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!


  1. Hi Claire,

    Given the variability of your weather, especially the late frosts (which are also a serious issue for me) the haul compares well to previous years. You've raised an interesting observation too about the lack of spring and autumn. I can't really say with any clarity what is going on with that, but my spring weather is quite long (and beginning earlier), but the expected autumn weather is rapidly disappearing and appears to be getting shorter.

    Out of curiosity was your arugula, the wide leafed variety or the narrow leafed variety? It is an extraordinary plant isn't it? And the narrow leafed variety is a proven performer here for salad greens when the hot summer air and the extreme UV causes other greens to bolt to seed.

    How did your tank go during the summer? They're on my mind because I installed another 1,050 gallon / 4,000 litre tank today. I assume you have town water? Do you have any pattern for watering? I have only enough water for about 10 minutes of watering a day with annual vegetables and fruits.

    I find that most of the fruit trees here are biennial, and in the off year, they will put on a lot of wood and I have a suspicion that if the winter is warm enough the trees also put on extra wood as they continue to grow whilst deciduous (but towards the spring time, not the real depths of winter).

    How old is your peach tree, and are you considering replacing it with another of the same variety?

    Also, your strawberry crop is very impressive and I was wondering how you (or if you) remove some of the older plants? I do not have my head around that crop yet. Raspberries on the other hand are self supporting here and they grow to about four feet tall in a long thicket (although I'm about to cut them all back to about one or two feet off the ground, remove the dead canes and give them a serious feed.

    The pop corn harvest looked as though it did well. I had issues with the corn due to variable germination dates and I reckon that reduced yields a bit, but in response I've only saved seed from the better cobs and will obtain more seed before next season.

    Did you get around to feeding the soil with any mineral additives during the year? And I assume you produce your own compost from kitchen wastes?

    Don't laugh, but I spotted a rabbit in the tomato enclosure a few weeks back. That was a first. It doesn't appear to have affected the yield. Oh, and before I forget, the larger bell peppers and also larger eggplants don't grow well here at all and that is despite record breaking heat and drought this summer, it still just wasn't hot enough for those plants...

    Thanks very much for taking the time to share your experience.



    1. Hi Chris! I enjoy comparing gardens with you on our respective blogs.

      The fine folks who write for Weather Underground have suggested that a phenomenon they call blocking is associated with what I perceive as a reduction in either or both of spring/autumn. In the absence of blocking, high and low pressure systems alternate passage through any particular area every few days, bringing in air from cooler or warmer areas. But sometimes a high or a low establishes itself for an extended period of time someplace where it keeps feeding a location with either colder or warmer weather. If that happens in spring or autumn, the slow warmup or cooldown we usually experience is masked by the extended cold or warm air continually being brought in. That's what seems to have happened here. It's been suggested that blocking is one of the ways that climate weirding asserts itself.

      The garden catalogs I've seen in the US distinguish between salad-type arugula and wild arugula, which they say is a different species. The leaves of the latter look thinner than those of the former. If this is what you mean by wide and narrow leaved varieties, then I'm growing a wide-leaved variety. I don't even try to grow arugula in summer; it bolts much too fast and is way too strong flavored in our long, hot, humid summers.

      Glad you were able to put in another water tank, and didn't damage yourself or the tank doing it! Mine is already collecting water for spring planting. I find it most useful for getting seeds and seedlings established, less so for watering large plants in drought conditions - but I have mains water for that, and considering that it comes from the two largest rivers in the US, more than enough of it.

      The peach tree is 15 or 16 years old. In the next 5 to 10 years it will likely need to be replaced, according to what I've read. I'm not sure what to do about that, because Mike and I will probably face moving to an apartment sometime in the next 10 to 15 years, given our ages. I should probably plant another peach tree this year or next, if I can make a place for it, in order to get it cropping before the current one declines. I'll have to think about this more.

