Sunday, October 11, 2009

2009 Garden in Review

Apologies for the length of this post. I'm not sure if anyone will be interested in my season-end review of our container garden, but here it is if you are. Has anyone else reading this done a review or planning a review of your own gardening efforts? Please link to it! I would love to read it.

Apologies for any spelling errors. Apparently Blogger no longer has a spell check option, which doesn't make any kind of sense at all. 

Our garden had a rough time this year. We weren't going to plant anything this year because we hoped to be moving and didn't want to deal with the hassle of moving a garden. It started innocently enough when Scott brought home a pot full of campanulas. I did a minor amount of copy writing for E. J. Slayton's wonderful Bellflower Lace Scarf which lead to some discussion of campanulas/bellflowers looked like and whether they grew in Missouri.  When Scott saw bellflowers for sale he brought some home so we could enjoy them up close and in person.

Then we stopped at Sappington Farmers Market (which isn't really a farmers market, at all) and came home with just a few plants that we couldn't bear to do without. Let me break down what a "few" plants are in our universe--1 pot of Italian herbs, a pot of tuplips, 4 tissue paper looking things that ended up not surviving, 6 crepes looking things that I killed after a month, lemon balm, some other mint, some sort of succulent that lost its label and 2 other unidentified plants.

Somehow we also ended up with 2 topsy turvys, 1 strawberry planter (don't bother) and seeds for tiny sunflowers, 5 different kinds of tomatoes, 2 sweet peas and bell peppers.

I don't think either one of us believed we would ever really move and couldn't bear being stuck in our old apartment without a garden to sneak out to, but move out we did. The move was not kind to the plants and several died or were injured beyond full recovery. Those that made it thrived on our new balcony that has high humidity and ambient temperatures 10-15 degrees warmer than the rest of the world.

Our old patio wasn't useful for anything other than plants. It was right next to the parking lot, which was convenient for carrying in groceries but not conducive to having living space on the patio. We packed that old patio to the gills and felt free to extend beyond our tiny concrete patio out to the  common areas on either side of our patio. We also drilled half a dozen hooks for hanging plants. The landlords didn't care if we spread our garden out as far and wide as possible. They always made it clear how much the other residents enjoyed our garden and encouraged us in keeping it up.

Our new balcony was technically larger than our old patio, but didn't have the expansion space the old patio had. Additionally, we wanted to frequently sit out on our balcony which is something we never did at the old place. We grilled frequently at the old place, but the number of plants and the size of the grill kept us from firing it up this summer. The very high ambient temperatures proved a special concern. The plants needed twice-a-day watering in the summer and thrice-a-day watering on the hottest days of the year. At one point, as a joke, I set out a meat thermometer to see if anything would register. An hour later it was clear that I could cook a ham on my balcony if need be.

Weather was a special concern this year. It rained all through May and many of our plants drowned. In mid-September the temperature dropped suddenly. The heat-loving tomatillos and cukes stopped producing and started shutting down. There was a minor uptick in temperatures that started them producing again, but the yields were small.

