At the end, they mentioned his book ‘Heirloom Beans: Great recipes for dips and spreads, soups and stews, salads and salsas, and much more from Rancho Gordo’. Not only full of recipes but apparently he goes into detail about varieties and identification along with growing tips. It’s been on my wish list to buy as soon as I have some time to actually read it! If anyone is interested, the link to that episode is: http://splendidtable.publicradio.org/listings/shows09_03_28.html. Via podcast, you can still listen to it.
What do you do to enrich your soil? How often do you do it?
Compost mainly. Once a year at the end of the season we’ll dump a truckload on each garden. The bigger garden has been problematic due to poorer soil so the second year after its development we let it rest and planted a cover crop for nitrogen-enrichment. We may do this again next year. I also use Epsom salt for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant…about a tablespoon when planting and once a month thereafter.
Nitrogen fixing cover crop that we planted one year to help out the larger garden (mostly legumes as shown by this pea variety).
Forgive my naivety—what do the Epsom salts do for the tomatoes & other plants?
My understanding is the benefits are due to its constituents – magnesium and sulfur. Magnesium is pretty beneficial for plants right from the beginning when the seeds are germinating. It strengthens the plant cell walls and helps it make chlorophyll; it also enhances the plant’s efficiency in absorbing nitrogen and phosphorous from the soil. Sulphur is useful for repelling pests and making the plant resistant to diseases. For tomatoes in particular, a magnesium deficiency is pretty normal. The leaves of the plants start yellowing and the production of flowers and fruits may be affected. So supposedly epsom salt is benefical to the health and fruit production of the plant (though not scientifcally proven). I learned this tip about 2 years ago and I am certain I see a difference in my tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. (this is also good for roses but I haven’t tried that yet).
How do you water your garden?
It’s quite dry here. The rain ends about mid-to late June and returns late September normally so watering is a must. Every 3 to 4 days is normal but more or less depending on the heat. I just watch my plants and they tell me if I need to water.
Do you have any gardening woes? Are there any pests or other issues that plague you and your garden? How do you handle them?
Knock on wood, I’ve been lucky with pests of the insect variety. This year I planted brussel sprouts and they seem to be a target of aphids. I haven’t really had time to deal with them but I hear a good water spray is a common remedy. Otherwise, I do some precautionary stuff like planting marigolds in amongst tomatoes etc. My biggest gardening woes are deer (but we use electric fence to keep them out and it works great), and weather. We have a relatively short season anyway, but also notoriously unpredictable spring and fall weather. So if one year has an unusually late spring (like this year) or an unusually early frost, production can be reduced more than half and some species won’t even grow.
Do you have any favorite techniques or garden habits you’d like to share? Favorite resources?
The thing I’d like to share may seem a bit odd. Last year I finally made up a recipe book (3-ring binder) specifically for vegetables from the garden and another for the fruit. The tabs are labeled by vegetable and by fruit rather than the conventional way of appetizers, soups, baked goods etc. I put all recipes using that particular vegetable as well as preserving directions/suggestions in the appropriate tab. If I have a cucumber ready or some peppers or zucchini, I can flip to that section and easily come up with a use/meal for it quickly or find directions for how I preserved it in the past. This has been a life saver this year and I’m finding less and less goes to waste since I have those recipes at my finger tips.
A mosaic of some of my preserving methods. Top left going clockwise: zucchini pickes, plum jam, slow-roasted tomatoes with garlic, thyme, and olive oil, canned tomatoes, roasted eggplants for freezing, pickles.
I love this idea! It makes me want to cry when the things we’ve grown go to waste because we haven’t been quick enough to use them or were at a creative loss when we harvested them. This sounds like a great winter project!
Any favorite stories to share?
I’d say it’s my beet experience from this year. I planted them in with my herbs and when they were about 6 inches tall, the deer started eating the entire plant. Every day I’d come out and find more gone. Interesting to me was that I planted them haphazardly all around the herbs and the deer picked through eating the beets, but didn’t touch any other plant. It took about 3 weeks before every single plant was gone…as if I never even planted them!
What would you consider your biggest learning experience to date with your garden?
I think two things…gardening for a short growing season and learning how to use space. The former is pretty self-explanatory. The latter? One example is that I love corn on the cob and so when I got a garden space I wanted to plant corn. Sure, it can grow here but I found quickly that for the space it utilizes to get a few cobs you could have gotten at the farmer’s market for a couple of bucks, it’s really not worth it. I also disregard many of the space requirements by planting in a zigzag pattern rather than rows. You can put more plants in less space this way. Another example is to plant things like cucumbers or melons or winter squash (traveling vines) in amongst vertical plants.
Leading from your biggest learning experience, what do you consider to be your biggest gardening flop? Your biggest success?
I haven’t had any gardening flops. That’s not to say I haven’t had things not produce or die early etc. But to me, I garden because it’s fun so if something doesn’t work I just chalk it up to a learning experience. For example, consider the above story. I planted the beets in the herb beds because it was the most ‘workable’ soil after having a very wet spring. The herb beds are not protected from the deer so I learned that next year I need to work up a space within the electricity for beets. And I learned that though carrots were planted in the same beds, the deer didn’t touch those…so those can go in the raised beds again next year. I don’t consider this a flop…just part of the gardening experience.
My biggest success…I’ve learned how to garden to meet our average season and I’ve learned how to garden to compliment rather than interfere with the other demands of my life.
I love your attitude toward your garden experiences. It’s the kind of grace I’d like to feel when things don’t go as planned. Another work in progress for me!
How do those in your life respond to the garden?
My husband loves plants and landscaping/gardening so I think he really enjoys the garden. He of course also enjoys the meals made from the garden bounty! He doesn’t help with processing (although he probably would if I asked) but anything else I ask his help on, he is more than willing to do.
Do you have any favorite things you like to make with your garden bounty?
Hmmm…outside of canning/freezing/processing recipes…I just put a post up on some of my favorite zucchini recipes…I like to make salsa…pickes…pesto …home-made tomato soup with slow roasted tomatoes…butternut squash and caramelized onion galette …butternut squash and red lentil soup …tomato and corn pie …Italian Squash Pie …golden potato and leek soup …chicken, roasted butternut squash, and feta lasagna…oh and applesauce and jams/butters/fruit desserts/dried fruit from the various fruit trees. The list could go on!!
Thanks for sharing all of those great links with all of us! I always welcome new-to-me recipes!
What is going to bring you back to the dirt in 2011?
The constant challenge of gardening and the joy of at least partial self-sufficiency will bring me back to the dirt any summer I’m not in the field.
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