Successes and Failures — Looking Back at the 2020 Spring/Summer Season
There's no such thing as the perfect garden season. Anybody who says otherwise is a shameless liar. Something always goes a bit funny and there's always a seasonal variable that factors in somewhere. At the same time, mistakes are made, and for those who've walked the fence at the BGG, mine are very much on display. So after a long spring and summer it's time to share with you all my complete failures and absolute successes in farming the garden this year. That's right, I'm going to gaze into that gigantic self-assessing mirror, take a hard critical look at all that has gone on so far, and air all my awesomeness and not-so-awesomeness from this past spring and summer season. Now the season is not over yet by any stretch — I'm looking forward to a productive October as fall begins to really take over — but the fall season is essentially its own season so I'll get critical about that one sometime in December. For now, let's have a look at the past 5 and a half months.
Tomatoes — Failure
Tomatoes have never ever ever been a problem for me until this year. I mean, like, NEVER EVER EVER. Even in the days past before I knew what I was doing and made every mistake that even a cursory glance at Youtube could have helped me to avoid, my tomatoes would STILL grow. So the fact that we had so much trouble this year really irked me. The problem was that we had hundreds of green tomatoes that never ripened. The plants were healthy, well-watered, well fed, and stressed just enough to get them to produce fruit, yet they never wanted to turn to that orangey red ripeness we've all come to appreciate.
It wasn't a total loss, I mean some did ripen and we did send some off to the food bank, but it was really odd how the tomato plants simply did not want to cooperate. Of course, the squirrels did a nice job of grabbing every bit of fruit that came even close to a color other than green, it still doesn't fully explain why so many never wanted to ripen. After much discussion with others whose thumbs are green enough to authoritatively distribute gardening advice, I've come up with three reasons for the poor tomato showing all of which combined killed the season:
The squirrels actually did stress out the plants a lot. Aside from taking fruit, they broke branches and tramped down leaves, which I had to prune vigorously. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I've never seen such aggressive and opportunistic squirrels like the ones in Bronxville. They deserve to be their own subspecies.
There was a prolonged hot streak in the mid-summer where in the evenings the temps didn't get low enough for the fruit to ripen — yes, low enough. Looking back at the weather over the summer, I'm about 80% sure it played a factor.
I put the plants too close together. To be clear, they were at least 2 feet apart, but really, they should've been 3. Annoying thing about this was that I knew I was planting them too close when I was putting them into the ground. But at the time, I was the new guy and when I came on I had the unforeseen problem of having too many starter plants given to me and I wasn't really in a position to say no to anybody. Since I hate, hate, HATE to waste any plants, I did what I could and filled the boxes sacrificing a bit of their personal space in the process. If I'm still working the garden next season, I'll be sure to be a bit more callous about letting plants that I cannot use die (if I cannot find a better home for them first). I'll also have a better handle on what to expect and when.
Be a little more cavalier in my stressing of the plants. Even though the squirrels did a fair bit of that, it's the type of stressing they did that was so bad. There's good stress — pruning out useless branches and suckers while also cutting the branches above the fruit. And there's the bad stress — squirrels beating the plants down. It's not to say that I didn't prune, I'm just thinking I may have to do more in that space.
Swiss Chard — Success
The Swiss chard was the big success of the spring and summer crops. Even now, the same plants that I planted back in May are producing leaves. For the most part I've been harvesting from them every other week, which is quite good. Where I was smart was in how I harvested them. I was very picky about which leaves I left on the plants and which ones I cut off. My overall method was to harvest not only the biggest leaves but also to pick out smaller ones if I felt they were blocking new leaves from growing. It worked to such a degree that by September I was able to predict which leaves would be ready on whatever week. What's better is that the plants always looked healthy. It prompted me on my Twitter feed to start posting my “chardscapes”, little ground-level photos using a wide angle lens to make it look as it would if the viewer was shrunk down to the size of a chipmunk. They were a lot of fun and oddly enough got me a lot of views.
So successful was the chard that I made sure to plant some for the fall. Already those new plants have provided for the food bank.
Carrots — Mixed
The first batch of carrots I put in the ground didn't want to cooperate at all. They seemed to put more energy into their greenery than they did into their root, which is where the yummy stuff comes from. When they reached the date of maturity, I pushed aside the soil ever so slightly at the bases to check the circumferences of the vegetables. What I saw didn't at all impress me. They were tiny and inedible. Faced with two choices, whether to pull up and start over or leave as-was and see if they would improve, I chose the latter since, again, I hate waste. At the same time, I took one of our bigger planting pots and for fun planted a bunch of carrots in it not expecting anything to be better.
