Summer Garden Wrap Up

Warning….this post is pretty long and all about gardening stuff. Skip if that bores you. I’m a nerd and love it.

Today I pulled my tomato and pepper plants. The fruits that were trying to ripen were just rotting so I took all that was left and will utilize it as best as I can.

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It marks the end of my first summer garden at this house. I want to remember everything that happened so I can take all the lessons learned into next year’s garden with confidence.

I’ll start with the bad stuff so that we can end on a good note. Nothing horrible, but definitely a lot of take away.

1. Soil is the number one most important thing about gardening and prior to early summer this year I did not take this fact nearly as seriously as I should have.

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My tomato plants suffered most with compacted soil issues but thanks to some help and advice from my dad a few good ones survived and I still was able to get tomatoes. The herbs were practically dwarfed (my dad called them atrophied, so that’s how bad they were) in certain parts of my garden where the soil was most compact and filled with clay.

When I first started turning over the soil in early spring I had no clue on how to recognize that sort of soil problem and because of that I didn’t amend it enough or correctly, before planting. I’ve worked hard ever since to improve the soil and will be starting out next year in a very different place. More on the amendments in my ‘good’ notes:)

2. My garden was designed to have a LOT of unused space. I changed that just before planting fall crops but as you can see above, the pathways are quite large. I want to be much more efficient with the small space I have and I just didn’t do that.

3. Not knowing the forces against me. I knew we had squirrels but I didn’t know they had a tendency to dig up loose soil. I knew we had chipmunks but I didn’t know they burrowed in dirt. I didn’t even notice the large hare like bunnies running around until AFTER they ate my sugar snap pea plants. I had no clue what cucumber beetles were but guess what? Now I totally do. Learning to deal with all of these pests is quite the curve for me but I’m getting the hang of it. The most important lesson is that apparently everything likes beet seedlings and I’m not sure I’ll ever get a crop of them at this rate.

You may remember the massive tomato loss I had in a matter of two days before putting up my bird netting.

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So sad.

4. Don’t plant all the different seasons of plants in the same beds. It makes it extremely difficult to plant fall crops when summer plants are still in full swing….but if I’d put spring plants and summer plants in different beds I would have had an easier transition. Spring/fall plants go in the same beds and summer plants get their own.

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5. Impatience is my enemy. Like most novice gardeners I craved that lush, overgrown and heavy producing garden……in May. Patience in gardening is really key to your sanity. You won’t harvest tomatoes til probably August, you won’t get orange bell peppers in June. Those plants you put your entire being into caring for might die along the way whether from pests, disease or weather. You can’t win them all. But you can be patient and give everything compost tea, learn about companion planting and set up barriers while you wait. Mourn your losses and move on because successes are all over the place.

All the Goods

There are so many positives about my garden this year. Happy accidents, hard worked for harvests, growth and growth and growth.

1. Reading all the books. Throughout spring and early summer I read books. Garden books, homestead books, soil books, mushroom books, permaculture books, and companion planting books. I learned a lot.

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Every week or two I’d bring home a haul from the library.

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I pulled whatever information was relevant to my small, urban garden in zone 5b and soaked it up like a sponge. There was a lot of other fascinating information that I stored away should I ever be in a different situation as well. Mostly I was just inspired by the diversity possible on a small lot like mine that has so many shaded areas. I love knowing that I can use more of my space than I ever imagined and learning how to do that was empowering. This year, being pregnant all of the garden seasons definitely limited the projects I was going to be able to take on but I’ll be doing what I can each year to utilize all my property.

2. Herbs herbs herbs herbs. I worked for my parent’s business this spring doing social media. Every time I’d do research on an herb I photographed at their greenhouse I’d be completely floored by the incredible uses, beyond culinary, that were unknown to me. Because of this I tried a lot of new to me herbs like borage, comfrey, and nasturtiums.

