Monday, June 12, 2017

Growings-on in the Learning Garden

As is true for so many things, an effort to raise vegetables can be aided greatly by reflection. To follow up on last weeks personal introduction, I would like to give readers an introduction to what is growing in the garden and take the opportunity to reflect on the state of things. 

The Saint Martin's University Learning Garden consists of roughly 10 beds, and a series of other plantable spaces like in-ground raspberry beds and some large pots for blueberry plants. I say roughly 10 beds because one of the smallest ones is occupied primarily by a behemoth rosemary plant, which takes up the majority of the space. Barring that bed, I will document here most of the plantings that are found in the garden and discuss how they are doing, and possible reasons for their success or failure. 

One of the deepest beds in the garden, at around 2 feet deep, with peas on the outside and beans sprouting in the middle rows
Peas, especially sugar snap peas, the most common ones you can munch on while still in the pod, like to be trellised. While they were planted in this bed that has trellis lines on the sides, they never actually got to the height that they needed to in order to start growing upwards. They did send out flowers, and produce peas, but they are already on their way out of production after only a week or two of fruiting. What happened? A lot can be learned from the way they were planted. They came with about 6-8 plants in a pot, and were planted as whole clumps instead of being broken up into 6-8 individual root systems before being planted. As a result, they show distinct signs of being rootbound - in other words, the roots did not have enough space to breath and grow individually. The plants could have benefited from more space, and more active trellising.

The beans that are sprouting up now were planted as the peas were first flowering, and show signs of pest damage, likely slugs. If they can survive this first onslaught, they will hopefully grow larger and produce some tasty beans. The seeds that were planted were beans that were grown in the Learning Garden last year. 

Cauliflower (already going to flower) and purple broccoli
This bed is doing reasonably well. The plants are healthy and growing well, but the cauliflower has already started to flower! This is not good, as it means that these plants will produce no cauliflower, other than the meager flowers they have put out prematurely. A likely factor is the heat that we have had in recent weeks, which acts as a sign to the plants that they need to put out seeds soon or risk dying without reproducing. The purple broccoli seems to have sustained the heat better, but we will see how they fare in coming weeks. 

The broccoli bed last week, with tiny, but tight, heads of florets
Green broccoli this week, unfortunately flowering and going to seed
Broccoli, like cauliflower, can easily go to seed when there is too much heat and they aren't harvested in time. Unlike the cauliflower plants posted up above, these broccoli plants at least had decent heads on them before they went to seed. They are still very much edible, quite delicious in fact, but not exactly marketable anymore in a commercial setting. People typically want tight heads of broccoli with dense florets, and these heads of broccoli are on the verge of having more flowers than florets, and are loosening up as the flowers get sent upward and outward. If they had been harvested last week, they would have been an all around successful crop, and in some ways they still are, but my desire to let them bulk up some more allowed for just enough time for them to bolt by the time I made it back to the Learning Garden today. 

Red scallions, growing well!
The bed pictured above is one of the most conventionally successful in the whole garden. When I arrived, the scallions were planted a little too densely, so I ripped them out, put them into small groups, and replanted them. Scallions are small onions, often called green onions, that are harvested young and used for topping salads and other foods. The way they are sold is in small bunches, and this type of planting facilitates the easy harvesting and bunching of scallions. The yellow shoots that can be seen are not a cause for concern, they are the outermost layer of skin, also the oldest, and do not tell the whole story of the planting. The inside growth is still fresh and green, and the yellow parts can easily be peeled off when harvested for a more aesthetically pleasing (and palatable) result. 

Two types of kale on the left, and red and yellow beets on the right. 
This bed is also doing very well, partly because kale pretty much takes care of itself. If you let kale go to seed in your garden, you are almost guaranteed it will come back on its own the next year. The darker, less serrated leafed kale is Lacinato kale, and the crazy looking lighter kale is Red Russian, or Dinosaur kale. They both are very abundant and fertile. 

On the right are a few rows of beets. These were also planted a little too densely when I inherited the garden, and I took the time to thin them out and give the beets space to bulk up. Especially with root crops like carrots and beets, thinning is crucial for a successful crop. If the plants are spaced too closely, they will grow into each other, fighting for space, and ultimately inhibiting each others' growth. The replanting definitely stressed out some of the beets, but others are loving the wiggle room and are expanding rapidly. We are maybe 3 or 4 weeks out from our first sizable beets. 

