Our gardens in many lights

lundi 18 février 2013

Successes and failures 2012 - Part 2

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Este artículo en español.

This pretty ice vegetation, spreading across a window in our old house,
reminds me I should already have recounted what happened
this past season.
Louise :
I almost skipped the writing of this article, because even if the season hasn't been a complete disaster, some of my usual successful harvests have been disappointing and furthermore, I made some costly mistakes... This situation kind of sapped the enthousiasm out of me when came the time to write about it. I should know better, considering my age and experience : unexpected results are an inherent part of gardening.

So let's start this right away with the big failures :
 The firsts were the climbing beans. They were part of an experimentation of mine that didn't work. I made the mistake of trying to maximise the utilization of a specific space and planted climbing peas first, thinking that by the time beans would be ready to plant, pea harvest would be over with. What happened instead was that the peas took so much time to produce, they delayed the plantation of the beans so much so they yielded during only a couple of weeks before the autumn colds settled.

Then the apples I usually collect in the abandonned orchards in my region were simply absent. It seems these trees didn't produce anything this year probably because their blooming had been compromised. Same for the grapes that climbed on those trees; apparently, they endured the same faith. Worse, the grape plants have been invaded by hops vines, so I have no idea what I will find there next year... (Note with this example how gardening keeps us in suspense).
Then the juneberries - like Helene's - lost their flowers too and so didn't produce any fruits. The black raspberries dried on their stalks, a sad repetition of last year's failures. The elderberries too  barely made fruits. They are usually so faithful. Luckily, I still had one jar of elderberry jam from my 2011 harvest, so I still had a little treat to eat! It's simply because in the spring of 2012, I noticed that my elderberries produced so few flowers that I wouldn't have enough berries to make a harvest at the end of the summer. So I rationned myself, since elderberry jam is so much better when savoured on a cold January sunday morning. While eating it I contemplated the wisdom in putting aside a small portion of plentiful harvests for those days when Mother Nature is less generous.
The absence of cucumber and squash however, is entirely my fault : lacking energy and time at the beginning of the gardening season last year (and isn't that the time when you actually need both of these assets in the garden?), I simply didn't sow anything. 

And then, there was that painful mistake:
My Pantano Romanesco tomatoes,
one of the varieties I let outside

 a bit too much. We had to eat them
fast so not to loose them. 
I got a lot of delicious tomatoes. We ate lots of them to satiety, gave some and brought inside the rest of the harvest just after the first days of frost; I did take care of covering the plants on those first cold nights, of course. But I think I pushed my luck too far, since a good portion of my green tomatoes harvest - once inside and allowed to resume its ripening process - didn't preserve as well as usual.

Cherry tomatoes Sub-Arctic plants,
a determined variety

that thrive in containers
even in cold summers, is one that
produce delicious fruits in 
abondance in hot summers.

But the worst was yet to come! I put in storage around forty green tomatoes in perfect condition, of a variety called "Long Keeper". This tomato has the reputation of preserving well for a long time (about 3 months) remaining in its green state as long as it is kept in the dark in a cool location. You can take them out one at a time to let them ripen in the warmth and light of the kitchen. However, as our basement has a dirt floor, I chose to put my tomatoes in a metal container that would prevent rodents from getting to them (we occasionnally catch some that manage to escape our cats and sneak through cracks of the stone walls or right under them).  But I didn't think that one through when I closed the container with a wooden lid; they sweated and rotted regardless of their paper wrapping, so I lost them all...

In my defense, I may mention that I'm a newbie at preserving fruit and vegetables in a cold storage room environment...

Of course there were some good harvests : 
Strawberries, rhubarb, blueberries and gooseberries yielded abondantly and reliably (well, gooseberries were a failure last year, they dried on the plants; in my experience, this is a rare happening, gooseberries generally being of a generous nature).

