By Cassie Johnston
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I owe you a mid-summer garden update! Although, I suppose it’s actually late summer now, considering fall starts in just a few weeks. But ’round here, the growing season is so long, we still have a few months of “summer” to go before the garden goes to bed for the year. So I’m sticking with calling it summer.
I haven’t updated you on the garden goingson since May. And holy heck, does a lot change in a garden in three months! It’s a whole different world out there.
I have to be honest, this year has been a struggle. A real struggle. As in, we-planted-300-onions-and-only-harvested-a-dozen kind of struggle. I’ve spoken with numerous gardeners in our area, and overall, it just hasn’t been a great year for growing stuff. Everyone seems to be struggling. And on top of the lackluster growing season, I’m not ashamed to admit that we bit off way more than we can chew (both figuratively and literally).
We knew that we were going big with our garden this year, and that it was going to be a lot of work, but we didn’t think it would be the impossible amount of work it has turned out to be. It’s just flat-out too much for two people to keep up with with the time, tools, and other resources we have available to us.
There have been a handful of times when either Craig or I (or both of us) have been on the verge of just pulling everything out, cover cropping the whole garden, and cutting our losses for the year. I was out in the garden a few weeks ago, crying while I was picking tomatoes because I felt so overwhelmed, and I thought, isn’t this supposed to be fun? Right then and there, I decided something had to change. So we’ve been (slowly) working on pulling out anything that is struggling or we’re not excited about, and instead putting our focus on crops that we really love growing and are super rewarding. We’re simplifying.
We’ve had a lot of conversations in recent weeks about how we want gardening to fit in our lives in the future, and we both are super passionate about growing our own food, so it’s vital that gardening plays a role in our lives going forward, but our ambition got the best of this year. It’s just too much. We’ll never do something this big again (remind me of this declaration when I get seed catalogs in January). By going so big, we’ve taken all the joy right out of it. Neither of us want to get burnt out on growing food. So we’re talking about going much smaller scale next year.
(That used to be kale.)
Every year with gardening, you learn something. You never know it all. And this year, we learned a big ole lesson in scale.
Anywho, enough with the dramatics. I was thinking of talking through all the problems we had with crops this year, but honestly, they are too numerous and it’s too much of a bummer to focus on. So instead, I’m going to focus on the crops that are rocking it, and the ones we’ve decided to keep on nurturing for the rest of the growing season. We still have quite a few that are producing like gangbusters! First up, tomatoes!
As I mentioned back in May, we planed 72 tomato plants, and you’d think with the aforementioned lesson I learned about scale, I’d be lamenting the overwhelming number of tomatoes, but honestly, it’s been really awesome to have this many tomatoes. If we ever do a big preserving garden again, I would still grow a similar number of plants, but just adjust the types of tomatoes. Of those 72, about half were Roma/paste tomatoes, and the other half were fresh eating tomatoes.
It has been amazing having so many paste tomatoes available for preserving. I’ve put up two dozen pints of salsa, two dozen pints of diced tomatoes, and eight quarts of the best spaghetti sauce ever. I’d still like to put up some tomato paste and tomato soup, too. We’ve also been putting every single cherry tomato we’ve grown straight into the dehydrator to make “sun” dried tomatoes—we’re up to four quarts of those.
It’s the eating tomatoes that we are drowning in. I’ve been throwing some in my canning projects and eating them at pretty much every meal, but we still aren’t even coming close to making a dent. In future years, I’d much rather just grow more paste tomatoes, and only a couple of fresh eating plants. We can only eat so many fresh, and the local food pantries have such a tomato surplus right now, they are throwing them out by the box. Lesson learned.
Now that we’ve been in the really hot temps for a few weeks now, both our tomatillos and ground cherries are loving it out there. We’ve never grown either before, and we had no idea they were so prolific—especially the tomatillos.
We planted a whole row of the things, and I honestly think just one or two plants would have gotten us PLENTY to do everything we need to do. I have plans to put up about a dozen pints of roasted tomatillo salsa and probably some green enchilada sauce (if I can find a tested recipe), and that’ll cover maybe 5% of what’s on our plants. I have heard rumors that tomatillos will store well in a cool basement in their husks, so I’m going to try that, too. After that, I plan on taking a truckload or two to the food pantry.
Ground cherries are new for us, too, and, oh my gosh, they are so fun! They are like tiny tomatillos, but taste like a cross between a sweet cherry, pineapple, and tomato. It sounds insane, but it’s a really fun flavor. We’ve been eating them raw, in salads, and I just yesterday made a bunch into jam—super yum!