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Comfrey is my favorite of all of those because it’s a triple threat. Not only is it a nitrogen fixer (pulling a key nutrients for fruiting plants like tomatoes from deep in the soil up to the surface) but it has medicinal qualities and attracts pollinators! The few plants I put in were all ‘unsellables’ from my parents (meaning they were ugly and going to be thrown out so I rescued them) and they grew at an incredible rate to look like large, jungle plants. Their leaves are great for mulching around fruiting plants due to the high nutrients, and because they produce so many leaves you can really pack them around.  But Anyway, enough about comfrey….

3. Companion planting. I read enough before planting to find some really awesome companion combinations that I used and loved. My favorite is basil with tomatoes. I mean, we all already know that’s a culinary match made in heaven, but what does it do for the plants? Well, they attract/repel complimentary bugs, they intensify eachother’s flavor and share beneficial soil nutrients. I’ve never had such glorious basil! Also, the few tomatoes plants that did survive made lots and lots of tomatoes. Another thing I tried was planting my comfrey strategically to support fruiting plants  I learned too late that beet seeds interspersed amongst radish seeds keeps the bunnies away, an accidental method I’ll be using on purpose next time.

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See the red stems and veins on those leaves?

Yeah, the rest of my beet crop looked like this.

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Uncool.

4. Fall crops. Oh my goodness the joy of fall crops. Any of you gardeners out there that don’t do this, start. You plant most of your seeds in August or so (wait till a cool or rainy week to get the seeds out), and magic happens. Look at one of my fall beds now!

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These are cover/soil building crops of diakon radishes and regular radishes as well as fava beans for nutrient amendments. Basically that means I’m growing these to leave in all winter and turn under in the spring to the benefit of my soil. However, if I was going to eat them, I’d be eating them now…..already.

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Actually I did plant these to eat but they are unbelievably spicy for some reason (must research why) so outside of some sort of pickling I don’t see myself eating very many. There’d be plenty for eating as well as leaving in for the soil though.

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Avery thinks they’re cool but waaaaay too spicy.

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I also planted the beets and spinach. The spinach never germinated (I planted some in another bed and so far I have four plants….out of like a billion), and you saw what happened to the beets. Not good. In another bed I planted much later, because of pregnancy in general, I put lettuce, spinach and more radishes.

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They’re still babies but will have a good start before the cold sets in and then I’ll cover them and for the winter and harvest them early spring when they start growing again. Nothing better than late starting lettuce for an early spring crop. It’s awesome.

5. Greens. I always have loved growing greens. Kale is my favorite…obviously.SAMSUNG CSC

 

However, with the shadier part of my garden I was able to get a great crop of lettuce for the first time in my gardening career.

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I plan on doing a lot more lettuce next season and will keep trying on the darned spinach. I have always had bad luck with germination.

Next year I hope I can build on a lot of the knowledge and experience I acquired this year and have an even more productive garden. I’m not complaining about my success this year as I had a large spaghetti squash harvest, plenty of tomatoes and peppers as well as basically unlimited greens and herbs for my family with some to share. I’m blessed to have the backyard I do an so excited to optimize it.

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Brothers

Having kids super close together is really really hard at the beginning. The first three or four weeks of having two kids freaked me out. It was a hard transition because Eli was so high needs and Avery was only twenty months old so we were in the throws of potty training, bed training and getting less attention from parents. I hadn’t anticipated a high needs baby and I certainly hadn’t thought having two kids would be so intense. Slipping into parenthood the first time had been like second nature but adding another kid was really rough. It’s been a struggle ever since because Eli isn’t a good sleeper, doesn’t talk and has food issues as well. Obviously I don’t have two babies anymore though so even with Eli being harder than Avery, he picks out his own outfits, obeys small commands (ie, get your shoes, pick up the toys, etc) and even though I have hard days, I am grateful for the way my boys interact with eachother. It couldn’t be better timing to have their relationship develop because adding a third will likely come with its own set of challenges.

