Last year, I posted some pictures of my vegetable garden at one-week intervals, from when I started planting at the beginning of April, to early May. Originally, I was going to do a monthly garden post of weekly pictures. But that didn’t happen. Then I thought I’d do a post at the end of the gardening season, showing monthly pictures. I actually wrote most of it in October (October of 2014), but never got around to finishing.
This is mostly a good thing, because it means I was spending more time writing instead of blogging. When I wasn’t gardening, of course. It can easily take an hour to water the garden in the morning, and since I use raised beds, I often have to water every day during the hottest parts of the summer.
Anyway, I don’t want all that work I did on the big garden post of 2014 to go to waste, so I’m finishing it up now a year later. I had a garden in 2015 too, of course, but I’m not going to include pictures of it in this post, because I’m hoping to actually finish and publish this post before 2016.
Okay, so here’s the final picture from my last garden post, a snapshot of the garden on May 5th, 2014.
A month later, on June 2nd (scroll down), a lot has changed. The fava beans in the lower left corner have gotten much taller, and the wooden poles show where I’ve added tomatoes and pole beans. The pole beans (lower right corner) either haven’t come up or are too small to see from the balcony. The radishes and spinach in the lower half of the long box have come and gone, although few of them got to the size I’d hoped for before I had to pull them out to make room for other crops I wanted more. Although this is the sunniest spot in my yard, it gets maybe 6 hours of full sunlight, at best, and a lot of experts will tell you that you need a minimum of 6-8. I find this is not strictly true, especially with raised beds, but less sunlight does mean that crops take longer to mature. Remember, their only energy source, which they use to convert carbon dioxide and water into plant material, is sunlight. The less sunlight they get, the less rapidly they’ll be able to do it.
The komatsuna in the upper left corner, which was so small a month ago, got nice and big in the interim between these two photos. I ate it all. You can see that the red mustard greens a couple squares down are quite large now, as is the chervil below that. Moving right, you’ll see three squares of beets with lush, abundant greens, and an empty square. The empty square had baby bok choy that grew to maturity and was eaten over the course of the previous month. Last month, the beets were just barely coming up.
A note on greens. If you’re doing square foot gardening, one square isn’t enough. Once you’ve cooked down a big handful of leaves picked from a single square, even if you use every leaf from every plant, you barely have enough for one serving.
Red mustard greens did really well. They grew quickly, and they didn’t bolt (i.e., send up a flower stalk instead of producing more tasty leaves) when it started to get warm, so I could just cut off leaves as I wanted to eat them and leave the rest of the plant to grow new ones. The komatsuna was already starting to bolt by late May. The mizuna didn’t even produce many leaves before bolting. Springtime in New England is tough on cool weather crops. The ground doesn’t thaw out until late March or April, but it’s already getting too hot for a lot of vegetables in late May or early June, and that’s just not enough time for a lot of vegetables to mature.
Moving over from the beets, you’ll see a square of Swiss chard and one of carrots below that. The marjoram under the carrots is too small to be visible, and you can just barely see the four cilantro plants in the square under the marjoram. The four squares on the upper right edge of the box have just been planted with more Swiss chard, yellow bush beans, and nasturtiums.
Scroll down again to see the garden on the 4th of July. What a difference a month makes! The fava beans are even taller, the tomatoes have shot up behind them like weeds, and you can see the small pole bean plants starting to climb up their wooden stakes. Chervil is overflowing its square, the beets and Swiss chard are huge, and you can see the bush bean plants in the upper right corner spilling over the side of the box. I pulled the mustard greens, because I was tired of only getting a few leaves at a time and because they were shading out the beets next to them, and replanted with leaf lettuce (you can’t see the lettuce yet). I was eating the beets and Swiss chard by now. I’d eaten some fava beans, too. I didn’t get many fava beans, possibly because the tomatoes blocked too much of their light (more on this below). They also had a serious aphid problem. So did the chervil. I tried a folk remedy of crushed garlic in diluted dish soap, but I don’t think it worked. Next year I’m hauling out the neem oil spray the moment I see aphids.
