Starting a successful home garden is a worthwhile and exciting project but it can also be a little intimidating. It’s easy to dream in the cold winter months of the getting your hands dirty in the warm earth and harvesting a bumper crop but knowing how to get started, what to plant, and how to best prepare can be tough.
Like kale, I think beets are long overdue for a primetime makeover. As a plant-based athlete, I love beets. Beets are a rich source of antioxidants, like vitamin C, carotenoids,and nitrate. Nitrate is a chemical naturally occurring in certain foods and is converted into nitric oxide when consumed. Beets can raise your nitrate oxide levels which studies have shown can increase blood flow and improve lung function. In short, beyond just being nutritious, they can make you a better athlete!
So they are tasty and a natural athletic supplement, but what about growing your own? Another reason to like beets. They are a quickly growing, fast-maturing and easy vegetable to grow in a home garden. They are fairly hardy in frost and cold tolerant and can be grown throughout the spring, summer, and fall in colder climates like New England.
In the side yard garden space is at a premium, so I decided to try overwinter garlic late last year. Six month later I think it’s doing okay. This is my first go round with garlic so the whole process is a bit of a mystery. We’re still feeling each other out to see if we’ll date again next fall. So far, so good. I sunk three types of cloves into the ground around Halloween last year, covered it up with a good blanket of salt hay and then scoffed that anything would grow given the utter avalanche of snow we had in New England this year. But lo and behold, it did grown and it’s still growing (turns out cold stimulates the formation of the bulbs). Garlic is a hardy plant and given it’s preference or tolerance for cold, it’s a great way to extend the short growing season up here. Here are the five simple steps I followed (or plan to follow):
1. Get it in the ground
Plant it later, but before the ground freezes. That’s the one golden rule with garlic. This one I’m pretty sure I did right. If you’re in the Northeast, you’ll likely want to go with the hard-neck variety. The other variety (the one typically found in supermarkets is soft-necked). Garlic isn’t overly picking, like most veggies, it likes rich, well drained soil. I amended the rows with compost, added some additional soil and layered on the salt hay to control weeds and give the cloves a little insulation. Be sure to plant each clove flat side down, pointy end up. I kept the soil moist till the snow came. Then I just crossed my fingers.
2. Spring time maintenance
Around March, I pulled off a lot of the hay and was happy to find a number of hardy green shoots. I added a little seaweed fertilizer and largely left them alone other than some light weeding.
3. Scapes anyone?
This is like the trailer before the movie. Scapes are the curling part of the plant right before it flowers. Cut them off before they flower to force more energy into bulb development and to add some mild, garlic flavor to any number of dishes like stir-fry’s, eggs or pesto. I’m anxiously awaiting scapes now. This is a signal that the growing season is winding down.
Once the leaves start to brown, it’s best to stop watering. When the stems start to collapse (but while still a little green), your garlic is ready to harvest. You can carefully dig down and check on the bulb size if you’re not sure. Be careful not to let it go too long or bulbs will start to rot in the ground. While some people like to use fresh, green garlic, most will want to dry and store cloves. I plan to try a bit of both. Place the bulbs on screens, or loosely braided, to cure in a dry, dark, airy place until thoroughly dry with papery skins. The bulbs can then be stored under cool, dry, dark conditions. Don’t forget to plant some of these cloves for next year’s harvest.
This is the whole point right? A little homesteading. Here are a few recipes I’m looking forward to trying with my garlic (and other veggies):
Roasted grape tomato and garlic pesto
Roasted Grape Tomato and Garlic Pesto Dip Recipe
- Garlic pickles
- Baked Garlic appetizer
- Flatbread with fiddleheads, scapes and pecorino
- Garlic scape pesto
- Spicy garlic relish
- Garlic Knots
Yesterday was forty and frigid, but last weekend was nice and today promises to be warm enough to at least let my mind consider spring. Looking out the window right now, most trees have tentative buds and clumps of daffodils are risking blooms. The 18 foot slush pile in the driveway from the incessant winter snow plowing is down to mere inches and with any luck by next weekend will just be a melting memory. Spring in New England means the marathon, dressing in many, many layers for the fickle weather and shivering through those first few weeks of landscaping and yard work. It’s not a long growing season here, so every weekend counts, which means I have a list. A confession, I’m a big believer in lists. Need to get something done? Make a list. My ‘get-outdoors-it’s-finally-friggen’-spring’ list looks like this:
- Check the oil and sharpen the blades on the lawnmower
This is an easy one that I’m sure way too many people overlook. Checking the oil, well, that’s no problem, but getting the blades sharpened really isn’t much harder. Most shops will take the whole mower and take care of it for you along with a seasonal tuneup. Well-sharpened mower blades drastically reduce mowing time. Well worth the effort.
