Preparing for Winter, Pt. 1

Confession: every year it gets harder for me to say goodbye to Summer. And right now I’m very much in denial about what season we’re now in so it’s challenging to look ahead and begin planning for Winter and Spring. Sadly, the season haven’t waited on me before so I probably won’t succeed in staving off winter this year either.

My garden isn’t looking as lush as it did a few months ago. The upside to this is that things don’t require regular attention when I come home at the end of the day. The obvious downside is that, with fewer thriving plants, there’s nothing to bring in and put on the table. And that means I’ve definitely noticed an increase in produce spending at the grocery store.

I pulled up all of the tomato plants (minus the stunted Beefsteak) two weekends ago. We’d experienced a stretch of rainy weather and they were looking well past their prime. I made sure to pick all of the fruit (ripe or not) and set the bowl on the counter. The green tomatoes are slowly ripening and tart cherry tomatoes can still make for a nice addition to a meal. All of my tomato plants were in pots (albeit large pots) so it didn’t free up much raised bed space, but it offer the opportunity to hose off and stack a lot of pots in the shed (read: motivation to tidy up the shed).

The weather was remarkably nice the last two weekends so I also pulled up my mini sweet bell peppers from the front bed. This south-facing location was a prime spot for peppers; I’ll continue with what works and plant peppers in the same location next year after I amend the soil. My Padrón pepper plants are still in this same bed. I’ve got my fingers crossed for one or two more peppers before I pull up those plants in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. My plan is to use this front bed for a variety of onions (and maybe garlic) so I will need to get those in the ground before our evening temperatures consistently drop below freezing.

My dahlias are in a raised bed on the other side of the front yard. Their vigor is fading (and the powdery mildew is thriving) so I’ll dig up the tubers in the next few weeks, store them, and put more onions in their place. Yes, we’re going to have lot of onions (fingers crossed!). Last year I bought onion starts which looked just like green onions but this year I opted for two bags I found at a local nursery. They were a fair price but, even after gifting a bunch to a friend, I still have a lot leftover!

I’ll wrap up this blog post now that I’ve outlined my plans for everything in the front yard. I’ll pick up with my plans for the backyard in a subsequent post. Tell me, what kinds of preparations are you making for your yard?

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My Vow to Asparagus

In a previous post, I rattled off a list of the plants that I was planning on growing this year and I said one of those would be asparagus, assuming I hadn’t totally killed the crowns when I planted them. I would like to give you an update on those particular royals .(Get it? Crowns = royalty?)

I planted 10 Jersey Knight (male) crowns near the beginning of the year once we had returned from Australia. I bought them spontaneously while at my local nursery because they were there and I was there so naturally it happened. I did mull it over, there was lots of internal debate while my husband waited patiently, but in the end we walked out of there with a paper bag filled with asparagus crowns (and planting direction that left much to be desired). I had inquired with the nursery staff if I could wait a while before planting them because we had a brutally wet and cold winter and I hadn’t prepared the soil where I wanted to plant them. I was told that if I kept them in a cool, dark space they would last for a few weeks.

I will save you the details but, in short, it was more than a few weeks before I finally got them in the ground. Oops. As it was, I didn’t feel the ground was as prepared as it could have been. Now for those of you who have never seen an asparagus crown before, I have included a picture I found via Google. asparaguscrownsmThey look pretty unassuming and they look DEAD. I wasn’t filled with much confidence when I pulled them out of the bag on a dreary Sunday morning. The mostly unhelpful directions said that they should be soaked overnight before planting. @#$*@%?!? Soaked overnight??? I was peeved (here’s a lesson to always read the directions before doing anything) but proceeded to follow the directions. I filled up a large bucket, placed the crowns in the water, and let them sit overnight. I scrambled the next day when I came home from work – I didn’t have a whole lot of time to play in the backyard and it was starting to rain (again). I unceremoniously plopped each crown into a small whole I had dug for each, shoveled some dirt on top, and stared. I felt like a terrible plant-parent. I began a self-induced guilt trip in which I told myself that I shouldn’t have rushed this, I should have waited until I could have amended the soil more, and that this would probably fail and it would be my fault.

