Thursday, May 5, 2011

Opportunistic Gardening

It's amazing what you can accomplish with some reckless enthusiasm and an emergency shovel.

I've been out of grad school/postdoc for half a year now but have been slow to acclimate to my new budget. After spending 75 bucks to rent my garden plot, I couldn't help but balk at the idea of spending hundreds more on tools, containers, plants and fencing - so I started cutting corners.

Warning: irrational frugality will be a theme here...

After last year's disaster, I knew there wasn't any point in renting a plot unless I was ready to take weed control seriously. Our plots were tilled and staked the first week of April, but I'd been kept out of the field by work and family events for the past couple weeks and was dreading the green plague that would begin consuming my 20 ' x 25 ' plot. Luckily for me, the weed pressure (so far) is nowhere near what I experienced in Ithaca - probably because this garden is barely big enough to meet local demand and they kick people out who don't tend their plots.

The War on Weeds.
It started with a trip to the big box store for some weed fabric. The first roll only covered about a fifth of my plot, but it was enough to direct sow some of the cold weather seed. A few days later, the greenhouse manager asked if I wanted to use some old plastic potting soil bags he'd been saving, hoping for a way to recycle them. I took him up on the offer and have been pretty happy with the results. I laid out a couple rows of plastic bags, covered and staked them down with mulch. Two thirds of the plot was now mulched with plastic or cloth covered in bark with thin strips of soil in between.

Since then, the weeds have really made their move - mostly crab grass and bindweed. It's incredible how fast they can become big robust plants while my seeds have barely germinated and the transplants are still settling in. They're now forcing themselves through the weed cloth, crawling out from under the plastic and generally bursting up from the depths. I'm kinda dreading what's up with West Neighbor, who hasn't touched his plot yet and will soon have a closed canopy of weeds advancing on my border.

With my warm weather crop transplants outgrowing their pots and the weeds taking off, I forced myself out into the field after work earlier this week. I spent a couple hours hand tilling the rain soaked clay with my trusty emergency shovel. Doing this on the whole plot would probably be the same losing proposition it was last year, but it seems fine so far for the 1/3 of the field that's not covered in mulch. I barely finished before it was completely dark but I'm satisfied with the results (and getting a lot of exercise without having to go to the gym). I stopped in today to play catch up and I'm pretty confident I can keep ahead of the weeds one way or another.

I'm holding off on installing fences until I see to what extent my neighbors continue to build metal fortifications all around me. I've only ever had critter problems later in the season and I haven't seen so much as a single deer since I moved here, so we'll see...

The Tragedy of the Commons is rented land. I've heard a number of ag economists explain recently that the main reason many mainstream farmers don't take full advantage of soil-building rotations is that they no longer own their own land. It doesn't make sense to invest in a cover crop year if you're not sure you'll get to plant in a cash crop the following spring. Similarly, while I'm a huge proponent of composting and working on soil structure, I still live in an apartment - so I just did what I could to loosen the heavy clay to crumbs around each plant and will start dousing them with miracle gro once they get established and the weeds fall back. The greenhouse manager emphasized (unfortunately after most of my transplants were in) the importance of breaking up the clay. Apparently if you plant trees and shrubs into too hard of clay soil, the roots can fail to penetrate from the potting soil into the earth and just grow in circles as if they were still pot bound.

The Summer of Intercropping.
I really enjoy finding excuses to "do stuff" out in the garden during the summer and this will be my most intensively managed garden yet. I'm gonna see how far I can push mixing fast and slow growing crops within the same personal space and sowing successive generations of determinate ones like maize and salad greens. As the garden starts to fill in, I'll see where I still have some extra room to tuck in some additional plants and will start more cold weather crops in another month or two for fall harvest transplants. The first row of maize is planted and I'll add more each week or so. I'm putting it along the back (in an North-South line!) up against the other titans (squash, watermelon, etc.) with the hopes they can slug it out to use up all the available space and choke out the weeds.

