By Cassie Johnston
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When we first moved here, there was a well-established garden plot that was just asking to be used to produce tons of yummy fruits and veggies. Because we’re crazy, we decided our first year to expand the plot even bigger, and that means, we now have just a touch under 5,000 square feet of growing space (which, is more than twice the square footage of our house). Funny enough, we have plans to expand the space even bigger in future years, but this year, because of our new little human addition, we decided to keep the garden maintenance on the low side and only planted about 3000 square feet of space.
Our focus for this year’s garden was almost entirely fresh eating. We did throw in a few crops that will store well, but I have no plans to be a slave to my canner with a newborn this year, so we’ll be skipping making pickles, canning veggies and doing all the other fun preserving tasks we did last summer. We’re all about the fresh foods for 2014.
There is nothing pretty about our garden (well, other than the fact that it feeds us—that’s pretty beautiful). We have grand plans in the future to put in a more permanent, attractive fence—once we land on a “final” plot size. We’d love to take out all the grass in the aisles and put in either pea gravel or wood chips—because keeping the garden mowed sucks. And because we’re organic gardeners, we’re constantly fighting the good fight against weeds.
But even though our garden isn’t the most attractive thing in the world, it is very, very productive. Last year, we harvested over 500 pounds of food from our garden (and we ended counting early because I got pregnant and started dealing with the morning sickness from hell). Part of me would love a “beautiful” garden, but hey, just as long as it makes us food, I’m happy.
Curious what we’re growing this year? Well, I figured I’d take you on a little garden tour. First up, the left side of the garden.
The front of this side has 10 raised beds. Eventually, our plan is to transition the entire garden to long raised rows (it’s what we’ve found gives us the maximum growing space, best productivity and helps keeps the weeds down), but we’re still rocking the raised beds on this side for now.
In the first raised bed, we have a mix of both yellow summer squash and zucchini. Plus companion plantings of marigolds and nasturtiums to help keep squash bugs away. Everyone talks about how summer squash are so easy to grow, but we’ve never had much luck with them. We really struggled with squash bugs last year (as in, we were out there finding and destroying them twice a day everyday all summer—and still only managed a few zucchini). They’re hard little suckers to control if you don’t want to use chemicals. So we’ll see!
Next to that, we have our two tomato and pepper beds. We’re *only* growing eight varieties of tomatoes this year (down from 16 last year!)—a mix of cherries, slicers, and heirlooms. We have two beds that are set up exactly like this, only with different tomato varieties. In each bed: four tomato plants (grown in a cross/plus formation, because we learned last year how tomato plants really enjoy being a bit crowded and touching), with four sweet pepper plants in the corners, and then interspersed with companion plants of borage, basil and marigolds. Unfortunately, we had a late frost this year, and these guys got a little nipped right after transplant, so they’re slow to take off.
Behind our tomato beds, we have two strawberry beds. We just started our strawberry plants last year, so production is still slow, but we did manage to get a decent amount for eating this year. And they were so delicious, we decided that we’re going to pull these guys out this Fall and transplant them (and all their runners) to a full raised row next year so we can have even more strawberries!
We’re still picking off a strawberry or two—just as long as we’re able to get down there and pick them before a slug or a bunny gets to it.
We also have a full raised bed of garlic. In our area, garlic gets planted in the fall, and then you pretty much do nothing with it until you lop off the garlic scapes in early summer. Gosh, garlic is so easy to grow. I have no idea how many garlic plants we have in here, but I’d say it’s close to 75 or so. We average about a head of garlic a week in our house, so that usage plus saving about 20 or so heads to use as seed garlic for next year should get us through until 2015.
In addition to the hardneck garlic we’ve grown the past few years, we’re also trying two new varieties of softneck garlic, so we’ll see how those guys end up tasting.
Right behind the garlic bed is an entire bed full of curly kale! Kale is such an amazing plant to grow. It doesn’t love heat, so it’ll slow down dramatically in the summer, but come fall and winter, it’ll perk right back up and keep producing all the way through frost and snow (in fact, it gets a bit tastier with some freezing weather under its belt).
