Sunday, December 20, 2009

Garden Lowlights

Without question, the least exciting aspect of the 2009 farm is the garden. I put approximately 1600 SF into production, which means I tilled it and prepped it. Because of improper timing of sowing some seeds and general lousy weather, some crops didn't sprout at all, like Melons, so I lost about 200 SF to just dead space.

The main problem with the garden was lack of sunlight. Mother Nature did not always provide enough light, with 80% cloud cover in June and July, and then what did come from the sky was filtered by a giant, 100 year old Oak tree which perfectly shadowed the garden for four hours a day. The result is that the garden received early morning light and late afternoon light, which is less intense. The growing season here is 145 days, so losing 60 days to cloud cover was a big blow I could not recover from with such shady conditions.

During Phase 1 of the logging last May, I opted not to cut down the Oak and see how the garden fared through the year. My (conventional) garden neighbor insisted the lack of light was not the problem and that I should expect 50% loss just because I refused to use pesticides and supplemental irrigation. He also said my peas and other veggies were stunted and unhappy. I listened to what this wise old man said very carefully and became depressed with my garden.

As the year wore on, the garden produced very little. For example, we got a single pumpkin, about the size of a softball. Tasty, but sad. The melons failed to sprout, the corn withered and died at 24" tall. It was an abject failure, punctuated with amazing success. For example, even though I harvested my potatoes a month early to head off the voles and blight, I yielded 1 lb per row foot, which is just about right. The heritage beans produced amazing quantities of beans, even though the poles were way too short, from July until the first frost in October. We couldn't eat enough so we canned the rest. And the greenhouse tomatoes, at 10' tall, produced 35 lbs of tomatoes before also succumbing to the late blight, losing half the harvest.

And those poor stunted peas? Delicious. And, I learned when researching 2010 crops, I had purchased dwarf peas. So they were doing just fine at 2' tall, thankyouverymuch.

Overall, between the organically fed eggs, our meat birds, and the produce, we grew $1730 worth of food, the majority coming from eggs. Our inputs, including seed, soil for the greenhouse, fertilizer, and feed for the animals came to $1230. Capital costs, such as the greenhouse and the tractor were not factored in, since I really am doing this as a hobby (and I would have the tractor for the horses anyway).

So a dismal year, but still not as grim as it could have been. The first year is all about learning, so in that respect it was an overwhelming success. Prior to 2009, I had never grown a single vegetable in my life. I also moved from Texas where I developed an instinct for the seasons to New England where everything is totally different. Last frost here is JUNE!! It's already 105 F in Austin at that point. To say I was drinking from the firehouse is an understatement.

I have made some improvements looking to 2010. I cut down that old oak as part of the pasture logging in November. I mulched and bedded down my garden with a year's worth of compost, instead of tilling up the grass in April and expecting something to grow. Sod gardens are always weak. I have formulated a more efficient layout to the garden and expanded the growing areas. Squashes will be moved out to their own patch to allow for more beans, peas, and potatoes. I plan to double the row length of just about everything with the space vacated by the squash. Corn is going to be moved to a 100% sun location and more of it. I will not plant my Brussels Sprouts too early, acknowledging they are happiest to be maturing in October/November.

But the biggest lesson is that I should not doubt myself so much. My doom-and-gloom neighbor who mocked my poor dwarf peas lost his entire garden when the rains came. The lack of earthworms from his exuberant spraying left his soil heavy and his plants drowned. I mentioned the worms to him and he went looking but couldn't find any. As a last ditch effort, he came to me to use my bean seeds since my beans were thriving. He looked incredulously at the "Organic, Heirloom" label but planted them anyway. They failed to thrive in his garden, dying at 10" tall.

Talking to other farmers, the year was not great all around. So my little patch of the earth did about average. The blight hurt a lot of people this year.

The theme of 2010 is production (and researching what I am actually planting), and so I will select from more hybrid (but still organic) varieties and see if I can figure out this gardening thing with the deck stacked my favor. For example, my heirloom broccoli did very well, but because the heads looked so small compared to the broccoli in the super market (my only experience with veggies to that point), I waited too long to harvest and lost a lot of the crop to flowering. When I looked up that variety to find out what I did wrong, I learned I did nothing wrong. That particular broccoli produces small but prolific heads. And true to form, the plants from last April in my greenhouse are STILL producing wee heads!

After I get another year of experience, I will start delving back into heirloom varieties and more sustainable crops. Once I get the skills to help them thrive.


B said...

Congratulations! You did extraordinarily well on your first(!) of gardening.
This year has been hard on everyone as far as veg goes. I'm in Florida, and I didn't do so well this summer because of the extreme heat. Even this winter planting is looking terrible due to all the rain!
People may not be believe that the climate is changing, but with my veggie garden, I can certainly see that even the most minute changes have the potential to be disastrous.
I hope you're safe and warm, and no one is worse for wear after that pounding storm!

Anonymous said...

What a nice set of figures for your first year in a northern latitude.

I'm in Alaska, where there is not very much precipitation in the summer and only about 100 frost free days in the growing season. Granted, for much of that we have 18-20 hours of sun, and what grows here must grow fast and fierce. Even with starting indoors, anything much over 70 days to harvest is a crap shoot.

Your writings are very inspiring and I think this year I will try a double paned cold frame for some winter greens.

Daun said...

Homespun, welcome! I checked out your blog! I couldn't imagine farming in Alaska, you are very brave.

I am excited to hear about your adventures.