Now that we are officially done with the summer of 2012, it’s a good time to look at what went well, and what didn’t, in my garden. The short story is that it’s surprising just how much did go well with timely watering and lots of it, even with the extreme heat and drought that we experienced. I plan to look more closely at how to reduce the need for backup irrigation from municipal water now that I’ve experienced an extreme drought and seen its effects.
Fruits: I was very concerned when my fruit trees burst into bloom during a warm spell in mid-March, as this is well before our usual last frost date of early to mid April. As it happened, we received no more frosts and the continued warm temperatures brought each kind of fruit into bearing stage 2 to 3 weeks ahead of usual. Starting with strawberries in late April, then progressing through Nanking cherries, apricots, two kinds of plums, summer peaches, elderberries, pears, and now persimmons and a fall peach, we have had fresh fruit available somewhere in our yard and thus in our menus. We’ve bought fruit only once and that was only because I happened to be across the street from a local orchard store for another purpose. We were also given some peaches, most of which we dried, and some early apples that we are still eating, and Mike gathered some pawpaws a few days ago. Our apple trees have a few apples on them, as does the Seckel pear; we still have a lot of persimmons on our two bearing trees; and the two jujube trees in back will provide the last fruits to ripen later this fall. The Nanking cherries and elderberries have been or will be turned into wine. Aside from the gift peaches that I dried, everything else so far has been eaten fresh. Later this fall we may dry some fruit or make fruit butter if we obtain a surplus of fruit, or if I figure out how to dry or process the jujubes.
Vegetables: most crops have yielded at least an average amount so far with copious irrigation starting in June and continuing through early August when cooler and wetter weather returned. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants have yielded much better than the past two years, apparently because the low humidity most of the summer reduced disease pressure and I planted them early enough to have fruit set before the heat got too bad. Cabbage did really well and broccoli was pretty good, although lettuce did not stand long into June as it did last year and mustard greens and spring bok choy bolted very early. Enough kale and collards survived the heat to provide fall greens without having to reseed. Some of the self-sown bok choy seedlings have also survived the vicious heat and should grow well as the fall cool-down occurs. The storage radish seeds I sowed early this week have sprouted nicely and should produce a good crop later this fall, and I have seedlings of lettuce and greens to plant in the second half of September. Two happy surprises: the spring carrots and turnips not only survived the summer but grew large and we are starting to harvest these now. Onions did pretty well and garlic is excellent. Cucumbers and zucchini yielded well in July but died by early August. Major disappointments this year have been potatoes, winter squash, and melons. Perhaps the spring and early summer weather was too hot and dry for good tuber set on the potatoes (we experienced the warmest March-May period on record and I didn’t water the veggie gardens until very late in May). As for the squash and melons, a severe outbreak of squash bugs killed them and the cucumbers and zucchini by August. Rather than wait to start these until the beginning of July (the Missouri Organic Association’s suggestion to reduce or eliminate squash bug infestions), I started them in late May as is generally recommended by garden advisors around here. I won’t be making that mistake again in future years. Since June was so dry, I didn’t get the usual volunteer squash plants sprouting out of the compost pile, usually a good source of squashes.
The pea varieties did not germinate as well as I hoped for but yields from the plants that did grow were good since I planted them on time for once. I’m still harvesting black-eyed peas and expect them to do well. The edamame soybeans, black beans, and popcorn are all still growing and will be harvested later this fall. All look to be in good shape and will be helped greatly by the rain we’ve received from the remnants of Isaac.
Herbs: As might be expected, the herbs that prefer cooler weather, especially calendula and nasturtium, gave up and died early. The St. John’s wort plants didn’t flower, probably because I didn’t water the herb garden in June when it usually flowers, but the plants remained alive. Basil, some of the Gem marigolds, and almost all of the perennial herbs in my herb garden have withstood the heat well, even the seedlings of lemon balm that I didn’t plant till May and didn’t water till July. Lavender flowered copiously this year! Normally I don’t water the herb garden at all, but it got watered a few times in July in order to keep the skullcap and the lemon balm seedlings going. The pale purple, glade, and yellow coneflowers put on a beautiful show of blooms in May and June, and I got my first harvest of New Jersey tea this summer.
Other: The shiitake mushrooms fruited a little but not much this spring since we did not have much of the cool, wet weather that they prefer. Nor did we find much in the way of morels or other wild mushrooms. Perhaps in Isaac's wake we will have a decent fall shiitake crop.
I’ve been able to keep almost all of the newly planted tree, shrub, and herb seedlings and the newly created perennial border and hosta bed in the front yard alive with copious watering starting in May in some cases. I also watered some of the established trees and shrubs in the yard south of the vegetable garden, especially those that produce fruits or nuts and/or those that are closest to the house and could be a fire hazard during a drought. We got a harvest of hazelnuts for the first time ever and the elderberries bore heavily. I carried water to keep an established but still rather young pawpaw tree in the backyard going (it was showing drought distress in July) and left everything else in that area on their own. At most only a few gray dogwoods suffered severely, and even they may come back now that rains have returned. I’m sure the fact that all of these plantings are several years old helped, as did the general flatness of the back yard and the fact that we are located on an east-facing slope and have very deep glacial loess soil. They grass went dormant or died, not that I cared as I am allowing what grass we have to slowly transition to other groundcovers. One good thing about this summer was going nearly 2 months without needing to mow!
Lessons: Our water bill for the three months from early May to early August was $218, compared to the usual bill of $75 for this time period. Was it worth it? Let’s compare grocery bills for 2012 through June (the latest figures I have on hand) with the same time period in 2011. By the end of June 2012 we’d spent about $300 less on groceries than during the same time period last year. We’ve purchased much less in the way of fruits and vegetables so far this year than we normally do. I think most of this saving can be attributed to the excellent fruit crop and good vegetable crop we’d had through that time, although a full analysis would have to subtract off what we spent on the garden and is not something I will do until the end of the year when the harvest is completed. Overall I think the extra water used has been very much worth it in terms of the amount of food we've gotten from it and I’m pretty sure it will have saved us money over the purchase of equivalent quality food at a farmers market (grocery store food is much lower quality although lower priced) once I have all the data and can do a proper cost comparison.
I would like to cut down on how much backup irrigation we need, however. One of the things we plan to do over the next several weeks is put up a garden shed and collect water off its roof into a 500 gallon tank located where we can gravity-feed the stored water to the vegetable gardens. (We can’t do this from our house or garage because they are downhill of the veggie gardens.) It might be worth reshaping the veggie gardens and/or the yard above them to allow for collection and direction of yard runoff into the veggie-growing area. Diverting overflow water from the rain barrels collecting water off the house roof and into swales could help with watering trees and shrubs near to and downhill from the house. Over the winter I’ll be looking more closely into these possibilities and looking at other ways to reduce our need for backup irrigation. That will help a lot during future years when the growing season is drier than usual.