First Vegetable Garden – a Retrospective

By Darlene Belton, Master Gardener

What a gratifying summer! Although I’ve done ornamental gardening for almost 30 years, including 15 years following sustainable permaculture principles, I’ve always inter-planted small numbers of herbs, tomatoes, lettuce, kale and squash amongst the ornamentals. I’ve found this an excellent way to ensure pollination and to reduce vegetable pests (that then can’t find the plants they seek among all the others). However, this past summer I wanted a much larger harvest and decided that a dedicated vegetable garden was the only way to go.

It’s November now and my husband and I put the vegetable garden to bed the week after Thanksgiving. Now is the time for reflection as we plan for next year. What were our ‘hits’, ‘misses’ and ‘lessons learned?

First, to step back briefly. In the MMGA’s July newsletter, I told the story of creating the garden, a 14’X14’ virgin space dug from the lawn in my brother’s riverbank yard, a 25-minute drive from home, because our own yard is too shady and root-bound. I followed sustainable, organic gardening principles; these are especially appropriate practices recommended in No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture: Pesticide-Free Methods for Restoring Soil and Growing Nutrient-Rich, High-Yielding Crops by Connecticut market gardener, Bryan O’Hara. I truly believe we would not have had the success we did if I had not discovered that book; it was recommended to me by Rod Kueneman of Sustainable South Osborne.

August 7, the Garden is filling out nicely

• Abundance. Everything grew so well! We’ve never tasted such delicious lettuce from vigorous plants that kept on producing well into September. The peas and beans bowed under the weight of their plump crisp produce. We’re still, in November, finishing the masses of cucumbers produced from just four plants – I highly recommend cold cucumber soup! But the star of the garden was the pattypan; we were still finding fruit after several frosts, and had innumerable feasts from mid-July to late October. Hint: try whole baby pattypans as a feature on barbecued shish kebobs – scrumptious!
• Health. Except for some late mildew on the snap peas and an invasion of flea beetles that nailed the first leaves of my second arugula planting (but were gone from later growth), everything flourished, making the garden a delight just to look at with its intense colours and huge plants.
• No weeds. Or so few, it’s not worth mentioning. I believe it was the leaf and flax straw mulch laid over the garden except for the narrow strips where plants grew that made pulling the odd weed almost an after-thought.
• Rabbit fencing. The special design of this fencing that had been recommended to us worked extremely well. Although there are plenty of rabbits at this riverbank location, none breached the fence.
• A family affair. From being, yep, a sneering skeptic initially, my brother became a total convert, willing to turn the sprinkler on almost daily in this droughty summer, and happily to raid the garden for fresh tomatoes, peas, beans and carrots. My little grand-nephew got to harvest his first mini-garden and his parents to share in the excess bounty, everyone getting their favorites. Our garden was a family bond-builder, especially valued at this time of Covid 19.

Harvest August 15

Harvest August 21

• Necessary sun hours. Never believe a non-gardener’s assessment of hours of direct sun! This site proved to have only 5-6 hours daily so the watermelon, sweet peppers, eggplant and scarlet runner beans didn’t produce, and the winter squash didn’t ripen before frost (though is ripening well inside now). I had tried the sun-loving plants as an experiment, suspecting this might happen, but I admit I was disappointed. The tomatoes were the early ripening varieties I plant at home, that with less sun still produce eventually.
• Winter squash vines. The butternut and spaghetti squash, though prolific, sprawled over most of the rest of the garden creating a tangle that was hard to navigate (luckily there were so few weeds). The summer pattypan squash grew very tidily as a bush like zucchini. I’ll plant Butterbush squash (a bush-type with fruit like butternut) next year and skip the spaghetti squash.
• Kale and arugula. The seeds for these, planted in late May with the other veggies, didn’t germinate and I’m not sure why, as they are supposed to be cool-weather crops. The mid-July replanting of arugula, mentioned above, yielded a generous harvest at fall clean up time.

• Water, water, water. I don’t think I’ve gotten my mind around the extended drought we’ve had these last four summers (with the odd splash of rain). I don’t think we could have managed this remote garden without my brother’s willingness to turn the sprinkler on and off almost daily for the required half inch, and donate the resulting water bill (though we would have happily paid him for it). The result was a lushness beyond description, but my husband and I couldn’t have managed daily trips to do that job. I’d say access to water is the main issue in establishing a remote vegetable garden. And with the climate change forecast for this area, we may not get any more ‘wet cycles’. Installing a trickle system may be a possible option in the future.
• I’m a vegetable garden convert! Bryan O’Hara’s methods really work, and make vegetable gardening actually easy. Yes, there is up-front hand labour to gently till and prepare a new space, but the soil-building methods such as mulching and cutting plants at the root rather than pulling to minimize disturbing the earth, means few weeds and richer soil life which, as we gardeners are learning now, results in healthier, more nutrient-rich produce. And, the relatively small square-footage of the garden was ample for our needs. Next year we’ll apply what we learned from our ‘hits’ and ‘misses’ and cross our fingers for continued success.

Unfortunately I don’t have a composting system that produces enough heat to decompose the stiff squash and cucumber vines, so I regretfully put most of that, plus the mildewed pea vines in compostable bags the city picks up and delivers to its recycling depot at fall clean-up time. A couple of Master Gardener friends chastised me, saying I could have shredded the stalks in my electric shredder at home, which would have made them compostable in my bins. I’m annoyed at this example of my tunnel thinking and will do better next year!

At any rate, concerned about the soil nutrients lost from the garden by discarding the stalks, my husband and I mixed a winter mulch for the grow-rows of shredded leaves, grass clippings, Sea Soil and well-rotted cow manure from our friends’ range-raised cattle farm and applied it about 4-6in. thick. Next spring we will add compost from our bins at home and begin our no-till in earnest; I plan to insert the seeds into small holes I poke into the rows.

The garden after fall cleanup, with a rich mulch laid on the grow-rows, October 15. Some Bright Lights chard, upper left, awaits harvest by friends.