      The best way I've found to deal with overcrowding in strawberries is to establish a new bed with widely-spaced plants every 3 to 4 years, then let them fill in as they will. In your situation, if you have or can borrow a tiller, you might try tilling up strips in your bed along both the long and short directions, as if you are making a checkerboard of tilled soil and untilled plants, and then let the untilled plants fill into the tilled areas. If you do this, you'll need to experiment to find out how often. and what spacing, is best. Try every three years at first. I typically plant strawberries at 1 plant per square foot in a new bed. Strawberries seem to profit from this kind of severe thinning - which is what my method amounts to, as I turn the old ones into the soil and then use the bed they were in for something else.

      Yes, I did add minerals. The next post will begin with a chart of how much of which minerals I've added each year for the past six years, as the prologue for why I designed and performed the experiment. Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to look more closely at the yields of each of the three beds of popcorn. I'll be discussing that in the next post. And yes again, I produce my own compost from kitchen, garden, and yard wastes.

      Your nights are very cool most of your summer; your average summer night temperature would be close to a record low summer night temperature here. That's why the large fruited peppers and eggplants don't do well for you; they need tropical conditions.

      Happy autumn to you! Hope you get more rain soon!

  2. Hi, Claire!

    Thanks for posting this. It is great to compare our two areas and gardens; such fun!

    Our 2018 spring was short, too, but fall was quite late. The early summer was fairly normal, but it started raining in mid July and has only stopped recently. There weren't many dry days in between. Our log house mildewed inside and out; it had never done that at all before though we've lived in it for 26 years. The temperature extremes throughout that time were incredible, much more so than has been usual.

    The spring crops did well; I really can't complain there. We had a lot of trouble with tomato disease once the rain started, but we had planted so many that we still had a good harvest, though it ended way earlier than usual because the disease factor.

    Peppers did well; they always do here. Beans did well until they got too mildewed. Only the winter squashes did well. they summer ones gave in to disease and Arnie the Ground Hog, who was still here (hope you have been enjoying your new home in the Blue Ridge Mts., Arnie!

    Fruit is always iffy here. Late frosts killed a lot of fruit, and the peaches we had - like at your house - squirrels took care of. Arnie got the apples off of our one productive apple tree as it is sort of espaliered and is near the ground.

    Our wineberries always way out-produce our raspberries (they are a raspberry). The ones in our garden were dug up wild on the edge of the woods before deer discovered they were edible.

    So far we have planted this spring: Radishes, peas, and spinach outside - tomatoes, peppers, chard, tobacco, and snapdragons inside.


    1. Hi Pam!

      Mildew - so sorry about that, not good at all. We didn't get much rain until later in the fall, but it's been raining since then. Because of the wet soil and relatively warm early winter, the soil didn't freeze till around the end of January, when it got really cold for awhile. Then it thawed early, during a warm spell in February, froze briefly and shallowly once, then thawed for good. Nonetheless, it's been overall cooler than normal during heating season, and my daffodils are just starting to bloom.

      I too wish Arnie the ground hot well in his new digs. ;-) Hope his relatives don't stop by looking for a new home at your place (or mine either)!

      I planted peas in the garden and tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lettuces, several cole crops, marigolds, and nasturtiums inside. What variety of tobacco do you grow?

      I'm glad you are feeling better! Happy spring!

  3. Claire:

    Thank you for the well wishes.

    We have grown tobacco for a long time and the varieties have all cross-pollinated, so I don't know what we have in the seeds saved. This year I have started seeds from 3 new bought varieties, which I have now misplaced, so I will have to get back to you.


  4. Claire:

    Just found the tobacco seeds. The 3 new varieties I am trying are:

    Greenwood Dark

    Yellow Twist Bud

    Yellow Orinoco

    All are from
    The Seedman Vancleave, MS


    1. Thanks! I'll keep this in mind for the 2020 garden.


  5. Claire I am impressed with your untiring data collection efforts. I am a data analyst but I have never analyzed any gardening data. I wonder if you might have the data in Excel or something so that they can be visualized on Tableau. I think Tableau is a great tool to answer questions such as which of the bean varieties had the best yield, in which year and under what kind of conditions etc.

  6. I use an Excel spreadsheet to hold the data. Not being much of a computer geek, I've not heard of Tableau.