Sunday, April 15, 2018

The 2017 garden: small is bountiful

Plum tree blooming on April 6, a week or two later than usual.

2017 was a year that didn’t go according to plan, and thus neither did this blog. However, I’m back to the blog now and intend to continue making posts on an irregular basis. And that means it’s time to report on what the garden told me in 2017.

I had expected to raise seedlings in February and March of 2017 for spring planting as I have in past years, but life had other plans. It’s easy to find vegetable seedlings for sale if you don’t care about what varieties you buy. I had to make do with what they had for sale, which for the most part did not match what I wanted to grow.

The most important question I asked the garden to answer was how much I could raise in 1,024 square feet of bed space. That includes 100 square feet planted to strawberries and another 100 square feet planted to raspberries, with the remainder in vegetable, root, and grain crops. Over the past few years the area devoted to food crops grew larger than the amount of time I wanted to spend on it, plus I grew more than we wanted of some crops. The 2017 garden area was about half of the 2015 garden area. I also asked the blackeyed peas to tell me if I could grow them on much less cottonseed meal (an organic source of nitrogen) than I use for vegetable beds, and the pole green and yard-long beans if I could grow them on no soil amendments at all, as part of my long-range goal to reduce inputs I need to obtain from outside the yard. I also got a new human-powered garden tool in 2017, a Hoss wheel hoe, that I hoped would make some of the work of preparing and weeding garden beds easier on my body, and I bought two bean towers to grow pole beans on.

One other change I made was to replace the fence around the entire garden area. In the post on the 2016 garden, I discussed how my removal of fencing around part of the garden and the creation of a brush pile near it allowed for continual rabbit raids on garden produce. Before the 2017 gardening season began, I re-used the best of the old fencing to fence in the garden. Remembering how much easier it was when I could bring a garden cart up to the bed I was working on, and how much easier it was to maintain the path area when I could bring a mower up to it, I put in a gate. It isn’t elaborate; as you can see from the picture below, it’s just two panels held between closely spaced posts. I can lift or slide the panels to make a large enough space between the posts for the cart, lawnmower, and wheel hoe. It works very well!

The garden gate: the two panels at center left.

However, after I planted the lettuce seedlings, I again found rabbits in the garden, eating the lettuce. We hadn’t had time to mulch the brush pile; in fact, it had grown during the year. The rabbit resort residents had figured out how to break into their dining hall. Chasing one of them, I noted it leapt through the wide openings at the top of the fencing. After pondering on the situation, I realized I had enough old fencing left to turn it upside down and attach it to the existing fencing. The small openings on the outer layer would then cover the large openings on the inner layer, preventing rabbit access. With that change in place, the rabbits found other food sources easier to access, and we ate lettuce, carrots, beets, and sweet potatoes in 2017. Last autumn I finally hired a tree service company to shred the rabbit resort and scattered seeds of native flowers where the resort had been, to provide food and shelter for pollinators. I expect less rabbit predation in 2018, though the cover afforded by the tall native plants may attract more rabbits to the area near the vegetable garden in future years.

The 2017 growing season weather

As I’ve noted before, the highly variable nature of weather in the US Midwest makes it a major factor in what my garden can provide. For this reason, I’ll recap the weather and suggest how it affected the crops that I grow.

Spring 2017 was warm and very wet. The last frost date, March 16, was two to four weeks earlier than usual. I did not have my rain gage out in early April, but the St. Louis NWS official station is only a few miles away so it is a good proxy. It received 10.37 inches of rain in April, almost 4 inches above normal! April was warmer than normal as well. May also featured above-normal rainfall of 6.7 inches and warmer than normal temperatures. Seedlings planted in those months did very well, but seeds planted in the wettest weeks rotted. Luckily conditions improved later in May and early June when I planted the corn and bean seeds.

We received 2.8 inches of rain in June, 4.2 inches in July, and 2.9 inches in August; between the rain and some supplemental watering, moisture proved sufficient. June was a little warmer than normal, July much warmer than normal, and August a little cooler than normal. The cooler weather in August made it easy to get direct-seeded fall crops started. The heat and humidity of July were hard on crops like peppers, cucumbers, and zucchinis but other summer crops grew and produced well.