Did I mention that asparagus needs 3 years before you can begin harvesting? I didn’t? Oh, well there you go. 3 years. 1,095 days (or 1,096 if there’s a leap year). If this failed, I would have to start ALL OVER AGAIN. I spent the following weeks trying to read everything I could on growing asparagus. It didn’t encourage me, rather it made me feel even worse because:

  1. The soil should have been amended more and I didn’t check the pH
  2. Most sources only recommended soaking the crowns for 15 or 20 minutes (to avoid rot)
  3. The crowns should only be under enough soil to cover them, then as they send up their first spears you should add a little more soil until you’ve completely filled in the hole.

Nope. Nope. Nope. I didn’t do any of these things. One of my gardening books said that over time, while waiting for the first spears to appear, you will lose all hope and completely forget that you planted asparagus. I never FORGOT about them, but I didn’t lose all hope.

The final nail in the asparagus coffin came when my well-meaning husband was digging up brambles and accidentally dug up one of the crowns. He turned to me to show me his prize, with a giant grin of satisfaction on his face, only to meet my horrified face when I saw that he had dug up one of my crowns! He felt terrible but not as terrible as I felt when I examined the mass of roots and saw no evidence of growth. I was heartbroken and tossed the crown into our yard waste bin. That was it, I thought. They’re all dead.

It wasn’t until months later (May 20) to be exact when things began to turn around. I was wandering the premises of our back and side yard, looking for weeds, when something caught my eye. No, it couldn’t be, I thought. But yes! There, camouflaged by the surrounding weeds was a thin, little asparagus spear. EUREKA! I began to look in the other spots where I had planted crowns and found a second one. HOLY COW! Over the next few weeks, I watched with pride as every single crown sent up spears. Chances are good that if the tenth spear hadn’t been dug up (and then discarded) it would have sprouted as well. Seeing the spears grow and unfold was one of the proudest moments in my (young) life. We don’t have any pets or children yet so…yeah this is my life.

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TIL asparagus (at least when it’s young) is very difficult to photograph

Now I check on them daily. They were each given their own dripper when I hooked up my customized irrigation system and I give them fish emulsion every 3-4 weeks so they stay nourished. They’ll spend the rest of the summer storing up nutrients in preparation for winter. Once the fronds turn brown and brittle, I will cut them back and cover everything with some compost and/or straw mulch to keep them warm when our temperature start to dip below freezing.

For now, I’ll take comfort in knowing that I didn’t kill them in the first year and I’ll eagerly await the arrival of new spears in the spring. Once that happens, it will only be one more year before they’ll be robust enough to harvest the following spring (2019).

Have you ever grown asparagus? Do you have any tips or tricks that you think I should be aware of? Please share them in the comments!

The Taste of Success

Summer can fast and hard. The weather has normalized a bit but before that we had a record-breaking dry streak and quite a few days in the high 80s and 90s. That meant two things: #1 my husband bought a portable A/C unit and #2 my tomatoes and peppers flourished! However, I quickly realized that I was in quite the predicament when, day after day, I would return from the yard with a bowl full of golden cherry tomatoes. They are sweet and delicious and, as you may know, you can’t beat a fresh, homegrown tomato. We ate them by the handful; we tossed them in our salads; we had a lot of tomatoes.

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Here’s the “calm before the storm” when I picked the first tomato of the season on July 6.

 

 

 

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Here are “a few more” from the end of July, complete with some of the last peas and beans and one of the first padrón peppers.

 

 

 

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Oh look! More beautiful tomatoes from just a few weeks ago. At this point, my husband and I were starting to wonder what we were going to do with all of these. We wanted to find a new way to eat them that didn’t make their incredible flavor.