The result — I was smart to leave the carrots in the ground for longer. I left them for a whole month past the maturity date and got a much better carrot crop. They were very fragrant, Earthy, and quite healthy. Most of them, that is. There were still some many that refused to play nicely. In the end, I think about 70% were useful, which wasn't the rate I was hoping for, but it was far better than it would have been had I not left them in the ground.
As for the ones in the pot they grew exceptionally well and were ready to pick at their maturity date. In fact, they were just about as perfect as carrots could be. I think that the higher temperature of the soil in the pot may have helped growth a bit. As well, the dirt in the pot was almost all new compose, about half of which came from Pete's Composter. So perhaps the over-abundance of nutrients helped also.
Overall, I consider this a mixed result. What we got was sensational, but I wish we got about 10% more.
Cuccumbers — Success then Failure
This one is on me and Meredith — I planted one bed, she planted the other. We planted the cucumbers in the beds against the fence on the west side of the garden on either side of Pete's Composter. My box grew to be big and lush as it crawled up the fence. It even got a significant bunch of big and lovely female flowers that turned into some really big and lovely vegetables. Meredith's on the other hand never really crawled up the fence or the bamboo buttresses I put out, but stayed on the ground. At first I wondered if she had planted her cucumbers too close to the side, but as a reason for the stunted growth it was a real stretch. We realized later as the season went on that her cucumber bed was one of three beds in the garden that did not want to hold water. That is, we'd water them but an hour later my moisture meter showed the ground was dry. Also as it turns out, those beds had poorer soil. I'll be mentioning those beds later when we get to the beans, but even after a thorough watering, when I stuck my trusty meter in to test, the soil barely measured as moist.
Her bed did improve later when I added more compost around the plants (a good thing to always do when your cuke plants start flowering — a nice injection of nutrients really moves things along). The bed still drained too quickly, but not as quickly as it had been and the plants began to look a bit better. They probably wouldn't catch up to mine but they would most certainly produce some cucumbers. All was looking up. Then two things occurred.
The first was that some mites attacked the leaves. The were signs on the leaves that something tiny was nibbling, but they were too small to really affect the plants. That happens with cucumbers and normally if you just keep taking care of the soil, the mites wouldn't really hurt production. That's if the plants are otherwise healthy, which brings me to the the second problem — the one that really did the plants in.
One day in early August, I came in to find that one of the branches in my cucumber bed high up on the fence was wilting. No signs of bug infestation, no signs of breakage anywhere on the branch, just that the green leaves were in full wilt is if I had uprooted them 15 minutes before. Aside from the wilt, the leaves looked great. They were a deep green and showed no signs of abuse. Other leaves and branches on the plant looked fine and the cucumbers were looking big and tasty. As the days went on, I noticed other branches near the top wilting as well. No sign of browning whatsoever just outright wilt. Weird. There was plenty of water. The soil was very well nourished. There was plenty of sun. What the H-E double hockey sticks was going on?
Again I consulted books, websites, persons in-the-know. I weighed all evidence and opinion before I came to the conclusion that the issue was bacterial wilt.
Bacterial wilt is one of those things I've read about but never actually saw or ever thought I'd encounter because, well, darn it I'm Farmer Vin and that stuff doesn't happen to me! It's spread by the cucumber beetle, a colorful little guy who bites into the stalk of the plant and leaves behind a type of bacteria that multiplies and clogs up the plant's capillaries. On one of the plants that was doing particularly poorly, I cut off a branch, and squeezed it and found the presence of a sticky substance indicative of the disease. This it turns out is the bacteria. It was a clearish liquid, with the consistency of a low-viscosity syrup. This syrup blocks the capillaries so that water cannot reach the leaves thus causing them to wilt, and it can happen suddenly. The really sad thing was that there wasn't anything we could do about it. Once it gets in there, your only option is to harvest whatever cucumbers you can, and look on as the plants slowly die. If it's only a few plants, you can yank those out and hope the others survive. In our case I just yanked them all out, chopped them up, let them sit in a bucket of marigold water to rot for a few days before adding them to the compost. It was really disappointing too because we were producing some huge cucumbers and there were many more flowers ready to be cucified (I just made that word up).
As for Meredith, I think her plants were infected from the get-go and mine were spared until later, which is why I think hers had so much trouble. That along with the bed being difficult to begin with pretty much kneecapped her crop just soon after sprouting. Otherwise there was absolutely no reason why hers would have had such trouble.