Ultimately we ended up with:
  • Dead ivy, which remained dead despite various resuscitation attemts
  • Bellflowers, which lived a colorful and brief life before succumbing to the summer sun
  • 2 canna bulbs, which failed to thrive. They were replaced by new cannas in late summer
  • kalanchoe, which is hearty and thriving but never flowered
  • aloe, killed in the spring rains and replaced
  • sunflowers--barely sprouted and died
  • tomato seeds from Target--gave them away. I'm not sure how they are doing.
  • Sweet pea flowers--we gave away one pot and the other one died
  • hens and chicks, didn't do a thing. The hen got fatter but there never were any chicks
  • spicy basil, my favorite kind of basil! We planted far too many spicy basil seeds and never thinned them out. The shoots remained tiny and tender with a mild flavor throughout the season because of pot overcrowding, but the tiny leaves were difficult to work with. Next year we need to thin the plantings out and allow the basil to reach greater maturity. Even with the stunted growth of this plant, it was our highest yielding pot. We had enough basil for 3 lemon-basil cakes, 20 servings of pesto (frozen in ice cube trays), and several meals consisting only of mozzarella, tomato and basil.
  • sweet basil, we were in basil overload when we were moving and gave this away to ???
  • italian herb pot with parsley, rosemary, oregano and more basil--the parsley was a waste. Once I pulled it the oregano went wild. I need to pull and dry it today. The basil never thrived. Usually just being around rosemary will send me in to a sneezing fit, but this year we managed to use every last bit of it in the pot. Hooray for Zyrtec!
  • strawberries. I give up on strawberries. I just flipping give up.
  • balloon flower--neither one of us is sure what happened to the balloon flower. Possibly it reached the end of the season and made its way to the dumpster.
  • Tiger lilies--these grew wild all over the old apartment complex. We stole a few bulbs before we left and had a nice bloom this year.
  • christmas cactus--dead, dead, dead.
  • pablano peppers--It made one pepper.
  • jalapeno--This was a late bloomer. We didn't think it was going to produce and then in September it exploded with jalepenos.
  • pansies--A beautiful spring addition to our cucumber bucket until the cukes took off.
  • orange mint--pretty and smells good, but we didn't do anything with it.
  • tomatoes in a Topsy Turvy--it had great foilage growth, but the yield was dismal. It could have been the medium it was grown in, the method used to grow it or, and I'm just guessing here, but perhaps it could have been because the movers stepped on it. Repeatedly.
  • yet another strawberry planter--The strawberry seeds never sprouted but the clover weeds thrived.
  • cucumber plant--we were on our way to a bumper crop of cucumbers when it suddenly stopped producing when the weather turned cooler in September. The cucumbers we did get were seedy and flavorless. We probably won't get the generic burpless variety again.
  • brussels sprouts--The plants loved the sun. The largest of the 2 plants is nearly 3 feet tall and has a giant beautiful head of leaves. The sprouts may have gotten too warm. Those towards the bottom of the plant are loosely formed and will probably be bitter. Since the cool weather has hit the sprout production has really taken off. If we can get the sprouts to full size before the first freeze we should have about 200 sprouts.
  • catnip--the cats hated it so we pitched it
  • some kind of fuzzy headed flower--died a wet death. That month of rain in May/June really wasn't that helpful.
  • some kind of flowering succulent--I'm sure it died a wet death, too.
  • jade plant--I have no idea where this even is. [Update: Scott replies "IT'S RIGHT NEXT TO THE KALANCHOE!"]
  • eggplants--We had a lot of eggplants. Probably about 15 or 20 small to fist-sized vegetables that nearly all went bad. We just couldn't eat them fast enough largely because (drumroll please) I don't like eggplant. They are extremely entertaining to grow, but I can't cook them well for anything.

  • lantanas--Scott bought a lantana plant from the clearance table at Dierbergs. They were beautiful and produced abundant seeds.
  • avocado plant--grown from the pit of an avocado. It's probably going to die this winter. Avocado trees don't do well in the midwest.
  • zuccinni--Code Name, Zukethulu. We planted this in a topsy turvy and it thrived until, again, the movers stepped on it. The base of the plant rotted but the foilage continued to thrive and produce fruit. Unfortunately none of the fruit made it to full size. They wold reach about the size of a marker and then rot. We tried pruning back the leaves but that didn't help. One day it snapped at the base and that was the end of Zukethulu. 

  • sweet potato vines--bought on a whim and on sale. These vines grow like crazy. Halfway through their growing season I accidentally ripped them up and off their roots. I plopped it down on top of a pot full of dirt to dispose of later and it set up plenty of roots. I harvested 6 or 7 tubers for next year.
  • head lettuce--I bought 4 lettuce seedlings and grew 4 lettuce heads that tasted a lot like dirt. Disappointing and not a very exciting gardening experience.
  • pole beans--We never got enough beans to make a serving. What we did get was very tough without good flavor.
  • tomatillos--The tomatillos thrived with 2 plants in one pot until the temperatures dropped off. Unfortunately hey also spread out like crazy and threatened to take over half the balcony.This might be a better plant for ground planting than container gardening. 
  • spearmint--this didn't grow like it normally does. At the end of the season I normally pull the plant by the roots and dispose of it. This year I cut it back and am hoping for  a resurgence next year. 
  • lemon balm--we had a mega mid-season haul of lemon balm. I made a 24 ice-cubes and 6 half-pints of lemon balm syrup that are tasty but I will probably never use. It smells good in the garden, but it was only so-so in tea. The syrup is good, but how much does one family need? Unless we find some way to use it we probably won't plant more.
  • Radishes and carrots--I planted 3 batches of radishes and carrots and ended up pulling 3 batches of greens. For some reason the radishes just aren't producing anything but tops.
What we used:
We started with compost from Scott's parents garden. That has always worked for us. This year we mixed the compost with dirt from their garden and the soil proved too heavy and dense for the containers. It was just too clay like.