Autumn conditions turned quite dry, with only about 0.3 inches of rain in September, though we got close to normal rainfall in October at 2.8 inches. While September started cool, with the morning low already down to 48F on the 2nd, the second half of the month featured an impressive heat wave to end the month at above-normal temperatures overall. October was warmer than normal until about the last week, with the growing season coming to an abrupt end on October 29 with a hard freeze of 25F. The dryness and heat did not favor fall crops. I concentrated watering on the tomatoes, leaving the fall greens, lettuce, and root crops at the mercy of the heat and dryness.

The 2017 results

Despite my disappointment at not being able to grow some of the varieties I wanted and the disruptions due to various aspects of life, it was a good year. I harvested over 500 pounds of vegetables, roots, and dry beans, about 33 pounds of dent corn, and 30 pounds of berries in the 1,024 square feet of fenced-in garden space, in total the best yield I’ve obtained. The blackeyed peas did fine on reduced nitrogen, the pole beans did fine without any amendments at all, and the wheel hoe proved its worth in reducing the effort and time required to prepare beds and weed paths and beds with widely-spaced crops.

I’ll discuss each crop briefly below. Following that is the table of results for 2017, from which the crop vignettes are derived. The left side of the table shows the crop, variety, date planted, and yield in pounds per 100 square feet for the best previous year. The right side of the table includes the same data for 2017 plus the area I planted and the weight I harvested out of that area. 

Potato onions, garlic, and leeks: the aforementioned life conspired to prevent me from removing the mulch on these crops till early April, about a month later than is ideal. While the elephant garlic leaves grew through the top of the mulch, most of the ‘Inchelium Red’ garlic and potato onion leaves were unable to grow through the mulch before they exhausted their food stores. As a result, the elephant garlic yielded well but the other garlic and the potato onions yielded poorly. I ended up with a lower weight of potato onions than I planted the previous autumn, not exactly sustainable. Fearing that I would lose the ‘Inchelium Red’ crop altogether, I purchased a new garlic variety, ‘Lorz Italian,’ to plant in fall 2017. As it turned out, I had enough ‘Inchelium Red’ to plant some of it as well as the ‘Lorz Italian’ and elephant garlic for 2018. As for the leeks, the blackeyed peas planted in the bed to their south flopped onto them in late summer, killing some of the leeks and checking the growth of the rest. At least we got enough for two batches of leek-potato soup.

Bok choy: I didn’t find seedlings for this crop at the nurseries I visited in the spring and the seeds I direct-sowed failed to germinate, so I grew it only in the autumn. Its low yield relative to the best year can be attributed to excessive heat and dryness and no supplemental watering, and possibly also to some shading from the corn crop in the next bed to the south. In addition, one of the four plants I grew died before harvest.

Spring-planted cabbage and broccoli: the broccoli planted at one plant per square foot yielded over twice that planted at one plant per four square feet and beat the previous best yield to boot. As for cabbage, the unlabeled but probably hybrid variety I planted in 2017 failed to out-perform the heirloom ‘Golden Acre.’

Fall-planted cabbage family leaves and roots: most of these were adversely affected by the hot, dry weather, my not watering them, and perhaps excessive shading from the corn plants in the next bed to the south of them. In addition, I neglected to thin the direct-seeded root crops, which reduced their yields compared to the best of previous years. In spite of the difficult conditions, the kale and arugula yielded as well as the best previous fall-grown crops, while the mustard greens yielded only about half of the best previous (a different variety, so that may have had an effect).

Lettuce: I didn’t find any seedlings of any of the varieties I like to grow for the spring crop, instead choosing to buy an unlabeled frilly red lettuce. It didn’t yield that well and we preferred the tastes of all the varieties I grow compared to the red frilly variety. Surprisingly, since the heat and dryness of autumn killed some of the seedlings after I planted them, enough survived to match the best yields I’ve obtained previously.

Carrots and beets: while the beets yielded a little better than the best previous yield, the ‘Danvers 126’ carrots suffered from poor seed germination due to too-old seed. The ‘Cosmic Purple’ was a free package from one of the seed companies I ordered from, and its seeds germinated much better. It wasn’t a bad carrot, either.

Potatoes: both of the two varieties I grew yielded well. I preferred the taste of ‘Yukon Gold.’