What would I do differently? Well first off, I should have checked the budding plants for weird beetles, pulled them off, and killed them on the spot. Second, I should have planted a ton of garlic around and some hairy vetch to try to ward them off. Lastly, I should have also put netting over them when they were first growing to prevent the beetles from getting into and staying in the boxes.
One other possible solution that I could have turned to but didn't was the use of neem. Spraying the plants with neem early on which would have done the trick to keep the bugs off, however, that solution would have been about as carbon neutral as blowing the beetles off with a 20-year-old, gas-powered, leaf blower. The process to grow the trees that produce the oil, extract it, package it, and send it over in cargo ships then trucks isn't really an Earth-friendly solution even though it is technically an organic one. Overall, I try to keep things as carbon friendly as possible.
One thing to note, there is some suggestion that because of the mild winter we had last year there wasn't enough of a freeze to kill off many of the beetles or inhibit the growth of the wilt-causing bacteria in their tiny little guts. Seems plausible to me, which means that I'll need to be smart with the mesh covering after any mild winter, but overall, I'll chalk it up to bad luck.
Despite all that, we did end up getting a couple nice harvests of cukes before the wilt set in so the loss wasn't total.
Tomatillos — Utter Failure
I've never grown tomatillos before. I had no idea what they were or how they were used. In fact I had only heard of them for the first time last year from Farmer Dave. Since I had these plants given to me at the beginning of the season, I figured I'd better try to grow them. So I read up tomatillos and learned what I needed to grow them properly.
Known as "Mexican tomatoes" they are used (obviously) in Mexican cuisine. Now I have personally dabbled quite heavily in Mexican cooking but I never needed these as ingredients. They have a leafy coat around the actual fruit, which itself is coated with a greasy sticky substance that one would usually to wash off. To get the plants to fruit you need two tomatillo plants since they do not self-pollinate. We had three.
Unfortunately, like the regular tomatoes these simply didn't want to ripen. We got a lot of fruit mind you, but they seemed to fall off before ripening or were stolen by the you-know-whats. According to every measure I seemed to have cared for them properly, but of course a bad result is a bad result. In the end, they just took up space.
Lettuce — Success
Like the Swiss chard, the lettuce kept on giving. As time went on they got a tiny bit on the bitter side, but not so badly that they wouldn't have done well in a nice summer-mix salad. As I did with the chard, I never pulled the entire plant out at harvest. Normally, you'd just cut the whole head off, pull the roots, then start over. But for us, I instead cut off the leaves and stems individually to preserve the plant. This method allowed us to keep getting leaves from the plant while also letting us take advantage of its already present root structure. Again, some may say that after the first cut, the rest doesn't taste as good. Having taste-tested the lettuce at each stage, I can say for certain that yes, the first cut was the best, but the subsequent picks were still pretty darn good.
I planted more lettuce for the fall, and so far it's coming up nicely.
Bush Beans — Mixed
Bush beans are different from "pole beans" in that they don't need support to grow, whereas pole beans as the term implies need to grow up a pole or trellis. Bush beans are great to companion plant with higher stalk plants like corn since they can also double as ground cover to a certain degree, and like most beans, they help add nitrogen to the soil through their root systems. Beans are usually pretty easy to grow, which is the reason why every so often you'll see groups of kindergarteners coming out of school holding Dixie cups full of dirt with a bean seed residing somewhere within. They are easy to plant, easy to grow, and they can take a pretty good beating. Most of the time.
We planted bush beans in several places: the boxes along the northern edge of the fence; along the eastern edge in two places; in two of the freestanding pots; and scattered in parts of two of the other boxes. At first they grew to be quite lush and quickly produced vegetables to pick. However, after the first harvest things went the other way. Bush beans seem to have a shallow root system, so like the cucumber bed where Meredith's cucumbers had some trouble, the boxes along the northern edge also refused to hold water near the surface, which spelled doom for the shallow rooted beans. We tried adding compost and straw, but the beds simply weren't good for the beans. As the summer went on, I gave up and cut the bean plants at the ground to leave their nitrogen-fixing roots in-place. I added a lot more compost and planted some cover crops to help build up the soil for next season. At the beginning of September, I planted spinach and kale in the places where the beans once grew, and so far they're coming up nicely. The other beds with beans did well, and there remain one or two plants still producing.
I feel that if I were to plant them again, I may consider planting them between tomato plants since they stay so low to the ground and may benefit from the shade provided by the taller plants.
