Our gardens in many lights

lundi 13 janvier 2014

About the potential richness and diversity in an edible garden, part 2

Cet article en français.

Facing the sidewalk and right next to the entryway of our yard, some thyme slowly crawls on a chunked cement layer, a byproduct of recent renovations. In my yard, thyme needs to lie over such a dry material to grow well and thrive. This beautiful flower carpet is  sprinkled with tiny Johnny Jump Ups, whose flowers are edible. A wooden half-barrel is a good way to have a ready-space for annuals, either they be ornemental or edible (or even both!). It can also be decorated with a cat. Behold Souris (which means "Mouse"), lounging in it in the picture.
How my idea of a vegetable garden gradually evolved into something else:

Almost thirty years ago, I started a very standard vegetable garden, a rectangle square at the back of my yard, where the sun was. Some years after that, I had to abandon the project, not having enough time to adequately start it in the spring. But I could still find time to grow an ornemental perennial garden throughout the summer. Finally, about 3 years ago, I renewed with the idea of growing edible plants again.

Of course, the image of a classical, rectangular vegetable garden bed came back to me at once. But I knew that in my yard, this was now impossible. About 20 years had passed and the trees in my backyard and my neighbours' had grown so much that the old vegetable patch didn't have the required 6 hours of sun necessary for a lot of the vegetables that we cherish : tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, radishes, carrots, etc. If I wanted this kind of harvest, I had to get to the sun, meaning I had to envision using the ornemental garden that was in the frontyard, in plain view to every passer-by.

That's when a series of lucky coincidences made me aware of permaculture and its principles and through it, different techniques, such as polyculture.

In this daylily haven, the red flowers are produced by "Red Bud", in full bloom at the end of June. Other varieties will take over, one at a time, until fall. The flowering silver stalks with pretty lavender flowers are lamb's ears (Stachys Bizantina), offering a stricking contrast.
I hence found myself faced with that same dilemma that anonymous reader was talking about: would I have to sacrifice my perennial garden to grow a few vegetables? After so many years of work, this thought was disheartening.

Almost 30 years of gardening made me understand that, to do things differently, nothing beats personal experience. I'm also very aware that gardening is more a "general principles way to do things" than a "rigid rules science" since each garden - and each gardener - is unique. I was ready for this challenge. 

Integration of an edible garden in an already established ornemental one:

To this day, my plan as not come full circle yet. It probably never will anyway and that's not necessarily the goal either, since gardens evolve all the time. Here's what I've done up to now.

 The existing ornemental garden was already brimming with mature plants so of course I had to sacrifice a few, or at least reorganise things, if I wanted to have space enough for those new edible plants. After all, it was clear that squeezing a tomato plant between two mature hostas would affect drastically the harvest of those delicious red fruits!

I started with a change that was a necessity in itself: 
Instead of pulling out the white cedar stump 
(Thuja Occidentalis), I decided to bury it
completely. I carpeted newspaper sheets on
the ground to choke weeds, than emptied a bag of
old potting soil, added good garden soil, manure
and compost. I assume the stump will take years
to decompose; it will hence absorb nitrogen but
very slowly. One thing's for sure, it will start
feeding the ground and retain water like a sponge,
which will diminish my task of watering the new
surrounding plants.
It was in the spring of 2011 that I decided I wanted vegetables again. This project coincided with the removal of an enormous white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) that was completely obstructing the east side of our front porch and was on its way to damaging the roof. Actually, the entire eastern side was unusable for gardening since that beast was taking all the water available in the vicinity while casting too much shadow.

Like with many other municipalities, we needed a permit to remove it and we had to replace it with another tree of our choice. No problem there: I wanted a fruit tree anyway. My choice was a juneberry (Amelanchier Canadensis), a tree that would retain a more modest frame, one that would give me delicious berries at the beginning of July and one that would be fine with a little less than full sun.

