2013 was a banner year for my 500-square-foot urban vegetable garden, including my first experience growing and processing a grain. I never got around to posting about it last year-- so here it is.
Interbay mulch technique
|The bed on the right has been mulched with leaves, spent coffee |
grounds, and burlap sacks ($1/sack at the local hardware store).
The beds on the left were planted with a rye-clover-vetch-pea
cover crop. Paths are mulched with wood chips.
When I pulled back the burlap last spring, I was initially disappointed. The coffee grounds had disappeared completely, but there was still a lot of leaf matter left on the soil, indicating that it had only partially composted. However, I later decided that it had worked well, because the soil structure underneath was improved and it seemed to be enriched with significant organic matter as well as a large population of fat earthworms. The mulch suppressed weeds remarkably well, and the beds remained mostly clean for the rest of the season.
Those observations, combined with huge yields from the mulched beds, convinced me that it was worthwhile.
|Vashon broadfork in 3 sizes from the|
Meadow Creature website.
The broadfork was expensive, but I really like it. It loosens and deeply aerates the soil without turning it or substantially disturbing soil life. This allows plant roots to access water and nutrients that are deeper in the soil. The soil structure is improved in the beds that I broadforked, and it goes much faster and easier than loosening or turning with a regular fork, shovel, or hoe.
The Vashon broadfork is, in my opinion, the highest quality fork on the market right now, mostly because it's virtually indestructible and can therefore be used to loosen dense or rocky soils without fear of damaging the tool. I've cranked on it pretty hard and it hasn't complained yet. The shape of the tines also improves its ability to cut into hard soil. It's an expensive tool that may be worth it for serious gardeners who have a large garden space dedicated to annual crops.
|Rogue Hoes "60S" scuffle hoe,|
an efficient general-purpose weeder.
Photo is from the Rogue Hoes site.
|Grape hoe from the Easy Digging website.|
I have a few crops that I always focus on because they yield well in Seattle, they're fun to grow, and I like to eat them. These are potatoes, summer squash, winter squash (delicata), green beans, and kale/collards. Everything else is icing on the cake.
|A few of the butterballs.|
|Potato plants being awesome. Left, purples and pinks;|
right, butterballs. Note the straw mulch.
For summer squash, we planted two zucchini plants that were extraordinarily productive. I covered the zucchini bed with green plastic film to warm the soil and suppress weeds. Each plant produced two zucchini per day, for a total of ~200 lbs over the course of the season. We ate them every which way, gave them to friends, and dehydrated the rest. We use the zucchini chips as a healthier alternative to corn chips. My grandpa used to say that in New Jersey in summertime, you'd have to keep your car doors locked, otherwise your car would be full of zucchini the next time you got in!
|From left: lacinato kale, green beans, delicata squash, |
more potatoes. This was early in the season.
For green beans, I always plant pole beans because they're more productive, they yield over a longer period of time, and they supposedly taste better than bush beans (I wouldn't know because I don't grow bush types). I planted my usual Blue Lake Pole and Helda flat beans, as well as a newcomer called Monte Cristo, which Territorial Seed states is an improved Blue Lake type. After a weak start owing to slug predation and local cats digging in my beds, all three varieties produced well. The Heldas always start earliest, but the Blue Lakes taste better. The Monte Cristo variety is nice, with long, elegant beans, but the yield just couldn't match my old friend Blue Lake. We harvested about 30 pounds of beans, some of which we gave away. In contrast to zucchini, people like it when you give them green beans.
I'm not very enthusiastic about growing tomatoes in this area, because they just don't do that well unless you nurse them along with a greenhouse, which is a lot of work and/or ugly and/or expensive. I ended up planting a few tomatoes without using a greenhouse, and they confirmed my expectations.
|Corn! Strong Start center and right. Painted Mountain are the|
smaller plants to the left. One has a colorful stalk. Potatoes in
|Strong Start corn.|
Processing and Eating Grain Corn
The Painted Mountain ears were gorgeous, boasting many different colors. We hung them on our wall for a long time to dry and display them.
|Painted Mountain corn after harvest and shucking.|
|Painted Mountain corn kernels.|
This was my first experience growing, processing and eating a grain from start to finish. It was really fun and a learning experience. Corn is the most productive grain and also the easiest to harvest and process in a home gardening context. Painted Mountain is an extremely hardy variety selected for short growing seasons. I plan to plant a larger bed of Painted Mountain this year, giving it a nicer bed and wider spacing between plants. If I have more land in a warmer place someday, I'll plant a larger area of corn.
Although corn is the most productive grain in terms of calories per acre, it still can't touch potatoes in the home garden, particularly here in Seattle. We feasted on garden potatoes for two months.
The weather was great last summer, but I think what really made the difference was my soil. I've been improving it gradually over the course of the last four years, and it's getting really fluffy and fertile. In preparation for the 2013 season, I focused on adding a lot of organic matter to the soil. I also used cover crops in some beds and loosened the soil deeply with my broadfork. I've been consistently using Steve Solomon's organic fertilizer blend, which I make using seed meal, bone meal, dolomite lime, agricultural lime, and kelp meal. Improving the soil is a process that takes time.
2013 was a banner year in the garden, and I'm looking forward to more of the same in 2014. I eagerly await the day when I have enough space to grow most of my own food.