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There was quite a long time where Eli was just annoyed by Avery’s attempts to play with him. At some point this year that all changed and now they chase eachother around constantly, play games, laugh and draw.

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Avery knows full well that Eli can’t talk and he makes up for it by chattering nonstop to him and trying to get him to say words…like ‘A-VER-Y.’ hehehe.

Even though Eli continues to be needy I know that he and Avery will do a lot to occupy eachother when little Ida gets here and that comforts me.

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I also will rely on Disney, the great outdoors and babywearing to survive.

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And I will have Shane for a full week when she gets here which will be fantastic:)

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I love seeing them enjoy eachother and surprise eachother. With opposite personalities I am sure it’ll only get better as they grow up. They have their fair of fights, tussles and annoyances as brothers do but their bond has grown stronger and stronger and I hope they’ll be life long friends.

Don’t worry about Eli, he’s the best. He starts speech therapy tomorrow and we’ve been trying different things to improve his sleeping as well as eating. I love every snuggle, kiss and caress he gives me and the way he makes me feel so loved. He’s hard a lot but he makes up for it by being cute and awesome.

 

 

Becoming a Homesteader

I’ve never considered myself a homesteader. I’ve never considered myself a legit gardener. I’ve never considered myself competent in being fully resourceful.

Last year I got a little bit more into food preservation and this year I got more into gardening. I read every book my library had on soil, permaculture, homesteading, urban gardening and crop optimization. I bought seeds, I started researching individual plants, I worked for my dad and learned from him. I got a rain barrel and began looking at my yard differently. I saw corners to house pollinating flowers, edges to cultivate mushrooms and all the nooks and crannies to squeeze productive plants.

I saw the benefit of gardening on my son who now points out gardens around the city, helps me harvest and eats garden produce like candy.

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Then, lastly, I began to look at more processes in my life that my land could fulfill. Composting is a passion, I have a clothesline (!), I have a cool basement that’s perfect for food storage and brewing beer (Shane’s thing, obviously:). Who knows what else I can do that I haven’t even thought of!?

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Slowly but surely I am beginning to relate to myself as a homesteader. Yes, I am in an urban setting but that is still no excuse not to take advantage of our resources. My resources don’t just include my small plot of land (under a quarter acre). They include my vocation as a stay at home mom which provides me with time to invest in gardening and preserving food. I also have a good location near a farmers market, my parent’s live nearish by and have given me lots of resources ranging from my Dad helping me build my actual garden and installing my rain barrel as well dumping countless pounds of produce from their own garden into my lap that I have preserved and eaten fresh. The point is, I try to look around and see what I CAN do, instead of what I can’t. I have sun limitations, I have space limitations and I have equipment limitations but guess what, I have more projects than I can get done and that should be my focus, not what is out of reach.

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Even after feeling like I had no idea what I was doing midway through this year, my garden looks like this. Lush, growing and producing. If I can screw up on so many things in one year and still get something out of it, think of how much better each year will go as I learn and adapt?

I am a mom, I’m about to have my third kid. My life is busy and full but the thing is, homesteading is a lifestyle, it’s not just extra work for a better product. It’s something I include my kids in even if they can’t do much yet. Avery helps me weed, he helps me pack up my dehydrated herbs/fruits/tomatoes, water the garden and harvest. Eli can’t wield a hose yet or determine which tomato plant will ripen in what color but he hangs out in the garden just the same.

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My goals for next year are basically just building on what I have been working on since we moved last summer. I should probably write a project list so I can check things off.

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For now though, My focus is winding down my garden throughout the fall, having a baby, and enjoying the rest that winter brings. I’m already giddy about next spring with all the things I’ve learned this year but I know having an infant will certainly bring a new perspective as well. So I enter it with that relaxed feeling of doing something I love with low expectations and high hopes.