Another weird crop that you may never have heard of that’s doing well for us—sunberries. These tiny matte berries are pretty flavorless—if anything, they have a slight tomato flavor—and grow super prolific in their first year as an annual. I’ve heard they are really great in pie, but I turned them into jam. It’s one of the best jams I’ve ever eaten! It tastes (and looks) straight up like blueberry jam.
We had a great garlic harvest this year, and the heads are almost done curing. It’s been so humid here lately, that a few of the heads have gotten soft, but we’re just using those fresh now. I can always count on garlic growing well (knock on wood).
Other crops that are doing really well for us still: okra, winter squash (we’re going to have so many pie pumpkins!), and sweet potatoes. This is our first year growing sweet potatoes, and we are super excited about them. If we do a good job of curing them, we should be eating sweet potatoes throughout most of the winter. Yippeee!
The okra is also exciting because it is one of the most beautiful plants in the entire garden. We’re planning on planting it next summer as part of our landscaping around the house. It also freezes well and will be a great addition to soups this winter!
Our potatoes have also done really well, and while we’ve been eating on them for months now, they are still waiting in the ground to be dug for final storage. We’re in no rush to get to them. I’ve always heard that just as long as the soil isn’t too damp, the longer potatoes stay in the ground, the better for storage (the skin gets thicker). We’ll probably dig them all up sometime next month.
Speaking of digging, two crops that did really well this year that we have never had success with before are beets and carrots! We got so many big, beautiful beets and carrots that we just finished harvesting a few weeks ago. We’ve always struggled with cool weather root crops like that (especially in the Spring), and we had great success with them this year. I ended up dehydrating a bunch of carrots, and the rest are stashed in the fridge waiting for when I get around to canning chicken soup—hopefully in the next few weeks. We didn’t plant a ton because we’d never had success with them before, so I’m bummed we didn’t get more to donate.
I mentioned in the last update about the paper mulch and weed fabric we’d used throughout the garden this year, and let me tell you, that stuffed saved our garden this year. It’s been hard enough to keep up with the weeds in areas where we couldn’t use the mulch or weed fabric—I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we had to tackle those spaces, too.
The high-quality weed fabric we used it holding up beautifully! And the paper mulch is doing a decent job (although you can tell it is starting to biodegrade). I’m not sure we’ll drop the cash to do the paper mulch in the future—we might just stick with newspaper, cardboard, or contractor’s paper—but it’s good to know it’s an option.
On the food donation front, we aren’t anywhere near our goal of donating 500 pounds. Back in the spring, we were able to donate about 30 pounds of greens—which was greatly appreciated by the food pantry—but since then, the donation part of our garden has been suffering. Many of the crops that we planted large amounts of with plans to donate failed miserably (onions, beans, sweet corn, melons), and the crops that are producing a lot (helloooo, tomatoes) aren’t being accepted by local food banks. It’s a bummer.
I do think we’ll be able to donate a nice chunk of potatoes, sweet potatoes, okra, and winter squash in the next few months—which hopefully will help some folks out! We also have a second planting of pole beans that will hopefully mature before the first freeze that we’ll be able to donate.
But, even with all of that, I don’t think there is anyway we’re going to hit our 500 pound goal. Which makes me super sad. I know donating anything is doing good, but I was really hoping we could make a sizable dent in our small community’s hunger problem, and that just isn’t realistic for this growing season.
Wow, this post is coming out way more bummer-tastic than I had planned! I don’t mean it to sound that way, I just want to make sure to show you an honest picture of gardening—it ain’t all sunshine and heirloom tomatoes (although there are a lot of both of those). We’re actually excited about all we’ve learned from this season’s garden. You take away something from each year’s garden. Sometimes it’s a lot of produce. And this year, it’s a lot of knowledge. That isn’t such a bad crop to harvest.
So where does this leave us all going forward? Well, like I said above, we’re cutting our losses in some parts of the garden. Craig has been working on a bed or two a day to get it cleaned up and cover cropped for the fall. We’ll trim down the cover crops in the next month or so, then cover the beds in straw to let them hibernate for the winter. Our plan is to cut down our active growing space by about half for the remainder of the season. That’s a much more reasonable amount to focus on.
We also decided to skip planting a fall garden. We’ll probably throw in our garlic for next year, and plant a few rows of lettuces and spinach, but other than that, we’re going to keep the garden fallow. We have a crazy busy fall coming up, and fitting in a larger fall production garden just doesn’t look like it is in the cards.
