Garden Diary 2020 - November 1-December 31
The summer harvest has ended and the fall clean-up has begun. I've attempted some fall planting, but I started too late. The bounty of fallen leaves and dead foliage will provide rich compost for next year. Winter is a welcome downtime to plan for the gardening season ahead. Seed catalogs are arriving and the choices seem overwhelming. It will take some discipline to narrow down the list for planting next season. DIY garden projects will occupy the cold months so that they will be ready for the spring garden. It may be quiet in the garden, but inside, there is no time to rest. Check my intro article here, where I've posted links to my Garden Diary 2020 posts throughout the gardening season.
Clean-Up and Bed Prep
Leaves are falling and freezing temperatures are coming. There is much to be done to prepare for winter and plan for spring. I harvested the last of the tomatoes, peppers and herbs. I trimmed the lemon grass to the ground, saved the stalks, and placed the remaining leafy portions on top of the roots to cover them for winter. It's an annual in my zone, but it's possible it will return next spring if I insulate it enough. There are still plenty of mint leaves to be clipped, cleaned, and dried for tea this winter. Once harvesting was complete, I removed the spent plants from the garden, chopped them up and hauled them to the compost bin. I've left a few in place to provide a winter habitat and feeding ground for the birds and beneficial insects.
Then I began tackling the mounds of fallen leaves. Where I used to see them as a nuisance, I now see them as an asset. I raked the leaves into small piles and mulched them up with my Toro leaf blower/mulcher, passing them through twice to get them to the size I wanted. I covered some of the garden beds with a layer of the mulched leaves, particularly those where I had planted leafy greens, carrots and shallots in the fall. The rest I piled in the compost bins for use in the spring. I understand they are excellent, light-weight mulch for planting seeds and tender seedlings directly in the garden.
Before ripping out the dead foliage, I saved as many seeds as I could. It took quite a bit of online research to find out how to harvest the seeds of each individual plant because they are all different. Beans are the easiest, but others like Globe Amaranth, were tedious. The long tendrils of the Amaranth 'Love Lies Bleeding' produced hundreds of little red seeds. The cardinal climber vine produced a two or three medium sized black seeds in each flower head that were easy to extract.
I had intended to enjoy a fall harvest, but I didn't plant in time. To do it right, I needed to start the seeds indoors in late summer and plant them in early fall. Since that didn't happen, I direct sowed some seeds in the garden, including lettuce, carrots, spinach and kale, hoping to enjoy some garden freshness in early winter. I was too late. The seeds didn't have time to germinate before the cold weather hit and the days became shorter. Some have sprouted but look to be in a dormant state. Perhaps when the days get longer they will take off and provide an unexpected early spring harvest. I also planted half a bag of shallot bulbs in November that I purchased from Hoss Tools, with the hope of having a spring harvest. I'll plant the second half in spring. This is another first for me. We enjoy the mild taste of shallots used in French and Mediterranean cuisine. Let's hope the critters don't get to them first!
Seed Catalog Ordering
In anticipation of next year's garden, I assembled and published a list of places Where to Buy Seeds, both online and in store. I ordered free seed catalogs from every company that offered them so I could compare their products and prices. It's amazing all the varieties that are available that you can't find in the stores. Seed companies were short on supply last year due to COVID, so I began ordering those that I already knew I wanted. To make sure I didn't buy duplicates, I created a spreadsheet of all the seeds I already had on hand. I have a lot of seeds! Then I created a list of flowers, vegetables and herbs I didn't have that I wanted. I spent hours comparing product offerings, prices, seed counts, shipping costs, etc., and ordered from about 10 different companies. My goal is to start almost all of my plants from seed this year to keep my landscaping costs down. The beds I cleared out last year are almost all empty and will take hundreds of plants to fill. If successful, I will finally have the garden I always wanted but didn't think I could afford.
Garden DIY Projects Begin
With my garden remodel underway, I began tackling the list of DIY woodworking projects that I'd like to complete by spring. To kick it off, I started building a table for my back patio using the scrap wood we removed from the backyard garden. I'm using an amalgamation of plans since this table will serve multiple purposes. I'm designing it on the fly trying to use only scrap wood instead of buying new. I have some ideas, but it will be a bit of trial and error. I didn't realize how many different ways you could build a simple table! The tabletop is now complete, and next year I'll build the legs. The top has already been useful as a backdrop for my photo shoot of homemade apple pie.
