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End of Season Reflection, 2019

Once the garden is tucked away for the winter – or close to it – my mind always wanders. I ask myself questions like:

  • What problems did I struggle with this year?
  • How did I handle them?
  • What will I do differently next year?
  • What did I learn this year?
  • What will I try that is new next year?
  • Did I like what I grew this year?
  • Was it enough?
  • Were my seeds started on time?
  • Did my plants grow and mature on time? If not, do I know why?
  • What do I want to try next year?
  • What won’t I grow next year?
  • When did I feel most overwhelmed and how did I handle it?
  • How can I prevent that next year?

Every year we all have many opportunities to learn and grow from our experiences. In most cases, we learn the most from unexpected scenarios and our failures. I try to never look at a failure as a negative thing.

Many of us struggled with getting our gardens in this year, and getting them off to a good start because our spring was unusually wet and cold. It wasn’t until May or June that I could even get into my garden to do much – and I generally start readying beds in March. Overwhelmingly this year I am hearing disappointed gardeners complain about the year being a failure and hoping next year is better. I have to agree with you that I hope next year is better, but I am looking at this spring as a learning experience. We were dealt with more rain and cold than I can remember ever having in the years I have been gardening. But I learned how to deal with it. I learned that, even though I felt like it was too late, my garden still produced despite not getting things planted when I thought they should be. I learned that when I was thinking, “Oh, it’s too late, but I am going to plant these anyway and just see what happens” it really wasn’t too late because that stuff produced just fine. I learned a lot about patience. I am not a very patient person when it comes to gardening. I am the one watching the nighttime lows in March and April to determine how much I should press my luck for pre-last-frost-date summer planting. I learned that I had to be patient this year because if I worked the soil, it would compact because it was so wet. This was a great learning year.

I did experience failure to a bigger degree than normal – the very wet conditions were not very good for a lot of things I planted. Some seedlings I had to plant and hope for the best because they were outgrowing their containers and I had nowhere else for them to go. Generally, things would normally be in the ground weeks before when I actually got around to planting them, and I started my seeds at my usual time, so these were some pretty big seedlings going in.

My beds were not ready to just drop and go this year. Last year got the best of me and I was not able to refresh all of my beds in the fall like I normally did. The extra rain gave weeds a foothold before my seedlings ever got in the ground, so I was dealing with an abundance of weeds right from the get go. This year I am being proactive in making sure my no-dig beds are refreshed with mulch this fall, so that I am not battling a weed issue next spring like I did last year. I am convinced next year is going to be much better. The mulch had decomposed to the point that it was essentially bare soil on top in the spring, which wasn’t good for handling all the rain or suppressing weeds. I find it funny that last season, my garden was kept up on beautifully – and I had given birth that June!

What I will say about my no-dig beds is that pulling the weeds from the beds was SO easy. It seems as though all the microorganisms underground are behaving like they should and earthworms are abundant, and together they are working to keep the soil loose. Pulling up weeds is so easy that my kids actually enjoyed helping me weed this year. The only issue with pulling all the weeds and plants as I close beds this fall is my aching back from all the bending over – but the plants themselves are coming right out with a robust root system full of earth worms. I shake the worms and soil off, often ripping off the roots and putting them back in the soil to break down.

We did have some successes this year – I tried Amish Paste tomatoes for the first time and fell in love – that variety is a keeper. In fact, I planted enough plants for diversity and saved enough seed that I should have plenty for next year. I planted a few rows of tomatoes that didn’t give me much hope at all – I must have gotten a bad bag of starting mix or something because right after I transplanted into bigger cells, most of them started to die. The seeds I started in this same mix also did not do so great. I did try a different brand in order to save a buck and I think I learned my lesson. Anyway, I put them in a few rows and didn’t really think anything of them. They were looking so sad. But believe it or not, the very next day they actually perked up! They turned out to be the best producing rows of tomatoes. Our acorn squash did great, along with herbs, gourds, celery, cantaloupes, okra, brassicas, onions, and others.

Our peanuts and peppers did not do well. The bell peppers were strangled and drug out of their neat little holes by my ducks, though the banana peppers did alright, and the peanuts did not have the warmth they needed to do well. I had started them indoors 6 weeks before our last frost date as suggested for northern states but, our spring wasn’t the kindest to warm-weather crops and it stunted the peanuts and made them very weak, so I went ahead and cleared the bed.