Cucumbers: I had difficulty getting them to germinate in the excessively wet soil of early May. When I finally got them to grow, they grew well enough until the heat wave of July broke their spirits. But at least we got enough to enjoy fresh cucumbers and to make some pickles.

Winter squash: not only does ‘Burpee’s Butterbush’ taste as good as ‘Waltham Butternut,’ but it yielded 2 1/2 times better and is a smaller, easier to manage vine. And for the first time, I got several ‘Kakai’ pumpkins with mature hull-less seeds, the feature I grow them for. All told I grew about ¾ pound of seeds, which I roasted and eat as snacks.

Zucchini: we got a decent yield of these, though like the cucumbers they didn’t care for the excessive heat and humidity they experienced in July, the vines dying by the end of the month.

Sweet potatoes: ‘Hernandez’ yields well and the voles left us most of the crop, but its vines crawled through the two corn beds to its north, and it grew small tubers into both of those two beds as well as the one I planted it into. We aren’t fond enough of sweet potatoes to eat that many, and they require more effort to harvest than any other crop, including potatoes. I won’t grow them again, preferring to use that space for something we like better.

Sweet peppers: despite the heat and humidity, ‘Better Belle’ yielded respectably and tasted good as well. It appears to be a hybrid seed according to results from the search I did on it, so I couldn’t save seeds from it if I could find them for sale. Nor did it out-perform the best yield I’ve obtained from the ‘Italian Frying’ seeds I’ve saved for years. ‘Gypsy,’ a pepper that I think was bred for cooler summers, performed poorly in my garden. I didn’t grow any hot pepper varieties in 2017.

Tomatoes: all four of the varieties I grew yielded well. Oddly, the label on the ‘Arkansas Traveler’ tomatoes I bought claimed them to be hybrids, while the seed companies I buy the seeds from label them as open-pollinated, and I have saved and re-grown those seeds myself. The tomatoes from the seedlings I bought didn’t look quite the same as those I have grown in the past, nor did they seem to taste quite as good, so it might be that there are two different tomatoes out there with this name. If so, I prefer the heirloom version I’ve grown in the past. ‘Cherokee Purple’ was every bit as tasty as Carol Deppe says it is, and ‘Old German’ tasted good enough to grow again, plus its yellow fruits with red stripes looked appealing next to the pink and purple fruits of the others. ‘San Marzano’ is a widely available paste variety that yielded almost too well.

Pole beans and vining cowpeas (aka yard-long beans): the bean towers proved their worth, as they made it easy for me to find and pick the beans off the plants as they grew up the strings. I had to drive a stake next to one tower and tie the tower to the stake to keep the tower from leaning after strong winds pushed it partway over. I also planted the beans earlier than in the past and was rewarded with higher yields despite not amending the soil they grew in at all. I’ll keep growing them this way as long as the yield holds out.

Cowpea/blackeyed pea: the variety I grow is supposed to have short vines, but they seem rather long to me, and the seed company I bought them from says the trade allowed the vine length to increase. As noted in the entry on leeks, the vines crawled into their bed, and also crawled up the raspberry canes on the other side. For all that, I doubled my previous best yield, and this with very little added nitrogen. Better growing conditions? Earlier planting? I don’t know enough to say, but I’m in favor of it.

Dent corn: this yielded almost twice as much as in 2016, perhaps in part due to being planted earlier. This variety makes a good-flavored corn mush, so we can eat it for breakfast instead of oatmeal. Good thing; it’ll take us awhile to get through last year’s and this year’s crops.

In the next post I’ll discuss my plans for 2018’s garden and what has happened so far.


  1. Well, legumes should be growing without nitrogen inputs - though I suppose that really depends on the overall health of your soil (nitrogen-fixing root bacteria can't settle in if they're not in the soil to begin with because it's basically dead), and also on the availability of a bunch of other stuff (potash and potassium for flowering and new cell growth; a bunch of micro-nutrient metals for essential enzymes). With my own natural soil, which is practically pure sand, no nutrient-rich clay at all, I wouldn't try to grow even legumes without any extra nitrogen source. In your place, I'd try to grow the legumes in that same bed for a few years, just to see if this year's success wasn't just a result of fertilizer residues from earlier years still in the soil. (I've read that legumes, unlike almost every other vegetable family, can be kept growing in the same place, because they don't really get root diseases.)