 

Harvests-August is the Month

Well with the heat wave that came through for a couple weeks August has finally accelerated my limited-sun-garden harvests quite a bit. I didn’t expect much because I lost a few tomato plants to various issues (namely compacted soil) and I thought only one of them was going to be a big producer but it turns out four of them have been going strong and I seem to get something daily. Also, my peppers have been great. I only planted spicy peppers and they get less than six hours a day but the Fresno and jalapeno have done awesome for me.

So here are some of my harvests (I try to take a quick pic before Avery gets to them or ‘helps’ me harvest haha).

IMG_20140824_182827I did pull the last couple squashes from the dead vines on the side of the house so that’s the final on squash for me. It was a great harvest! If anyone can identify the top tomato that’d be great. I LOVE this tomato and it has produced SO much for me but the label got out somehow and I have no idea what it is. The other tomatoes here are Pineapple (heirloom), Sunsugar and Jetstar.

IMG_20140826_164423My cilantro seeds I planted from the spring plants has come to harvesting stage and I’ve been using it in my salsa and other dishes.

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I have quite a few bowls like this in my fridge right now. Need to get these harvests taken care of!

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If these look a touch orange, it’s because they are. We were going out of town for the weekend and I knew they wouldn’t last on the vine so I brought them in. Good thing I did too! When we got home so many of the completely green ones were completely ripe.

IMG_20140901_153204In sad news, my bird netting around the tomato plants, to keep the squirrels from stealing them all, has been catching chipmunks. The first one I found because I smelled something yucky. I was sad but then found another one in skeleton form that had been hidden behind huge comfrey leaves….it’s officially a trend. I dislike chipmunks in the garden at least as much as squirrels but we have a huge squirrel population and a much smaller chipmunk population so I feel bad that I’ve already eliminated two of them.

Okay, so, I have generous parents with a large garden and they tend to pass on a lot of good stuff to me. I’d like to think this is because I’m the favorite child but the much sadder reality is that ALL my sisters no longer live nearby. They’re sprinkled across the world in a devastating range of distances and we miss them heartily. My brother lives next to my parents but grows a super large garden as well and my other brother is in town but doesn’t have the same love of veggies (or preserving) that I do. Therefore, I get the goods. I am not complaining, as much as I miss all my sisters, and I don’t waste a single bit of it. The herbs and smaller/drier tomatoes (like romas), I dehydrate, the other tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic I use in canning.

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This year I promised myself to only can things we naturally use. What’s the point of jams and jellies if they aren’t really a part of your life? I’d much rather have frozen fruit on hand and eat as much fresh during the season, than canned. So I made a mental note of things I use like hot peppers, salsa, marinara sauce and pickles. I don’t actually buy pickles ever because my mom ruined store bought for me by making incredible pickles my entire life. I can only have homemade which is a huge incentive for me to make my own. The picture above are actually all peppers from my own garden that I’ve been saving. The little 8oz is filled with Fresnos only, the pint and quart in the back are jalapeno only and the front pint is a mixture. The other cans are just canned tomatoes. I needed to use up a few THAT DAY because they wouldn’t last and I had no garlic left so marinara was out of the question. I just cooked them down, added some lemon juice and salt and canned them up. They can be turned into pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, salsa or whatever.  Honestly I never buy any prepared tomato products. I buy tomato paste and diced tomatoes and make all my salsas and sauces from that but can only imagine how lovely it would be to just go grab of can of pre-made salsa from the larder when I’m making tacos. Super lovely. Tomatoes are the only canned product I buy so canning a lot of them was definitely a priority (along with eating tons and tons of them fresh, for every meal if I can).

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I found some 12oz jars for salsa! I wanted a smaller than quart or pint size because it’s hard for Shane and I to polish off that amount before it goes bad. The boys love salsa but it has to be a certain mildness so we’ll see if any of my batches are mild enough for them when the time comes. The quarts I have I’ll use for parties or whatever and the smaller ones for our dinners. The three quarts behind the salsa are marinara sauce. I don’t have a full tally of my larder at the moment but I need to go down there and count up some stuff! The pickles are all refrigerator and I’m not sure how many pints I have of those either but they’re filling the available fridge space.

