Oct 10 2016

Shaking Off Frustrations

A garden can lift you up or break you down, and this year, our garden has succeeded at doing both.

Some of our garden’s struggles were the result of human error, despite planning and best efforts. The first summer we lived in this house, we rescued our backyard doug fir trees from their ivy blankets, which had wrapped far up the trunks and was quickly threatening to kill the decades-old trees. Thanks to us, the trees are thriving, their branches now extending more than halfway into our backyard and blocking valuable light. In fact, a few problems can be partially attributed to one of the constant struggles of urban and backyard gardeners: instead of wide, flat fields, the sun free to shine all day long on the plants, my yard is surrounded by trees, trees that make living in a house and city pleasant but make gardening far more challenging.

The front yard holly tree – one of the banes of my gardening existence – is as big as ever, rapidly approaching our porch (or so it seems in my hyperbolic mind). Guess where I put a certain vegetable (eggplant) that needs consistent heat and light to even have prayer of fruiting? The front raised bed that receives the most inconsistent light of the entire yard!

Other mishaps include underestimating timing of certain crops in beds. For example, I had to push back our beet harvest by several weeks, and as a result, the butternut squash transplants had to wait longer than originally intended. I also did precisely the opposite, leaving lettuce in way past its crisp and delicious state, because the replacement vegetables weren’t quite ready. This action exacerbated my slug and pill bug problem, and while I have a few hunches about why our pill bugs were so brutal this year, one factor was most definitively me.

Speaking of those pill bugs and slugs, and adding in squirrels to the list of irritants, a few of our plants never stood a chance. Either from initial decimation or because their roots were consistently dug up by those aforementioned squirrels, we only harvested a few peppers. No problem stands in isolation, however, and the peppers, and other heat loving crops like melons, eggplant, and even to some extent, tomatoes, were drastically affected by Portland’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it summer.

Some of our warmest weather this year happened in April and May, precisely the time I would have preferred cooler temperatures for my lettuces, as well as more moderate temperatures to ease transplants out into the real world. This wasn’t to be, and so all of those heat loving Solanaceae were transplanted out in rather warm temperatures, inciting a quick growth spurt that was then just as quickly stunted for nearly the rest of the summer, as June and July ticked by with many (pleasant) days in the low 70s.

I didn’t try to course-correct or somehow warm up the soil because frankly, I assumed that our actual summer would start eventually. Before I knew it, we were firmly into August and I had yet to harvest a single tomato, my butternut squash plants had two fruits on them, my eggplant’s fruits were the size of quarters, and the melon vines were covered in flowers, but only a few immature fruits.

We received a few warm blasts closer to the end of August, enough to secure a decent tomato harvest, but never enough for those eggplant or melons. Over the past few weeks, I’ve dismantled the different trellises and have born witness to what could have been: dozens of tiny green melons, handfuls of green butternut squash, and even more green tomatoes than the hundred of reds I’d already harvested. “The summer that might have been” keeps running through my head, as I’ve started to switch gears and think about a Fall and Winter garden.

And yet, the weather has also been frustrating this September and October, not allowing me – or this blog post – my happy ending. Instead, the rains have come early, the soil has been soggy, and the slugs and squirrels have claimed the title of “the only happy residents in my yard". I’ve planted kale, only to see much of it shredded or dug up. I planted some truly beautiful lettuce starts that the squirrels had an amazing time digging holes into. The rains have flattened just-sprouted carrots.

This sounds incredibly negative and demoralizing, but I’ve been gardening long enough to keep moving forward. No one is successful at everything, there’s no perfect garden, and considering I still have so much to learn, I’m not looking to point too many fingers or to throw my hands up in exasperation (I’ll point all the fingers I want at the squirrels and slugs though!). To the squirrels: your homes and cafeteria (our obnoxious hazelnut-weed tree) are being trimmed back or cut down in November. Please find shelter and food elsewhere. To the slugs: I’m persistent and will keep putting out beer bait and handpicking you until you all either leave or drown. To me: I need to be even more vigilant than ever about covering transplants and then checking below those covers.

I still have a few things to plant out for the Fall/Winter garden – these transplants are looking so incredibly beautiful in my shed that I’m wistful about putting them in the yard. I have more kale, more lettuce, spinach. I’ve also direct seeded carrots and arugula. Most importantly, I’ve bought even more hoops and floating row cover, and I hope that at least a few plants decide to stick around for the next few months.

After I put these remaining items out and cover the beds that won’t be used with straw or tarps, I’ll be spending the next few weeks planning next year’s garden. This is always a fun, energizing, and jittery period: a chance to learn from the previous year! To correct mistakes! To dream up that perfect garden again! (I know, I know, there’s no perfect garden.) If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s to make my planting dates even more specific, to more accurately predict time spent in bed (or to not plan on a bed being free sooner than it should be), to nestle heat-loving crops in landscape fabric, to protect nearly every crop with row cover, and lastly, to remember to shake off these mishaps and prepare for a new season where I’ll face the unpredictable, once again.