I’ll probably do one more garden update in a month or two tell you how to we put the garden to bed for the season, and then it’ll be done for the year! We’re still trying to figure out how big we want to go next year (we’re thinking of just putting in an eating garden next year—some greens, a few tomato plants, etc.), but I’ll make sure to keep you posted either way. I hope everything is growing better for you guys out there! Tell me your stories of abundant crops!
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It seems fitting that this is the year you’re KonMariing your garden. :)
Our tomatoes are doing really well, but between the rabbits and extremely hot and dry conditions we’ve had here in Seattle this summer, our greens have been a massive fail. Zucchinis too, for some reason I haven’t figured out yet – too bad, because this year I was prepared with tons of zucchini recipes for when the overflow would hit.
Maybe raising a real baby and such a big metaphorical (garden) baby is just too much at once. You could always try it again when Juniper is older:).
Such a bummer to hear about the lackluster crops! Hopefully there will be better luck next year!
Your salsa garden post earlier this summer inspired me to plant my own salsa garden, and, well, I don’t want to say it’s going to be a total wash, but it’s not looking so hot, haha. A heavy rain totally demolished my cilantro when I was out of town one weekend, my tomato plant seems to be dying a very slow death, and while my habanero plant is still looking ok, I’m trying not to get my hopes too high. But I’ve learned a lot, and I’m really excited to try again next year! So thank you for the motivation to get started! I do have one peppermint plant that I’ve successfully managed to keep alive. :)
The Chicago area is having a really hard time on the gardening front too.
My peas never grew, I’ve only gotten a few tomatoes, and so far I’ve only gotten enough cucumbers to make 3 quart jars of pickles.
Oh that must be so disappointing. Our garden is actually doing really well this year. Our swiss chard, beets and tomatoes are massive. The one thing we have struggled with is zucchini. We just can’t seem to get it to grow.
I did a more thorough update on my blog http://www.fromonemommatoanother2.blogspot.ca/2015/07/our-2015-garden-update-5-july.html
It is a rough gardening year!! Here in Idaho, an entire town lost its bumper crop of cherries, they didn’t even hold the festival like usual. We tried planting carrots and beets, neither of which took very well, the carrots didn’t even grow. At all. My tomatoes look good, the pepper plants are not doing well at all. My strawberries and basil did well, the parsley bit the dust. It is just so odd this year! Plus, now we have the largest fire in the country burning here so air quality is iffy at best. It’s a rough one!! Next year!!
We tried our best at a winter garden this year, one of the perks of living in South Africa, it never gets that cold, but first the horses came and nibbled on EVERYTHING ( I saw them eating a fern), when they got moved somewhere else I really thought I was in the clear for a beautiful garden, but little did I know the birds that decided to stay for winter are filled with greed and destruction! MEH!
Ugh it’s been a rough one here too! For my parents and brother also. My first year strawberries are still producing and spreading tho! Beets, cucumbers, zucchini, greens beans and kale were all a loss due to bugs and deer :( I’m learning more for next year as well!
I LOVE your garden updates. As a city dwellers I’m living vicariously through you. I wish it made sense for your adoring readers to buy surplus produce.
Did you plant any herbs? How did they do?
Not sure if they do this in your area or if this would be of help to you, but around me farmers will contact church groups (or other community organizations) to have members come out to pick extra crops and keep what they pick. This would help eliminate some of the work of harvesting and I think you might reach some people who would love fresh tomatoes, but wouldn’t qualify for a food bank. I wasn’t able to do a garden this year because of health problems, but now that I’m back on my feet if a local gardener said “come and get it” I would be all OVER that!! Not exactly donating to charity, but if you have tomatoes going bad, it’s an idea.
I need to run over to the farmers market this morning to pick up a 35+lb box of seconds tomatoes I ordered.
I just had an, oh my goodness, what did I do moment, as I realized I don’t have any idea how to make tomato sauce (my plan for these tomatoes).
Any recommendations, recipes, tips you can offer?
I recommend the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. There are multiple tomato sauce recipes (both waterbath tested and pressure canner): https://www.amazon.com/Ball-Complete-Book-Home-Preserving/dp/0778805107/ref=as_sl_pc_ss_til?tag=batohero-20&linkCode=w01&linkId=Q2IIZAF2YQR6BG3V&creativeASIN=0778805107
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