A great Christmas gift!
We have mentionned it in another article,
but never forget that Jerusalem artichokes
can cause flatulences and belly aches. 
Luckily, this isn't a problem in my family.
However, it seems that there is a trick 
to prevent this :  
eat them as fresh as possible,
right after you harvest them. 
Only harvest what you need and leave
the rest in place.
Jerusalem artichokes cultivated in containers provided me with the happy circumstances of harvesting some at the end of December, right when the soil is frozen solid outside. I brought one of the containers inside just after a couple of hard frosts and I let them thaw. 
This particular batch has been sowed hastily last Spring, when I found a handful of tubers in the recesses of my fridge, small miserable things they were. I planted them right into a bag of garden soil (what can I say, I'm a lazy gardener, at times). This bag was perforated in a couple of spots to make draining holes, then it was squeezed inside a big empty plastic pot (to give it strucural support and for ease of transportation). 
And then, over six months later, I had such fun digging in this beautiful black dirt, a couple of days before Christmas. It was like a gift to me from me! Apart from that harvest, I still have a nice amount of tubers left outside in the ground that I will be able to dig up next spring, in a period when harvests are close to non existing (the "hunger gap").
Eggplant "Slim Jim", a variety that gives small fruits.
As I kept two of these plants inside all through the winter of 2011-12,
they started producing almost as soon as
 I put them back outside.
Potatoes gave me a moderate yield. But when I take in account the Jerusalem artichokes, those two vegetables together made a nice quantity and a good diversity.
A small portion of my
potato harvest.
Beets gave me a yummy and beautiful harvest, right out of plastic containers ! Sweet peppers and eggplants produced generously, on last year's plants that I had kept inside for the duration of the winter.
My edible perennials were of course up to the task: daylilies (shoots, flowers and seeds), leaves and flowers of Viola (a short lived perennial that reseeds itself readily under suiting conditions) and goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria).
There was also lime leaves and flowers (Tillia), from a parc in my neighbourhood. The small raw leaves are excellent in salads. The flowers make a beautiful herbal tea - one of my favourites, actually.

Daylilly shoots harvested last
spring, blanched and ready
for the freezer.
I used some in an omelet lately.
Furthermore, I must not forget to mention my winter gardening. This autumn, I managed to continue growing a couple of different vegetables inside, in containers. So we do occasionnally eat cherry tomatoes (we harvested more than 200 since the end of October) and Oyster mushrooms, on a log, just like Helene's. I didn't restart my "vertical garden" (my Windowfarm), because I plan to make a modification to my installation. I should stop delaying, because therefore I could harvest bush beans in a matter of weeks with this. Also, a couple of herbs found shelter inside for the winter and they make themselves available in profusion : fresh parsley, oregano, laurel, rosemary and mint all add a magical touch to any winter meal. I even brought in some stinging nettle this winter, so it keeps on providing me with plenty of good leaves that I can dry.

There was a nice surprise in my vermicompost container too : Onions are starting to sprout from it! Check this picture and the comment below.

I discarded small onions bulbs in my vermicompost a month ago,
because they had been forgotten and looked dried up to the point
of being unsalvageable. And here they are showing green tips this week. I don't know if the bulbs themselves will grow to make nice onions, but anyway, I can always eat the green stems. Lately I've been wondering if there would be a way for me to grow things directly out of the vermicompost, if it is covered with a thick enough mulch, like here. At the very least, I will now have the privilege of observing that phenomenon...

What lessons should we take from all this?

More often than not, 
the Anna Russian tomato 
takes the shape of a heart. 
This can be used as a metaphor to
express my love for gardening, 
in it's ups and downs.
First and foremost, that gardening is, by its definition, an adventure into the unknown, but also that half-successes, mistakes and failures are as much a part of the harvest as any basket filled to the brim with fruits and vegetables. 

These failures' yield is... experience! They force the gardener to cultivate precious things such as patience, wisdom, humility but also perseverance, creativity and resourcefulness.

Strategies used in permaculture to minimize the failures' impact on our gardening:

Lovage is a perennial that is easy
to grow. It ressembles celery leaves 
and has a very similar taste.
One can grow it in lieu of celery,
which is a lot more finicky.
To add to any meal the taste and aroma
of celery, one can cut some of the stems
anytime, use them fresh and then
freeze the surplus leaves for later use.

- Repeat your best successes. When you find a plant that works well in your condition, you should take note and invite it again. Make it a classic of your garden. This plant could become the recurring success that cheers you up when you would otherwise feel down about gardening in difficult periods. Indeed, some vegetables are always there, year after year for you. 

- Diversify! If fifty different harvests are aimed and located on the four corners of your garden, odds are only some of them will be affected either by a bad season or a localized catastrophy (like this family of groundhogs which recently moved right under your garden shed).

