Veg*n Cooking and Other Random Musings: Garden Update #21 - Lessons Learned

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Garden Update #21 - Lessons Learned

I was going to warn everyone that this garden update was going to be long, but you should probably just expect ALL the garden updates to be long. If you have no interest in gardening, I'd recommend just looking at the pictures or skipping these updates entirely. :-)

I'm a little late with the garden update this week. I wish I had a good excuse, but laziness seems to be the only one I can come up with. Brett and I went down to the community garden on Sunday, as usual, and took pictures, but it was too sunny to take pictures of the container garden on the porch. We decided to wait until dusk, then dusk turned to dark, so we had to wait until yesterday afternoon to get the container garden pictures. We had a long day of running errands and spending some time with friends - we logged 5+ miles on our feet (I took the day off of work), so by the time we got home, and got the pictures taken, I was not in the mood to spend a couple hours working on the garden update. I didn't want to rush through it either, I do this not only as a gardening journal for Brett and I, but also to provide (albeit not much) help to other newbie gardeners out there. Rushing through it and doing a half ass post does not accomplish either of those goals, so here it is, better late than never right?

The theme of the update this week is "lessons learned", some "bad" news, some progress, but mostly, just a lot of things we've done wrong or learned how to do differently next year. We do not look for, nor do we want sympathy for the problems in our gardens, we aren't reliant on our gardens, this is simply a learning experience, and we learn far more through error than getting something right. And I must say, this is our first year gardening in actual Earth, we've only done container gardening up to this point, and I am very impressed with how well our first year went, even with the problems we've had. Our container garden has done better than it ever has, so I think with each passing year we learn more and have more success - but no matter what, we are at the whim of nature, even when a gardener does everything right, that is no guarantee of success, and it is something I always keep in mind.

On the informational front, I received a lot of good tools this week. First and foremost, I want to thank my co-worker Ann for rocking so damn hard. From the beginning of my gardening experience this year, she has been nothing but supportive and has even listened to me wax on about the garden on multiple occasions (Kathy too, sorry guys!). Not only has she listened to me yammer, she has contributed to the madness. At the beginning of the season, since Brett and I are apartment dwellers with no land of our own (and thus no tools), she very kindly donated some gardening implements to our community garden, brought us tomato cages, and this really killer velcro tape for staking up our tomato plants. If that wasn't cool enough, check out what she saved for me from an auction she went to awhile back:

She gave me a huge stack of old organic gardening magazines from the 70s. These are so cool and have a wealth of very useful information in them (including information about indoor winter vegetable gardening!!). Brett and I are particularly interested in the one with the praying mantis on the cover - it is about beneficial and predatory insects. Ann had a yard sale recently, and these magazines inadvertently ended up in the sale, and when someone tried to buy them, she had to fend them off. Thanks Ann, I know you don't think this is much, but it means a lot to us, and there is so much good information in these I will be spending the winter pouring them over.

The second tool I got was from Brett. We went to the Peace Nook yesterday to grab a few things and while we were there and he bought me a copy of:

Yay!!!! I have really wanted this book for a little over 6 months, basically, since I first heard of the concept of permaculture. I tried the local library, the University of Missouri library, all the Missouri libraries that are part of "MOBIUS" which is a conglomerate of libraries that share books here in the state, and NONE of them had this book. Brett and I are wondering if they aren't trying to actively suppress this type of alternative information. You all may laugh at that idea, but MU has a sustainable agriculture program, but does not have this book, which is the fundamental text explaining the concepts of permaculture - but I am probably just being a conspiracy theorist (or as Brett and I like to say "pulling an Alex Jones"). Regardless, I was so stoked to get this book, I even put down the other book I was reading since I have those books until December so I could start this one. There is a lot to learn from David Holmgren and his followers. I plan on reading this book and getting my hands on any of the referenced materials I can.

Alright, let's start with the container garden.

