Mar 23 2016

A New Year, A More Measured Approach

I walked into the house this morning and casually mentioned to Justin that everything in the garden was “looking far”. This wasn’t meant as an idle observation: I felt my voice become quiet and measured, as I imbued a simple sentence with layers of hope and even trepidation.

I planned this year’s garden last winter. As a tactile learner and thinker, this translated into sheets of paper covering our dining room table, stacks of books beside me, flipped over onto certain pages, with me hunched over my computer, cross-referencing my own knowledge with the internet hive mind. It was only in this reflection and planning that I fully understood last year’s garden. In the middle of the summer, I had the tunnel vision that’s necessary to focus on the immediate: which vegetables needed more water or nutrition, what had to be harvested that day, awareness of a crop that had been hopelessly attacked by slugs, and in-the-moment irritation at spacing or planning errors.

But a few bursts of negativity aside, I feel pretty satisfied with last year’s garden. Justin and I drastically expanded our growing capacity, building four new raised beds and adding a dozen giant pots. We streamlined our irrigation system and for the first time, I developed a season-long plan of what items would go where, when, and for how long. With the exception of one padron start from Minto Island Growers, I also started every single vegetable and flower in our basement under grow lights. This was far from an ideal set-up, as it involved dashing up and down the stairs dozens of times a day and squatting on the cold basement floor to seed and pot up, often using a headlamp to see in the dim light. This haphazard system yielded five different varieties of tomatoes, two varieties of basil, zinnias, snapdragons, calendula, peppers, lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, and beets.

This past December, I felt buoyed by these successes, and driven forward by a desire to grow both better and more. In planning, I tried to toe the line between recognizing last year’s achievements and the vast amount I still have to learn. I thought more diligently about rotation and plant combinations and spacing. I tried to address serious gaps in my knowledge of winter gardening, amendments and row cover.

Several days later, I emerged with a plan for my 2016 garden. Each raised bed has a hand-drawn map with estimates about time in bed, spacing. The combinations were thoughtfully considered and last year’s errors and victories were referenced. I grouped plants under their plant headings (Solanaceae, Brassica, etc) and created a “Crop and Nutrient Primer” that I view as an ongoing document: I’ll add information on spacing, pest control, and harvest techniques as I learn. I also thought carefully about what I grew in excess last year and which new items I wanted to grow.

This year I’m growing less lettuce and fewer tomatoes, and trying my hand at onions, melons, eggplant, and bell peppers. I will implement a vertical trellising system for the squash and melons and a weaving trellising system for the tomatoes (instead of cages). I’m using row cover outside, currently to slightly warm up the beds and for hail protection, and later to protect brassicas from the variety of pests that seem to adore them. Justin and I added two new raised beds to replace the pots we used last year, and we ripped out the worthless side yard raised beds that we inherited with the house. The side yard was seeded with wildflowers and ground cover in February, after we spent all winter integrating compost and sand into the clay textured soil.

Because of our increased growing space, my grow-light shelves are nearly out of room already. I have onions, beets, lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, melons, snapdragons, poppies, cornflowers, eggplant, and mustard greens growing slowly and surely (except for those eggplant which are just growing slowly). I recently transplanted 16 kale starts to the front and back beds and promptly covered them with row cover. A month ago, I direct seeded lettuce, several patches of which are a few weeks from their first harvest. I’ve also direct seeded beets and radishes, while also starting beets indoors as an insurance policy.

If my garden were to be assigned a theme, like a person is assigned a personality, this year’s is undoubtedly “redundancy and flexibility”: I plan to transplant out the majority of these starts, but will also hold a few back, just in case. I want to understand the interactions between plants so that if something dies or just doesn’t work, I’ll know what I can quickly start in its place. The garden is finally starting to perk up, matching the surrounding tree buds, and blooming hyacinth and tulips. At this point, the growing season is looking vibrant and hopeful, and I’m feeling (armed with my notes, books, and research) that I’m more equipped to understand the problems and questions I’m bound to face. For now, late March is all about that sense of possibility, and I aim to keep that attitude through the inevitable victories and challenges.