The greens bed, a mess of stressed out, flowering greens.
This bed of mixed greens is a mess. It is a product of the crazy spring that we have had here in the Pacific Northwest. First it was cold and rainy for too long, then intense heat hit us here and there, and that is a great way to have leafy greens freak out and send out flowers much too soon. While you can still dig out some usable leaves from the craziness, this planting is too far gone, and I will be tearing it out today and planting a bed of potatoes in its stead. 
Last week, with strawberry starts hanging out for watering purposes

This week, with tomatoes planted in the center, zucchini along closest and left walls, cucumbers along far wall, and leeks on the right

This bed, which is also reasonably deep, and enjoys a bit more full sun in the afternoon than the other beds, is doing quite well. The tomatoes that I planted were from donated seeds that I started at my house, and are taking a little time to really take off. Some appeared to be damaged by pests this week, but I'm willing to give it another week before I am really worried. The other vegetables planted here seem to suggest that all is well. The zucchinis and cucumbers are all bulking up nicely, and the leeks, though they are taking their time, are looking healthy and disease free. Most leeks and onions, in the allium family, don't have many pest problems. If you've ever eaten raw onions, you might have a clue as to why! ;)

On the subject of pests and diseases, I am not sure how the combination of zucchinis, cucumbers and tomatoes will do. Zucchinis and cucumbers are notorious for attracting powdery mildew, and tomatoes are notoriously susceptible to ailments such as mildew when they are around, though they don't seem to attract it on their own as much. The zucchinis and cucumbers are members of the curcubit family, while tomatoes are in the nightshade family, so I'm not sure if they will play nice or not. With the curcubits having a couple weeks of a head start, if it turns into a contest, they will likely win out over the tomatoes. Only time will tell!
The perennial herbs bed.
This bed, while planted this year, is filled with herbs that will, with any luck, continue to grow for many years to come. There is rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender, mint, chives, and horseradish. Yes, that's right, horseradish. I have never grown it before, but it, along with the other plants, were graciously donated by the previous Learning Garden manager Johanna, and are doing quite well! The chives were rescued from the compost pile, which had a wealth of different plants growing on it. Many of them I just sent back to compost land, but I figured the chives would make a nice addition to the herb bed, and there they are, clinging onto life in the midst of the other herbs. This bed, with some preventative weeding each week, pretty much takes care of itself as well. 
A new addition to the learning garden, an in-ground strawberry bed
This strawberry bed was the brainchild of the previous Learning Garden manager Johanna, and was in an ideal spot, a previously weedy patch of dirt next to the apple tree. It was waiting for something to be planted, and after loosening up the soil and putting down some straw for mulch, I gave it some strawberry plants, also generously donated by Johanna. Strawberries are a delicious berry, and that flavor comes at a cost - strawberries are not always easy to grow. There are many different types of berries, and the plants in this bed are from 3 or 4 different varieties. That means that they will fruit at different times, produce different sized berries, and fruit a different number of times each year. 

In some senses it is good to have this diversity to space out the strawberry harvest throughout the summer, but it can also complicate the care for them. Some of the everbearing varieties, types that will produce strawberries more than once throughout a summer, like to have the first flush of berries left on the vine, or else they won't produce again the rest of the year. Other types need to be harvested the first time because that is the only time they will flush the entire year. These plants likely won't produce fruit this year since they were just stuck in the ground last week, but it is always okay to hope! In the end, just one juicy berry and all the work is worth it!

Two in-ground raspberry plantings, struggling, but ultimately putting out fruit
 Raspberries are some of my favorite berries, and the beauty of them is that they often grow like weeds! These raspberries are not linked up to the irrigation system, meaning that I only water them once a week when I come to the garden to work. Still, with little attention, and no thinning this year, their canes are laden with young fruits, and raspberry munching seems to be only a few weeks out.

As has been mentioned in relation to many other crops in this post, thinning can be beneficial to raspberry plants, but unlike carrots and beets, not thinning raspberries is not catastrophic. You can notice on some of the raspberry leaves that they are growing yellow and crispy, and some disease presence is likely, but they are still sending up new shoots, and producing fruit on schedule. In terms of raspberries, thinning can benefit them in a few ways, mostly root space and air flow. When the airflow is restricted by a mass of leaves, diseases and pests can attack plants more easily, jumping from plant to plant with ease, and with little wind to carry away the intruders. Raspberries also routinely send up new shoots each year, and root space can get crowded. Had I started a couple months earlier at this job, I would have done a quick winter prune, but now that there is fruit on the canes, I will wait until after the harvest at the least to prune so as not to shock them and damage fruit production.
Blueberries! They're so plump and almost ready to devour!

The blueberries that are planted along the walkway into the garden are absolutely thriving! Most of them are planted into what look to be halves of wooden casks, which gives a cool look to the bushes coming out the top. There are nine bushes in all, eight of which are doing extremely well, and one of which is doing so-so. They are in a spot that is shaded by two large cedar trees, but they don't seem to be suffering because of it. The fruit is plump, and is going to be ready to harvest in just a couple weeks. These plants have benefited greatly from being hooked up to the automatic irrigation system, and without that daily watering, they would not be able to survive like the raspberries have. Blueberries are, like strawberries, a picky crop to grow, but I am fortunate to have healthy, happy bushes to take care of! A little weeding and some extra mulch, and they will likely continue to be healthy for many years more. 

In summary, this garden is like so many other gardens and farms in that some things are growing incredibly well with little effort, while other things are not cooperating, and ultimately, failing. Over time, with good stewardship and reflection, we can learn more about how each garden grows, different soil types, different sun exposure, different watering techniques, etcetera, and with each year, we can learn a little more.

Until next time, your gardener,
Lee Kaplan-Unsoeld

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