We’d also like to try our hand at freezing some kale this year for soups and stews come winter. The great thing about freezing is you don’t need things to come off all in one batch to make it worth your time (like you do with canning). We can just lop off a few leaves every day and add them to the freezer as the season goes.
Next to the kale, we have two cucumber beds. Last year, we packed a big area with pickling cucumbers because we really wanted to preserve, but this year, we’re focusing on just growing four plants for eating fresh. These are companion planted with marigolds and nasturtiums.
And then the last bed up front has our greens in it. We got a bit of a late start planting our greens, so our spinach was not happy with us and the heat. But we did plant two heat-friendly varieties of bib and romaine lettuce that are doing well. We also have a row of dill (which is tasty, but also a great companion plant for greens), and a few rows of unidentified leaf lettuce. We saved the seeds from last year’s patch, so it’s just a mix of what grew well here. And it’s delicious! We’re going to do a few more succession plantings of the summer-friendly lettuces on the right of the bed, just so we can keep in the lettuce game as long as possible.
Between the rows of raised beds, we also have four large pots with two eggplants in them each (plus marigolds as a companion plant and a shade umbrella for when Puppyface is in the garden). We struggled a ton with flea beetles on our eggplants last year, and one of the ways to get around that is to put them up high so the beetles can’t jump onto the plants. So far, so good. We’ve picked off one or two beetles, but nothing compared to the damage of last year. I’m seriously crossing my fingers for some eggplant this year!
Behind the raised beds is our asparagus patch. We did our very last harvest of asparagus this week, and now it’s time to let the plants grow and rejuvenate for next year. Asparagus and tomatoes are great companion plants for each other (although, they’re both heavy feeders, so you have to do some serious fertilizing), so we threw in eight more tomato plants in the patch for good measure—because there is no such thing as too many homegrown tomatoes.
Behind the asparagus patch are four of the long, raised rows that I was talking that we’re planning on putting everywhere. In the first three, we have melon plants! We didn’t devote a lot of space last year to growing melons because they don’t keep, but since we had the free space this year, we figured we might as well try to really go melon-crazy. We have a full row of full-size watermelons, a full row of cantaloupes and a row of mixed heirloom melons. Of course, companion planted with marigolds and nasturtiums (so pretty, so effective against fighting bugs).
In the last raised row, we have potatoes! We went back and forth about whether or not to grow potatoes this year, but decided that since we had some leftover potatoes that were already sprouting from last year’s garden, we’d try planting them and see if they took off. And took off they did! Seed saving is amazing. It’s practically free food.
The jungle behind the potatoes is our super well-established concord grape vines! I know I said I don’t plan on doing a lot of preserving this year, but I canned both grape jam and grape juice last year, and they were both incredible, so I might have to make an exception for our grapes.
We did a ton (a TON) of pruning on them early in the year to try to encourage growth and fight a common grape disease in this area called black rot. Even with a nasty case of black rot last year, we still managed to harvest over 20 pounds last year. Hopefully we’ll do even better this year! We also have three more grapevines that we want to get planted this summer.
Behind our grapevine is our massive compost bin, and the next to that, we have one more raised bed that has our rhubarb in it.
And that’s one half of our garden. Phew. Are you exhausted yet? Don’t worry, the other half of the garden isn’t nearly intense. That’s because the vast majority of it looks like this right now:
The right side of the garden is entirely raised rows, and we only planted four of them with crops. The rest are currently cover cropped. In fact, they are planted with last fall’s cover crops (that somehow managed to survive through the ridiculous winter). So we’ve got lots of beautiful oats and sweet peas growing on that side.
We’ll be lopping all that cover crop down in the next few weeks (well, I won’t, because, you know, I’m giving birth, but a certain Canadian will), and then tilling them under and planting our summer cover crops (a mix of cowpeas and buckwheat). And then, come fall, we’ll replant the oats and peas again. The cover cropping really helps keep the weeds from taking over—especially if you aren’t planting beds for a while—plus, they help add all kinds of goodness to the soil.
Behind the rows of cover crops, we do have a few rows of other plants. We didn’t originally plan on planting this side of the garden at all, but ended up filling up a few rows because of my desire for cute fall decor. Every year, I swear up and down I will not pay tons of money for cute decorative gourds and pumpkins to make our house look festive for fall. And every year, I see them in the store and end up handing over my entire wallet. So this year, we’re being proactive and growing our own decorative gourds and pumpkins!