- Check and fill all gas cans for lawnmowers and other tools
While you’re dropping the mower off, fill up the gas can in the garage. Nothing worse than stalling out on a hot day in July halfway through mowing the back yard.
- Check garden hoses for cracks or leaks
This one is especially critical for climates with harsh winters. Most people bring the houses in the garage around here, so checking isn’t a big deal unless the hose is getting old, but if you have any drip hoses buried in garden beds (or an irrigation system) it’s worth the time to check for leaks now and patch ’em up before you wake up one morning to a flooded plain where your peonies used to be.
- Examine outside wood or exposed wood for spots that may need repair or painting
After the brutal icing we had in the northeast this year, I’m sure everyone is very aware of their roof conditions. Take some time to walk around your home and look up. So often we’re looking down with our yards, so it’s easy to miss spots that may have mold, mildew or just chipping paint.
- Check outside vents
Another simple thing that can save a lot of time and money later. Make sure any outside vents are clear and make sure the attic (if you have one) is still getting proper airflow. Check the interior wood and insulation while you’re up in the attic too.
- Check gutters and downspouts
Living right below a number of large, mature pines, this one is the bane of my existence. I call a service for the third floor ones, but the lower ones and downspouts are easily cleared with a hose and a ladder. Clearing the gutters of debris to make sure it’s properly draining can save you a number of much more expensive home repair bills.
Prepare the lawn
After being covered in snow and going dormant, the most important thing you can do for your lawn is to give it a vigorous raking to remove any thatch (picking up stray branches and debris goes without saying right?). If you do nothing else, do this. I also spread some corn gluten, an organic weed controller (do this as early as possible), and grass seed mixed with clover. With pets and small children patrolling the lawns, I’ve tried to reduce chemical treatments I use. I’ve found the videos at safelawns.org a great resource.
- Prep and plant early garden beds
This is typically the first one I tackle, so I can try to squeeze in an early spring crop. I’ll pull up the stray weeds, turn the beds and then add additional compost, fertilizers and soil before planting the cool weather crops. If I’ve overwintered any crops (garlic this year), I’ll check on them and remove some of the straw at this point.
- Mulch, prune and spray
After the garden beds are done, I’ll look to prune bushes that have either died or been damaged by the winter weather. Pruning in the spring is typically best as plants are growing and regenerating. Next I’ll spread a good 2-3 inches of mulch in all the beds. This not only keeps down weeds, but helps plants retain moisture and it helps the soil as it breaks down over the year. It’s tempting to skip this or do it every other year. Fight that urge. Finally, As spring really gets going, be on the lookout for for aphids, aspens, and other hungry bugs that can wreak havoc on young leaves. These pests are easily eliminated with an application of liquid Pyola spray. I try to get most trees and flowering bushes an application earlier, rather than later. Then repeat the spray every two or three weeks.
That’s it. Most of it can be knocked off in a solid weekend of work and you’ll get the growing season off on the right foot. It’s not all you have to do, but not doing it can set you up for disappointment or frustration later. An ounce of prevention now, saves a pound of problems later. Did I just quote my grandmother?
I’m sitting in the office writing this while the snow outside still sits just inches below the nearby window sill and my poor garden beds are shivering under at least three feet of snow and ice. Last year I planted the first peas the weekend after St. Patrick’s Day on March 20/21st. It seems hard to believe that I’ll be able to see bare ground let alone get a spade blade into the earth in less than a month. Still, the garden catalogs are pouring into the mailbox, so it’s probably time to take stock and plan out what I want to accomplish (or at least attempt) this year.
This will be year four of, while maybe not serious, a bit more intense than a few patio pots, gardening. A quick recap of the lessons learned from the past three years.
Year 1: Built the semi-raised beds and filled them with gloriously organic, virgin soil. Plants and yields were great.
Year 2: Turns out in addition to the great soil, I think we had great weather for the most part as well. Year 2 was marked with a very cool, rainy start that knocked down a vast majority of the tomato plants with blight. I took solace in the fact that most other gardeners were suffering along with me and it wasn’t something I did.
