It is nearly February and therefore time to start thinking about and planning for gardening! This time last year, I was about to loose my job and had yet to secure new employment so gardening was not foremost on my mind. I had planted a cover crop of winter rye and hairy vetch in the newer, larger garden, which was choked with Canada thistle. I grew smaller quantities of a few regular and easy crops in the old garden, which by July was also largely choked out with weeds. The transition to my new job was stressful and I routinely arrived home two hours later every weeknight, which left little time or interest in the garden.
In the new garden, the rye grew tall by May. By July, the vetch had grown up and then toppled the rye in thick smothering mats, and grew up and over the fences and trellises, and then bloomed, smattering the garden with tiny little pitchers of purple and white and the black and yellow bumbling of dozens and dozens of bumble bees feeding all though the Summer. This provided a soothing retreat for my troubled mind.
By October, the cover crop lied as, dry, thick and pale straw. I ran it over with my lawn tractor and scattered the seeds. By November a new crop had sprouted, which is now dark green and dormant, waiting for the endless grey and sunless days of winter to pass. In the old garden, a lone stalk of Toscano kale refused to fall, standing with limp and blanched leaves like a miniature dead palm tree.
This year, however, I have bigger, bolder plans! Spinach by May followed by sweet peas and the annual stir fries! The kale will grow tall followed by the main shoots of broccoli, and the ample harvests of bush beans. The June bearing raspberries will ripen and add their sweet tanginess to my morning muesli and kefir. As June turns into July, and July to August, the onion and potato plants will topple and be ready for harvest. The tomatoes, peppers and eggplants and okra ripen to make ratatouille, stews and the yearly quarts of tomato soup and sauce. Yes, the bounty of the earth lies dreaming in the frozen ground of January!
NEW GARDEN (SPRING/SUMMER)
This year, I have decided not to be a poseur and start my nightshades from seed. I have sown the seedlings the weekend before the first of February. I am hoping to give them a good long early start under the grow lamps indoors and transplant them into large pots in March before finally landing them in the garden in mid May. Sweet Aperitif is a new cherry tomato offered by Territorial Seed Company. I grew Genuwine as my late season tomato last year, which were tasty and plentiful. I am returning to Burpee's Fourth Of July hybrid for an early tomato. I have not grown these for many years, but they really do excel at setting early fruit, with a decent taste, if a bit on the small size. All of these tomatoes are indeterminate and I am passing on growing a determinate paste/sauce tomato this year.
I have trouble growing eggplants and peppers. I am hoping that my early start indoors will pay off with having large established plants by the time the soil is good and warm in late May. I also plan on purchasing some sort of heat trapping cover to help keep the row of peppers and eggplants warmer during cool spells. I am going with Millionaire eggplants again. My eggplants tend to get attacked by flea beetles and I have read that growing radishes as a bait crop covered with diatomaceous earth can effectively manage the pests. We shall see. I am going to try Jimmy Nardello's sweet peppers as they are supposed to produce prolifically and be good for frying.
Ever since Burpee stopped selling their North-South Hybrid, I have been searching for an okra cultivar which excels in the Upper Midwest. This year I am going to grow three varieties in an okra shoot out. The red varieties seem to grow better here than the conventional Clemson Spineless or Jambalaya, so I have chosen Burpee's Red Velvet and Territorial's Candle Fire to compete with an heirloom called Perkin's Mammoth Long Pod.
Another new item for me will be Territorial's Orient Wonder pole bean. It is supposed to grow slender pods up to a 18" long even in cool weather. On the opposite trellis I will grow cucumbers and hope the cucumber beetles don't show up.
attempt to grow some five-year old lima beans called Big Mamma. The large seeds still look good and seeing as I have successfully grown Strike peas from the same big sack for the past four years I expect them to germinate.
Writing of old seed, I have a large packet of Tyee spinach which has not been available for the past least three years. This is the slowest bolting savoyed spinach that I have ever grown in this winter-one-day-summer-the-next climate that I garden in. To test that it will germinate, I put about twenty seeds between damp paper towels, sealed them in a plastic bag and stuck them in a closet. After a week, I had about 90% germination! I not bad for three-year-old seed. Four-year-old Tuscano kale seed also germinated well. I am going to take the advice of my friend who recently became a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener and sow my spinach seed and peas as soon as the soil is workable.
None of this is really all that new, or requiring all that much physical labor in the garden. I am sure that by the time it is time to harvest Potatoes and Onions that the garden will be choked with weeds once again and I will just hoe them away from the base of the nightshade plants and flame the rest every other week. No, the big effort this spring will be transforming the old garden into a strawberry garden.
My wife loves Strawberries and I think it is silly to have to spend money on them during the summer when they could just be grown. I also have read about some unfair labor practices suffered upon the pickers in the largest growers in Washington, California and Baja Mexico. For these reasons of ethics and of thrift, I have ordered 175 bare root plants on order from Johnny's Select Seeds. 100 of these are a day-neutral variety called Albion. These Strawberries should produce as long as the soil is warm from May through October. I have also ordered a main season collection consisting of an early, middle and late varieties for heavy June and July production.
I plan on tilling up the entire old garden as soon as the soil is thawed. After hilling up the earth in six raised rows, I will cover the whole garden with fibrous agricultural sheeting and cut X's into it for each plant. Theoretically, I should not have to worry about weeds and the sheeting will keep soil warm to encourage growth and production.
I have also ordered five bare roots each of Anne and Killarney raspberry plants to replace some of the old canes which are petering-out in the raspberry patch in the new garden. Killarney is a prolific June bearing red berry. Anne makes large and sweet cream-colored berries at the end of Summer.
Well, those are the big plans that I have this year. The garden always has to compete for my time with the demands of work and roller derby. I am sure that my tiller will give me problems. The weather and the mosquitoes and the weeds all will conspire against me as well.
For over a dozen years, I have kept a garden. I have learned what kind of a gardener I am. I have learned what will get swallowed up by the weeds before they grow tall. I have learned what will lie unpicked and uneaten. I have learned what plants will just get eaten up by bugs before bearing fruit. The things that I do grow are easier to grow and I have simple, seasonal recipes to use my produce in. Peas are never as good as when fresh out of the pod in May. June should never be without an abundance of green things to sauté and to stir fry. Paying for onions and tomatoes in August is a crime.
I came across a picture of the back yard back in December back before I put up a fence around the old garden. I remember it was just a mess of vines running all over each other. That boxelder tree was so small then. Now it towers over the water garden, which by July, is totally obscured by the fountain grass and iris. How little of the grass there was back then. It has taken over everything, it seems and drove the irises into the water. The back porch is grey and weather beaten now, where it is red and new-looking in the picture. The place is getting older. I am getting older. I don't own it, and some day it may be time to move on. I am not sure that having a big yard for a big garden is all that high on my list of priorities if and when that is. But for now, as the frozen earth slumbers, I still dream of turning the cool earth in the spring-time and the smell of it on my hands and knees in the warm sunshine of springtime.