It began with seed. I had planned on ordering from Seed Savers this year but despite their many unique offerings, they didn't have all my staples. I still look forward to supporting them in the future, but this year I went with Johnny's, which I've been very impressed with in the past. They also had lots of seed on sale and would save me from two S&H fees. I don't know what kind of self-respecting ag scientist I'd be if my garden fails to yield more than I spent for a second time - so I bought lots of seed on sale, F1 hybrids where available.

The Essentials.
I started with the stuff I really like, really wanted to experiment with, or have had great luck with in the past.
  • Lettuce mix (Tango, Red Salad Bowl, Salad Bowl, Parris Island, Dark Lollo Rossa, Deer Tongue, Firecracker, Spock)
  • Carrot (Early Nelson F1) - because carrots were foolproof in Cali
  • Brussels sprouts (Churchill F1) - because I just discovered they taste awesome roasted
  • Broccoli Raab (Specialty Spring) - because I'm half wop
  • Thai basil (Queenette) - because I'm trying to perfect my curry recipe
  • Cilantro (Calypso) - to make better Mexican and Indian food
  • Beet (Merlin F1) - for something different
  • Sweet corn (Bicolor BRD 275A F1) - I'll hand-pollinate it at a later date in a how-to blog post (and to ensure proper pollination with the sh2 allele)
  • Green onions (Nabechan F1) - for my gf
  • Snap pole beans (Fortex) - because I can use up a lot of time training their tendrils
  • Tomato (Heirloom Tall Vine Rose) - I'd also have grown Joseph's breeding line again but have not been able to find them among my moving boxes :p

The Extras.
The greenhouse manager offered me some extra seed of his. Conveniently, we have similar taste in veggies.
  • Okra
  • Peppers (Serrano, Tabasco, Bell)

The Produce Section.
I also planted a bunch of stuff from the store. This isn't a good practice if you want good yields of good-tasting food, but I just wanted to play around with some plants I haven't grown before.*
  • Potatoes were cut up and set in the sun, but didn't manage to overcome dormancy/anti-sprout coatings. I dropped the shriveled up slices in the ground for the heck of it.
  • Garlic is usually planted in the fall but I wanted to try it anyway. It's sprouting fine so far.
  • Sweet potatoes are sitting in water, slowing growing leaves and roots. It's probably a little too cold to put them out yet anyway. Hopefully they'll keep growing because I have a big empty spot ready for them.

Filling it in.
I couldn't resist some impulse additions as it became clear 20 x 25 is a little bigger than I had thought.
  • Cherry tomatoes (Red Currant)
  • Straightneck summer squash (Saffron)
  • Mini watermelon (Bush Sugar Baby)
  • Tobacco (Wisconsin 38) is a lab rat that the lab manager grows routinely for the scientists. It's a virtually flavorless binder variety but I'm curious to grow it anyway.

If you're working the land at Woottons Mill, feel free to come over to #17 and say hi!

* Store-bought fruits and veggies have genetic backgrounds primed for yield and shipping quality more than flavor. Plus, tubers are prone to be riddled with viruses, ruining your chance of getting amazing amounts of food. They also tend to be sprayed with anti-sprouting chemicals that will make it pretty difficult to turn them back into plants.


  1. It sounds as if you have a similar garden to me.
    I think you have a good chance of getting some potatoes because I am still getting little bits of last years potatoes growing in the onion bed. I don't cut up my potatoes because I get a lot of slug damage. Cool wet summers in the UK mean we get a lot of them.

    I am trying Okra for the first time this year. I think that the climate here will be too cold for it though. It grows but does not produce many flowers or fruit.

  2. Yeah it sounds like it. I'm glad for once my brassicas have survived spring insect attacks. At least in NY, you had to be strategic about when you put out your transplants to avoid flea beetles. But so far I haven't really had any pest problems.

    Good luck with the okra, though it does seem to be one of the most dependent on hot weather.



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