Lessons from the Garden
Last year was my first, full-blown organic kitchen garden, and I am grateful to the podcasters, YouTubers, book authors and bloggers whose advice helped make it a success. But even with all of their gardening knowledge poured into my brain, experience is still, however, the best teacher. Since everybody's yard, climate and resources are different, you can only know what works best for you by doing it yourself. Here are some of the many lessons I learned this year in the garden.
Don't Overplant Seedlings
When I started the tomato and pepper seeds indoors last February, I had no idea what I was doing! I planted almost all the seeds in the packets, about 5 varieties of each, and to my surprise, almost all of them germinated. I thought I'd be lucky if 25% produced seedlings! Many experts advised plucking out the extras in each cell of the seed tray and only leaving one in each cell. But that seemed so wrong! Then after I learned about tomato expert Craig LeHoullier's dense planting and transplanting technique, I learned I didn't have to sacrifice any seedlings - I could simply pot them up. This was such a game changer! But again, I thought I'd lose a bunch in the process, and to my amazement, I only lost a few! I ended up with about 100 tomato and 100 pepper seedlings when I only needed about 15 of each. Once potted up, all the extra seedlings took up my limited window and grow light space, and the other herbs and flowers I started indoors did not perform as well because of it. Hauling them in and out during their transition phase when the weather would fluctuate also became a messy chore.
The error in my seed starting was based on the faulty assumption that the window of opportunity for planting the seedlings was much shorter than it actually was. It took less than a week for the tomato and pepper seeds to sprout. I could have tested a few, then replanted a week later if they had failed. In fact, I started some pepper seedlings almost two months later, and in the end, the harvest period was nearly the same. This year, I will start by planting only a couple extras of each variety for back-up, then replanting a week later if they don't produce enough seedlings.
Don't Plant Too Early
Eager to get the garden going in the spring, I planted some of the heat loving veggies and herbs in the garden too early. The weather had been deceptively warm in early April, so I attempted to plant some seeds and transplants before the last average frost date. While there was no harm in trying since I had lots of extras, it really wasn't worth it. I ended up replanting beans, cucumbers and basil seeds, and lost a few pepper and cucumber transplants. Then, when the Mother's Day weekend frost hit coupled with heavy spring rains, there are some seeds that I had to plant yet again. Next year, with so many garden chores on my list, I will slow down and let nature take the lead, not me!
Start Flowers and Herbs Before Veggies
When you read the seed packets, most of them recommend starting seeds 6-8 weeks before the last average frost date. While this is a good general rule of thumb, it did not work well for specific plants. Some took way longer to germinate than others in my indoor growing conditions. And others seemed to take FOREVER to grow. I had only intended to try tomatoes, peppers and a few herbs last year. Flowers were an afterthought and were started indoors weeks later. Consequently, my flower seedlings were so tiny by planting time that many got washed away by the heavy spring rains. Most of the perennials never flowered. And those annuals and perennials that did survive fared no better than those that I directly sowed in the garden. Veggies, on the other hand, germinated very quickly, generally speaking. This year, I will reverse the order in which I plant them. For instance, I'll plant lemon grass, rosemary and basil in January; most flowers in early February, with a few in January; summer veggies no earlier than February 15.
Cool Season Crops
Another lesson I learned was the difference between cool season and warm season crops. I would have started the cool season crops indoors sooner than I did had I known. I tried to start a few lettuce seeds indoors, but they kitties ate them before I could. I guess they like microgreens, too! This year, I'll try starting a few lettuce, kale, spinach, broccoli, parsley and cilantro seeds in January for planting in March, and I'll direct sow a second batch in March as well. That will give me a continuous harvest from early spring to summer.
Succession planting was also a new concept for me, whereby you plant a crop in intervals so that they don't all come to harvest at the same time. This is an ideal planting strategy for beans, carrots, basil, cilantro, parsley, and cucumbers. I also learned that it worked for my determinate Roma tomatoes as well. Though the second harvest was not as bountiful as the first, it gave me fresh tomatoes all the way until fall. Knowing now that I will pull out and replace the Romas mid-season, I will plant them in the front of my beds where they are more easily accessible.
