I wanted to complete this series of videos by showing progress in the back garden. Almost getting into summer at this point, but we’re still getting things planted here and there. Still have a handful of seedlings in the greenhouse finishing up that aren’t quite ready to plant out.
It’s been really hot here, the better part of last week saw highs in the upper 80s and 90s. It may have even cleared 100 one day. Kristin is saying we moved to a place that is too hot. All joking aside, the typical Vermont year sees about 4 days over 90 and we’ve already had 6 or 7. To compound things, we’ve gotten almost no rain as this high pressure system is very strong and persistent. Typically you would get thunderstorms when it’s this hot, but other than a bit of messing around on Saturday afternoon, even that hasn’t happened. This week doesn’t look much better until next weekend, at least as far as rain. I’ve been having to water something every day. At least the tomatoes and peppers like it.
Well, just a note to say I haven’t disappeared. I had a very busy 2019 with work that involved more travel than usual. As a result, I barely had time to keep up with the garden, much less blog. Still had a pretty good year as we continue to move toward a more permaculture and less structured approach.
What that meant for this past year was more hugelcultur, which we continue to see good success with. We’ll probably add some more mounds this year. Also additional raised beds. At this point, we are doing very little traditional row gardening at all.
The other thing I started working on last year was basically putting hardscape around the beds and edges of the garden. Not fully done yet, but got a good start going. I didn’t want to do this for a long time as it involves basically giving up on any exposed soil that we don’t have things planted in. However, the reality is we spend way too much time weeding garden paths, the edges of the garden where the lawn encroaches and other areas mainly used for plant access and not for actually growing anything. That’s not the part of gardening I enjoy. I would rather spend time weeding just around actual plants, harvesting, amending the soil and so on. Practically, what I mean by hardscape is landscape fabric/weed barrier covered with stone. This has the added advantage of looking nice, keeping surrounding lawn from moving in and also may act as a heat sink to keep the overall garden micro-climate a bit warmer. Not sure on that last one, but seems reasonable.
I also finally started working on a dry stone wall last year and will continue this spring. I took a class a few years ago, so I know the basics. Don’t have much practical experience though, so I have a more experienced stone mason helping out. It’s been slow, but rewarding. The first wall is running along the back of our rear garden. Pictures to come as we start working on it again. We should have the first run of about 25 feet done this spring. It’s fairly short, about 30-36 inches tall. Looking very cool already.
Last weekend I did my first round of seed starting, so the 2020 growing year has begun. Hope to provide more updates this year than last.
For those of you waiting on bated breath to hear how we are progressing on our garden changes, I have an update for you. We are nearly done building the new raised beds and the hugelcultur mounds are now covered with dirt and ready to use.
Here is the latest mound partially covered in dirt. We really like how it turned out. It’s a U shape, so definitely looks very organic and naturalistic. Not a typical vegetable garden look.
We have already started planting a few things in them. As it is the first year, we aren’t sure what kinds of plants are actually going to do well so we are experimenting as always. We do have the mound we started last fall that is already breaking down nicely. We are going to try some melons and squash in that one. It’s back away from the garden in a corner, so if any of those plants decide to travel around we can just see what happens.
Here you can see more raised beds filling in the rest of the open spaces in the garden.
And one more view to give you more of a full picture.
There are still a few spots that are a bit wide for a walking space and we are putting a few more typical rows. These are trenches filled with rotted cow manure and covered with good garden soil. We are also doing a similar wide row at the end of one of the mounds except that one has a layer of wood chips underneath. So we’ll try and see what happens.
On a side note, we planted a bunch more bulbs last fall in front of our house and it has been absolutely beautiful the last few weeks. Here are some samples:
Well, we either picked a great year or a terrible year to convert to no-till.
Maybe great since the first few years it takes time to build true soil fertility and keep weed pressure down without relying on tilling. So often the first couple years are frustrating.
Maybe terrible since we are also fighting one of the most wet summer starts I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t know the official totals, but I saw that someone in Vermont there was at least 7 inches of rain in June. I won’t post a picture because it is just depressing.