We bought some expensive Miracle Grow for container gardening. It has pellets in it to retain water, but I couldn't tell that it made much of a difference. At the end of the season we mixed regular top soil with manure (yuck). The dirt was dark, but it was too late in the season to tell if it made any difference to the rate of growth. We planted some radishes in it that had good foilage, but extremely shallow roots. I can't tell if that's because of the dirt, the seeds or the growing conditions. I'm not ready to discount the manure/top soil mixture yet. The best dirt we got was plain old potting soil from Rolling Ridge Nursery. It was also the cheapest.

We used some plant food when the nitrogen-sucking plants started turning yellow. We used it regularly for a few weeks and then promptly forgot all about it.

I enjoyed fantasizing about shooting the squirrel that kept digging up our tender bulbs and stealing our tomatillos, but I let him live and bought a roll of chicken wire instead. I did run out and chase him off quite a bit. I started taking the cats on the balcony every morning when I knew Mr. Squirrel was around.

The birds were viscous with their poop. Their songs were pretty, but they liked to eat what the squirrel didn't and poop on our front door. The bird songs (and the fact that HELLO, nature!) kept me from complaining to the complex. I do think other neighbors must have complained about the mess, which was considerable. Either that or there was a massive bird migration at the beginning of the summer. Doesn't seem likely.

A few birds still came around, such as this amorous pair of love birds:

We had several visits from a hummingbird. Lovely!

Earlier this week we had a visit from this fat bird. That's not one of our love birds, is it? Sheesh!

We went through 2 bottles of Concern Multipurpose Insect Killer. The harmful bugs on our patio were vicious, but pretty. After only ever seeing whitefly or hornworms in our old apartment garden, the influx of very colorful insect life and spiders was entertaining for a few weeks. It stopped being entertaining when the garden started showing signs of serious damage.

Where we bought:

For the 3rd year in a row the best quality seedlings have come from Sappington Farmers Market. Chef Jeff's grew best for us, once again. We also bought seedlings from Westlake Ace Hardware, Sappington Garden, Rolling Ridge Nursery, Flower Box, Home Depot, Dierbergs and Target.

The Bounty:
  • 24 ice-cubes and 6 half-pints of lemon balm syrup
  • a sandwiched sized container of dried spearmint
  • about 40 small tomatillos--enough for a batch of salsa. I'm sad that the other few hundred fruits never reached maturity
  • maybe 10 pole beans
  • 4 heads of lettuce
  • 15 or 20 small to fist-sized eggplants
  • If we can get them to maturity we should have ~200 brussel sprouts
  • 10 or 15 cucumbers
  • 4 tomatoes
  • 2 dozen or so jalepenos
  • 1 pablano pepper
  • 3 lemon-basil cakes, 20 servings of pesto (frozen in ice cube trays), and several meals consisting only of mozzarella, tomato and basil.
  • some herbs
and that's that. Have you ever read The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden
? That's how I feel. The only plants that paid for themselves are the spicy basil, eggplants (if we had eaten them in time), jalepenos, cucumbers and brussels sprouts

We're talking about experimenting with keeping our plants outside this year. There's talk of a building a little plastic tarp house for the avocado tree. We're getting a little too close to the end of the year to just now be thinking about what we can do with our plants. We've gotten as far as deciding they aren't coming in here. If we had an enclosed porch or a basement it wouldn't be an issue, but we don't.

Looking forward:
Next year we will be focusing on high yield plants that need less space to grow. We are also going to be focusing more on flowering plants in railing planters. I loved seeing the lush greens of our vegetable garden, but a little color would have broken up the monotony. I would like to replace the orange utility buckets we have used for tomatoes and cucumbers with something a little more attractive.

We need to be more efficient in how we use our space. We would like to replace many of our round containers with square containers. We would like to grow up instead of out, if we can do it without our patio taking on a jungle look.  We need to plan the patio out to maximize space.

With Scott traveling so much this year much of our produce went to waste. If he continues to travel then our vegetables should be ones that keep or freeze well. Another concern is how to keep water off of our neighbors heads. We use plastic trays right now but occasionally there is spill over.

We have lantana seeds from our garden, 4 o'clock and hyacinth bean seeds from my mother's garden, which was pretty impressive this year. All 3 are late bloomers, I think, so we'll need another plan for the spring plants. I would like to do brussel sprouts again, even if it isn't cool enough to grow them without taking on a bitter taste. The big thick leaves were beautiful. Basil and spearmint are a given. We would like to try some heirloom tomatoes. We may do a topsy turvy again, but only as an experiment. It is good idea in theory, but it seems like other peoples tomatoes did better in containers rather than in topsy turvys.