We have a few mixes of both large and small gourds, plus three different varieties of pumpkins (which are all pretty, and all edible, too). Hopefully these two rows will end up being our own personal pumpkin patch come October!
Next to the gourds and pumpkins is an entire row of onions. We have three varieties in here, reds for fresh eating, a sweet white for fresh eating (and probably freezing) and a yellow that is good for storage.
And then the two rows behind the onions are currently fallow, but we’re talking might be the place we plant our new grapevines, or where we move the strawberry patch to in the fall.
Almost done! Right next to the garden, is this sad, sad, sad guy.
The harsh winter did a doozy on our little homemade greenhouse. Craig has plans to fix ‘er up this summer so it’s ready to help us eat fresh produce throughout the cold weather months, but for now, we have a different plan for the little u-shaped bed inside.
We have quite a few leftover seedlings (mostly tomatoes and peppers), and our plan is to pack as much as we can in here and make this little raised bed a donation garden. We can actually produce quite a bit of food with this little bed, and our plan is that whatever comes out of here will be donated directly to our local food pantry. Food pantries are amazing, and any food is better than no food, but food pantries are also desperately lacking in fresh produce. And I personally don’t believe that just because you’re struggling through rough financial times means you don’t have the right to access fresh, healthy foods. This is just a small experiment this year, and if it turns out well, we’d love to devote a large chunk of our garden to donation in upcoming years.
Because our garden is a decent walk away from the house, we do have a few spots near to the kitchen that are growing some food, too. First up, we have a herb patch right outside our kitchen door. We have parsley, cilantro, oregano, chives, chamomile and a catnip plant that is taking over. We might have to pull that sucker out. Phew.
And then, on our driveway, we have three boxes with—you guessed it—more tomatoes! These are cherry tomatoes and slicer tomatoes for quick snacking. We companion planted them with borage and basil. Can you tell that these tomato plants didn’t get nipped with the frost that the other ones did? They’re so much bigger and already have blooms!
Borage is one of our absolute favorite companion plants. Bad bugs hate it, bees absolutely love it and, bonus, it is super pretty and delicious! You can make a tea out of the flowers and leaves. Last year, we packed our dehydrator full of borage and chamomile flowers to make our own tea that we drank throughout the winter (so yummy).
The flowers are completely edible fresh, too. We put the flowers into salads all the time. They have a really mild flavor that tastes like sweet cucumber. If you’re bringing a salad to a potluck, and you throw in some borage flowers, people get really, really excited about it. Eating flowers seems so exotic!
So that’s our garden for 2014! It might seem like a lot, but we actually cut out a ton of our “normal” items from the list. No snap beans, dry beans, corn, okra, radishes, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, sweet potatoes, peas, or hot peppers. We tried to really focus on our most-used items to keep the maintenance down low. And then next year. Oh, next year, we’re going to go crazy. We <3 growing food.
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This is very inspiring! Thanks for sharing. :)
Reading this post exhausted me and further validated for me that I am not a gardener. I am a CSA shareholder, so my summer and early fall produce will be coming from someone else’s farm. But I am a little bit in awe of your garden, and I LOVE the idea of the donation garden! That is so awesome!
This is fascinating to me, partly because we don’t have the space to do this and partly because I have no time/desire to do it, but I was totally enthralled by all the pictures and descriptions. Awesome job! And I love the donation garden, that’s such a great idea.
This is so awesome. Glad to see what you guys have planted for this year.
I’m currently in the process of expanding my garden and so far I have 10 different varieties of tomatoes; several different types of peppers-bell, sweet, hot; carrots, green and yellow beans, zuccuni, cucumbers, cantalope, watermelon, eggplant, lettuce (that’s on its way out as it gets hotter), basil, parsley, cilantro, dill, oregano, stevia, mint, chives and sage. I think that’s it. We also have a bunch of flowers planted to pretty it up. We got ambitious this year and I’m hoping for a good crop to preserve come late summer and fall.
Enjoy your time before the babe comes!