That’s when we looked at the tomatoes, the peppers, and some onion sitting on the counter and thought: SALSA! Now I am a total sucker for fresh salsa or pico de gallo. I border on the mindset that you should just eat the stuff straight instead of wasting precious stomach-space on chips. So we threw everything into the food processor (as well as some garlic), added a touch of salt and pepper, and PRESTO! The freshest golden cherry tomato salsa EVER. So simple. So good. I was impressed with the way the sweetness of the tomatoes blended with the hot peppers and produced some of the best darn salsa I’ve ever eaten. It didn’t taste like a traditional red salsa but I was certainly sorry to see when it was gone.

Beyond the beautiful salsa (I’m sorry I don’t have a picture but that just proves how excited we were to eat it all) is something that I am even more proud of. Nearly everything (with the exception of the salt & pepper and garlic which came from Costco) was grown in my backyard. I actually have some homegrown garlic as well so we could have used that if it wasn’t for the bushel that we got from Costco. I was so proud to produce things that went directly into a delicious dish that my husband and I enjoyed one evening.

When we were at services last Friday night, the Rabbi asked the congregation to think about a blessing in your life. It could be something personal, something you did for a loved one, or something you did for the community. I am a little embarrassed to say that my husband and I looked at each other with the mutual thought of “uhhh what have we done that has been a blessing?” Then we had to share with someone we didn’t know sitting next to us. We politely asked the woman to my right to go first. She had a wonderful example of how she is hoping to write a book on her family’s history in the southern US. Wow! Cool! I was still at a loss. My husband finally said that he is a “fixer” – he helps people at work when their devices (computer, phone, etc.) aren’t working properly. He does quite a lot people. Fantastic! People love you! Maybe now we can be done, I thought. Nope. Nada. No dice. They turned to me with expectant looks. I got very nervous and the social anxiety started to creep in. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to brag about something that someone else wouldn’t think was worthy of being considered a “blessing.” I didn’t want to seem like I thought I was the greatest thing since sliced challah (a type of bread).

Finally I timidly said “Well, I guess my garden is a blessing…?” I explained to the woman next to me that I love to grow things and I try to work towards being a little bit more sustainable every year. She thought that was wonderful and my husband agreed. Thank goodness; bullet dodged. Perhaps I should spend a little more time thinking about what my addiction to growing fruits and vegetables means for the bigger picture. Yes, it does help to calm my inner self and it brings me joy. But it also makes my husband happy to see me happy and to have fresh food on the table. And it also helps out the planet a little as well: more food for bees, hummingbirds, and other pollinators (not to mention the critters that enjoy taking bites out of things…) and maybe it decreases my carbon footprint by a smidge. That seems like a success in my book.

Grow What You Need (And What You Can)

 

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My latest order of seeds.

If you’re just starting to flex your green thumb, it can be daunting to pick just one or two vegetable plants to grow. The information I’m about to provide is applicable no matter what size yard (or bright apartment window) you have at your disposal.

Plant things you will actually use/eat/cook!

I cannot say this enough. Yes, it’s very exciting if you decide that you are going to grow horseradish root because none of your friends grow it and you want to stand out. But ask yourself: do you like horseradish? Do you like it enough to put in the time and energy to grow it and then have far more horseradish than you know what to do with?

Or you might decide to grow some cilantro on your windowsill. Do you use cilantro? Are you one of those people (like my husband) who thinks cilantro tastes like soap?

I imagine you will feel rather silly as you are trying to give away horseradish root to everyone you meet. Just as silly as trying to “like” cilantro if all you can do is think of handsoap when it touches your tongue. Do yourself a favor and pick something you like and will eat. My very first days of growing things in my Aerogarden consisted of nothing but herbs: basil and chives. And I cooked with them! Or sometimes just ate them by themselves…

This year will be the first fall and winter that we are in our house. We bought our home last October and then were gone for the first month of 2017 so I didn’t have much of a chance to grow any fall/winter crops. In addition to the lettuce and arugula, I plan on growing some red kale (!), as well as broccoli, and brussel sprouts! I opted for non-traditional varieties of each to bring a little more color to the drab landscape that is the Pacific Northwest during our lengthy rainy season. As I said before, the kale is a deep reddish burgundy and both the broccoli and brussel sprouts should have a purple-ish hue to them. All three of these are things that we already eat in our day-to-day lives and I am looking forward to being able to put a bit more on the table during the colder months when my tomatoes and peppers will be just a memory.

