2021 Growing Season: urban farming by the numbers

It turns out that the lofty goals of building a 500 square foot chicken enclosure, 250 square feet of raised beds, a 20 foot long by 2.5 foot tall rock retaining wall, while also roto-tilling the better part of 2,000 square feet of sod into mulched perennial beds [which amounted to about 14 cubic yards of mulch] and irrigating and harvesting 142 pounds of produce was not compatible with the process of writing about that work while also working 40 hours a week the entire time. Who knew?

Late March breaking ground versus mid June, full of plants
Completed retaining wall!!! This is a pano, so it’s distorted, but I assure you: it is glorious to behold.
Roto-tilling on May Day, versus late August after a brief rain

This is the condensed version of a retrospective about our urban farm. Something that Me-of-the-early-spring thought might manage to be a weekly installment of entries gets to be just one post. I wanted to write about soil amendments, the slow progress of beans snaking up sunflower stalks, hand pollinating squash flowers, succession and companion planting, indigenous planting techniques for our region, pressing comfrey into green manure, encouraging native bee populations, lasagna/sheet mulching, irrigation management, cover crops, preserving the harvest – so many things. But that isn’t how linear time works.

Ultimately it was more important to do [most of] those things than it was to write about them. I do not yet have the relative leisure to be a philosopher farmer, recording my contemplations about the meaning of life and hard work and the sustenance of my family, as I actually sustain my family. Alas, I must pay my mortgage and secure healthcare much of the time. And also I have to sleep and doom scroll like everyone else.

But please know that as I laid out nursery shrubs and power-washed spider mites off raspberries and weighed rhubarb and pinched basil flowers and scraped off aphids and observed hummingbirds on penstemons and released ladybugs and chased squirrels off apples and peeped for ground cherries and dismayed over beans and gathered eggs and delighted over carrots and pulled bindweed and fed chickens grasshoppers and despaired for rain and marveled over my first melon and dug potatoes and froze kale and butchered chickens and put plastic over hoops and planted garlic that I was writing thousands of thoughtful and poetic lines about the experience of fulfilling the promise of the land [in my head].

Biggest disappointments

Why not start here?

Of the 7 varieties of beans we planted, not a single one set fruit in our raised beds. They all germinated and grew one set of real mature leaves, but then they all either arrested growth at that stage and grew no bigger or wilted, shriveled and died. Our county extension agent said that based on the relative good fortune of nearly every thing else in our garden the issue was likely that the soil was too “new” in that it lacked proper bacteria for the beans to use for fixing nitrogen. Next year I am encouraged to add a lot of inoculant to our soil to prevent this. We’ll see if that works.

Because of the snow, we got no currants or gooseberries. There were only two cherries that matured and they were snatched by birds or squirrels before we got to eat them. Though we had a decent amount of small apples despite the May snow, almost all of them fell off spontaneously at the end of June right before the extreme heat set in [and did not relent until September]. Ultimately, we think we lost the Honeycrisp tree outright due to heat stress, but will wait to see if it wakes up in the spring. The Goodland apple grew 5 apples to an almost consumable size, all of which were stolen from us by squirrels. Those bastards.

The 3 Sisters experimental garden that I began in the backyard yielded no edible ears of corn, no beans [though some of them faired slightly better than the beans in the front, growing to great heights up the stalks and flowering, but not actual effing beans], and only two squashes. Part of the issue was that this garden is not on our irrigation system and therefore did not get enough water and the other issue was that I planted it too late. Also there was a lot of bindweed stealing water that we could not keep on top of. The corn got heat and drought stressed, tasseled early and I suspect there was not enough pollen floating around to completely pollinate each kernel. But it sure was pretty…