Things are really going well on this front, we have had great success this year, and though our fly still hasn't returned, we should probably credit a lot of our success to him. Without him eating all the aphids, I think that we would have had a much bigger problem than we did. Something I have learned about "pests" is that you don't want to eradicate them all, otherwise beneficial insects will have no reason to take up residence in your garden - they won't have anything to eat - without those beneficial insects your garden can be overtaken when you least expect it. I will be doing more research over the winter to see if there is any flower, herb, or other goodie that I can plant with our peppers that will help attract them to take up residence before the aphids manage to kill our plants. Well, we killed the habanero, but it was in trying to rid it of the aphid infestation.

We also learned that certain peppers, such as poblanos and bell peppers, may do better in the community garden or at the very least, in larger containers. The poblano has only produced 5 small peppers thus far. We've tried feeding it; it just gets taller, but produces no more peppers. It's a gorgeous plant, well proportioned, and well fed, so we can only think of two reasons why it isn't fruiting or even trying to produce blooms: it is either underpotted or it is a "dud". The fact that it produced anything at all leads me to believe the small pot is the culprit. The same with the regular bell peppers (petite bell peppers do just fine in small containers), it has produced, far more than the poblano, but I think it would do better in a larger container or in the ground.

Another lesson learned, helpful to any container gardener is that container plants need to be fed quite often. We have been trying to figure out the "optimal" feeding schedule, and it seems for our peppers it is a dose of worm poo every three weeks. We've also learned that daily light waterings, as opposed to drenching the plants when the soil has dried out seems to work the best and result in less "leaf drop".

Onto the pictures:

The banana peppers in our container garden, while they got off to a late start, have done far better than the ones in the community garden. After we went through and picked off all the banana peppers a couple of weeks ago, they started to produce blooms almost immediately, and now there are a few peppers going on one. The other is in need of food, but we've had so much rain (and we generally feed and water at the same time), that we've had to hold off on feeding it, so it's progress has been slow.

The beautiful cayennes. I don't know if there is much of anything prettier than the cayenne plant when the peppers are starting to ripen. These bad boys will be fully ripened in just a couple of days, and will then be added to our ristra. Hopefully, once we pick all these off and feed the plant, we can get it to produce another round of peppers before the season is over.

The "infested" Hungarian Wax plant has really done very well this year. It has produced almost as many peppers as the jalapeno, and has proved to be a hardy, prolific, hot pepper. We are torn between growing multiple Hungarian Wax or hot banana peppers next year for the purpose of pickling and I think the Hungarian is winning out. The peppers have a thicker wall, which is preferable, in my opinion, when pickling, and they have a slightly spicier flavor than the hot bananas. As I'm sure you all know, spicier is almost always better in my book. It is looking like we should expect to get quite a few of these peppers before the season is over. Brett and I are hoping that it will yield enough that we will be able to can a few pints of these peppers whole. Yum!!

A jalapeno. This plant has to be, by far, one of the most gorgeous plants we've ever grown. It has been quite prolific, hardy, and so lush! I think we are going to try to bring this (and the second year serrano) inside over the winter and see if we can keep it fruiting. Most people, in the States at least, think of peppers as an annual, and well, if you have winter, they are. However, in the places capsicums (peppers) are indigenous to, they are perennials, and will live and fruit for multiple years, so it is worth a shot. We were able to keep our serrano plant alive over the winter, though didn't try to do anything to get it to keep fruiting, so at the very least, we will have both a "jump started" jalapeno and serrano plant (we love that thing), and at best, we will have indoor jalapenos (we have jalapeno seeds started to attempt in our indoor winter garden as well, but more on that later).

I'm not sure if many of you remember our little starts, but we kept two going when we went and bought plant starts earlier in the season (for those of you that haven't been following the garden that long, we started our seeds too late and had to go get more mature pepper starts). We kept a serrano and a New Mexican Chile plant, and they are finally starting to fruit! I believe the one in the photograph is a New Mexican Chile; they are both in the same pot so it's hard to tell.

