Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Learning as We Grow

Today I realized, not much has been written about our garden. This is honestly because I wouldn't consider myself anything but an extreme amateur at raising our food. I've been told the process is a 3-5 year learning curve and we are currently in year two. This year is much, much better than the last and I can only imagine what next year will bring.

The first summer I lived with Jules, we had three tomato plants smushed into one medium sized pot. This came along with one teensy parsley bush, one bunch of chives, and two thyme plants. Soon into the season I planted collard greens and spinach.

In the end, the parsley, chives, and thyme plants were far too small to actually do anything with. The spinach I planted turned out to be baby spinach, a cultivar that never gets more than four inch long leaves. Total bust! Our backyard fence was falling down, and the only thing we had to make raised beds out of was pressure treated lumber scraps. It was a very meager beginning. The collards did well, however, and so did the ever persistent tomatoes which yielded surprisingly well. All in all, it was enough to convince Jules to allow me my third of the yard for another go at this whole gardening thing.

By the end of the first summer, Jules tore down the old fence (since it was falling down anyway) and rebuilt our new, gorgeous, North side fence. With that came all the promise the completion a large scale building project can bring with it. Such a boost brought about the garden planning for the next season, the acquisition of proper raised bed materials, and much ordering of seed catalogs.

With such a small house, our 1/4 of an acre lot seems to have an unusually large backyard. After much measuring and a few very bad schematic drawings, we ended up with 6 independent raised beds all 9'x4'. We have composted, amended the soil, chopped up our leaf litter, added grass clippings and finally came out with something resembling good soil. There was digging, clearing, chopping, much adz swinging, aerating, and lots of exercise for my arms. Lots of loading and unloading. Then, finally at the end of it all, planting of precious seeds. This year the raised beds were made from untreated Douglas Fir in luxuriant 2x6x10 boards which mirror the pattern of the fence. There are 18 inch walk ways to allow for my little wheel barrow and a weed whacker to access rather easily but not take up too much space. It is a prim and proper garden that seems to be doing quite well compared to last year. It is quite picturesque in my humble little opinion.

The main thing that I learned the first year, and tried to fix the second, was appropriate choosing of veggies. My goodness there are a lot of different kinds of veggies. I always just thought tomato, spinach, peas, beans and such. Well, uh, no. It is much, much more complicated than that! So I pined, and I looked, and I gleefully accepted all the new seed catalogs which came in the mail.

First I nailed down just what veggies we wanted to grow. There was a very brief discussion with Jules where he reiterated his garden mantra "I don't care what grows as long as it produces food." There is sometimes a variation of "If you grow it in the garden, I'll eat it." But essentially the garden is my domain. He mows; I grow. So I thought about what we ate, what I cooked, and came up with this list:

Peas, Carrots, Zucchini, Pumpkins, Potatoes, Rhubarb,
Spinach, Garlic, Tomatoes, and Beans.
After a quick confirmation from Jules(whose care level rose a bit) he added Peppers, both sweet and hot.

The next major decision was the type of seeds I wished to grow. This one took a bit more internet research. You see, with the advent of modern science, seeds are no longer just seeds. There are Heirloom, open pollinated, hybrid, and genetically modified seeds. To give an extremely brief summation of each I will start with the most recent.

Genetically modified seeds are ones that have been scientifically modified by a seed company. These plants are patented and it is illegal to save their seeds, split the plants, propagate cuttings, etc. Many of these plants have also been altered to have what is called a terminator gene which means they will not reproduce, even if the seeds are planted. Most of the current agricultural crops are genetically modified strands so that the pesticide used by the agricultural companies will kill everything but the specific strain of plants. The seeds are genetically modified to withstand the pesticide. This way the seed company has a market on the seeds and the pesticide. 98 percent of the world's genetically modified sees are owned by the company Monsanto.