    Personally, I don't grow much peas or pole beans. (Several reasons: We eat much more dry and canned beans / peas than we could possibly grow in a garden space; trials have shown me that our frost-free time is simply too short for any but the most earliest flowers to produce fully ripe and dry beans - which is probably the reason why the main local seed distributers only sell pole bean seeds of varieties bred for use as green beans or fast-growing ornamental wall-coverings; and I want to encourage arable grain farmers to use crop rotation with legumes with my purchase of various dried legumes.)

    The only peas I grow are some very early snow peas on the side of large, freshly fertilized tubs that are mainly meant to receive some cabbage-type plants a month or two later. Last year, I grew some of those snow peas on very little fertilizer (just some compost, if I recall correctly) in the large sack I was using to test out potato growing. These pea plants greew noticably slower than the ones in the fertilized pots (same variety and time of sowing), stayed much shorter overall, and produced little in terms of yield. But I suspect that had more to do with the spot getting very little sunlight due to being next to an east-facing wall and down an initally only half-filled sack. And then the potatoes quickly overcrowded them. (I'd hoped the peas would grow up much faster than the potatoes. Alas, no.) So I can't say how those peas would do without quickly-available fertilizers.

    1. I understand that beans do provide their own nitrogen so long as they have the relationship with the bacteria that allow them to do that. The garden books I have differ in their opinions as to whether one needs to add the inoculant to soil on a periodic basis, say every year, to ensure that the bacteria are present. I hadn't grown beans for several years in the area where I grew the blackeyed peas, so I wasn't sure if the bacteria would be present or not. Plus there are different bacteria for different types of legumes, so even if they were present they might not have been right for the blackeyed peas.

      I did add 1/4 of the usual amount of cottonseed meal (the nitrogen source) to the blackeyed pea bed plus all of the minerals recommended for last year (the meal was to disperse the minerals in so I could apply them more or less uniformly across the bed area), so they were growing in balanced soil. Past years' results for other vegetables suggest that for most of them I would have seen a drop in yield with that small amount of nitrogen.

      I didn't add anything at all to the pole bean areas in 2017, though the soil there had been balanced in previous years. Solomon suggests legumes aren't heavy feeders, and my experience is in line with that.

      Granted, growing dry legumes in a backyard garden space won't provide all of what a family will eat in a year. But the blackeyed peas I grow are fresher than what I can buy in the local grocery store, and there are no farmers markets or food co-ops close enough to walk to. Having a few pounds of blackeyed peas on hand for the occasional ham and bean feast or for New Years Eve/Day dining (a southern US tradition) makes them worth growing for us. And they are pretty easy to grow here, with our hot summers.

  2. But while my experiments with pole beans are limited to a hand full of plants strung up between the well-fertilized squash plants, I do regularly grow a few dozen bush beans, because my vegetable bed space is very limited due to a mostly rather shady garden and my need to use raised beds filled with compost instead of the native soil, and bush beans are one of the very few vegetables that can be grown in bucket-sized pots (4 plants each) standing in the semi-shade. (When I tried to grow some in a sunny bed, they actually got severe sunburn and stayed very stunted.) These pots usually get the least nutrient-rich soil that I have in my rotation (e.g. from whatever planter last year's broccoli grew in), no top-up from my limited supply of compost, and no artificial fertilizer. They do get a bit of wood ash (P+K). Last year, for the first time, I tried to add some pelleted cow dung (which is relatively low in nutrients, including nitrogen, compared to stuff like guano or cow horn chips; it's more meant to 'naturalize' the soil environment for microorganisms than add much nitrogen directly). This didn't affect yield very much (though the weather also wasn't great for me that year), but it did seem to help overall plant health. Without any extra nitrogen fertilizer at the start, the bush bean plants in earlier years regularly started showing nutrient deficiencies (yellowing leaves) after the first round of flowering and harvest (requiring some emergency liquid fertilization), and seemed overall more prone to develop fungal diseases. Last year, they were more or less okay until the first cold nights killed them in late October. (Yes, I know bush beans are supposed to be removed after harvesting them once. But honestly, by that point of the year I'm too busy to bother raising a second wave of plants, and the ones sown in June do keep developing more flowers after the first harvest. Not as much as in the first round, but enough to bother keeping to water them. And sometimes, the harvest on the second round is actually better, because bush beans seem to like the wet and cool weather in September/October better than a hot July/August. Or maybe it's just because the plants are bigger by that point.)