This brings us to another lesson learned. You do not have to buy seed for most things. I got the seeds for these New Mexican Chiles out of all things, dried peppers. I really didn't think they would grow, but alas, they did. Now, I personally wouldn't recommend saving the seeds from anything you buy from the grocery store. Who knows where it comes from, what strain it is, and whether or not it is GMO - nobody wants to get sued by Monsanto for saving seeds they didn't know were "intellectual property". Now, this can still be an issue at the farmer's market, but if we are talking organic or heirloom produce, this isn't anything to worry about. All the "neat" peppers I've gotten from the market this summer I have saved the seeds out of to try my hand at growing them in either our winter indoor garden or our container garden next year. And I've started some Cherry Bomb peppers which have germinated and are a few inches tall, so I can say, from experience, that it does work. Also, it doesn't cost any money beyond what you are spending on your food to save these seeds, and it is a great way to try out new varieties of peppers, or any other vegetable really. For detailed information on how to process and save seeds, check out this website.

A ripening petite bell pepper. This has been a surprisingly wonderful plant to have. Brett isn't a big fan of bell peppers, but they are vital to most of the food we eat, so I overcook them to make the "edible" to him. However, he does like these bell peppers - not raw of course, I really can't even do raw bell peppers, but their flavor is excellent and they are really sweet when fully ripened. I've quite enjoyed their flavor too, and I have especially enjoyed how productive this plant is. Though, as the name implies, these peppers are small, this plant is so prolific that it doesn't matter, there are always enough to use in any of my recipes. These are a strong candidate for our choice in bell peppers next year. They grow wonderfully in small pots, so I think having 2-3 of these would be perfect. We are planning on saving the seeds out of some of these peppers to keep for next year. We may go all petite or may do a variety of different kinds of bell peppers. More than likely, since we don't really like monoculture, we will do a variety.

Here are a few pictures of the regular bell pepper plant. Not much to say here, it hasn't done much, but it has produced enough, and they taste like, well, green bell peppers.

I'm sure you can tell that we have a soft spot for some of the peppers, and others are just "eh", necessary, but nothing really special. That is how I feel about the bell peppers. However, I am very fond of our serrano plant, and serrano peppers in general. Here are some blooms on our second year serrano. For awhile, it looked like it was done producing - we weren't sure whether it was done for the season or for good, regardless, this plant will live on as a "houseplant" even after it is done producing. Anyways, we fed it, waited, and it started to come back. We had a few sunny days, with no rain, and warm temperatures, and it has really started to come back with a vengeance. There are blooms all over, some so low on the plant that the peppers will be touching the soil if they get to that point. I am very stoked about this as we only have one serrano plant this year and they are probably both Brett and my favorite pepper. We will be growing 4 or so of these next year so we can get some substantial harvests.

Whew! That was just the container garden! I apologize that these updates are more like novellas than posts, but there has been so much learned that I can't really shorten it much, and, well, I'm long-winded. The winter updates are likely to be much shorter, but during the summer, watch out - especially when we get our own plot of land. ;-)

Moving on to the community garden.

Honestly, the garden looked better than I expected after what we found last weekend. Someone even came down and mowed, or in some other way removed, the massive amounts of weeds and grass that were flanking the gardens and that had taken over the walking path. Our zucchini and summer squash plants are still alive - at least for the time being. The butternut plants have seen better days, but they are still producing fruit. Upon first glance, it seemed as though the squash bug problem has largely be solved, however, upon further inspection of the hay and ground under the hay, it was not in any way solved, the bugs have just taken to the ground at this point. It is bad, very bad, and there isn't much we can do about it. I do believe that we will get the remaining butternuts to ripen before the bugs completely decimate the plants, but I think our growing season is going to be cut a little short due to these icky little guys. I think what we did last week really helped though, and we have come to understand that diligence is key in an organic garden. If any of you ever see eggs like the ones I photographed in last week's garden update, remove them, and destroy them. Be brutal, they will destroy your garden if you do not destroy them.