Eggplant — Initial Success, then Destroyed by Squirrels
The eggplant came on strong in June and produced a lot of vegetables. They were absolutely beautiful, and early on, they were very healthy and happy. Our first harvest was particularly strong with plenty of fine, firm fruit, with ever-so-delicate skin. Even better, after that initial harvest there were still many flowers ready to produce and several little eggplantlets on the way. As they grew, I gave them more compost to help keep the growth up, firmly believing that the eggplant was going to be king of the garden.
Then one dismal morning I showed up to find the eggplant fruits completely destroyed — ripped out and ripped apart by the squirrels. This is no exaggeration here, they took care of every last vegetable on the plants and left eggplant carcasses everywhere. (There was a healthy bunch of ripped up tomatoes too that morning.) A person looking to vandalize the garden couldn't have done a better job.
Needless to say, I was pretty darn angry. For a moment I considered everything from grabbing a BB gun and hiding out to hooking a car battery to the fence to zap the squirrels. I even considered having a friend's dog come in to pee in the corners to ward off the nasty little rats. Neither those nor other similar solutions would have flown in Bronxville, so I turned to more humane solutions. Using water mixtures either with cayenne pepper, habanero pepper, with dish soap and garlic powder, or just peppermint oil in water, I sprayed the plants daily. This resulted in fewer squirrel strikes but for the eggplant, the damage was done and they never recovered.
If I were to do it over, maybe I'd consider putting some sort of chicken-wire cage over them, but that could get complicated. A more prudent thing to do would be to avoid growing eggplant there again in the future at least until I can convince Mayor Mary to let me hide out in the bushes with a crossbow. She's quite a bit saner than I am, so I don't really see that happening anytime soon.
Peppers — HUGE Success
The green peppers, chilis, yellow peppers, and orange peppers all produced. Consistently good, and consistently hot, these were the darlings of each harvest. Even better, being plants that like the heat, they did especially well during the dog days. The small chilis especially packed a punch. Seriously, I could have made a pepper spray with those little things that would have stopped a prize-winning bull on steroids in its tracks. The green peppers, the seeds at least, could also be hot, but overall they were perfectly balanced.
As of this past Wednesday, there were still peppers growing on the plants. I'm guessing this current batch will be the last hurrah of the peppers for the season, but overall they produced far beyond my expectations.
Herbs — Success
The lavender and mint plants were already in-place when I came on the scene, so really I spent the season not so much tending to them but repeatedly cutting them back. We had a lot of mint production, and the lavender went absolutely bonkers with growth. As for the other herbs, the rosemary, basil, thyme, lemon thyme, and chives all did very well and provided consistent yields for the food bank. However, above all in terms yield and quality was the sage.
At the beginning of the season, the sage was very pungent, almost too pungent. A couple times picking it, I wasn't entirely sure we hadn't bought some sort of genetically engineered weaponized sage. Then as the summer went on, as more leaves were plucked and new ones grew in, the scent of the sage became more and more subtle while also maintaining a complexity that is typical of fresh, well-tended sage. Even these days, I'm still pulling leaves off for the food bank.
The one down spot in the herb realm was the parsley. We got those as starter plants in June. The summer was simply too hot for them; we could not water them enough and they never looked healthy. I couldn't harvest anything off them because they were so delicate. Then they ended up browning a bit, then flowering while browning, then wilting while flowering — I mean there was never a time when they looked appetizing.
I don't count the parsley plants as a failure. They felt doomed from the start so I consider them more victims of circumstance.
Marigolds — Unintended Success
Mary Liz and I went on a little shopping spree at Nature's Cradle at the beginning of the season to pick up some herbs and flowers for the garden. We ended up getting several flavors of marigold which I planted in most of the boxes at each end.
To be honest, I didn't put much energy into trying to beautify the place. Aside from trying to keep the the garden tidy, the marigolds along with the wildflowers I planted were there for utility only — to keep pests away and to encourage visits by bees. Of course, we cared for the plants and watered them, the marigolds were sort of an afterthought. But as we later saw, it was an afterthought that ended up thriving.
The marigolds grew to be lush and healthy plants, producing a steady stream of flowers that kept the bad bugs out, the good bugs happy, and the garden quite colorful. Over time though, they became a bit of a problem — they were growing so much that they began to crowd out some of the crops. Especially when it rained, the marigold branches would fall on the beans and tomatoes and cause damage. I ended up cutting them back several times quite brutally in some cases, but they always kept coming back. Although they were not nearly as tenacious as the mint, they at times seemed to act more like invasive weeds than useful pest deterrents.
