Thursday, March 7, 2019

What the 2018 garden told me

The vegetable garden shivers under snow.

Hello to all! It’s time to share with you what I learned from my garden in 2018 so that your gardens might benefit.

As I say at this time each year, whatever I attempt to learn from the garden takes place within a much broader conversation, that of the garden with the weather systems and other beings which affect it. With that in mind, let’s look at the weather during the 2018 growing system to learn how it affected the garden as a whole and the plants that grew in it. The following is based on the St. Louis NWS’ annual climate report for 2018, supplemented with my on-site observations. (To read the climate report, click on Local under the Climate heading at the bottom of the St. Louis NWS site. On this page, click on the radio button for Annual Climate Report under Product and Archived Data under Timeframe, and then choose January 1st, 2019 if it’s not already highlighted. Clicking the Go button will bring up the 2018 report.)

When I tell people about the weather in St. Louis in 2018, I say that it was the year with no spring and no autumn. I don’t mean that March through May and September through November didn’t exist; they happened here at the same time as they did everywhere else in the northern hemisphere. Nor do I expect long stretches of near-average temperatures in either season in this part of the US as these seasons usually feature wide and rapid swings in temperature. But there wasn’t much swinging of temperature in either season in 2018. Instead, the weather seemed to lock into either winter or summer for most of both. April was a continuation of March weather-wise while May took June’s place and June acted like a month-long extension of July. September through the first third of October acted like a continuation of August, with the rest of October taking the place of November and November behaving like December. I don’t know who stole spring and autumn, but my garden and I missed them.

The last frost in 2018 came late, on April 20. The garden received well over normal rainfall in May, somewhat less than normal in June. All else being equal, then, I would expect that crops favoring cool weather would yield less in 2018 than in years with more typical spring weather.

In autumn, the first low temperature under 40F / 4C didn’t occur till October 12, later than usual, and there were only three days with low temperatures under 50F / 10C before this. However, the first frost followed rapidly on October 16, with the first freeze occurring on October 21, and three days of measurable snowfall by November 15. Furthermore, we received little rain after a drench of 3.1 inches / 7.9 cm on September 9. All else being equal, this suggests the likelihood of lower than normal yields for the autumn crops which I plant in August.

With a growing season from April 20 through October 16, and with plenty of hot weather and good rains during May to establish the crops that like heat, it would be reasonable to expect good yields from those crops, assuming I planted and cared for them properly.

The yields I obtained in 2018 are shown on the next four figures.

The first thing I notice when I look at the data is that the only crops in which the yield approached or exceeded the best previous yield were arugula, cucumber, daikon radish, winter squash, and the paste tomato. Of these, two are autumn crops (the arugula and the daikon radish) and three are summer crops (the cucumber, winter squash, and paste tomato). The only spring-planted crop that approached the best previous yield was one lettuce variety, and in most cases the yields of spring crops were well below the best previous.

The low yields of the crops favoring cooler spring weather, whether direct-seeded or transplants, are easy to understand. To begin with, not only was March cold, but it was also cloudier than average. Because I start my seeds on our solar-heated sun-facing front porch, a cooler and cloudier than normal March, the month I start seeds for transplants, slows down their growth. Because it was so cold during April, I wasn’t able to plant these and the direct-seeded crops until late April to early May, two to three weeks later than I prefer to plant them. Then the heat of May and June adversely affected their growth, as well as that of the potatoes, the one spring crop that I planted on time. I wasn’t the only one having trouble with spring-planted crops; the Missouri Extension reported that farmers across the state suffered from poor yields in crops like broccoli. (None of my broccoli plants headed out; all I harvested was a few meager side shoots.) The only pleasant surprise was the good performance of the romaine lettuce ‘Kalura’, which has become one of the two consistently good performers among the lettuce varieties I’ve tried.