I am still waiting to see if my brussels sprouts do well (they are developing nicely!) and if my artichokes will produce. I’ve never grown artichokes. They were another ‘new this year’ thing to try. The plants are nice and big.

So plans for next year include more tomatoes – last year I grew about 600. This year I probably had 200 or less. I will guard my spring plants a little better from meat birds next year (you may have read my struggle about keeping my meat birds contained and how they ate almost my entire spring crop?), I will plant more peppers overall (last year I planted about 300 – it was a GREAT year for peppers). If these numbers shock you, don’t forget – I have a large family (8 kids). I don’t grow produce to sell, at least right now – I just want to feed my family from one harvest to the next with as much homegrown food as I can! We do a ton of preserving through canning, dehydrating and freezing. I will try peanuts again. I want to do more peppers and winter squashes.

I have maps of my garden that I like to play with over the winter, labeling what I figure I will plant, and look back on previous years maps to allow a fair enough rotation cycle to cut down on problematic pests and disease that can pop up when the same plants are planted in the same place from one year to the next. That is always the fun part. Along with that I will include a running list of the seeds I will need to have on hand – and closer to ‘go time’ I will check my inventory list to see what I have on hand and what I actually need to buy.

Maybe I should put together a meet up on record keeping, mapping and whatnot over the winter? Or would that be totally boring? Let me know. And – what are your reflections on this year? I’d love to hear your successes, failures and learning moments!

September Ramblings, 2019

September has been such a busy month. I feel like I am flying by the seat of my pants most times – the farm is in the beginning stages of winding down so instead of just maintaining, we are now harvesting plus winterizing on top of maintaining. Our children are back to school – we homeschool, so that means lesson planning and teaching 6 of the 8 who are school aged. My kids are not the only ones learning though – this momma has found a new passion of her own: the soil food web.

You know when you find something that unlocks a whole new world for you – maybe it’s a phrase, maybe it’s an inspirational speaker who speaks about something in a different light, whatever it is, but it is life changing even though it deals with a topic you are already passionate about? I experienced that. Soil health has always been a focus of mine in my garden. I have always understood that I want to keep my garden as natural as possible. I want to protect the soil with a mulch, I want to treat problems with natural solutions that won’t kill more than my intended subject, I wanted to encourage beneficial insects and earthworms and snakes and spiders. Happily, all of the things I had been doing all these years had me on the right track – but I was able to unlock a whole new level of understanding that kept me up for hours nearly every night studying. I was studying the soil food web, and more detailed information on composting, and how to assess your soil with a microscope. I have tied up so many loose ends, answered so many questions I had lingering in my mind, and understand soil health as a whole on a whole new level. The way I think about my garden isn’t changed much, but my passion has grown tremendously! There is so much we can do to encourage microorganisms, make plant food available to plants, and change and understand the dynamics of how and why things grow the way they do!

My moms present to the kids this year for their birthdays was a nice microscope. Once I learned I could assess my own soil with our own microscope, I was so excited for its arrival! I took samples from a few beds and looked at them under the microscope right away. I was amazed to actually see things moving. My soil was alive! And it should be. I am so encouraged and inspired by all I have learned I cannot wait to share it with you! The microscope came with a camera, so I hope to share pictures of the things I have learned about.

Aside from the exciting, new revelations, we began putting parts of the garden to bed for the year. As crops are harvested, the weeds and plants are pulled up. A new layer of compost is spread on the beds, then we will begin laying mulch over the beds. Not all of my beds are no-dig, but the majority are transitioning. The sunflowers are done being beautiful, so I have my boys going out and cutting the stalks down, then removing the heads. They will probably use the stalks as spears of some sort – hopefully not on each other – and we will make some bee hotels out of them. The seeds are dried and most are fed back to the livestock we keep, and a portion are kept back to plant again next year.

The strawberry beds are being thinned and new beds are being made. Raspberries are being pruned. Okra and other vine-ripening seeds for saving are being let go now to mature for seed saving. I built a large compost bin out of fence posts for the storage of aged compost and leaves, and am creating compost cages out of fencing to do the job of making compost. I will post all about that probably next month once the cages are completed and put to use.

What kind of jobs did you find yourself doing during September?

August 2019 Garden Ramblings

It’s now September in my Concord, MI garden. I thought I’d ramble about our August garden happenings.

We have had relatively few pest problems since we butchered our meat birds. This year’s batch of meat birds were very creative in escaping from their fenced in pen (located in my garden; they rotate to different spots each year to aid in fertilizing) and they ate almost all of my spring garden. This year, they were my biggest pests!