We talked with our farmer Dan at the market this weekend and he informed us about an organic remedy for squash bugs called diatomaceous earth. Diatomaceous earth is fossilized algae from the ocean and apparently when applied (it is a dry powder), it will impale and kill the squash bugs. It apparently really does the trick for bad outbreaks (i.e. if you don't get all the egg sacks before they begin to hatch). Now, we contemplated for a minute trying to track some of this stuff down, but our garden is so far gone that it isn't really worth it at this point. This is something that should be used as a last resort in my opinion, not that it is dangerous, as it isn't to the environment (but you should wear a mask when applying it so it doesn't impale your lungs along with the squash bugs), but "nipping the problem in the bud" before it gets to this point is always better. Basically, treating the cause, not the symptom is always the best option. This is what you do if that doesn't work.

Another word of advice, if you are having problems in your garden, talk to an organic farmer! They love to help and have very useful advice. Chances are, they've experienced your problem before and have figured out ways to solve it.

Onto the pictures:

Here are some pictures of our banana pepper plants in the community garden. They seem to be doing quite well, despite the weeds that are competing for their "territory". However, something seems to have taken to the peppers. We're not sure if it is the squash bugs or something else, but there were 3 peppers ready to be picked and all had a single little "bite hole" in them - of course, rendering them inedible to us (we don't know what was eating it or what it left on the fruits). I wonder if whatever tried to make a lunch of these spicy peppers was sorely upset afterwards, these guys aren't sweet! They bite back. Hopefully who or whatever was doing this has learned their lesson, I would hate for the rest of the pepper harvest to be ruined!

The Better Boy has really made a comeback. And to think we would have pulled it out of the ground had it not escaped Brett's wrath! It has a few tomatoes on it that are getting pretty large and we hope that they will begin to ripen soon. The tomato plants seem pretty much unaware of the destruction the squash bugs are wreaking on the rest of the garden, but this is just one more illustration of the need for a polyculture. You should expect problems like squash bugs when that is pretty much all anyone is growing in their plots.

Here are a few of the butternuts. They aren't as pretty or big as our earlier ones, but it looks like at least these will make it to maturity. We've decided that next year, we will grow a single butternut plant in the community garden and no other squash. We'll rely on our CSA and the farmer's market for our zucchini and yellow squash until we have a yard of our own. We are thinking about trying to use trellising to grow an acorn squash plant on our porch with the rest of our container garden, and we are contemplating a container cucumber plant as well, but only if space allows.

Here are some photos of our incredibly productive Roma tomato plant. It looks a little gnarly at this point since it produces so much fruit that the limbs bow and even break a little under the weight of the fruit. These are great sauce tomatoes, but unfortunately, we haven't had quite the yield of peppers needed to really make use of these guys. Neither Brett nor I are huge fans of these raw, but they are great cooked in our Mexican dishes - which is where almost all of them have gone. Next year we are going to have more "meaty" tomatoes for raw eating, along with a few Roma plants for sauce. We are going to have a vastly larger pepper garden next year, so hopefully we can get enough of a yield for a lot of salsa canning! I'll be trying my hand at canning salsa this year, but using mostly farmer's market ingredients.

Here is a picture of our yellow straighneck squash plant as well as a couple of pictures of some little squash growing on the plant.

I don't have a whole lot of expectations about these actually reaching edible maturity. All the little squash in the pictures from last week dried up or rotted off the plant and these are the "newcomers" that took their place. I'm not sure if I should expect anything different. Though we had a lot of rain last week, and the weather folks are calling for warm temperatures and lots of sunshine this week, so hopefully, maybe these will make it.

This is our zucchini plant. There isn't anything beyond male flowers on the plant right now. Some people have had zucchini plants that really take over and produce so much zucchini that they do things like bring down a 5 gallon bucket of squash from Illinois (Wilbur! Cough!), but ours haven't been like that at all. One of our plants, the now dead one, never produced a single zucchini - though it did get really big. The other has produced its fair share but has seemed to have struggled from the beginning. Our plot is really "clayey" and I wonder if that has something to do with their difficulty establishing themselves. Regardless, we did not have a shortage of zucchini this summer, so I can't really complain too much on this front.

Due to the icky status of the entire community garden as of late, there hasn't been much to report from Other People's Gardens (OPG). This week, I found a couple of things of note.