    By the way, thanks for the tip with the butternut squash varieties. I'm still looking for a non-hybrid butternut squash to grow. In my country, squash is still a relatively newfangled thing, so there are only very few varieties of seed sold outside small specialty online shops. I've never even seen a non-hybrid variety of butternut squash seed in normal mainstream shops. I had considered special-ordering Waltham Butternut seed, but if you say Burpee’s Butterbush has shorter vines, I'll look for that instead. About how long would you say are the vines of that variety?
    (I don't suppose you know of a long-storing winter squash variety that is completely vine-less like zucchini, do you? The only squash variety I've grown with relatively reliable success so far is Red Kuri - everything else I've tried either produced just one or two fruits when many more were advertised, or in the case of seeds collected from squash bought at the shop, failed to flower entirely in our short summers. But unfortunately, Red Kuri needs a lot of space. I actually have to train it up some dead branches and onto the roof of a shed, otherwise the 15-foot vines would be too much in the way.)

    1. Interesting that your bush beans do better in semi-shade. Since they are fruiting plants I would have thought they would prefer more sun. But it could be that the variety you grow is bred for cooler, cloudier conditions. Semi-shade might be similar to cloudy weather as far as the plants are concerned.

      I'm encouraged by your experience that beans grow well with limited added minerals. One of the things I plan to post about later on is my interest in the possibility of transitioning to on-site sources of minerals for the vegetable and small fruit patch. Knowing what vegetables grow well with no or at least minor amounts of added minerals will be helpful in achieving that goal.

      The only winter squash I grow is the butternut, which has a decent storage life (we just ate the last one earlier this month, but it had lost some flavor) but probably not as long as the best. (Its vines are no more than a meter long, to answer your question, which is about as close to bush as a butternut squash gets.) I don't know of any vineless long-storing winter squash. You might want to look at the Territorial Seed Company catalog (in Oregon) or other seed catalogs from the US Pacific Northwest or the New England states (Fedco, High Mowing) for short-season squash varieties, to see if any of them are suitable for you. Those areas have summers closer to what you experience than what I live with.

  3. * Sorry, that was supposed to be "potassium and phosphor" in the first sentence. English isn't my native language.

    1. I'm a chemist so I know what you meant by P+K, but other people wouldn't, so your correction is appreciated!

  4. Hi Claire,

    I'm impressed at the level of data that you captured from your garden last year.

    The wheel hoe is an impressive tool, and I was rather curious as to what your experience with that tool was when it encountered the dense root systems in grasses?

    I was also very curious as to what sort of additions you made to the soil? You mentioned that you cut back on the use of cottonseed meal (which is something that I have not encountered). Did you manage to compost much of the garden plant materials from your harvest?

    The gate is an interesting story, and I find that most of the work here goes into constructing the infrastructure - the plants generally look after themselves as long as they are watered and the soil is properly fed. Did you empty the water tank during the dry autumn? Incidentally it was a wet summer here too, and then a massively dry autumn which makes for very odd growing conditions. Anyway, getting the infrastructure spot on is something that rarely happens here first time around.

    The chipping of that material was a good idea especially if it housed the rabbits. I assume that the rabbit predation is now far less than in the previous years?

    I haven't quite got my head around the story of onions yet and by all accounts they take up to 11 months to grow, so I was wondering whether you mulched over the onions to protect the bulbs from your freezing winters? Do the leaves die back over winter, whilst the bulb happily survives in the ground?

    Just for your interest, we planted out the broccoli only recently as it grows during the winter months here and produces the (is it florets?) during the spring.

    I was surprised at your experiences with the cucumbers and zucchini as they do really well here during the heat of high summer and then rapidly die back in the fall usually due to powdery mildew. I wonder why that is?