Year 3: If year 2 was the year of wet and blight, year 3 was depleted soil and bugs. I had added some additional compost and soil goodies, but it must not have been enough. The yields were generally meager at best. After three years, beetles, horn worms and other pests have discovered my plots in earnest.
With those things in mind, here are my goals for year 4:
1. Pump up the soil
It all starts with the dirt. I’m going to re-dig the beds with a lot more compost and manure than I have in the past two years. If that doesn’t work this year, I’ll send samples off to UMass again to analyze to see if it’s a specific deficiency. Along those lines, we’ve been home composting in a bin for the last three years. I think it’s time to see if we have anything usable in there to add to the beds. I’ll build a simple screen and see if the compost effort is paying off at all.
2. Add more upside down hangers
While the upside down experiment didn’t work out too well on the larger varieties last year, they did work gang busters on the sweet 100’s and the other cherry varieties. I’d like to add three more hangers along the garage eaves. Two for additional cherries (Cece’s favorite) and one for pickling cukes.
3. Try pickling cukes again
The problem hasn’t really been growing them, it’s been using them. Along with everything else, we had bumper crops in year one and decent yields in two, but each year was an unmitigated disaster in the actually pickling process. I think I’ve found a good, fool proof method this year, so despite Chelle’s reservations, I’m trying again!
4. Harvest winter garlic
One of last year’s goals was trying to overwinter some crops. I chose garlic mainly on co-worker recommendations and its general infallibility. This spring it’s time to put that to the test and see if we can harvest, dry and use the two different varieties we planted last November. Trying to stay positive, but that garlic has to be chilly, despite the blanket of salt hay, under all that snow. Fingers crossed.
5. Better Pea and zucchini yields
I’m hoping this is largely related to the soil issues (see #1 above) but last year was crushingly disappointing in terms of good peas and zucchini, two of our top 3 favorite veggies to grow.
6. Plant (at least) one fruit bush
We inherited a blueberry bush with the house and have kept an ever bearing strawberry plant going, but we’d like to clear out space near the garage, a nice warm sunny protected spot to plant some raspberry bushes.
7. Healthier Pumpkins
Finally, I’d like to focus on pumpkins more this year. We’ve grown them in the neighbor’s larger plot the last two years and both times eked out at least one decent gourd, but they have mainly been an afterthought. It seems the long growing time and the ambling nature of the plant leave vulnerable to all sorts of fungi and pests. This year I’ll try to see if I can’t even the odds a bit and give the pumpkin patch a little more TLC.
Seven seems like a good lucky number and more than enough to keep me busy.
Deferred till next year (and beyond):
- Better watermelons – while we got a number of sugar melons last year, on the whole the entire patch was an abject failure. I’ll take a year off and try again next year
- Potatoes- I think Cecilia would like digging around to harvest the potatoes. I’ll try this next year when she’s a little older and can do more from start to finish.
- Creating a new raised bed for a dedicated kitchen herb garden
- Starting tomatoes from seedlings
- A more concerted canning/preservers effort
- Add a (dwarf) apple tree
Last year I missed the window for the cool season, early spring planting. I had to spend late March, early April pulling up the grass, building the raised beds in the yard and rehabbing/importing soil. I didn’t actually get any plants into the ground until late May. Sure, like a tone deaf man at a karaoke bar, I tried to give it a go with some lettuce and brussel sprouts anyway. The results were not exactly Martha Stewart and rainbows. The heat just kept a foot on the necks of those plants and they never went anywhere. That corner of the garden was like an abandoned block of Detroit. The one real failure in last year’s garden experiment.
Live and learn. This year, freed from two by eights, brackets and back breaking soil improvements, I could get to the planting early. After last year’s efforts, I only had to work in a little compost, some lime and add a few nutrients (blood meal, bone meal, greensand) before getting the dirt under the fingernails. And really, isn’t that why most people garden? A garden is just a guilt-free, bulletproof excuse to play around in a box full of dark, black gold dirt. The only thing missing from my pre-school fantasy was a tiny steam shovel replica.
Aided by some fava bean and snap pea seedlings from the father-in-law, I planted about three quarters of the two raised beds. I wanted to save some room for some early hot plants. Besides doing a better job of canning and preserving the veggies this year (last year everything came in a flood), I wanted to try to do a better job of progression planting to avoid that deluge of produce for two weeks in August. Other than the beans and peas, I have a row of cauliflower, a row of brocolli, three short rows of mixed lettuce, a half row of carrots and some medium containers of head lettuce, swiss chard and some mixed herbs.
More updates throughout the season.