Friday, July 18, 2008

...and pretty girls all in a row

Our garden has been progressing by leaps and bounds since my last report. We lost a few plants to a late frost in May, but the rest are thriving--and we've almost doubled our cultivated area since then.

The biggest part of that area was freed up when I dug the last half path (you can see our general scheme in the picture above--three long beds, divided with two paths and capped with a shorter horizontal bed, which is behind the camera in this shot). This gave us two more half beds to work with. Ross used the first to try out a new planting system of his own devising--he dug a series of shallow sub-beds, separated by long thin mounds. He filled the sub-beds with more hot pepper seedlings, and cauliflower and broccoli seedlings and on the mounds, he sowed lettuce and kale seeds. This system seems to have worked really really well! Elevating the fast growing seeds let him mulch around the slow-growing seedlings right away, and the plants won't shade out the lettuce as quickly this way. I wish we'd done all of our beds this way. It would have saved a lot of weeding.

Those seedlings all came from the batch that I grew inside this spring. We don't get much indoor light at my house, so the first seeds to germinate reached sun-ward somewhat pathetically, and eventually sprawled all over each other in a big tangled mess. I needed a way to get them more light, so I rigged up a makeshift indoor lighting system out of three lamps (shades removed), a bench, two overturned garbage cans, the lid from a large rubbermaid box, several cardboard boxes, and a buckets of homeowners insurance. I think that the combination of bare light bulbs and combustibles made Ross nervous (he didn't go so far as to disassemble it, but he did start keeping a glass of water within reach on his nightstand) but it did keep the seedlings from doing the too-little-sun limbo. Unfortunately, the lights were so hot that I couldn't put them close enough to the plants--the heat of the bulbs sucked the moisture out of those little plants quicker than Daniel Day Lewis with a milkshake straw. Next year, I'll just give in a buy a real, honest-to-god set of grow lights. Or maybe a local pot head will have a garage sale...

Anyway, we have more seedlings than we know what to do with, including a whole passel (herd? pod?) of hot peppers, which served as a nice replacement for the plants we lost to frost. If all goes well, we should have a bumper crop of colorful peppers later this summer. It will almost (almost!) make up for the fact that I couldn't find seeds for my beloved hatch chilies.

On both sides of the garden we planted potatoes next to the fence. Our fence is only 3 feet tall, and the deer view it more or less the same way I view a sneeze-guard. But I figured that since the leaves of the potato plant are poisonous, the deer will at least have to work a bit to graze on our garden. They've really taken off these past few weeks (the potatoes, not the deer), and pretty soon we'll be able to cover them in straw (again, the potatoes, not the deer). I read somewhere that if you cover your potato plants with straw after they flower, they'll produce potatoes in the straw as well as underground. Since you only have to dig through the straw to find them, they are really easy to harvest that way.

Next to the potatoes we planted two rows of onions, and next to the onions some little bitty purple basil seedlings. (they deserved a chance after they fought their way back from the grave inside).

My mom clued me in to planting legumes (tall and thin with lots of small leaves) with melons (ground hugging and sprawling with big sun-sucking leaves) so I planted a double row of snap peas among our ambrosia and water melons. They are currently sprouting and remind me of an orderly line of school children. Pretty soon, we'll have to put up a trellis for them.

We were skeptical of our special "cold climate" artichokes, but they seem to be enjoying the Michigan summer. They are already looming over the lettuce we planted between the rows. I'm still doubtful that we'll get artichokes before they plants are killed by frost, but it would be really cool if we did. A farmer visiting Ann Arbor from upstate told us that artichokes are largely a weed in this climate. The normal varieties don't grow fast enough to produce artichokes in our short growing season--and since they're a relative of the thistle, they can be extremely difficult to get rid of. Ours are supposed to be annuals. I guess if we see artichokes in this plot next year, we'll know that we were wrong.

The eggplant are not doing as well as we'd hoped--we lost two to frost, and the remaining two are growing really slowly. These are called "black beauty, which seems a bit arrogant for a vegetable.

Most excitingly, we've gotten our first harvests! The first to come out were the mustard greens and radishes, followed by the curly green lettuce you see around the artichokes in the picture up above.

We ate the radishes on salad--they're spicier than the ones you get in the grocery store, and beautiful with their bright white centers and deep red skins. I'm sad that some of them got away--we let them sit in the garden for too long, and they became caustically bitter. We'll be more on top of it next time.

I fried the first batch of greens (mustard and radish) in bacon fat and studded them with bits of Polish bacon. The second set I cooked with some onion, garlic, and balsamic vinegar and served to folks at a barbecue. The last of them I blanched and froze for another day.

We've also started to get peppers (two long deep green ones, which we picked before I left for chicago but I didn't get a chance to take a picture of). Soon we'll have more tomatoes than we know what to do with. It's amazing what FULL sun will do for tomatoes--last year our plants reached 7 feet tall and we got less than 10 tomatoes. This year we have ten times that many so far--on plants less than 3 feet tall.

I love our garden. If it wouldn't make me a terrible wife/catowner/graduate student, I think that I would spend every day there. I've always loved growing flowers, but vegetables are even more wonderful. Close up, they're even more beautiful than flowers (witness the number of pictures in this post) and...well...they make me feel maternal.

As much as you can feel maternal towards something you will eventually eat.

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