Sunday, June 28, 2020

A Garden Tour

I haven’t forgotten about the more detailed discussion on how much food one can reasonably expect to produce from a backyard garden, but it has occurred to me that a good start to that conversation might be to take you on a virtual tour of my backyard garden. Sit back and relax as we travel in time to June 20th and in space to near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, where you can meet my garden.

Let’s begin here at the southeastern corner, a good place to get an overview of the garden as a whole.

The three corn beds are the closest to this corner. You may notice that there are paths between every two rows. The paths are about 1 foot wide. The beds are about 4 feet wide, with two evenly spaced rows of corn in each bed. Each bed is 25 feet long.

The windmill-looking object toward the back? That is supposed to make a vibration when the windmill turns, which is transmitted down the copper rod on which the windmill sits and into the ground. Supposedly the underground noise makes it an unpleasant place for moles to live. While I haven’t noticed any mole hills in the garden since I put it up, it hasn’t made life uncomfortable enough to free the garden of other burrowing mammals. Too bad; I would have had more potato onions if the windmill worked on all burrowing mammals.

There are three more beds of the same size behind the corn beds and another six beds to the left of the corn beds for a total of twelve beds, all sized and spaced the same way. Around the outside of all the beds, between the beds and the fence, is a 4 to 5 foot wide path for easy walking and mowing and for bringing cartloads of materials to and from the beds. There is a six foot wide path up the middle, between the two groups of six beds, also for walking and transporting materials. Thus the fenced-in area is about 65 feet by about 40 feet (about 2600 square feet) while the total growing area of the beds is 1200 square feet. If we didn’t have wild rabbits in the yard I would not need the fence, but since we do have rabbits and they will eat most of the plants that I grow, the fence keeps out enough of the rabbits enough of the time to allow us to eat most of the food grown within the fenced area. That also means that the fenced area of the yard cannot be used for any purpose other than gardening. The garden is far enough away from trees to receive nearly full sun, allowing for excellent growth of vegetables and small fruits.

The photo above shows the three corn beds looking towards the neighboring yard to the east, plus an empty bed just north of the corn beds. Each bed has about 75 corn plants in it, in groups of 2 to 3 plants about two feet apart within a row. There are also some pumpkin plants growing in the middle of each bed. These shade the soil to some extent and seem to keep corn-eating critters frustrated. If they make a few pumpkins that is a bonus, but they are present mostly to protect the corn. I have tried growing beans up the corn stalks, but the bean plants grow too tall for me to reach the beans.

A few days prior to taking the picture, the empty bed north of the corn beds contained potato onion and garlic plants along with plenty of weeds. The potato onions and some of the garlic plants are shown below.

They have been laid on screens on the front porch so they can dry for a few weeks. The weeds are composting in one of the compost bins, mixed with some of last autumn’s leaves.

Since the photos were taken I have planted seeds of cucumbers, zucchini, and edamame (a kind of soybean eaten like green peas) into the empty bed for a late summer and early autumn harvest, as well as sunflowers and zinnias for their beauty. This is the last planting of seeds that I will do before late July or early August, when I plant the salad crops for autumn harvests.

These are the two beds north of the empty bed, on the same side as the corn. The bed to the right includes peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants, with nasturtiums in between. (Ever eaten a nasturtium blossom? They add beauty and a mild radish-like flavor to salads.) Years of experience has taught me that overcrowding the peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants reduces the per-plant harvest. I used to plant basil between them, but basil gets too tall and wide, overpowering the shorter peppers and eggplants. Nasturtiums, which grow out but not tall, seem to work the best to cover most of the soil between the larger plants while not stealing sun or nutrients from them.

The bed to the left includes cucumbers, butternut squash, zucchini, and melons. The squash and zucchini plants in the middle look small and far apart, but they are beginning a rapid growth spurt and will have the bed almost covered in another month of so. Meanwhile, training the cucumbers and melons up the A frame trellises makes it easier to find the fruits before they go over-ripe and keeps them safe from small ground-dwelling mammals. Two plants will fully cover each trellis within another month or six weeks.

This photo shows the bed with herbs and flowers in it, in the group of six beds left (west) of the beds already shown. The herbs include culinary herbs like cilantro (which is now flowering, the white flowers in the middle of the photo), parsley, dill, spearmint, and basil. It also includes traditional medicinal herbs like calendula (yellow flowers next to the blue flowers at the right end of the bed), yarrow (white flowers at the left end of the bed) and purple coneflower, which is not yet in bloom. It also includes another spring flowering native plant, coreopsis (yellow flowers farthest to the left) and the blue-purple flowers of batchelors buttons toward the right end of the bed. Finally, a perennial salad plant, sorrel, can be seen between the blue flowers and the edge of the bed. This bed offers some ecological benefits to the garden as a whole as well as some herbs and food for us.

In the middle of this photo, to the north of the herb bed, is the strawberry bed. After they finished production I mowed the plants. Mowing the plants forces the plants to put their resources into re-growing their crowns rather than into sending out runners to make more plants. Any more plants would overcrowd the bed, reducing the yield of strawberries. Then I’d have to remove the old plants and re-plant the bed with new plants from runners. I’ve done this before, when I moved the strawberry bed to this location … it’s a lot of work, something I don’t care to do often. An article by Helen and Scott Nearing from an old issue of Organic Gardening magazine discusses their experience with mowing strawberries following the end of production. Their original plants produced for 10 years under this treatment!


To the left of the strawberries are the raspberries. A few years ago I decided to grow them up through tomato cages in an attempt to keep the canes from drooping over plants in the beds to either side of them. It makes the raspberries much easier to harvest, but the plants don’t seem to be growing as thickly this year. Perhaps the soil has been depleted where the roots are, since the plants aren’t allowed to spread out beyond the crown. Adding more minerals to their bed next year may help.

In this photo you can see the bed of potato plants on the other side of the raspberry bed. I pushed soil from the edges of the bed up against the tops of the plants a couple of times as they were growing, which gardeners call hilling up. Because potato plants don’t make any potatoes underneath the pieces of potato that they grew from (the seed tubers), but they will make potatoes from roots that grow from buried stems, hilling up is an easy way to increase the yield of a potato bed. These plants have about another month to grow before they die and the potatoes are ready to harvest.

This bed on the other side of the potato bed holds spring and early summer salad crops and also carrots, beets, and leeks. All of these plants are planted in rows parallel to the short dimension of the bed. In front are four cabbage plants, with a cabbage harvested from one of them; behind the cabbages are the beets, leeks, and carrots. Behind the carrots, but shorter than them so out of sight, are lettuces and endives.

The remaining bed, shown above, holds plants in the bean and pea family. At the near end of the bed is a bean tower with a pole variety of green beans growing up the strings. Another tower at the far end has a pole variety of lima beans. Between them, I have set up pea fences to keep a bush cowpea variety within bounds. Blackeyed peas, like the variety I am growing, are a type of cowpea, but there are many other shapes and colors of cowpeas available for gardeners with a long enough season. The cowpea, lima bean, and green bean are all in different genuses so they won’t cross-pollinate, which allows me to save seeds.


Now that you have a better idea of the size of my garden and how it is laid out, we can go on to a discussion of backyard gardens, including how much garden you can grow in the time and space you have available, how much food you might reasonably expect to grow from your garden, seasonal harvesting and eating, and so forth. I expect that discussion to begin next month. Till then, may your own garden be successful!