Last summer was so hot and dry I was irrigating a couple times a week. We did get an insanely great tomato crop though. Anyway, this is what climate change looks like folks. Lots of extremes and finding news ways to mitigate those effects.
Kristin was saying she at least expected some things to be doing well, but the fact is there are very few plants that actually like it wet underfoot. There are a lot of plants that thrive in damp, overcast, not too hot conditions. But not standing water around the roots. I can’t think of a single garden plant that like that type of environment, except one obvious one (rice). Some other plants do well in bog conditions (cranberries, willows, elderberries within reason, etc.). But nothing you want to grow in your garden.
I hate to admit this, but it took me a couple of weeks to realize that even if I’m not tilling, I still really need to hill up the rows and make sure the space between rows is lower. Obvious, right. Rookie error on my part. We’ve lost so many seeds to standing water and rot so far. I started hilling up the rows, re-planting and covering with 100% sand and those seedlings are actually doing okay, even after the deluges of last week.
I was commenting to Kristin that with gardening, you really have to reach a point where all these different techniques and practices just become intuitive and second nature. We aren’t quite there yet, but one of these years we’ll get all the pieces put together. And that will probably be the year we get a plague of locusts. Happy gardening.
Lots of life stuff to deal with so far this year, but I wanted to just get a few notes in about what we’re working on this spring. So far it’s been very wet, so I think it’s going to take a bit longer to get certain things in the ground than last year. That being said, the soil structure in the garden continues to improve, so that helps.
Last week we planted probably the last larger order of fruit trees in the orchard. At this point there are probably enough trees out there. Still a chance we’ll include some additional fruit trees in a food forest/ wind break or something elsewhere on the property, but we’ll see. This year we planted the following:
Spitzenburg Esopus – second one of these as well, the first one we planted is probably one of our best trees so far. This is one of the varieties Thomas Jefferson was infatuated with.
Mount Royal Plum – first plum tree, hardy to zone 3, curious how this one does
Northstar Cherry – not having great luck with getting cherries started, so planting another. Much more susceptible to transplant shock than apples.
I did a count and I think this brings us to around 30 trees, give or take. If I can get even half of these to thrive, we’ll have more fruit than we know what to do with. We’ll let you know when that happens in case you are close enough to enjoy some yourself.
Otherwise, seed starting continues to go well. Tomatoes are going gangbusters and I’m running out of room to the point that I’m already putting some extras in the greenhouse. Calculated risk as it may still get too cold, but if not they will be hardier and bigger when we transplant. Probably going to share some seedlings as well. We started some seeds Kristin saved and got really good germination on all of them, so we’re curious to see how true to type those are. This was a bit of an experiment to see how well we could do at growing our own saved tomato seed, so this year we may be a bit more intentional to avoid cross-pollination.
We aren’t doing a ton of new things this year, but Kristin is getting more and more interested in medicinal herbs and plants so we are trying to grow a few more of those type of plants. We are also trying to get comfrey going in the orchard (non-invasive type that makes sterile seeds). Comfrey is great for all kinds of things and will outcompete some of the undesirable grasses and weeds in the orchard to eventually become a living mulch. When it gets tall, it falls over so it almost does the mulching for you. Tons of nutrients and minerals and good for the soil as well. I’m also trying to see if I can start some perennial shrubs from seed (sea buckthorn, service berry, Siberian pea shrub). This requires cold stratification (basically starting for a few months in soil in a fridge) and getting to transplant stage takes two growing seasons, so it’s a multi-year experiment.
The other big spring project is re-doing our back deck. This will be a lower deck, almost at grade (basically 1 step down to the ground). We plan to put some beds around the perimeter of that and probably some cedar planters so we can have some herbs and flowers within steps of the back door. Hope to post pictures of that process once we get started.
Not much of a winter so far here in Vermont. A bit more snow than where we used to live in Chicago, who just had the first January and February with no measurable snow for the first time in a long time. But still a fairly mild winter. It’s been brutally cold the last few days though, so winter is not done yet.
