Thursday, August 6, 2015

Garden Growth -- Squared

I suppose you could call it a kitchen garden for I pull out radishes, onions, chives, cucumbers, basil, garlic, and others to garnish a main course or perk up salads we prepare in the kitchen. We steamed broccoli straight from the garden last Friday night. One night earlier this week I grilled plank salmon, with chopped bunching onions, pressed garlic and diced basil from the garden spread on top along with lemon and pepper. Yum! The flavor, texture and freshness of our homegrown produce slays anything that can be purchased locally, even from the most chi chi stalls at the farmers markets and roadside stands. I have green peppers and tomatoes growing too; with the late start of the growing season hereabouts the first specimens will be ready for consumption next week.

Our first full summer in Bozeman the vegetable garden consisted of a few tomato plants and several green pepper plants in a flower bed next to the house, so, more than anything, we could test whether we could bring in a worthwhile warm weather crop during the truncated Montana growing season. 

Season 2, single section garden plot, July 8, 2014.
We were pleased with the results to the point that last year I forged ahead with constructing a honest to God vegetable garden in the backyard. I did not dig so much as build up the plot. 

First, to frame the plot, I interleaved one atop the other, two layers of 6 inch, by 6 inch, by 8 foot landscape timbers around the sunny, grassy area I had selected in the backyard. The border went two timbers long by one timber across, making just about 128 square feet available for planting. 

Rather than tilling soil I layered organic material on top of the grass, starting with layers of newsprint to smother the no longer wanted turf. On top of the papers I spread compost we had accumulated from organic kitchen waste (we have three black trash cans we rotate through for this purpose) and from the bottom of a yard waste debris pile. Then on top of that I layered 6 to 8 inches of grass clippings graciously supplied by a neighbor who bags his grass in the spring and de-thatches his sod. Then I watered the layers down giving them an opportunity to compact a bit. 

To transplant seedlings (e.g., tomato and pepper plants started indoors) I spaded small holes through the mulch layers and poked through the newspaper. To plant seeds the first year (e.g., broccoli and radishes) I cut away sections of newspaper and bought a few bags of top soil to layer over the seeds (this later step is not needed in subsequent years). Over the summer as much of the mulch decomposed. I supplemented it to keep control weed growth and maintain soil moisture, using grass clippings that commercial lawn crews working our neighborhood were happy to share. This spring I repeated with new layers of compost and clippings. When this process is repeated enough years the timbers will frame a highly fertile raised garden bed.

Doubled plot, August, 2015
Also this spring, I doubled down, laying a second set of timbers, and then repeated the full newsprint, compost and grass clipping layering process on this new section. Now the total plot size is about 256 square feet.

We are fortunate to have fertile soil up our end of the Gallitan valley, and by our method of building up the soil it is sure to remain so. I use no fertilizer or chemicals whatsoever on the garden. My methods don't come from a trendy book or emanate from a cause, but are about as natural and organic as you can get.

2015 cucumber and tomato crops -- click to enlarge and see
a rabbit friend, in the grass, upper left hand corner.
I dropped two crops from last year's lineup. First stricken was an item canceled for lack of interest. At the family's behest I bought acorn squash seeds, started them indoors, and then transplanted out of doors the three best specimens, resulting in a prolific acorn squash harvest. But the family lost interest after two or three squash were consumed -- the remainder went into compost bins. The second crop scratched was carrots. Our climate, soil and growing conditions are good for root crops, but our backyard rabbits (see one of the little guys above left) chewed down the tops, robbing this root crop of nourishment, and resulting in tiny fingerling carrots. We don't mind sharing with critters, but 90/10 doesn't work for us. 

Our two new crops in 2015 are the cucumbers and asparagus. We planted asparagus from seed, the result being a half dozen small bushy plants. The gardening literature cautions there will be no edible crop the first year. In view of how small our plants are we will be pleased and a bit surprised if our maiden plants survive the winter.  

Simmering home-made spaghetti sauce on top of our Jenn Air range.
While consuming slices of juicy red tomatoes fresh from the garden is something we look forward to, that doesn't need to happen for us to have a successful tomato harvest. Our primary use of garden grown tomatoes is as the basic ingredient for home grown, kitchen made spaghetti sauce. Ingredients include our very own tomatoes, peppers, onions, chives, garlic, and basil. This year we hope to also include the oregano we newly planted. 

Last year, I grew long season tomatoes and not a one of them was picking red before our first frost -- actually a hard freeze, indicated by overnight lows of 28 degrees on September 11th and 22 degrees on the 12th (see weather calendar below). But not to worry. Knowing the freeze was coming I bagged and boxed all of the green tomatoes during the daylight hours of September 11. I wrapped the tomatoes in newsprint and stored in boxes in the basement. I pulled out the about half that had ripened in 10 days for making the first batch of spaghetti sauce (we freeze what is not consumed in the first week in meal sized bags) and the other half about 10 days after that, with no more than ten percent of crop going bad along the way.

The 2014 weather calendar documents the early hard freeze we had September 11 and 12 last year. We pulled in the crops to avoid damage, and then enjoyed the two weeks of glorious Indian Summer that followed. Source:

The lineup for the 2014 Manahattan Potato Festival.
If there is sufficient demand for new or expanded crops I will gladly add a third section to the plot next spring. I've asked for ideas. Our eldest daughter has already suggested growing potatoes, which is a splendid idea, especially considering that the Gallitan valley is a prime agricultural locale which specializes in growing seed potatoes. If you are driving through just up the road on I-90, the Manhattan Potato Festival is scheduled for August 15. Stop on by and enjoy a spud or two. I think we'll try growing some Yukon Yellows and some Reds of our own next spring.

Basil left and a couple of red onions, right.

Green peppers.

Small asparagus plants, center left, a couple of garlic stalks, right.

Bunching onions with a few broccoli leaves in the background.

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