It doesn’t help that this years spring was extremely wet, which made being able to do much in the garden a tough job on its own. We have had our usual run in with Japanese beetles, hornworms, squash bugs, and cabbage moths. We have had some hot periods this summer, but nothing too over the top. I try to keep track of all of these things in my garden planner, which helps me keep track of problems we have had, and successful methods of handling them. I took a walk through my garden and made note of a few things and started to think about crop rotation and where I would like to move some things.

I was happily surprised last month taking a walk through the garden to discover I actually did have cabbage growing (I thought the meat birds got them all), I had more zucchini growing than I realized (some zucchini seeds found their way into another squash bed that I wasn’t checking on a daily basis because the squash takes a lot longer to mature over there). Our church had a massive garage sale for missions and brought all of their cardboard boxes over to me. I use cardboard like crazy in the garden to help keep weeds at bay, so I happily accepted them this year and last. A tree service was doing a lot of local work over the past couple of weeks and we became their drop spot for all the trucks they had working in the area. They were very grateful to have an easy spot to drop unlimited loads (yes, I did tell them they can drop it all here) and I was simply giddy to have so much mulch. We are in the process of turning many of my in-ground beds into no-till beds and we use a lot of mulch. I am very, very thankful!

This month I have harvested my onions (red, white and yellow), pulled some carrots, enjoyed some cherry tomatoes, continued to harvest broccoli (after the head forms and you harvest it, don’t pull the whole plant – smaller offshoots will develop – they are like pre-cut florets! Perfect size to pick and eat without having to cut smaller), cabbage, celery, acorn squash, zucchini, summer squash, okra, spaghetti squash, and herbs. The bigger tomatoes just started to turn towards the end of the month and I have begun processing them. I’m sure I am forgetting something, I always do.

I am anxiously awaiting another round of green beans, the winter squash are still growing. On the to -do list include harvesting herbs to dehydrate for use over the winter, harvesting more celery for the freezer, freezing zucchini, and turning tomatoes into various canned forms. Tomatoes are one of those things that we do a whole lot of. Last year I grew over 600 plants. After canning, eating fresh (I have 8 kids, most of them love snacking on tomatoes), and sharing with others, we canned a grand total of 495 jars of various tomato products alone. It was awesome. This year, thanks to the cold, wet weather my transplants didn’t do as well as I had hoped they would, but we do have a few hundred plants out there looking beautiful.

Fall garden prep will be going here in a bit. This year really got away from me with the late spring planting and the pile up of farm projects that resulted. Last year my garden had so much going on, and I put it all in 8-9 months pregnant and kept it in the best shape of its life despite a newborn. It was just beautiful! This year that newborn is mobile and kids are busier and having to try to plan my time in the garden around kids and all the wet weather really slowed me down. I am rather surprised, but sometimes that happens. Mama said there’d be days like this… I am convinced next year will be better, and we started our homeschool year back a couple of weeks ago with the intent of being done by or in April so that I have time to get my garden in. Because I have convinced myself it won’t be so wet. When the ground is as wet as it was, you really don’t want to be out there doing projects and planting because it will compress the soil, leading to further problems later.

One area of new changes in the garden is the side closest to the road. We call that the Roadside Garden. Originally my garden was divided by fence into three sections. The first garden was what is now the spring garden. I added on to that to the north – the Roadside Garden, then I added to the south of the spring garden and we call that the Summer Garden. In the Roadside Garden I am building some no-till beds, completely redid the raspberry trellis (and now I need new raspberries to go there, I pulled the old ones out and started completely over), and am trying to solararize a small plot for next years corn. We had meat birds in this area this year, so this spot of the garden had a rest and manure, and the meat birds area has been moved to a new area for next year. There is still plenty of work to be done, but in the area of the new beds I cut the grass low, laid cardboard, topped with a few inches of compost, and now I am using my favorite hoe to remove the little weeds that are starting to pop up. After a good frost I plan to lay mulch and -ideally- these beds will be ready to go with little to no prep work next season. The cardboard should break down and there should be plenty of earthworms and good garden buddies crawling around in the bed, and the mulch should suppress weeds.

September should continue to be a good harvesting month, hopefully I will finish the new-till beds in the Roadside Garden and begin the process of clearing and refreshing beds for next year as the harvest is collected.

What have you been doing in your garden?? What are you harvesting?