I planted the Juneberry about 10 feet (3 m) north of the white cedar and I circled it with a ring of daffodil bulbs, which have the reputation of repelling small rodents and competing with spring weeds. I completed with a  sedum groundcover and astilbes a little farther. I planted catmint (Nepeta) upclose. We talk about that plant in detail in our article cat squad, safe berries. I intend to plant comfrey too, since it will help the juneberry by enriching the soil and keeping weeds at bay, and maybe I will also add one or two plants of chives. In one corner I tried to grow strawberries with small success up until now. Once they are well established however, it should go well, but this may take some time. On a whim, I bought 3 plants of cranberries but they died last spring, althought the site's attributes were fine (soil acidity was good, I put a very thick layer of mulch, there was lots of water pooling from the roof of the house). It wasn't enough apparently. I replaced them with a scented hosta.
Picture taken in July 2011. The east side of the house as taken a completely different appearence. The juneberry is still young but already producing fruits. After 3 years of gardening in that very spot, I can attest that the crops were plentiful (tomatoes the first year - they are in the picture - beans the second and back to tomatoes the third). Near the wooden balcony on the right, variegated dogwood. The house needs regular maintenance since the wood walls have to be repainted now and then. So I placed a path to give access and space enough to prop a ladder (these spaces are filled with a black mulch). Talking about paint, when we want to produce food, we have to think about a possible contamination of the soil. I'll talk more about it at the end of this series of articles.

I worked on the perennial beds:
I relocated some of my perennials elsewhere creating isles of bare soil here and there, throughout the sea of ornemental plants. I made sure those spaces were big enough to fool the annual vegetables, making them believe they were in a traditional vegetable patch. Their spacing from the perennials is good enough to limit competition for nutrients and water.
On the west side of the baywindow
seen in the opposite picture,
I had already lost 2 clematis in
the past. I changed tactics and in
2011, 2 pole bean plants took over
the space. The cultivar is
"Trionfo Violetto". It produces
very well.
For example, under the big baywindow of our living room (pictured beneath), I can easily place 4 to 6 tomato plants and let them spill on the path next to their bed, while they are screened from public eyes by two other beds between the street and them. In between, a couple of containers filled with flowering annuals are placed to fill the space until the tomato plants are big enough to claim it.

At the foot of the baywindow, vegetables in containers or in ground enjoy the sun and warmth while remaining discreet. On the right of the windows lie my first bed of groundcherries (Physalis). In the foreground, between a container of shiso to the right, a wooden half-barrel filled with annuals in the back and clumps of different varieties of daylilies to the left is my second bed of groundcherries. They form a very pretty bush to boot.
Capitatum), a small
vegetable that takes little
space but one that can also
be choked by its
neighbouring plants.
These eggplants have been planted straight
in bags.

Through the beds I placed some plants in bags or in containers. I already had 3 wooden half-barrels, scattered through the flowerbeds. As the plants that grow in them are higher then those in beds, it gives them prime sun and prevent them from being overwhelmed by the well established perennials. The next step would be to install vegetables instead of flowers in those half-barrels, but I would also need to arrange them with a water reserve at the bottom, to avoid to water them all the time.

At about 10 feet (3 m) from the sidewalk, just
next to the narrow lawn border that's left, a 
6 square feet (45 cm X 100cm) islet is filled 
with peppers, green onions, eggplants and
strawberry-spinach. Many daylily plants and
bloody cranesbill (not pictured) encompass
the vegetables on each side. In the back ground,
sedums close off the area. On the following
 photo,you can see what this space looked
like at the very beginning of the season .
My garden is largely inspired by the cottage gardens of the victorian era in England: a mish-mash of perennial ornementals planted very close together. I only added vegetables to the mix and not all of them are hidden from the eyes of passers-by, as the picture to the left attests.

Here's a list of what's already in place:
More than 40 species of perennials (that's without counting different cultivars in one species), half a dozen dwarf trees and bushes and about a dozen types of spring bulbs (again, without counting the different cultivars in one species). 

Through all that, I seeded and planted - with different degrees of success depending on the species and the seasons - many types of vegetables: tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, peppers, beans and peas, eggplants, greens of all kinds and cabbages, carrots, radishes and beets, quinoa, strawberry-spinach, Malabar spinach, potatoes and groundcherries. Everything rotates too, so the same family of plants cannot be in the same islet year after year, something that would impoverish the soil and possibly allow some diseases or insects specific to that plant's family to establish themselves.

Here's what the tiny vegetable isle
 looked like at plantation time, on the
spring of 2011. I added a generous carpet
carpet of mulch between the tiny plants.