Once I deal with the few pounds of tomatoes and peppers left in my fridge right now I’ll be excited to move on to the fall crops like apples and pears! I do love preserved apples (whether dried, sauced, buttered or jammed) and pears are awesome for that too.

So blessed to have been given such a huge amount of produce this year and looking forward to using it over the off season. It’s a wonderful feeling. Thanks Mom and Dad!

Have you done any harvesting or preserving this year?

 

 

 

 

Harvesting and Preservation

As an urban gardener (or suburban, with a small yard) I get small harvests across the season. Aside from herbs, which I grow a lot of and harvest a lot of, I’m not ever going to get massive crates worth produce each time I go to my garden…..like my parent’s do from their huge garden that gets 8-10hrs of sun each day.

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Not only do urban gardens often have sun limits (I get the bare minimum of 6hrs on my sunniest spots), but they always have space limits.

My harvests day to day look more like this.

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I don’t record the herbs and greens I harvest since I got out before each meal and grab a few leaves. There are many sources of fresh produce right now though. I have a great hook up with my family since they give me overflow from their garden but I also go to the farmer’s market because there’s a really large variety of things there.

Harvesting and eating seasonally is one thing but preserving is a great way to have these flavors year round or make things from them that you can’t have any season without doing it now! Pickles, for example….homemade pickles are the BEST.

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My mom came over and taught me her ways (she has the MOST amazing pickles) and after that batch I couldn’t stop giving them away/eating them so I made another ten pints to hold us for a bit.  You can’t buy pickles like these, and most people can’t even make them so I have to do what I have to do to get them! This means pickling, during the cucumber season.

Know your seasons so you can capitalize on deals. August is high season for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers and you can get large crates at the farmers market for a discounted rate that are perfect for preserving. At our market I can get a twenty pound case of tomatoes for fifteen bucks. Peaches are ending and also on sale right now. Don’t be afraid to get blemished fruits for preserving. The discounts are worth it.

Also, when you plant your urban garden, don’t be afraid to plant a higher producing plant to enjoy a large harvest. I did this with spaghetti squash. It took up a whole garden bed but I got many many pounds of squash.

IMG_20140806_083836This is about 2/3 of my crop with weights ranging from nearly five pounds down to two pounds. It’s fun to get that much of something from a little garden. Also a good idea to plant varieties that have bigger fruits and some with very little fruits. My boys love picking the cherry tomato varieties (which is why I never picture very many at once!) and it’s nice to get huge tomatoes from the large variety plants.

IMG_20140814_131159I’ve had my share of garden issues this year from bugs to rodents to soil and it’s affected my variety of harvests as well as my volume but I’m still feeling incredibly blessed as I go to my garden each morning and still always find produce.

Aside from tomato products and pickles, I decided to do a lot less canning this year than last year because we don’t normally eat canned foods. I buy tomato paste and diced tomatoes but otherwise, no other canned goods. From those I make our salsa, sauces, marinara and such. So I’m going to try and can salsas, sauces and marinara so that I’ll have an easier to access and no BPA option for our diets over the winter. Apart from canning, I am also dehydrating tomatoes since they’re amazing in marinara sauces and soups. Aside from dehydrating tomatoes I am also focusing a lot on drying herbs for medicinal, culinary and tea uses throughout the winter. Quite frankly, it’s taking over my dish cupboard.

IMG_20140821_093414I drink a lot of herbal tea in the winter (daily) and my goal is to make enough so that I don’t have to buy any at the store. The benefits aren’t just flavor and freshness, but also variety!

Of course I’m also freezing things but I currently have limited space for that.

Do you preserve foods in season? How do you choose what preserving project you’ll take on?

 

 

 

 

 

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