These are some neat looking beans that are growing in the same plot that had corn earlier in the season. From the little that I know about gardening, it is good to plant corn and beans together - I think they provide each other with nutrients. And with the corn stalks, you have yourself an effortless trellis for the beans!

A sunflower. Now, you guys might think these are pretty, and I wouldn't argue with you, however, they are NOT GOOD for the soil or the garden. They leech all sorts of nutrients from the soil, and Brett said that they "emit" chemicals into the soil that kill, well, pretty much everything. Be wary of the sunflower!

AND FINALLY, onto our indoor winter vegetable garden.

I think, after some failures due to excitement and jumping the gun, and some extra thought on space as well as materials, we have pared down a list of what we are going to be attempting to grow in our indoor winter garden. First, I'll start with the list, and then go into details about why certain things you saw started on there are no longer on the list.

  • Tomatillos
  • Jalapeno Peppers
  • Cayenne Peppers
  • Mini Bell Peppers
  • Cherry Bomb Peppers
  • "Fish" Peppers*
  • Cucumbers*
  • One Ball Squash*
  • Chard (probably rainbow)
  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Mesclun Mix (mixed salad greens)
  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Catnip (for the kitties obviously)
  • Wheatgrass (also for the kitties)
  • The * means that this is contingent on the seeds actually starting.

    And at work I will be growing:

  • Lavender
  • Lemongrass
  • Spearmint
  • Peppermint

  • These will be grown for herbal tea.

    You might be wondering (though I really doubt it) what happened to the carrots, and why I am talking about germinating cucumber and one ball squash seeds when I already did that.

    Here's the story on the carrots. The short version is...they died. I had tried to plant too many seeds in round containers and they didn't seem to really like that very much. We had been planning on using a deep plastic container to grow these in, but upon further reflection, neither of us were too comfortable with the idea of using something made of plastic that wasn't designed to grow plants, especially not ones we wanted to eat. Since we haven't been able to come up with any sort of alternative plans for how to grow the carrots inside, we've decided to just nix them at this point.

    About the one ball squash and cucumbers: I jumped the gun a little bit when transplanting them. They weren't nearly large or mature enough to be safely transplanted and none of them - NONE - made it. So I started new seeds (while keeping my fingers crossed) and will let them get a lot bigger before I try to transplant them again. See why this post was called "Lessons Learned"?

    The tomatillos are a new addition. I took some seeds out of the tomatillos I used to make Green Chile Taco Sauce awhile back and decided to try to plant them. They germinated and have now moved from the cooler to the window so they can get some sunlight.

    I apologize in advance about the quality of these pictures. It is hard to take a picture of something in a window without things looking all funky. I had to use the flash as otherwise the pictures were too dark, but using the flash makes them too bright. Argh.

    A better look at the cayenne pepper starts.

    Here is a better look at the jalapenos and tomatillos. If you can't tell, the tomatillos are the smaller of the two plant starts.

    And another picture, I was trying to get the second container of jalapenos in the picture. The jalapeno is the only pepper we have two containers of - we really like jalapenos too.

    Here are the mini bell peppers and the cherry bombs. After I took this picture, I removed them from our mini hot house and put 'em in the window sill with the rest of the starts.

    One day this week we are going to start thinning out their numbers and try to get down to the healthiest looking plant. As sad as this sounds, I always feel a little bad for the ones that don't make the "cut".

    I am going to be ordering the seeds for the greens and herbs this week off the internet. I really wish I didn't have to do this, but I haven't found any place that sells seeds at this time of year. Hopefully we will be able to get these to "go to seed" and won't have to buy seeds for the greens next year. We'll see. We're planning on "staggering" their plantings so we will have greens in various stages of growth, with the idea of having a fairly steady supply throughout the winter.

    'Til next time.


    VeggieGirl said...

    It's been so fun following your garden updates, since my own garden never flourished this year - lessons have been learned, and it's been a great experience overall!

    Bobbi said...

    Wow - you weren't kidding! Huge post - great post! The photos are wonderful.

    Bianca said...

