Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Terra Nova

The irony was not lost on me, that our move to an old farm on 33 acres from a 40-by-125-foot lot in Saint Paul resulted in a net loss of garden space.  Much of our Saint Paul back yard, and part of the front, had been given over to vegetable gardens in the 15 years we lived there.  In that tiny yard I grew leeks, kale, lettuce, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, fennel, beets, carrots, potatoes, squash, cabbage, turnips, peppers, eggplant, and all the herbs (check out Jennifer's site  for a tour of a gorgeous urban garden).  The new place came with a rhubarb patch.  That was it.  Oh, and some big planters on the deck.  But basically we were starting from scratch.

This was the first bed I put in, and the most prolific to date.  I wasn't that keen on sod removal, so I took a "lasagna" approach.  Around the farm I found some good-sized timbers and framed out a bed.  Then I covered the grass with cardboard--plenty of leftover boxes from the move--then added organic material.  And now, I was just delighted with the symbolic import of the organic material I used, for it consisted of two trash cans full of partly composted stuff and not-so-composted stuff, mainly apple mush, that we carted out with us from Saint Paul.  So it was a sort of passing of the torch from city garden to country garden.  More ironies, or just plain absurdities, in the fact that all that apple mush traveled--in the form of apples--from Bide-A-Wee to Saint Paul, got pressed for cider, and was now coming home to the country.  Rather a hefty carbon footprint, I suppose, but it's not like we made a special trip.  In the final throes of the move I just realized that we had to deal with that stuff out in the yard, and throwing it in the moving truck was in fact the most expedient path.  The moving guys were not that thrilled.

Anyway, all that semi-rotted stuff went on top of the cardboard, then some grass clippings, old straw and hay I found around the place over that, then a layer of soil.  I mined soil in the pasture and added three or four inches as the top layer, and planted in to that.  I took a boutique approach to this bed, planting one short row each of snow peas, lacinato kale, carrots, lettuce, fennel, savoy cabbage, beets, radishes, and bush flat beans (a row of celery root crapped out completely, no germination).  Miracle of miracles, everything has come through.  The snow peas even survived the heat wave, and continue to give us sweet pods and lovely tendrils.

In a cold frame brought from Saint Paul I took the same approach, and planted red cabbage and brussels sprouts seedlings purchased at a local nursery.  I have not grown sprouts before, and have little experience with cabbage, generally; therefore, this bed is absurdly over-planted.  But they seem happy, and I can't bring myself to thin them out now.  Peeking out from under the cabbage is a row of bibb lettuce, enjoying a cool spot in this blistering summer.

Peter Piper planted a patch of paltry peppers.  Pathetic.  When I got to building this bed I was sort of tapped out on organic matter to layer up, so I just put in soil from the pasture, and the difference is marked.  Eggplant seedlings failed to thrive and were yanked.  The anaheims in the foreground are starting to come around, but the rest look sad.  Let's move on.

I put cucumbers and pole beans along the fence, and added trellises for them to climb.  The beans didn't germinate well, but a fill-in planting did better.  It won't be long before we're wondering what to do with all the cukes and beans.

Tomatoes also went along the fence.  We just dug out a small circle of turf for each.  The surrounding greenery subsumed them almost instantly, but they're mostly doing well, climbing up the fence.  They are all heirloom varieties--Prudens purple, brandywine, green zebra, Amish paste, Mortgage Lifter, etc.

In the back bed, we've got a big mess.  Our neighbors Mandy and Jeremy are growing hay for their livestock in the field on our hill--row crops had been grown there in the past.  When Jeremy's dad Bruce came to plow the field, I had him plow up a chunk of the yard.  However, this did not result in a beautifully tilled garden bed.  Rather, it resulted in deep furrows interspersed with rows of intact sod, a corduroy effect. But with concerted effort I've put in a few hills of squash--even one of melons--a potato bed, shell beans, kale, and turnips.  These things all went in mid-June, what one would normally consider way too late.  But, you know, the way I approached it, if I had done nothing this year the whole place would have been taken over by weeds (which are doing well enough, anyway, particularly amaranth and purslane, absolutely prehistoric looking purslane; I know it's edible, but when large, it's also kind of slimy).