I love reading your garden updates! It looks great this year :)
I have total garden envy right now. And I thought I was hot stuff with our lettuce/kale/basil/mint boxes out on our deck. Baaahaahaaa.
Thank you so much for posting this! I cannot WAIT to have a garden. I have always lived in apartments but since we are welcoming our first baby into our lives this fall we bought a house and I am so excited to plant and grow my own food! I already have a small herb garden (in pots) that I want to incorporate but I am ready for fresh produce!
I’m mostly excited about tomatoes!! I can never get enough tomatoes. Ever. Plus, I want to try growing my own Brussels Sprouts because fresh are amazing!
We just started our first garden at our new house…and while it’s not as impressive as yours, it’s definitely bigger than the average home garden! I know absolutely nothing, so we will be getting all our tips from my fiance’s father who went to school for this kind of thing…and of course I’ll be looking here for info as well!
Cassie, this is so beautiful, thank you. It actually brought tears to my eyes, I grew up in Iowa but have been gone now for 28 years and am currently living in Phoenix aka the burning plains of hell. You’re truly inspiring, keep em coming!
I’m always inspired by your gardening (in your case I think it’s fair to call it “farming”, though) posts! I got a late start this year thanks to morning sickness, so my plans to double my growing area were put on hold until next year. Still, we seem to have an early summer for once in the Pacific Northwest, so I’m hoping for a good tomato year (I always suck at growing them).
So far, we’re eating chard, lettuce, and whatever strawberries I can get before the critters eat them – I’m considering covering that bed with chicken wire or something.
Your garden is absolutely amazing! I can only dream of that right now, being in one small apartment after another and having to focus on grad school. BUT once I’m done, my next full time job is going to be establishing a garden :)
Keep up the amazing work!
Have you ever done a post on freezing produce before? I would love some tips!
I really do love seeing what you’re growing in your garden again this year. And I’m absolutely digging the idea of a donation garden. I’d never thought about food pantries as needing, or even accepting, fresh food. What a great idea.
This is so cool! I really want to start small with an herb garden this year!
Your garden is my dream garden! I only have a little 4’x8′ community plot, but I’ve got cherry, roma, slicing, and heirloom tomatoes, several kinds of peppers, eggplants, zucchini, cucumbers, broccoli, green beans, black beans, snap peas, shelling peas, carrots, parsnips, and radishes, plus lavender, lemon balm, basil, borage, sage, oregano, thyme, parsley, and dill as companion plants. It’s a busy little plot! And a little bowl of salad greens and some extra container-sized zucchini, cucumber, tomatoes, and peppers at my house.
I plan on trying to wrap my squash stems in aluminum foil this year to prevent the squash borers; they are actually the caterpillar of a moth that lays its eggs on the stem. The foil should deter the moth from laying eggs, and prevent the bugs from boring. Worth a try!
A memo from New Zealand!! Don’t transplant your “mother” strawberry plants. Only the Runners. Strawberry plants have a 3 year life span. Replant the Runners and discard the “mother” Plants. Yours are already 2 years old. I have tried keeping them longer – and been disappointed.
Oh my gosh. You are amazing. I hope that when I have my own house that I’ll grow so many things! I actually grew my own garden last year – it was so cool! I had tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach, lettuce, eggplant, peas, and swiss chard. Then my grandpa grew corn, onions, and he has his own pumpkin patch! Everyone in town goes there for pumpkins :)
Do you know what kind of marigolds you’re planting as companions? Is it calendula officinalis? Everything looks so freaking useful, it’s awesome! Strawberry leaves are really similar to raspberry leaves in their medicinal usage, borage is super uplifting, dill is good for a colicky baby, and good lord garlic. There could be a very large, very detailed book written about the medicinal uses for garlic. I’m so happy for you two :)
I freakin love your garden posts!! I could read them all day! :) My garden is small but doing pretty well in our backyard! I already had to pull off a zucchini because it was getting so big! I hope to figure out a way to measure all the pounds we pull out of my small garden like you guys did last summer.
Happy growing! :)
Question- do you plant your chamomile and borage from seed?
Yes! But we start them indoors before the last frost.
Thanks, Cass! I think these will be in my lineup for next year!
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