Speaking of insect pests, this was also the summer I learned about leafminers. I went away for a week and a half just after the June picture was taken. I noticed some brown, dried-out blotchy patches on some of the beet leaves and some white eggs on the undersides of the leaves, but didn’t think too much about it. I’m not all that squeamish about insects in my vegetables, and Donald tries not to look too closely. While I was gone, Donald noticed that the problem was getting worse. (Donald tries to pay as little attention as possible to my garden, but he was watering it for me, and all the dead brown leaves made him wonder if he was doing something wrong and killing my plants.) I got back, and found that all the beets and the Swiss chard had been infested.
A bit of Internet research revealed that I had spinach leafminers. Spinach, beets, and Swiss chard are all in the same family (beets and Swiss chard are actually the same species), and the leafminer larvae enjoy all of them. Spraying apparently doesn’t do much good (especially if you’re trying to stick to organic pesticides), because the larvae are protected inside the leaf. (I tried the organic neem oil spray, but it didn’t really help.) The only way to deal with a leafminer infestation is to inspect the underside of each leaf every day or two and pick off and squish any eggs. You’ll invariably miss some, so you also have to watch for signs of larvae inside the leaves. Some sources say to pick off and discard any infested leaves. Depending on how bad the leafminer problem has gotten before you noticed it, this may not leave the plant with enough leaves to thrive. I just tore off the part of the leaf surrounding where I could see the larvae tunneling around, and made sure to squish the little maggots. I also made sure to throw any infested leaf parts out in the regular trash instead of the compost, since I put the compost back into the garden as fertilizer.
Once I started picking off eggs, the beets and Swiss chard began to recover, and you can see that they look pretty healthy in the photograph below. The leafminers do stop laying eggs in September, fortunately, so there is an end to the egg-picking. Some people recommend row covers to keep the adult leafminer flies away from the target plants, but that doesn’t work in a mixed bed like the one I had, where you’ve also planted vegetables that require pollination by insects (like beans).
A note on tomatoes in square foot gardening. There’s some debate online as to whether you can actually grow a full-sized indeterminate tomato plant in a single square foot of a raised bed. Well, you can. I had three tomato plants in the raised bed (Cherokee Purple (a full-sized heirloom tomato), and Supersweet 100 and Sungold (both cherry tomatoes)). Each had a single square, and I didn’t prune them at all, I just tied the side shoots into the stake every few inches. Remember, I don’t even get the 8 hours of sunlight that some experts will tell you that you can’t possibly grow tomatoes without. I also had three tomato plants in 16″ pots, on the sunniest part of the yard edge (Pineapple, Brandywine, and something that was supposed to be Green Zebra but produced purplish-brown tomatoes instead). The tomatoes in the bed grew taller, were at least as productive as the container plants, and had fewer problems with blossom end rot (usually caused by underwatering; it’s hard to give a potted tomato enough water during the heat of summer). I do fertilize my tomatoes regularly with an organic tomato fertilizer, which I also mixed into the soil along with a lot of compost and some kelp meal, and I mulched the soil surface around the plants when I put them in with dried leaves and additional compost.
The caveat is that a tomato plant in a single one-foot square will block the sunlight from everything around it. This started to become a huge problem for the fava beans, which are on the north side of the tomatoes, and shaded by them. But, as the summer went on, it became an issue for everything else in that lower half of the bed. It would have been even more of an issue if I’d tried to put in sun-loving plants like peppers.
Also, a 1″-diameter wooden stake is not strong enough for a large, healthy tomato plant with plenty of room to grow an extensive root system. They worked well enough for the tomato plants in the containers, but the stakes supporting the two cherry tomato plants eventually snapped under the stress of trying to support all that weight. (Fortunately, this didn’t happen until October, when the cherry tomato harvest was tapering off.) In 2015, I made sure each tomato plant was tied to three different stakes surrounding it (although some stakes were shared between plants), and this seemed to distribute the weight better.
