Thursday, August 29, 2013

lessons from the garden

Our community garden plots have not done that well this year. It may be that last year's success was all down to beginner's luck. But there have been compounding factors. The spring was cold and late. By the time planting conditions arrive, I had just started working full-time and had barely any time to do any work there. Then it rained and rained and rained, and I didn't want to do any work there. The weeds took over. I managed to fight them back, and we've harvested a few zucchinis and some potatoes that just showed up, missed in last year's harvest I guess.

I've learned some new things. The seeds I planted in early April did germinate, but that's pretty much it. I thought it was better not to till the soil, but apparently that's only if you have adequate organic matter. The poor beets and chard are so stunted, even four months later, I'll just put them back into the earth. So that's a good lesson: keep the soil from compacting. 

For the second year in a row, the peas died as soon as they started producing a few pods. I don't know why, but a fellow gardener suggested it might be a lack of the bacteria in the soil that helps the plant fix nitrogen. I remember in an episode of Gourmet Farmer, they worked with a soil biologist who cultivates microorganisms to boost food production. They grew two side-by-side patches of the same vegetables: one with specific amendments of compost, nutrients and microorganisms and one just with compost. At the end of the season they did a taste test, and not only did the first patch produce more and better looking vegetables, but the vegetables all had much better flavour from that patch. I wonder if there's someone in my area who cultures microorganisms for hire. At the very least, I plan to prep my beds properly this fall: more compost, hopefully from my friend with the backyard chickens, plus a cover crop to turn in next spring. I haven't done a lot of research but I'm thinking buckwheat or maybe some kind of vetch. 

This year, I've been trying my hand at squash instead of potatoes. I planted zucchinis, delicata squash and a pie pumpkin. The pumpkin is rampant, overtaking its neighbouring zucchini and already setting 7 fruit with more female flowers on the way. The zucchinis are not as prolific as I was expecting, but they're producing. And the poor delicata appears to be living up to its name. It was nearly destroyed by squash bugs before I discovered what they were and how to fight them: hand-to-exoskeleton mortal combat. I use duct tape wound sticky side out around my hand to catch them, because they're wiley and hide quickly when they see you coming. It's trying to make a comeback, so we'll see what happens. It had set fruit, and I was very excited, but those parts have all died, so I may not get any. I've caught a bunch of squash bugs on the pumpkin too, but my watching and killing appears to be keeping them at bay so far. The zucchini seem utterly unaffected, touch wood. 

I also have a big patch of celeriac. Convinced there was no way I'd find anyone selling celeriac seedlings, I tried starting my own from seed. Celeriac needs a long, frost-free season to mature, so there is no direct seed option here in Ontario. A number of the seeds I planted germinated but they've done very poorly. They were only really big enough for transplanting in July. Luckily, the Guelph Urban Organic Farm was selling celeriac seedlings, so I bought a bunch and those ones are thriving, with large bulges already swelling from the ground. I couldn't bring myself to actually kill the celeriac I started, but I highly doubt they will produce any food. They are still struggling and small. Next time, I need to start them a month earlier, and feed them lots of nutrients. I'm pretty sure the planting medium I started them in just didn't cut it.

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I started this post several days ago, but didn't know how to wrap it up. Tonight when I went to the garden, I discovered my pumpkin, with all its five glorious, perfect pumpkins (one died and one got eaten since I wrote about it above), is all but dead. It's had powdery mildew and for days I've been meaning to spray it with milk and water a la Dr. Google, but you're supposed to do it during the day, and I can't get out there easily during the day. And, to be honest, I didn't think it was THAT urgent of a situation. The plant does look a lot like the delicata that was destroyed by squash bugs, and I have killed a bunch of the suckers on the pumpkin, but I didn't see them overrunning the plant the way I did the other squash. And I killed bugs every other night for a week.

Anyways, tomorrow I'll try to detach myself from the ever-voracious nursing toddler so I can spray the plant in the morning and get into work on time for my 9:30 meetings with senior executives. I am very, very bummed out about the state of my pumpkin plan. I was so looking forward to all the pumpkins.

I guess this too is an important lesson: never count your pumpkins before they ripen. Also, don't try to grow them vertically or plant them too close to each other or other squashes.

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