    It's funny that you have to overcook peppers to get Brett to eat them. That's what my mom used to have to do with me and onions when I was a kid. Now I can't imagine not liking onions.

    jessy said...

    i agree - better late than never! i would totally love a much more thorough and thoughtful post instead of something just kinda thrown together, as i really get a lot out of your garden updates, Jennifer.

    that's very cool on your coworker being so awesome and supportive. that does rock! let me know how that permaculture book is, too. it looks really interesting & awesome!

    that's sad that your little fly has not returned. perhaps he found himself a girlfriend elsewhere and she won't let him leave! ;) and i never would have thought about just trying to control an insect infestation instead of attempting to eradicating it, but it makes total sense. sure, you have to deal with a few bugs, but then you get all the cool organisms that show up to eat those bugs and you're helping them out, too - making it kinda like a tiny ecosystem or something. and partaking in a more sustainable cycle as well. and i think next year we're going to do larger containers or just tear up more of our yard for the garden to give our veggies more space for their roots, too. our plants weren't as productive as they could have been and i think that's the problem as well - small pots.

    your cayennes ARE super pretty! i love the brilliant greens & reds - wow! i'm glad the hungarain wax held its own! yay! thanks for the link on the seed information - we have a bunch of seeds at home and i wasn't too sure on how to go about storing them...

    supersadface on the squash bugs! i had my fingers crossed that they would go somewhere else! argh! but your roma plant is going crazy making a million babies! let us know how canning the salsa goes, too! i really need to do some research and get into canning. seems like it's the best darn thing to do! now i'm all excited about your indoor garden, and especially those herbs you're growing at work for tea! lavender = my fav!

    thanks for another wonderful update! i love them all! :D

    vegan addict said...

    The cayenne peppers are beautiful! And, I would love a homegrown butternut squash! Perfect for the oncoming fall season.

    Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

    Veggie Girl - I'm glad you've enjoyed them and am sorry to hear about your garden troubles. We all have 'em, maybe next year will be better for you.

    Bobbi - That's what happens when you are long-winded like me I suppose. ;-) Would you believe that I'm really shy in person and rarely talk except to Brett?

    Thanks, Brett can take credit for the good photos, that is his specialty.

    Bianca - Gotta do what you gotta do right? ;-) Actually, I have to do that with our onions too. Hehe.

    Jessy - As always, thank you for your incredibly thoughtful response.

    Ann does rock. SO far Permaculture has been an excellent book, I will do a review of it in September sometime for the Blogging Bookworm.

    Hahaha, that is what I am going to think, I'd rather assume he's happy somewhere than some sad alternative.

    I wouldn't have thought that way about pests either until learning about permaculture and biointensive gardening. The bugs can make an onslaught at any time so it seems best to try to have a few pests as well as a few predators around at all times to create a food cycle so nothing gets too out of hand.

    Our porch HAS in many ways turned into a mini-ecosystem, we have aphids, spiders, ants, flies, bees, wasps, and even the occasional bird, and we live in a second floor apartment. I just wish we could figure out a way to get microorganisms into the containers so they can help break down dead plant material and enrich the soil with their poo, still thinking on how to do that one.

    Hear hear to tearing up more of your yard or in any way expanding your garden. Don't know if you have or not yet, but you should check out Food Not Lawns.

    The size of the container is a learning process, every plant needs slightly different conditions and it takes awhile to get it down.

    I'm stoked about the cayennes and Hungarian's too, spicy peppers for Jen!

    No problem about the seeds, it saves money, resources, and eventually, you will have your own "hybrid" that is suited to the conditions of your soil!

    I did too about the squash bugs, but alas, it didn't happen this year. But we have some ideas to reduce the problem for next year.

    That Roma IS crazy. I'll be sure to let everyone know how my canning adventure goes this Saturday. I'm always a little nervous, but each time I do this I will get better.

    Hehe, we're excited about the indoor garden too, I just ordered all the seeds for the greens and herbs today and can't wait to bring my little herb garden into work or for our apartment to turn into a jungle!


    Vegan Addict - Thank you. The butternut plants have been very productive, if you lived near me, I would definitely share, I think we have more than we can handle already!