Cabin Fever

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

That dangerous time of year has come again!

Those of you who garden in a northern climate know what I mean…short days where the sun rises too late and sets too soon; the garden, covered in snow, taunts you with the possibilities of the coming spring; and, in a desperate grab to hang on to sanity you make your plans for the coming growing season, figuring that doing ANYTHING is better than just sitting there bouncing off the walls.

So you do it…that dangerous thing!  That thing that all gardeners do to get themselves through the winter…you order *gasp* the SEED CATALOGUES!! – those wondrous, hopeful publications with promises of succulent tomatoes, snappy peas, crisp radishes, tender greens, jewelled beets, heady sweet peas…

Links to these catalogues are at the end of the post.

Links to these catalogues are at the end of the post.

Overwhelmed by the myriad of options, you choose one of almost everything (and then spend crazy-making hours trying to shoehorn it all into your available growing space – if you were even able to grow all the seeds in the first place), or nothing, deciding to wait until you see what’s available in the garden centres (where you won’t be able to find that intriguing lemon pear tomato and you’ll end up settling for some ubiquitous red cherry).  I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum; I spent hundreds of dollars (yes, I said hundreds) at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange one year, only to have most of the garden keel over during a terrible drought (gardening in Texas is HARD); and I’ve not purchased any seed, preferring, instead, to thickly sow old leftover seed  and fill in the gaps with purchased transplants.  Neither method was satisfying – one was a waste of time and money, and the other was boring.  So, knowing that the best place for me is usually in the middle, I have developed a list to help me keep the interest level high but the spending down.

  • Grow only what we like to eat.  I’m not a huge fan of squash and, since it needs a fair bit of room, I happily leave it off the garden plan.
  • Grow what tastes the best fresh-picked.  This means every garden of mine has tomatoes, peas, beans, carrots, and a variety of herbs.  Related to this rule is my preference for heirloom varieties since I find they have the best flavor.
  • Grow what is expensive and/or difficult to find in the grocery store.  For this reason, I always grow cilantro since the supply at my regular grocery store is erratic, and my Texas garden always had Florence fennel (at the grocery store price of $2/bulb, a $4 packet of seeds paid for itself in no time).  It’s also one of the reasons why I never grow potatoes (lack of space being another factor).
  • Grow at least one thing I’ve never tried growing before.  Sometimes this can be so successful, as was the case with fava beans, fennel, and lemon cucumber, that it is added to the list of perpetual favorites.
  • Grow as many eye-catching plants as possible.  I don’t think kitchen gardens should just be about feeding the stomach – they should also be a feast for the eyes.  I always include flowers (edible or not) and colorful leafy greens like purple/red/blue kales, Rainbow chard, and red lettuces.  I choose my fruiting plants as much for their decorative appeal as for their taste – a purple and cream striped eggplant paired beautifully with purple basil one year, and the yellow/orange/red/green cherry and pear tomatoes look almost too good to eat (almost!).

A note here about the above list – it is always used in conjunction with my garden’s geographic and cultural restrictions.  That means, that with a clay soil, I can’t grow really long carrots – I’m best off choosing a stumpier variety that isn’t as likely to split.  I have lots of sun but a short growing season so unless I’m willing to go to extreme measures to grow tomatoes (I’m not), I choose varieties that ripen quickly and can withstand cooler temperatures.  I take adavantage of the fact that two sides of the garden are fenced and I grow vining peas on it, rather than bush peas, to make efficient use of horizontal and vertical growing space.  I’m aware of the popular bugs and fungii in my neighborhood and choose varieties that are resistant to them.

I love parameters.  Just like the “cabin” walls (that I’m bouncing off of right now) protect me from the excesses of winter, my planting choice guidelines protect me from the excesses of my garden lust and the temptations of the seed catalogues.  Here’s to spring finding us sane.

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Links to seed catalogues: Dominion Seed House, Lindenberg Seeds Limited, T&T Seeds, West Coast Seeds

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Garden Remix Cont’d

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

I’ve been scribbling some tweaks for this season’s garden and I thought you’d like to see what I’ve been thinking so far.  Bear in mind that none of this is carved in stone…

Rough thoughts for 2010 garden plan

Rough thoughts for 2010 garden plan

 