Anyway, seed starting is well underway. Still trying to fine tune my basement seed starting setup, which in this case mainly means adding a few more lights. Otherwise I’m pretty happy with my current setup. Starting a few things a bit earlier than last year now that I have a better understanding of when and how the greenhouse plays into the mix. Basically thinking I can get even bigger and better starts than last year and potentially get stuff into the ground sooner.
This year we are going to experiment with going no-till for a bunch of reasons. After research and talking to some people who know more than me, I would just like to get away from using the tiller for anything except maybe establishing new plots. Tilling does a major destruction on soil structure and biology and basically stirs up a bunch of your nitrogen to the surface where you basically lose most of it. The other thing we’ve found is that we end up fighting weeds in the aisles by mid-summer, which is both a waste of time and takes energy away from the plants we want. Makes more sense to develop a deep mulch structure and use carbon (newspaper, cardboard) between the rows. Eventually you get a much richer, deeper soil structure with a lot of bio-diversity plus help from the mycorrhiza fungi network and the soil structure makes it much easier to pull the weeds that do germinate. That’s the theory anyway and we’re going to experiment with it. What we are doing now is too much work and we aren’t building soil fertility as fast as we want, so time to shake things up.
In other news, our lazy chickens (and one of the ducks) just FINALLY started laying again after taking a break since mid-December. And not all of them have started yet. That’s a lot of freeloading. Fine with them having a month or so break, but this has been too long. That being said, our youngest birds are about 2 years old, so not that surprising that egg production is slowing. We’re going to add some new hens to the mix this spring.
Before long it will be time to start putting cold hardy seeds in the ground, like lettuce, carrots, brassicas and peas. And maybe even some potatoes if we can get into the ground. The long range forecast isn’t showing a lot of frost after the end of March, so it will be interesting to see if we can get an earlier start this year. In Vermont every day helps.
Here’s just a few shots of what’s going on with our gardens and rest of the property near the beginning of June. We had a mild spring that wasn’t too wet and actually got very hot towards the end of May. Just had a nice rainy day yesterday after about a week without, so everything is pretty happy at the moment.
Here’s the back garden in a couple of wide shots.
Those are potatoes in the foreground.
A shot from the front to show off some flowers already blooming.
Hops are already going nuts. These poles are about 15-20’ at the top.
Here’s the front garden. Look how big the garlic is already. It’s pretty happy this year. By the way, all the green is partially due to the cover crop of buckwheat that we are leaving in place for now between rows and where we haven’t planted yet. A bit of an experiment and in some ways makes it harder to see the rows, but hoping the benefits make it worthwhile.
Here’s the orchard. A couple of the initial plantings are finally starting to show some growth.
Here’s a similar shot from around the same time last year. Notice how much we filled in the middle section this spring.
And finally, another shot of the ducks at 6 weeks just for fun. They are now outside in their permanent spot, although not free ranging yet.
I’ve been trying to start my own tomatoes ever since we moved to Vermont with varying degrees of success. It’s partly because I like to grow some more obscure tomato varieties that are hard to find in the nurseries and garden centers and partly because once again I’m apparently a glutton for punishment.
Tomatoes and peppers were one of the primary reasons I really wanted to invest in a greenhouse. We got one last year, but by the time we got it installed it was well after the prime tomato starting period. So I was very curious to see how much difference it made this year in the quality and size of my tomato starts. I have not been disappointed.
These greenhouse shots aren’t all tomatoes of course, there are also some peppers, eggplant and other odds and ends. But it is overflowing with tomatoes at the moment.
This is probably the first year I’ve had quite a few tomato starts that actually look like something I would buy at a good nursery, both in size and health. I still started them initially in our basement under grow lights, but once it started to warm up they went in the greenhouse. There were some nights of moving them back and forth when temps once again dipped into the 20s and low 30s at night.
We are now starting to plant them out and I’m very happy with how many nice big plants I have and it’s only the middle of May. I also have a pipeline of additional starts in case some plants don’t take. Plus, we’ve never really had quite enough tomatoes to put away just from our own garden and end up buying extras. Hoping maybe this is the first year that isn’t the case.