Some still green gooseberries.
Of course, I don't rely only on my front garden, to grow edible plants. In my backyard, even thought the shadows have spreaded with the passing years, I can still find sunny spots, enough to place other edible plants, especially small fruits who can generally deal with a little bit less than the 6 hours of sun necessary for many other types of plants. It is the case with blueberries, gooseberries, currants, honeyberries, juneberries, black raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb. But it doesn't mean either all vegetables are excluded from the backyard.

Where my old vegetable beds used to be, potato plants have found a good growing spot under a heave mulch of dead leaves. Around this bed, strawberries, daylillies, iris and rhubarbs share the five hours sun that hit the spot. A line of gooseberry bushes (not pictured) protects everything from the north-western winds.
Potatoes in bags, tomatoes, greens, herbs,
flowers, cabbages, beans, peas. The place looks

like a mini-jungle. A couple of plastic buckets,
hidden behind my other containers, hold
part of my rainwater reserve.

Another space was waiting for me, arms wide open!

The next step was quite obvious to me : the end of the white cedar naturally meant more light (double what it used to be) on the covered front porch. Suddenly it had the potential to bear a container garden!

This challenge was a lot less daunting for me than the integration of annual vegetables in my perennial beds. I decided to dress a list of advantages and disadvantages about my possible new gardening space:

- Rainwater hoarding can be done on the spot, but the rain itself can't reach most of the plants because of the porch's roof. So I have to water the plants myself even when it is raining.
My bean plants "Blue Lake", at the beginning of
August. The net is nearly invisible from the street
and I don't even bother removing it for winter.
A dozen of these plants give me delicious
green beans to eat fresh from August to
the harsher frost of October. It's not enough
to make preserves for winter however.

- This roof allows me to hang a net or ropes that will make it possible for a vertical garden to grow on. In the middle of the season, this green screen will give more intimacy to the porch's space and protect greens from the stronger sunrays.

- The porch receives full south and east sun exposure, but at the end of the afternoon, around 4pm, it becomes bathed in shadow.

- The heat can sometimes be intense, which normally forces me to give water on a regular basis, since the containers can dry pretty quickly: in a heat wave, I might have to water twice a day, or else risk losing the plants placed in any ordinary container. I had to find a solution to make watering less tedious.
Most of my water reserve is contained in this magnificient sandstone barrel that I found in a yard sale. I think it was used to make wine or marinades in a time past. Leaning on it is the wooden lid painted gray-blue, it was handmade by the previous owner. Once this lid is in place and a couple of potted pelargonium plants are set on it, nobody notices it. On the right side of the picture is my herbs container.
- The stones and cement of the porch and walls of the house absorb a good amount of heat from the sun, as does the water tank pictured above. Furthermore, the space is protected from most strong winds. These two factors together make for a comfortable nook to protect plants from spring colds and fall frosts and from nightly drops in temperature in August. It's a real warmth trap. With this, I gain some gardening weeks at the beginning and end of the season. In this protected area, I manage to collect the last of my tomatoes at the very end of October and this year, my rocket (Eruca Sativa) stayed alive and well until mid-December. It's true that this green as the reputation to keep well in cold climate but still, what a joy!

- When I take care of this piece of garden, I'm protected from the weather as well; lovely when the day is chilly, windy or rainy. I also have good artificial lighting there, which allows me to take care of this garden after work hours, even after the sun is down (useful in spring and fall). In the middle of the summer, the bonus of working when the sun is down is to avoid the heat of the day.

- This porch garden is ideal to cultivate herbs and cherry tomatoes, amongst others, since their proximity to my kitchen means that I am more inclined to use them while cooking something.
I improvised a container for my herbs (the white structure on spindly legs) from a school desk missing the top and left on the side of the road. I carpeted the bottom with two layers of thick plastic sheets and disposed pebbles in it. The containers are balanced on these pebbles. Quickly, the roots of the plants managed to escape their containers through the flow holes at the bottom of them. When I water, I aim to make a water reserve between the pebbles, at the bottom of the plastic bags. Later on, when the soil in the containers starts to dry up, the roots can reach in that water reserve to pump water up. This will keep the soil moist for a longer period of time and the plants will endure until I'm available to water them again.