Despite their being a slight nuisance, I'd have to rate the marigolds as a full-on success with a bonus. They did the job they were meant to do and they made the place pretty. Those will be planted again next season.
Compost — Overwhelming Success
When I first came on last spring, I really wanted to do some onsite composting what with all the garden waste we produced. From the weeds, to the clippings, to the leaves that sometimes fell into the garden, I really didn't want to just toss all that useful biomass into the garbage. Luckily, as was written about previously, we got a visit from Pete, the Westchester County Director of Energy Conservation and Sustainability, and he donated a nice new composter to the garden. It didn't take me long to fill it, especially after my new friend Scott, the proprietor of Booskerdoo Coffee over on Kraft Ave near Park Place, generously offered to provide us with his used coffee grounds for the composter.
Sometimes I think I'm more into composting than growing plants. I spent an inordinate amount of time churning the compost, inspecting it, feeding it, and smelling it. I even tweeted a video showing maggots eating up some of the tomato waste in the bin (which by the way garnered me an extraordinary number of views).
I would often take its temperature using my little temperature gun, and it always seemed to hover in the 110°F range deep in the middle, which is a good temperature for turning slop into compost. It's to a point now that if I put some recently cut green leaves in the bin on a Monday, by Friday it is almost impossible to find to find evidence of my ever having put them in — they break down so quickly.
Aside from Pete's composter I use an open bin near the garden for compost overflow. This overflow eventually gets put in to Pete's but not until I make space for it. It's a good system because the open air compost loses moisture, dries up and browns, and then when it is added to Pete's composter, the dried materials suck up the humidity within the composter, and proceed to break down quickly.
So far, I've used quite a bit of our home-grown compost and the results have been everything we'd hoped for. All the plants definitely seemed to like it, especially the pot-planted carrots (as mentioned above), they grew very well with the home-grown compost.
Overall — Mixed
Well I ain't gonna say the season was a bust, but I ain't gonna say it was a good one either. The performance of the tomatoes and the eggplant really hurt our production, as did the beans. The greens were the best and most consistent producers, which suggests that dedicating more space to them in the future would be sound farming. I also think that dedicating more space to carrots wouldn't be the worst idea in the world.
Along with the mistakes I listed previously, here are a few more I made:
I didn't prune the tomato plants enough in August because I was being a wimp.
I was slow to realize the northern edge beds needed more help than I initially gave them.
I think I should have given a third injection of compost on the lettuce.
Planted the lettuce and chard too far from each other — I could have gotten a few more plants in there.
Should have set aside a special spot for basil. What we did have got crowded out by the tomatoes.
The main things I think I will do differently next year are:
Make better use of the beds while doing a better job spacing out the plants that need to be space out.
Have fewer tomato plants.
Plant the greens closer together — I was too conservative in my spacing there.
Plant more alliums around like garlic and onion to ward off certain insects. (In my defense, I did plant some onions in one of the pots, but the seeds never sprouted.)
Use netting early in the season on some crops to prevent squirrels and chipmunks from digging at the wee seedlings, and to prevent early infection of the cucumber plants.
Get the beds prepped a little earlier and more seeds in the ground at the very beginning of May, possibly April for some.
Spray my mint/water/dish soap concoction earlier and more often to ward off squirrels.
Grow more ground cover plants like buckwheat and hairy vetch.
Use some pole beans in addition to the bush beans.
From the end of August until the end of September, we planted kale, beets, spinach, carrots, chard, lettuce, and radishes. All are cool-weather loving plants and do quite well this time of year. We're hoping to have some returns on these crops by the end of October and November. So far all anecdotal and folksy "evidence" points to an early dismal winter, so we'll see how that goes.
Overall, there are two goals for the fall. One is to eek out some more production from the beds with some cold-loving leafy greens. The other is to lay down preparations for the next season. This why I've also been planting buckwheat and hairy vetch to help replenish the soil and to act as cover crops through the winter and into next season. I've also planted a large number of fava beans to further spike the soil with nutrients and to provide an early crop for next spring. Between those crops, our usual compost we get from the horse farm, the compost we produce, and of course some little additions of seaweed fertilizer and rock dust, I'm thinking that the BGG will be more fertile than the Napa Valley in 2021.
Until then, through the fall and winter I'll be mulling over the previous season with other gardening friends who will be mulling over theirs. Many gardeners like me will belly-ache about their seasons to whoever will listen while those who actually managed to have great seasons will feel a quiet sense of accomplishment and superiority. I won't get to be one of those smug and accomplished gardeners this winter, but thankfully there's always next year.