If you live in an apartment or condo without any outdoor space, your best bet would be to grow herbs in a sunny window because they don’t require a lot of space and you can fit quite a few in a relatively narrow pot (perfect for the depth of a windowsill). You might even be able to grow a small pot of lettuce if the space gets enough sun. If you have a deck or patio, you have even more options as many seed companies are now carrying varieties of vegetables that are well-suited for containers! You might have noticed in the picture above that I ALSO got seeds for eggplant and two varieties of squash. These three are all summer plants as they require a lot of heat. I may already be a little late in starting them (planted seeds this past weekend) but I’ll give it a shot. I chose all three of these varieties because they were tolerant of being planted in containers and their vines don’t get super long. The fruits are smaller but when it is just my and my husband we probably don’t require plants that produce high yields of very large fruits. I tried to find some or all of the seeds pictured above in my local garden store but unfortunately their selection only covers the basics and not the more unusual or specialty varieties. That was also part of the reason I ended up ordering some summer-planting seeds; the shipping is flat rate so I figured it wise (and cost-effective) if I just bought more seeds now instead of deciding in a few months that I would like to order something else. I want to believe that this will be my last order for many months. I do think that I will try growing potatoes in a large pot but I can get seed potatoes from my local garden store when the season for that gets closer.

I would love to be able to grow some citrus trees (oranges or perhaps lemons) but sadly it comes back to my point of growing “what you can.” Our climate up here just isn’t suited for keeping citrus outside all year round. At some point in the fall or winter, one has to bring the small varieties indoors and that doesn’t appeal to me.

There are all kinds of setups, gadgets, and gizmos to help you grow things indoors and out but prices can vary and these things may not be practical. I don’t focus on these things because I would rather gear my posts to a wider audience instead of just those who can buy the fancy things. If you grow some herbs on your windowsill and decide you love this kind of thing, it’s 100% okay to splurge on a hydroponic kit to help you grow more things. Start small and start smart!

Fruits of Your Labor

Believe it or not, the weather did eventually warm up enough to start growing my cool weather plants outside. I direct sowed spinach seeds and planted lettuce arugula that I started inside. It’s always a little traumatizing when you first plant seedlings outside. It’s best to acclimate them to the wind and temperatures by placing their pots outside for a few hours and then bringing them in (or covering them) at night. Gradually you can work up to keep them outside 24/7 and then it’s safe to plant them in the ground/raised bed. It took mine a little time to get going but then it seemed like they visibly grew every day.

I would check on them every day to observe their progress. I had purchased a plant cover online to keep them warm as it was still a little chilly in the evenings. It was made of a special “fabric” that let in light and water (rain) but maintained temperatures better than if they were exposed to the elements without any protection. This plant cover also made the surprise even better as I would throw back the cover to see the little plants growing. I think the spinach was the cutest to watch. It developed the sweetest baby spinach leaves that filled me with so much pride!

In what seemed like a matter of days (but was really more like weeks) there were viable greens for harvesting. And harvest is exactly what I did!

The first harvest of greens was a modest one. I picked these on May 3. This pile is a mix of kale, arugula, and lettuce. I don’t think I had picked any spinach yet at this point.20170503_181722

Just take a look at those colors! So many great hues of green, way better than when we buy lettuce at the store and the flavor of these is second to none.

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This pile (above) was picked five days later on May 7. Slightly more bulk to this one as you can see the gorgeous spinach leaves on top. I also like this photo because of the well-placed ray of sunshine. This is the first year that I have grown spinach (this variety is Olympia) and I don’t think I’ll ever omit it from the garden again. It grew at a quick pace and it has been a great producer. I tend to avoid store-bought bunches of spinach

because they are always so dirty (mud/grit) that it becomes quite the production to get it clean. But homegrown spinach is nearly immaculate straight from the garden and much, much larger…

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For your information, I have normal-sized hands for a woman who is 5’9ish. This beautiful and vibrant spinach leaf was the size of my hand! You can’t find something like this in your average grocery store! And it tasted sooo good! We’ve had some of the best salads this last month or so when the greens were at their peak production levels.