Hybrid seeds are seeds which have been bred or cross pollinated with another plant which has desirable characteristics. This isn't science meddling with genes exactly, it is much more like what you did in high school science class with Pundent Squares figuring out what characteristics your child would have with someone else in the class by working with dominant and recessive traits. An example would be if you had a tomato that routinely produced lots and lots of fruits. You would then breed this tomato with another plant that routinely had really, really big tomatoes. The result would be a few tomato plants which routinely had lots of really, really big tomatoes. However, not all the plants would be this way. Some would just have lots of fruit, some would have big fruit, some would just be weird. In this way, you can save all the seeds you want from hybrid plants but you never know what you are going to get. This is called not coming true from seed. If you want the same hybrid plant, you have to re-buy it from the company.

Open Pollinated seeds are a relatively new things. These seeds are seeds which come true from seed. You can save the seeds from these plants because they are not hybrid cross seeds. These are seeds which have been breed over and over to produce plants which will always develop the same plant every time. This means if you learn to save seeds, you never have to reorder the plants from the company. Many universities are negotiating with specific seed companies to sell these cultivars as a way to increase the diversity of our seed supply in the country.

Heirloom seeds have no formal definition, but it is generally accepted that these seeds need to be at least 50 plus years old (give or take a year or two). These seeds are only in existence through seed saving year after year, passed down through families and seed savers exchange. They will always come true from seed and have been selected year after year for various desirable traits. Amish paste tomatoes, for example, are supposedly the absolute best tomatoes for making paste. Kentucky Wonder green beans are supposed to be the best canning beans from all over. These are seeds which are sold and distributed as a way to keep heritage alive and genetic diversity high. In many instances they take longer (or don't produce as much) than hybrid or GMO seeds, but have a significantly better flavor.

In the end, I decided on as many heirloom varieties as possible. The reason for which is an entire post of its own (soon to follow), but mainly because I wish to keep the process of seed to food as simple as possible. So we tried a sampling of multiple varieties and have yielded a wealth of information this year to aid in next year.

More than anything, the first year's gardening experience told me to focus on what I was planting. If anyone out there has looked at a seed catalog, it will become quite apparent it isn't as simple as just spinach, peas, and tomatoes. There are dozens, upon hundreds of different varieties of each vegetable all complete with their own benefits and drawbacks. Who knew someone had cultivated spinach that never really grew? Or tomatoes which could bear fruit in as low a temperature as 50 degrees? Or peas with edible pods, peas you shell, peas you can shell or eat the pods, and peas that dried in the pods without either eating or shelling? It is all a bit overwhelming.

A lot of seed catalog perusing and my list turned began looking more like this:

Peas: Lincoln Homesteader and Little Marvel
Carrots: Danver Half-Long and St. Valery
Zucchini: Cocoaelle Bush
Pumpkins: Jack o' lantern and Sugar Pie
Potatoes: Baker and Little Red
Rhubarb: Generic Rhubarb (?)
Spinach: Giant Thick Leaved
Garlic: generic grocery store
Tomatoes: Manitoba, Arkansas Traveler, Bonny Best, Brandywine, Mortgage Liter
Beans: Blue Lake Bush Beans and Contender Bush Beans
They were all planted, have grown amazingly well, and we are significantly happier with the turn out from this year's garden. Oh what a difference a year makes!

The process of building a garden is definitely a little more involved than I first thought, but you certainly get out of it the work you put in. Our returns have been plentiful, as well as the knowledge we have gained again. The verdict is still out on many of the variety choices, but this year looks to have been a good one.
More than anything, the garden has shown me a different kind of faith. I must constantly remind myself that 12 days without rain does not mean the rain is going to stop. Just because the beans didn't do well this year, doesn't mean we cannot grow them. The peppers will produce fruit and so will the blueberries all in due time. The spinach knows a lot more about making its own seeds than I do about harvesting them. I must be patient and breathe. All will happen in its due time; all will cycle around again whether I like it or not. The garden tends to remove your ego. I am but the cultivator; not the creator.

1 thoughts:

Jess said...

Nice work! The garden looks beautiful. I'm also learning a lot about varieties here on the farm. It's amazing to see a two side-by-side beds of beets, planted in the same kind of soil, with the same amendments, at the same time, and one variety is 3x bigger than the other. I think that'll be one of the most fun things about planning my own garden eventually -- experimenting with new varieties.

Post a Comment