    Top work with roasting the pumpkin seeds. I eat them as an addition to the home made toasted muesli, although I've never roasted my own pumpkin seeds. I'm giving up on pumpkins next season and am intending to plant squashes instead - like the butternut – just because the fruit is smaller and as such has a greater chance of ripening. The pumpkin was a huge sprawling vine that produced only a single pumpkin... Strangely enough melons did much better, and I read another local account suggesting that they too did really well with melons this year.

    I'm unsure that I have seen dent corn before and was curious as to your opinion as to how it tastes relative to open pollinated (as distinct from hybrid varieties) of sweet corn? I grew a yellow / white kernelled variety this year and plan to expand production massively next summer.

    Thanks for sharing this very impressive level of detail from your exceptionally productive garden.

    Did you end up being able to save many seeds given everything else that was going on during the growing season?



    1. I don't use the wheel hoe in areas where there are dense grasses; it isn't a plow and will not work as one. For garden beds, I first dig the soil with a shovel and turn any weeds down so the weeds are buried. Then I can use the wheel hoe to incorporate compost and amendments, or to create furrows for planting potatoes, or for weeding, depending on which implement I attach to it.

      I'll post more later on about what I have been adding to the soil and the effect it's had over the past five years. The short form is I use cottonseed meal as a nitrogen source, rock phosphate for phosphorus and secondarily calcium, potassium sulfate for potassium, gypsum for sulfur and secondarily for calcium, and borax for boron. Recently I've been adding manganese sulfate for manganese. The post will go into more detail on why I use these and ways I am considering how I might transition to much more reliance on mineral and nitrogen sources available on-site.

      I agree on the continuing need to improve infrastructure! I did come close to emptying the 500 gallon tank, and that even though I didn't use it much. Municipal water is so plentiful and cheap here, just for the effort of hooking up a few hoses, that I generally default to it when I have an entire bed or several of them to water, as opposed to watering a few plants at a time. Drawing our water supply from the two biggest rivers in the US has a lot to do with that.

      I must mulch the garlic and potato onions over the winter; if I don't, the very changeable weather freezes and then thaws the soil, which heaves the poor bulbs out of the soil, thus killing them. But your soil doesn't freeze, so you should be able to grow potato onions without mulching them. If the leaves of the potato onions start growing before winter they will die when I mulch them; they are already growing a little in March when I uncover them.

      Note that potato onions aren't the same as bulbing onions; bulbing onions can't be grown over the winter here that I know of (you might be able to however), but potato onions can grow over the winter here, as long as they are well mulched and the mulch is removed when the soil thaws out for good (usually early March). I plant the potato onions about the beginning of November and harvest them about the beginning of June, which means about a seven month growing season. Bulb onions are planted in spring (late March to April) here and harvested in about August, around the time that temperatures begin to drop a bit from their summer peak.

      to be continued ...

    2. Broccoli wants to flower as temperatures and daylight increase, so you do well by growing it in winter and harvesting in spring. I'd do that too but it won't survive my winters. If I could encapsulate winter and send it to you just so you could experience how cold it gets here, I'd do it. Then you'd not mind all your venomous snakes and spiders so much! ;)

      Yes, that's how pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo usually, although some are C. maxima) grow. Some squashes are C. pepo, some C. maxima, and some are C. moschata (butternuts are C. moschata). Referring to them by species helps to distinguish which is which. Look for short-season bush varieties; they might work better for you.

      Dent (and flint, and flour, and pop) corns are not as sweet as the sweet corns, so they have different uses. In the US sweet corns are eaten immature, on the ear or removed from the ear and canned or frozen. The others are allowed to dry and the kernels shelled off the cob. Popcorn is used as is, the others have to be ground to varying degrees of fineness, or nixtamalized and then ground. Read Carol Deppe's book The Resilient Gardener to learn more about corn - and there is a lot to learn!

      BTW - if you are saving seed of corn, you'll need to know about inbreeding depression. If you aren't careful to avoid it, your plants will lose their productivity in just a few years. Read Deppe's book for more info on how many plants you have to grow to avoid it; you'll be shocked.

      I saved seeds only for the blackeyed peas, corn, and squash last year. Since I bought plants for the tomatoes I didn't save seeds, not knowing where they got their seeds from. The better pepper was a hybrid so I can't save its seeds. This year I'll be saving tomato and pepper seeds if the plants perform well.