  • I’ve dramatically reduced my growing area which concerns me somewhat; on the other hand, the garden was almost impassable last season when everything got to mature size and since I intend on ramping up my work hours in the spring, I don’t think I’ll have the time to tend more beds.
  • The husband is keen on the pea gravel and I admit a partiality to it as well.  It’s going to be a mess without edging though, so unless I get that sorted out, I may have to use a technique I learned as a fledgling gardener at the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens, and plant the sloped edges with compact plants – once established they keep the soil from eroding.
  • That isn’t the exact footprint of the cold frame, just a ‘best guess’ as to where it should go.  I balanced it at the end of the garden with a ‘focal bed’ – no clue what’s going in there yet (probably something exotic that needs constant care and attention)!
  • I decided to try growing a variety of vining plants on the fence and, where there isn’t a bed, planting them directly into the paths and treating the pea gravel as a mulch.  I think that technique will make the garden feel more open, give it more ‘white space’.
  • I need a little bench or stool.  As I mentioned on the plan, we visit with our neighbors, frequently, over the fence, but with the fence height and the slight grade change, it can be difficult to see faces without standing on tiptoe.

That’s the most I can do for now until the seed catalogues show up and I can start planning what I’m planting where.

Garden Remix

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Every year, especially in the beginning, I always tweak my kitchen gardens.  For me, that’s part of the fun of gardening – nothing is permanent, change is good (and necessary), and I don’t have to live with my mistakes.  When one is a perfectionist (there, I outed myself!), gardening can be a free-ing experience.  So, while I’m waiting for my seed catalogues to arrive (thanks to the list from The Far North Garden), I’ll take a look at what worked – and what didn’t – in my garden. 

Below is a scaled sketch of my kitchen garden where 1 square = 1 foot.  I find photos can be tasty and inspirational but there’s nothing like a plan to show you how it all works together.

Garden plan and planting schedule 09

Garden plan and planting schedule 09

  • The size of it (300 sq. ft. total with about 187 sq. ft. of growing space), I realized, worked for my schedule and energy levels – I design, plant, and maintain the garden mostly by myself and spend, on average, a couple of hours a week pulling weeds, tying up plants, cleaning up, etc.  My network of paths cuts down the amount of growing space I have but, in the future, I can always convert the paths to beds if I need more room (and have the time and energy too). 

 

  • For the most part, I like the path and bed layout.  The central axis (2 ft. wide) relates to the kitchen window and formalizes the garden style (order and control is another reason I garden but feel free to laugh, since I often do, at the thought that I have more than a smidge of control over any of it!).  The narrower 1-1/2 ft. cross-axis paths allow me to create 4 x 4 ft. beds – a dimension that suits my body proportions since it allows me to stand in the path and comfortably reach halfway across the bed, protecting the soil from compaction.  I think I’ll remove the bed in front of the garage door though (on the left-hand side of the plan), since it makes the space feel too congested.  Ditto for the bed by the garden gate (at the top of the plan).  I’ll lose planting space but I like to have room to inhabit my kitchen garden so I’m fine with the trade-off. 

 

  • Speaking of beds, I really need to find an edging material.  Right now, I’m leaning toward wattle edging, a material I used in my Nova Scotian kitchen garden with fairly good success (unfortunately, this was before I learned the importance of documenting my work).  It’s a relatively easy, if time-consuming, DIY project and is free if you know someone who doesn’t mind you harvesting young willow saplings from their property.  It might be a little too rustic looking though, for the modern urban aesthetic I crave…

Bare soil paths = weeding nightmare
Bare soil paths = weeding nightmare
  • …but that might depend on the path material.  Last year I didn’t do anything because I couldn’t decide on what I wanted but that state of affairs can’t continue – even I, who loves weeding, was getting a little tired of keeping the paths free and clear.  I was quite taken by the twig carpet how-to idea from Chez Larsson but combining that with the wattle edging would be too much!  (The same can be said about plain old wood mulch.)  My favorite idea to date is 2 x 2 sq. ft. concrete pavers floating in pea gravel but it might be more than I’m willing to spend at this point in my garden’s life.  The debate rages on…

 

  • I need to extend next year’s harvest so I’m planning hoop houses and trying to find a spot for at least one cold frame.  And I need to decide if the compost bins are going within the garden space or in the back driveway.

 

  • The spiral tomato stakes worked fairly well, particularly on the cherry tomatoes.  The same could not be said for the bamboo stakes so it’s back to the drawing board for not only the tomatoes but the cucumbers, as well – they didn’t like the fence netting and kept trying to escape into the neighbor’s garden!

 

  • The garden was very colorful and lush, mostly because of the nasturtiums and Rainbow chard.  I’ll be keeping them in the planting scheme but seeding less of them and adding more flowers, with borage and calendula at the top of the list.  (I recommend Rosalind Creasy’s The Edible Flower Garden as a good primer on the topic.)  Once the seed catalogues arrive, I’ll start listing what else I’d like to try this year.

I think that’s probably going to be enough to ponder for now.