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I picked this batch at the end of May. I believe this was my largest haul to date. I never completely strip ALL of the leaves off of my plants because I like to let them keep going for as long as possible. There’s a little bit of everything here; from left to right: arugula, kale, spinach, lettuce. My husband and I just recently started eating arugula and it’s made for a nice addition to our salads. If you’ve never had arugula, it has a slightly bitter/tart flavor compared to traditional lettuce but it is very nice (in my opinion) if you mix it in with other greens. I used a variety of arugula (Speedy Salad) that matured in about a month. It grew like a weed once it got going but was definitely prone to bolting (growing quickly and then producing flowers which shortens the lifespan).

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Oh the humble radish. This was the best of my radish crop, I am sorry to say. I planted nice of them in a space of about 12 inches square but they struggled. They grew lovely, lush greens but the bulbs failed to develop on most of them. I was very disappointed so I did some sleuthing online recently and I believe I identified the problem. Apparently, if you do not provide a regular source of water to keep the soil damp, radish will grow super long roots (in search of water) without developing the tasty bulbs that I wanted so badly. This sounds like it could be the root of my troubles (Get it? “Root”?) Radishes also grow like weeks so I will continue to experiment with these in my garden until I can master this basic crop.

Recently my peas have started to bloom and just this week I began to see quite a few pods!

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Thus far, we’ve eaten about a dozen of the largest ones. I didn’t use a proper pea trellist this year because I didn’t want to spend them money. I used an extra tomato cage I had lying around and tied some twine around the bottom so the peas could start to make their way up it. It was a satisfactory alternative considering I didn’t want to spend the money on a pea trellis. The tomato cage would certainly be enough if money is a limiting factor or if you don’t have the time to make or buy a pea trellis. The only downside I have found to using the tomato cage is that the peas became very bushy and only developed flowers on the outermost vines.

 

I plan on focusing on summer vegetables in upcoming posts as well as how to choose the right vegetables to grow for your family!

Getting a Head Start

I love to be over-prepared. I love to plan ahead. Ask my husband and he will tell you that we had the major components of our wedding planned when we still had the better part of a year until our actual nuptials. There is no such thing as too much planning and I adamantly believe in planning ahead when you want to start planting for Spring (or any season when you will be working with plants from seed). After reading one of my previous posts you will know that the weather has put a major damper on outside work. This is just another reason why you’ll want to start your vegetables inside well in advance. This year I have expanded my plans (hello real backyard) and these are the my plants:

  • bush beans
  • peas
  • tomatoes (cherry and beefsteak) [started indoors]
  • sweet mini peppers [started indoors]
  • radishes
  • carrots
  • lettuce [started indoors]
  • arugula [started indoors]
  • spinach
  • asparagus (tentative, depending on the success with crowns)
  • assorted herbs

It’s important to know which of these are suitable for starting indoors and which should be direct sown in the ground when the weather is hospitable. Most respectable seed brands will give you all of this info on the seed packets. I am a huge fan of Territorial Seed Company out of Oregon because they have a huge variety and, with similar climates, I feel safe in assuming that their advice will work in my neck of the woods.

I start out by tossing some seeds into a small pot (just a few inches in diameter) to see how many of the seeds will be viable. I start with a special seed starting potting mix. It’s finer than typical soil which is good for little seeds when they first start.

It’s very likely that you will get more sprouts than you need so it’s recommended to snip some to make room for the one you will keep. Seedlings don’t like to be crowded! If you can’t bring yourself to snip seedlings then your 20170309_122303little pot will look like this in no time! These were my tomato seedlings from earlier this year. Quite the crop! They grew like weeds so I ended up giving away quite a few to my neighbors. Something to note about this photo (and something I learned) is that these got a bit too leggy. They are literally reaching for the plant light! If your seedlings start to look like this then you need to move your light closer or invest in another plant light.