- Right at the beginning, I installed my plants almost exclusively in containers with double bottoms to make water reserves; some that I bought, others that I made myself out of two different containers. The top container must be perforated at the bottom and it must not touch the bottom of the container under it (the one that will act as a water tank). If both bottoms are touching each other when you place one inside the other, this may be achieved by placing pebbles or bricks, or even small empty yogurt containers upside down at the bottom of the lower container. Any of those objects will act as "legs" to raise the upper container. 

The idea is for the soil in the top container not to soak in the bottom container (the water reservoir), else the soil would always be wet and it would promote root rot. The lower container should also have a flow hole through its side, level with where the bottom of the upper container reaches, this way, the lower container can never be too full. In order to make the water go up, you can make a ribbon made of a torn fabric band and lay it on the bottom of the top container before adding any soil. You insert the ends of the fabric ribbon through the flow holes of the top container: the fabric will get in contact with the water in the lower container and thus will bring water up to the soil when it's dry, simply by capillarity. Eventually, the plants will reach the water below by themselves by shooting a few long roots through the holes. 

With this type of container, I can be absent for at least two days in the worst heat wave, and the plants will have plenty of water for themselves.

The removal of the white cedar brought a lot of sunlight on the porch. Here, roman lettuces are interplanted with beets. They grow in rectangular containers that are equiped with a double bottom - to make a water tank. Each of these containers also gave me a third harvest. Indeed, on the south of the lettuces I planted pole beans in a single parallel line. They take little space at their base, rather spreading upward, climbing to a black net. Soon, they will provide shade to the lettuces, preventing their early bolting and extending their harvest.  The lettuce harvest will be over before the beets get to an interesting size. These 3 vegetables are fast friends, here. On one of the stairs, a white bucket has collected rain from the roof (our house doesn't have gutters). This bucket got filled to the rim within 10 minutes under a good rainstorm. All I need to do now is take it and hide it away.
Here's what the porch looks like from the street at the end of July. The white cedar had been on the corner of it to the right. Most of the passers-by don't even notice that this space shelters vegetables.

Favouring successive harvests, maybe a tad less important than one big one, in order to obtain diversity and continuity in crops:

 All kinds of tricks are possible to maximize the restrained space of containers. For example, at the beginning of the growth of lettuces, when it is time to thin them, I take some of the young seedlings out to make space for the others to grow well. I don't throw away those seedlings, no ! I add them to salads. Comes a time where I don't need to thin their ranks. Starting from this moment, I change tactics again and I harvest them in a different way. I start by taking only a leaf or two from the outside of each plant. The plants keep growing, forming new leaves and getting bigger. 

This way, my lettuce harvest is spread on a longer period, since I don't kill the plants, and the leaves are always very fresh, while I avoid to end up with too much lettuce in too short a period. They can pretty much produce leaves all season too, however with the coming of summer warmth, they engage into another state of growth and the leaves become more bitter. When this bitterness starts to bug me, I take the spine of the leaves out and just keep the thin part of the leaves (the"wings"). This way, I can still harvest lettuce even past its prime, until around mid-July, even if the micro-climate on the balcony is warm.
A score of those  roman lettuce flowers that
I let dry out on the plants before harvesting
them. At the heart of each flower is hidden a
dozen seeds. We need to extract the seeds from
 the dried flowers' envelope and it takes some
time, but it's not hard to do.
Finally, all parts of the leaves start excreting latex, that white bitter substance exuding along any cut. They can't be eaten anymore. At this stage, I only keep 2 or 3 plants to allow them to complete their life cycle. They'll flower and each pollinised flower will wilt, dry up and give seeds that I'll use for next year. With 2 or 3 plants, I will get more than enough seeds for myself, my friends, family and neighbors.  By the way, it is possible to harvest many types of vegetable seeds to keep for the next season, vegetables like peas, beans, radishes and beets. You just need to let one or two plants bolt. In the case of plants producing fruits, like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers or squash, you'll find the seeds inside the fruits, of course.

Just remember that the seeds from hybridized plants that are fertile won't necessarily give offsprings that are true to their parents. But it doesn't necessarily mean either  that they will give vegetables of lesser quality. Nevertheless, there's risk and adventure, here. And sometimes, interesting discoveries...

My roman lettuce seed harvest 2013,
from the flowers of only 2 plants.

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