And I've got one huge thing going for me, something I haven't had in my gardens for years and years:  full sun.  I mean:  complete and total full sun.  Did I mention that this is huge?  In Saint Paul I thought some of my beds were fairly sunny, but when I looked at the fence over here, the garage in the middle of it, the fence over there, the trees, the house....  It's kind of amazing that anything grew but ferns.  The squash seemed slow to get going, but now they're cruising.  Every year in Saint Paul we had some volunteer squash come out of the compost pile, peeping out some time in late June, creeping tentatively out into the yard, and then absolutely exploding with growth.  It's what squash do.

One thing I know for certain is that nothing is going to grow if you don't plant a seed--if only accidentally, as with those volunteers.  Another thing I've realized is that gardens are hard to photograph on the large scale--they tend to look like mounds of green, pretty enough, but kind of boring.  In detail, though, they provide fascinating, beautiful scenes.  Below, a few such.  Happy gardening to all.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw


Jennifer said...

WOW! Look how much space you have! I've thought about that "full sun" issue before as well, many times. In fact, my entire gardening career has been spent trying to see what I can get away with in part-shade (with many failures).

If I were you, I'd pick up Eliot Coleman's Four Season Harvest (if you don't have it already. It's so brilliant. If I suddenly found myself with that much space, I'd be getting crazy with the cold frames, hoop houses, and what have you.

Let me know how your brussels sprouts go! I've tried them twice, both times without success, and I think it was that pesky sun issue again.

Oh and thanks for the shout-out.

Jen H. said...

Loved this update! The beds are looking beautiful!

We didn't plant nearly as much as usual this year as we thought we'd have moved by now and we joined a CSA. We are loving the CSA!

Brette planted tomatoes, spinach, kale, peppers and herbs. The kale is kicking butt. The spinach died and the peppers are few. I think the tomatoes will have a good run.

s said...

Looks great, a truly awesome start considering you were still moving in this spring! And look at all that space! I have to admit the misc. stresses of this summer have caused the farm life fantasies to grow this year, but so far we are resisting.

This is the first year our mostly full-sun yard has had a downside, but living in a town of shady yards I know what you mean about appreciating its benefits. 6 foot tomato plants, yes please!

el said...

Looks wonderful, Brett. It is quite a transition, moving from city garden to country garden. At times, I wish I still had my 45x145 Minneapolis lot, and then I remember your winters. :) Seems like you bit off just enough in your first year...which leaves you room for more! (Remember, fall is the best time to build garden beds, even if your ideas haven't caught up with you by then.)

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Jennifer: Yeah, we're not short on space here, in fact it's so spacious, I hardly knew where to start. I will definitely get the Coleman book, and a hoophouse is high on our list--but a garage is first, and perhaps a kitchen redo, and...(!)

Hi Jen: Thanks. I have to say I'm pleased that we've gotten this far the first year. It has been a tough year for a lot of plants. My first planting of kale is doing great, but a subsequent planting was attacked by flea beetles--turned every leaf into very ugly lace. But the plants are still alive, and apparently they can outgrow this depredation. We are still waiting on tomatoes, have just had a few cherry type. BTW, does Brette have family in this area? There was a Hjelle, Melissa, I think, mentioned in our local paper recently.

Sara, I realized I had to take it one bed at a time, much as I wanted an instant Eden of lush gardens, fruit trees, vines, etc.! As you know, a little at a time goes a long way. My tomato plants are fast climbing the fence, some approaching five feet, I'd say, but it will still be a while for ripe fruit.

Hello El: I have indeed taken a break from busting sod during the dog days, but look forward to those cool fall work days. And hey, I'm going to a brick oven building workshop next week, so that one may move up on the list!

Thanks for writing, everyone. I appreciate the feedback very much~ Brett