Sowing Seeds Outdoors
One of the biggest surprises for me were how easily some plants grew by directly seeding them outdoors. They had high germination rates and most required no maintenance. With my indoor growing space so limited, I will direct sow as many as I can. On the list are nasturtiums, zinnias, calendula, asters, cosmos, marigolds, amaranth, borage, basil, cilantro, lettuce, beans, and cucumbers. I may start a couple indoors to get a jump on the season, but the bulk of the seeds will be sown directly in the garden after the last average frost date.
Avoid Make Work
So….I went a little mint crazy last year. I planted about 10 varieties of mint, which spread beyond their borders. I was able to harvest and dry a lot for tea, but it got so overwhelming that I had to throw a bunch away in the compost. (On the bright side, it made my compost pile smell fabulous!) My plan is to dig up all of the mint plants except those on the sidewalk fence. I'll let it grow unimpeded there, where it seems to thrive without watering. That will still be plenty for tea!
Arborist Wood Chips
Oh, the joy of free mulch! This amazing resource delivered right to my driveway! It suppresses weeds, helps retain moisture, and breaks down into wonderful rich organic matter. What a difference it has made.
Though I attempted some interplanting last year, this year I will do more. Learning the growth habits and timing of each plant is helpful in understanding which plants can be paired. For example, I will fill the fronts of the tomato beds with the low growing nasturtium and marigolds. I saved hundreds of marigold seeds from one plant last year and have enough to fill the garden with their yellow sunshine. I'll also find better ways to plant deep rooted onions with shallow rooted bunching onions, or something similar. More research and planning will be required before spring.
Though we expanded the strawberry and blueberry patch last year, the harvest could have been better. The spring strawberries were nice, but the everbearing varieties did not survive the summer heat and pests. I will probably remove them and replace them with those that produce in spring. It will be difficult to identify which ones are which. The mint that I planted in the berry patches was also a mistake. Their invasive root system got tangled with the strawberry runners making it difficult to maintain. The blueberry bushes were attacked by birds just as I was about to harvest. I will probably cover them next year as the fruits begin to mature.
There's a long list of experiments and comparison tests I'd like to do, but for now I'll narrow it down to just a few. There's simply not enough time, especially when I'm still low on the learning curve. Here are some new things I plan to try this year.
Try More Vertical Gardening
Since my veggie garden is on a slope, I have to be more creative about how I grow sun loving plants. The 3-4 foot high wooden fence that encloses my main vegetable garden may offer some options. Last year, as I observed the growth habit of plants new to me, I watched how the vining pole beans and cucumbers climbed the fence as much as the bamboo trellises I had built for them. This year, I plan to incorporate the fence much more into the garden design, using the entire length for vertical support. I may try cucamelons, melons, pumpkins, gourds, squash and zucchini this year, which I did not think I'd have room for last year. I'll also try using the tomato cages as support for growing pole beans.
Test Saved Seeds
I'm eager to see how my first year of seed saving will turn out. Will they germinate and at what rate? I will have to be disciplined about marking the plant tags to keep track of their performance.
Plant Seedlings in Smartpots
I had great success planting seeds directly in Smartpots, a type of fabric grow bag, outdoors last summer. They outperformed the clay pots by a large margin. I was even able to pull out a few of the seedlings and transplant them into the ground. Given that success, I bought another supply of pots, this time in the smaller sizes for the purpose of dense planting seedlings indoors. I found the best prices at GrowersHouse. I believe what killed a big portion of my flower and herb starts last year was that I over watered. With the Smartpots, the excess water aspirates out of the fabric. I plan to skip the seed starting mix for those in the Smartpots and plant directly in potting soil and compost mix. Can't wait to try it!
The Ins and Outs
Based on last year's results, I plant to grow more tomatoes, beans, onions, green onions, calendula, lemon verbena, marigolds and nasturtiums. I won't bother with potatoes, celery and corn this time. It wasn't worth the effort given the size of the harvest. Perhaps another time. New this year, I will try sesame, marshmallow, sweet peas, ground cherries, cucamelons, melons, pumpkins and squash. I'll try carrots, ginger and impatiens again despite their failure last year. With the flower beds in need of planting, I will try many more perennial and annual seeds indoors and directly sown into the garden. It's going to be a busy year!
And that's a wrap!
It's been an amazing year of growing my first, full-blown kitchen garden. I learned so much along the way and will be better equipped for next season. I'm so excited to get started and experience another year of fresh produce, vibrant flowers and active wildlife in my small, suburban garden. I hope you enjoyed following along with my successes and failures. I'll be back next year!