With the generally favorable summer weather, the lackluster performance of the peppers, blackeyed peas, and zucchini needs an explanation. The zucchini plants made plenty of zucchinis; however, they made too many of them while we were out of town for a week or so. When we returned, the patch had gone feral, producing at least nine 3 to 6 pound monster zukes that proved inedible; I only reported the weight of those zucchini we could eat. I planted the blackeyed peas too late; when frost came, the plants were loaded with immature pods. As for the peppers, their seeds require very warm conditions at sowing time in March in order to germinate and grow. Even with a heat mat under the flat, the porch proved too cold an environment for good pepper seedling production. I re-seeded both pepper varieties on March 27, and even then did not raise as many seedlings as I had space allotted for in the garden. Then most of the plants succumbed to disease in the unrelenting heat. The only problem with the ‘Arkansas Tomato’ tomatoes was that we were out of town during part of the first flush of ripe fruits (my neighbor, whom I’d given permission to harvest ripe tomatoes while we were away, told me she’d gotten quite a few of them). Some of the ‘Old German’ tomatoes suffered from sun bleaching but otherwise it’s proven to be a beautiful and good-flavored tomato, and ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato again impressed with its taste and yield. We liked the ‘Mitoyo’ eggplants better than any others I have grown so far, and they yielded well for being so widely spaced.

As for the fall garden, the excellent yield of arugula may have to do with my planting only one short row of it rather than two, so that we harvested and ate almost all of the arugula. I’m not sure why the daikon radishes grew so well; maybe I happened to thin them just right. Still, I consider the fall crops a success because all of them, even the lettuce, grew from direct-seeding, a much easier way to grow crops at this time of year compared to growing transplants. I froze the lettuce seeds for several days before planting, as suggested by some garden writers. Perhaps that’s what made the difference with them, as I had not been able to raise lettuce from direct-seeding in August before. I was also pleased with the Chinese cabbage variety, which grew fast enough to head up before it got too late in the season.

Regarding other new varieties I tried, the ‘Garnet Butter Gem’ lettuce looked pretty and tasted good, but it was small and an early bolter. The ‘Lorz Italian’ garlic out-yielded ‘Inchelium Red’, tastes as good, and has lasted as long in storage. Of the two bell-shaped sweet peppers I trialed, only ‘Ozark Giant’ fruited, and it made only two peppers (but they were large and tasty). Fortunately, the dependable ‘Italian Frying’ peppers again proved their worth, and I got enough peppers to save seeds for this year’s crop, though not without drama associated with needing to re-seed them in order to get the six seedlings that I planted into the garden (as opposed to the eight seedlings I had intended to plant). Beyond the problem with cold conditions during seed germination, the seed was too old to germinate well. I’ve learned that I must save seeds of peppers every year; they do not last long under my storage conditions (an unconditioned basement). It might be worthwhile to store just the pepper seeds in the refrigerator in order to keep them viable for longer.

The fourth figure gives the total weight for the vegetables and the popcorn that I harvested in 2018 as 391 pounds, almost equal to 2016 (392 pounds) but much less than in 2017 (536 pounds). Why so much more in 2017? It could have been because of better weather, but it could also have been because among the commercially grown seedlings I used that year were some hybrids that benefited from hybrid vigor, along with other possibilities I haven’t considered.

The fourth figure also gives the weight of various fruit crops that I grew in 2018. The beds for the raspberries and strawberries are within the same fenced area in which I grow the vegetables and corn; the trees are scattered across the rest of the property. I tried using tomato cages to hold up the raspberry canes last year, to keep them from shading the crops in the beds on either side. While some of the cages tipped from the weight of the canes and will need to be staked or replaced, the cages did corral the canes that I allowed to grow within them, reducing the shading that raspberry canes have caused in the past and making it easier to harvest the berries. I had to spend time hoeing or pruning out canes that grew outside the cages and push canes back inside the supports as they grew, but I felt the effort was worthwhile.

In general, 2018 was a good year for fruit crops, despite the frosts and freezes in April. The apple, pawpaw, persimmon, and strawberry yields were much higher in 2018 than in 2017, plus I harvested some ripe apricots and peaches, and would have gotten more of each if we hadn’t traveled when most of them ripened. The chestnut yield was much less in 2018 versus 2017, possibly due to a tendency to biennial bearing. As the apple, pawpaw, and persimmon trees mature, I can probably expect more fruits each year. The peach tree may be nearing the end of its lifespan, but it continues to bear, though squirrels usually get the crop before it ripens.

I had intended to write a post following the May 21 post last year about the experiment I ran on the popcorn beds. The writing fell by the wayside, but I did perform the experiment. Because this post is long enough already, I’ll discuss it in a separate post. Till then, may your gardens grow well in the coming year!