When seedlings get to be about the size in the picture (have a couple of sets of true leaves) it’s time to pot them up and give them their own space!

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You won’t need much when you pot up your seedlings.

  • Pots of some kind (pictured above). I used the same size as the one that I start the seeds in. You don’t want to put your tiny seedling in a pot that is too large.
  • A shovel
  • Potting mix. Now is the time to use real potting mix! The seed starting mix isn’t super rich in nutrients and your seedlings are hungry.

Gently pour out the contents of your pot with all seedlings and separate them. You’ll be able to get a good sense of how developed the root systems are. Put some soil in your new pots and gently place each seedling (those that you are keeping) into its own pot and fill in with soil. This is a good opportunity to plant your seedlings a little deeper in the soil if their stems are flimsy (i.e. leggy). This also helps to strengthen the roots.

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When you are done your seedlings should look something like this! Hooray, you did it! Now they have room to stretch out and grow. At this point they will still need to stay inside under a plant light for a while. If your weather is anything like ours, you might need to pot them up AGAIN before it is warm enough for them to be placed outside.

Here are my seedlings hanging out in the laundry room under their plant light. Some of them haven’t been separated yet so you can see different stages of starting seeds inside.

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Mission Statement

There are many reasons why we can and should grow fruits and vegetables for ourselves. Depending on who you are and the life you lead, the list is long or short but definitely varies from person to person. 

Here are a couple of the reasons I have become so passionate about gardening edible plants.

  1. Better quality! I have no problem admitting that, before I grew my first head of lettuce, I wasn’t aware of how mediocre store-bought lettuce can be. I just didn’t know what freshly picked lettuce was capable of looking like. Now that I know, it’s a disheartening experience when I buy produce from the store to supplement what is homegrown or to fill in when we’re between growing seasons. I want to be clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with buying vegetables from the store; I am not here to food shame anyone. But it’s vitally important to realize that the food reaching people who shop at grocery stores is not the best it could be. We could get into a whole set of discussions on food insecurity, food deserts, organic vs. non-organic, and the cost of quality produce BUT we won’t because this is not the place. Just be aware of the need for improvement.
  2. Cheaper* Now I have used an asterisk here because one should consider the other non-monetary costs of growing your own vegetables, mainly time. However, here is a very quick example to put things in perspective. Organic romaine lettuce costs between $3 and $5 at my local grocery store (depending on how many heads you get). Yes, non-organic is less than that; I haven’t bought non-organic lettuce in awhile but let’s assume it is $2-$3 (not necessarily a large difference but when you are on a very fixed income it can be HUGE). Okay so I go to the store and I get my organic lettuce and after tax I have just spent roughly $5. I go home, wash it off, tear it up, and we eat all of it in salads over the course of a few days (we are big salad eaters FYI). Alternatively, you could spend roughly the same amount of money on a packet of seeds (http://www.territorialseed.com/product/Buttercrunch_Conventional_and_Pelleted_Lettuce_Seed) that will last you years. I currently have 6 heads of lettuce growing in my back yard. So 6 seeds were used (+ maybe another 6-12 depending on how many you plant per hole in the soil). And we have gotten 3+ harvests out of these cute little heads of lettuce when supplementing with our kale and arugula. Here in the PNW, there isn’t much need to water during most of the growing season for lettuce and they are pretty self-sufficient as long as you keep the pests away. I personally do not make a lot in my current job and I am very fortunate that my husband is able to support the two of us in many ways. So I get a great deal of satisfaction when I can go out into my yard and literally put food on the table for us.
  3. Rewarding! Now this reason is a bit more arbitrary but few things give me quite as much satisfaction as knowing that I have raised a plant from a little seed all the way to adulthood. Not immediate gratification but well-worth the wait. And between you and me, it keeps me sane and out of the house for my husband’s sake.

Why do you like to garden? Or, if you don’t, why not? Does your list include something that mine doesn’t?