With locally sourced food all the rage these days, I thought I’d keep on trend and share some highlights from my backyard vegetable garden. Forty feet from “farm” to table is about as local as it gets. I will warn you, however, that my gardening methods are far from orthodox, and that true gardeners might find some of my admissions scandalous.
For example, I often forego a fall cleanup and leave dead plants in the ground all winter. This is not good garden hygiene! I also let cilantro and dill go to seed every summer, thereby delegating the sowing of next year’s crop to the wind. Rather than double-digging the beds, I let the worms do most of the soil preparation. I don’t even pinch the extra growth off my tomato plants, even though doing so would theoretically improve the fruit quality. The encouraging news is that despite my laissez-faire approach, things still grow! Mother Nature is one of those control-freak moms who gets her way no matter what.
In our 20’x24’ fenced plot, I focus my (minimal) efforts on growing crops that 1) I/we like to eat, 2) taste far superior to what you could find in stores or farmers’ markets, or 3) you might not be able to find in stores or farmers’ markets. For example, I’ve yet to taste a commercially-grown beefsteak tomato (including those from farmers’ markets) that could compete with an intensely flavored, firm-yet-juicy ‘Big Boy’ from our own backyard (ideally still warm from the afternoon sun, sliced and sprinkled with course sea salt). Fresh shell peas are best eaten raw, right in the garden or within hours of picking. The kids actually fight over who got more peas! And have you ever seen still-green coriander seeds in a market? These are the perks that keep my hands in the dirt year after year.
By the way, this (above) is why the garden is fenced, and why there’s chicken wire attached inside and buried a foot below the ground. Somehow baby bunny still got in, which should make me mad but just look how cute he is! (I’m afraid you won’t find any stewed rabbit recipes on this site.)
Beyond the bunny, here’s a recap of what else has been happening (or hasn’t happened) in the garden so far this season:
March: Could’ve (should’ve) planted peas and cold weather crops on St. Patrick’s Day. Garden was still a mess from winter so the peas didn’t have a chance.
Late April: Finally cleaned up the leaves and removed last year’s remaining carrots (radioactive-huge, like those from Gilligan’s Island) and dead tomato plants. Should’ve dumped some compost or soil builder on the beds at this time but didn’t feel like making a trip to the nursery. Planted a few rows of beets and a row of arugula using seeds left over from last year. Was not very concerned about spacing the seeds – you can always thin the plants later. Didn’t feel like setting up a trellis for the tall-growing pole peas (‘Telephone’, also left over), so experimented this year by planting them around the base of large tomato cages. Marveled at my crop of volunteer (self-seeded) cilantro; this is when it pays to be lazy. Each year I harvest the cilantro leaves until the plants bolt (flower); then I let the plants go to seed so that I’ll have another (free) crop next spring. As extra bonuses, the cilantro plants perfume the air on warm nights, and the green seeds (coriander) can be harvested and used in sauces and marinades.
Early May: Harvested a few spears of asparagus! (A perennial crop that doesn’t yield much, but is so fun that I decide to leave it for one more year. . .)
Peas, arugula and beets have sprouted.
Some strawberries are forming, but until I find a way to keep out the squirrels and chipmunks we’ll be lucky to harvest any. The chives and blueberry bushes are in bloom.
Ordered seeds online. (‘Sun Gold’ cherry tomatoes, ‘Tavera’ haricots verts, ‘Northeaster’ Romano-style (big & flat) green beans, gourmet lettuce mix, ‘Bandit’ Leeks, ‘Jack-be-Little’ mini pumpkins, ‘Dunja’ zucchini, ‘Sultan’ seedless cucumbers.) All but the ‘Sun Gold’ will get sown directly into the ground as soon as I get around to it. ‘Sun Gold’ cherry tomatoes are De.Li.Cious and almost impossible to find in nurseries around here, so they’re one of the few things I bother to start indoors from seed.
Late May: Half-heartedly dug the beds with a shovel to loosen the soil and expose any uninvited guests, such as this grub (Japanese beetle larva).
Purchased tomato plants (various beefsteaks plus 2 ‘Sweet 100’ cherries), Japanese eggplant (‘Ichiban’), jalapeño pepper and basil plants at the nursery. Planted everything except the salad mix, which I will save and hopefully remember to plant in late summer. Baby lettuce leaves do not appreciate the hot and humid NJ summers any more than I do.
Early June: Attempt to keep weeds at bay. Worst offenders are shamrock, crab grass and purslane – which though a nuisance is edible, at least. If you have any good purslane recipes, please post them in a comment!
Mid-June: More weeding, and spreading a bale of salt hay (which is not supposed to have seeds) throughout the garden to keep down weeds. It’s starting to look like a vegetable garden!
Time to start cutting back the basil. To turn a single basil plant into a big basil bush by late summer, be ruthless with the early pruning (and harvesting, because you can eat what you prune). When a stem is about 8 inches tall, cut it down to about an inch or two – just above a leaf junction. The plant should send up two stalks in its place. Keep doing this throughout the season. The plant’s growth slows down if you let it flower. I like to cut a whole bunch at once and store it on the counter in a white ironstone pitcher. It will keep for a long time this way, and may even root in the pitcher, so don’t feel like you need to rush right into pesto production after harvesting basil.
Last Sunday Night: Pulled up some dead cilantro (coriander) plants and gave them a good shake to distribute the seeds for next spring. Picked some green coriander seeds (below) for a chicken marinade. (Very exotic-tasting! We decided to call them Mo-rockin’ Chicken Tacos; recipe to follow shortly.)