This was the second year I bought tomato plants from a garden center and got a mislabeled one. I was sufficiently annoyed by this that I started my own from seeds in 2015. I had to buy a grow light set-up for this, but that also allowed me to start okra inside instead of direct seeding it. During the 2014 season, I tried planting okra directly in large containers in the yard and hardly got any, because you have to wait until mid-June here in Boston to plant okra outside. It takes at least 2 months for it to start producing in my less-than-optimally-lit yard, and then by mid-September the nights are too cold for it again. I also need more than 2 plants (I planted three, but some insect larvae or worms ate through the stem of the weakest one). I was lucky if I got 2 or 3 okra pods per week from each plant, and that doesn’t go too far. Fortunately, a couple of vendors at the Lexington Farmers Market sell it, so I was able to supplement my harvest when I wanted okra for dinner. (In 2015, the okra that I started inside and transplanted did much better.)
You can also see that I put in a second raised bed, to the right of the first.
Scroll down to a month later, and the beans and tomatoes have really taken off. The tomatoes have overtopped their stakes, and the pole beans aren’t far behind. I pulled the fava beans, since they weren’t producing much anymore. I never got a lot of fava beans. Two one-foot squares aren’t enough, apparently. Maybe if I’d waited longer, they would have picked up again. This often happens with beans. They produce a crop, then the harvest tapers off and you think you aren’t going to get much more; but a month later, the plants start producing again. It happened with the green pole beans and with the yellow bush beans. But I didn’t give the poor favas a chance to prove themselves. The tomatoes were blocking most of their sunlight, though, and they also prefer cooler weather.
I’ve harvested a lot of the beets. You can see the carrots that replaced the komatsuna in the top left corner, and lettuce a couple squares down from that.
You can’t see much else, because the crazy tomatoes and beans are blocking the view.
If you scroll down again, you’ll see a view from the ground, also taken on August 2nd. You can see even better here how the beans and tomatoes have tangled themselves together. You can see the yellow bush beans hanging over the edge of the box, to the right. And you can also see the second garden box, and some of the containers (with additional tomatoes, okra, and some edamame right at the edge). The garden box in front has two squares of fennel in the upper left corner, and then the lush and abundant foliage of some green bush beans (the skinny French-style haricots verts).
It was a huge mistake to plant those green bush beans as early as I did, in the middle of the box. Bush beans are very bushy, so they shaded too much of what I planted later on in the surrounding squares.
In the rear box, to the right of the bean-tomato thicket, a few small squash plants have come up. These are an Asian squash. I have an elderly Sikh neighbor who stops by every now and then to look at my garden. He can’t speak much English, and I speak even less of his language (which I think he once tried to tell me was Punjabi, but all the words I actually recognize seem to be the same as Hindi words I’ve learned). But one day (June 27th, to be precise), he brought over four squash seeds and planted them in my garden. He told me they were “lauki”. I looked this up in the glossary of one of my Indian cookbooks and found that it’s also called opo squash. And I’ve seen it at the farmers markets and at H-Mart (a Korean grocery store) labeled “Chinese long squash”. Anyway, it’s not one of those New World summer squashes or winter squashes. The lauki have come up in the photograph below, but I think my neighbor planted them too late. End of June is a bit late to be planting squash, in New England. Of course, it isn’t warm enough to plant them a whole lot earlier.
It makes more sense to show only the side-view from now on, since you can’t see anything past the tomatoes and pole beans anymore in balcony shots.
In the next shot, you can see that the pole beans and tomatoes have gotten into even more of a tangle, and the lauki squash plants are spilling out over the edge of the box. I’ve pulled the bush beans, so now you can see the nasturtiums that were hiding behind them in the rear box. In the front box, with those bush beans gone, the cauliflower and broccoli on the left have started to grow, and there are some small lettuce plants here and there. The fennel in the upper left-hand corner of the front box is getting a lot taller, too.
The next shot, taken on October 7th, is a good illustration of how Massachusetts has a considerably longer fall growing season than many people (including Massachusetts residents) realize. I still have the Great Pole Bean and Tomato Forest, nasturtiums continue to overflow the box, and the lettuce, arugula, and mustard greens in the front box–planted in late summer–are just reaching peak productivity. The broccoli and cauliflower plants are pretty big too, but apparently not big enough for this time of year, due to the excessive shade they got early on from those bush beans. Still just leaves on them, no heads.