- To diversify, don't think solely of annual vegetables, but bring in fruits and perennial vegetables and if you have the space, some producing shrubs and trees. By the way, most of these are easy to care for. Weeding, mulching, adding organic fertilizer as needed, sufficient moisture, these are the main lines of your care program. 

Then, comes the time of harvest (in reasonable quantities, if you are after the sap, the leaves or the stems, in order not to weaken the plant or tree). Here are examples of perennials : Jerusalem artichoke, rhubarb, asparagus, strawberry (when you grow it as a ground cover), fiddlehead fern, viola (flowers and leaves), goutweed, lovage, walking onion, chives, horseradish (leaves and even root, but take care to leave a chunk of it in the ground and the plant will come back), mallow (Malva - leaves). There's also a lot of greens and herbs like the leaves and flowers of Violas, goutweed, lovage, egyptian onions and chives. 

For shrubs, you have brambles like raspberries, gooseberries, blueberries and elderberries (to name a few). Even a a few trees don't ask for much care and will give you a harvest. Think of maples for their syrup and lime trees (tillia) for their leaves and flowers. And we haven't even talked about the regular fruits trees, albeit these often take a lot of care.

- Always with the goal of diversification, mix edible and decorative plants because while beautifying your yard, it will make the whole system more resistant to disease and less inviting for pests, since these will have trouble finding their food in such a place. We won't go into detail but some plants are great companions for each other, helping each other out. There is a lot of advantages and beauty to discover in a diversified system. 

- Diversifying is also valuable for annuals: a warm and dry summer may be good for tomatoes (if they have enough water) but not for lettuces. Varieties also have a role to play out: one given variety of squash may be very good for a specific soil or for the specific climatic conditions that happen to bless your garden.So, you see, there is a great boon in trying new varieties, finding heirloom seeds (that used to grow without chemicals, contrary to some of today's seeds which may depend on them) or arranging seeds exchange between gardeners of same climatic regions.

Wooly thyme and Johnny-Jump-Up,
2 beautiful perennials, make a superb
ground cover together, just another
example in the beauty of diversification.
Finally, vary and adapt different culture techniques. For example, spreading out the sowing of beans will give a longer overall harvest period, and  furthermore the chances to have a harvest at all throughout the unexpected rough patches is a boon. For another example, maybe a mulch in dry weather conditions is a great idea to keep moisture in the soil for your plants but the same mulch in a very rainy season may be a further incentive for slugs to feast on your bounty.  

When a harvest didn't deliver what was promised, in the following season, we can remediate to the situation in different ways

- Try it again, if you think the season wasn't optimal; maybe next year it will be;
- Forget about this type of harvest all together (sometimes, you can't help it, especially if you are aware that the minimum requirements for any given plant aren't met in the environment you can provide it for).
- Try again but this time, make things different. This isn't a solution for lazy people since it demands investigation, reflexion, research, counsel, etc. But it's the most effective one when you wish to learn. This way, you can try replacing the faulty plant by a close relative (trading onions for garlic or chives, for instance) or change the variety (tomatoes originating from Russia are better adapted to cold spells than those from Italy, obviously), or change techniques (widening the distance between plants can make a great difference in poor soil for some vegetables) or the culture conditions (plant your cucumbers in a warmer place that receives better sunlight, for instance).  
- Read about new varieties. Maybe a new cultivar will be on the market, one that's capable of adapting to your conditions better than the previous itterations (that's the case for the tomato "Red Robin", a dwarf plant capable of growing in a container and indoors, under artificial light or right on the windowsill). A lot of very old varieties resurface from gardeners who kept their grandparent's seeds, these often have forgotten qualities that aren't available in modern varieties. These discoveries and rediscoveries are numerous thanks to a lot of passionnate gardeners!

In conclusion, my advise to any gardener who wants to hear it (and I repeat this advise to myself standing very straight in front of a mirror): it's always useful for a gardener to get a good dose of optimism!
Our most venerable maple looks frozen in time in winter. In a couple of weeks, we will be able to start collecting the sap for our yearly supply of maple syrup. However, in the middle of January, someone else is already hard at work collecting a meal under the bark of the slumbering giant. Check the next picture...

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