It isn’t until November that things have started to wind down. We’ve had a few light frosts at this point, so I’ve pulled all the beans, tomatoes, and okra. I also pulled the broccoli and cauliflower. Not because it was too cold for them, but because I’d given up on ever getting heads, and they were shading the kale and collards around them. I just cooked and ate the broccoli and cauliflower leaves as if they were collards. They’re all the same species, after all: cabbage, kale, collards, kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts.
Kale, radishes, and lettuce are all doing just fine in November, though. And nasturtiums, which are still flowering. I pulled one of the two squares of fennel because I wanted to eat it, but the other one is still there. Apparently you shouldn’t plant fennel next to anything, which I didn’t know at the time. It’s supposed to stunt the growth of other plants. It didn’t seem to hurt the lettuce in the square next to it, though. The collards, also in a square next to fennel, never got that big, but they were also shaded by a large cauliflower plant for the first couple of months, so I’m hesitant to blame the fennel. I guess you to have to be careful with fennel if you live some place with mild winters, because it can become an invasive weed. But we don’t have to worry too much about mild winters in New England. We especially didn’t have to worry about that in 2014, known popularly by locals as “Snowmaggedon” or something along those lines.
Here’s another picture taken on the same day. Another shot from the 2nd floor porch, looking down, since the pole beans and tomatoes are no longer blocking the view of everything else. You can see the remaining fennel now (the bushy fern things in the lower left corner of the box on the right). In the left-hand box, you can see daikon (left-hand edge, 3rd square down), and parsley (left-hand edge, 3rd square up).
And, finally, on December 5th, almost everything has been pulled up for the winter. Most of the squares have been covered with the contents of my compost bin, a mixture of compost, leaves, and partially decomposed kitchen scraps. Of course, it’s better to put fully decomposed compost on one’s garden, but I didn’t have enough, and I figured things would decompose just as well spread out on top of dirt, exposed to sunlight and the elements, as they would inside a covered bin. And it seemed to work fairly well. In the spring, when I was ready to plant again, I mixed it all into the top few inches of soil, pulling out any large pieces of obviously undecomposed material and throwing them back into the compost bin to continue breaking down. In this photo, I haven’t gotten around to covering all the squares, so you can still see some where the white of the perlite in the raised bed soil is quite visible.
Some gardening resources claim that parsley, spinach, collards, and kale are all hardy enough to survive a New England winter. My parsley, collards, Red Siberian kale, and Tuscan kale were all quite dead come spring, even though I mulched all the plants with compost. But the spinach and curly kale did come back once the snow had melted, and I was able to enjoy a home-grown salad of fresh baby greens in early April before pulling those plants up for the new planting season.
I won’t say too much about the 2015 garden, since this post is already longer than some short stories. But I will say that I planted most of the shorter raised bed, the one on the right, with asparagus crowns last spring. Asparagus is a perennial crop that takes a few years to really get going. I should be able to pick a few spears in 2016, more in 2017, and enjoy a full harvest in 2018. Donald asked, “Will we still be living here in 2018?” Well, who knows? Asparagus is my favorite vegetable, though, so I was willing to take that chance.
Gardening is easier than writing, in many ways. Success is less dependent on factors outside your control. Sure, there are overcast and rainy summers, and there are excessively dry summers. Squirrels dig up newly seeded beds looking for nuts they think they might have buried once. Mice climb up the tomato vines and nibble the fruit (really, I’ve seen it!). Insects can destroy an entire crop of some vegetable (I haven’t even mentioned cabbage butterflies, and in 2015 I learned about the dreaded squash vine borer). But, for the most part, if you do some minimal amount of research to learn how to get started, if you use the Internet to troubleshoot problems and put in the time required to water your plants and harvest the vegetables as they mature–you will end up with vegetables that you can eat. Success doesn’t depend on the whims and/or budget of some person other than yourself. And that can be very satisfying.