Tomatoes, dear lord. It was so hot and I was trying so hard to conserve water but everything about our tomatoes was a total failure. There is a decent chance that in at least the tomato bed we had some traces of persistent herbicide. After chatting [again] with the county extension agent, he speculated that based on the leaf curl there had to be something but he didn’t want to charge me $500 for a soil test that was going to say what he knew was likely true. The tomatoes set fruit, they grew to an excellent height and no other plants were affected, so there must have not been very much herbicide, but there was just enough. Out of a sense of despair and frankly shame [this is supposed to be an organic farm!] I neglected the tomatoes. The trellises that I built could not support them, and though the calendula, onions, pot marigolds and basil that I planted around them were fine and kept away pests I was unable to really allow myself to eat the 2.5 pounds of small cherry tomatoes that grew on the plants. The larger tomatoes – my favorites – Black Krims all split before they were ripe and I was only able to save about 5 pounds of them by harvesting early when the tomatoes were still green. I know that the splitting is mostly due to uneven watering, but it seemed a terrible idea to waste water on something I wasn’t sure I would let us eat. Some of the ones that did not split, I am sad to say, are still softening on our counter, going to waste. When we knew the frost was coming, I tore them all out – many tomatoes still green on the plants – and threw them away, not wanting to add the material to the compost because of fears of the herbicide. We have some plans to address this bed and plant only shallow rooted plants in it for a few seasons.

We put in a lot of peppers, mostly for friends because I am not entirely sure that I really love hot peppers, and these had some rot in a few places because of insect pests. I also planted lots of marigolds and basil around them, but I think a few peppers were too close to the giant squash and they were too tempting a home for weevils and other pests. We grew lots of poblanos and seranos, [about two pounds each], but no bell peppers made it [and these are the ones I actually like].

Biggest successes

We grew three real, honest to god, melons. Sure, squirrels stole two of them, but we got to eat a melon that we grew in Montana from seed. It was a Minnesota Midget and came in at just over half a pound. I credit the intense heat of June, July and August and the fact that the melon plants were right next to the irrigation in their bed so they got the most water. I will consider this melon my earthly reward. I grew it from seed in March to fruit in September and then we ate it with all the ceremony it was owed. Thanks melon, you made my year.

It was a year of squash. I make it a policy never to grow zucchini because I do not particularly enjoy eating it and there is no such thing as just one zucchini. Jokes about gardeners who drop zucchinis in the unlocked cars of unsuspecting neighbors abound for a reason. I have discovered that, when one decides that a zucchini is what is required, it will miraculously appear in one’s time of need. This has never been disproven. So we did not plant zucchini, but I did take a stab at yellow crookneck squash. We had three plants, and we got 25 pounds. Only one of these was truly monstrous. It was neglected over a long weekend while we were out of town. Everything else remained at a tender size. Still, some became chicken food.

I’d also like to state, for all of posterity, that we grew 19 pounds of kale. Or rather, I weighed 19 pounds of kale. There is still some under the hoop for when I want some fresh and not frozen. Last year we grew Red Russian kale and I am certain that I will never again not have some in a garden. The kids spent much of the summer just picking off tender leaves and eating them raw [the weirdos]. Any time I needed a green something I just sent them out for a few handfuls and voila: dinner. My respect for kale is total. When the climate is completely fucked, god willing, we can still eat kale. Did it mind the late snow? No, it germinated outside under the snow. Did it mind that we didn’t get a drop of rain from that snow until September? No, it barely even wilted in a month of days with a high over 95. Long before there was lettuce and long after the spinach had bolted we had kale. And, since there are 10 gallon bags of it frozen in my chest freezer, we will have kale perhaps all winter long.

In keeping with the brassica theme, I am pleased to have grown 3.5 pounds of mature Brussel sprouts. They have an uncommonly long growing season for these parts, but we made it. Thanks climate change? I grew four plants from starts I purchased at the farmer’s market. They were delicious. I still have some in the fridge but must be careful to eat them soon so as not to waste.

This is half the Brussel sprout haul. It was supposed to freeze the night I took this photo, so I also cut flowers, but we actually got another 3 weeks before it really froze. Some neighbors had frost damage earlier than us. All credit is due to our excellent micro-climate

Honorable mention goes to the Black nebula carrot. I like purple vegetables. About 7 years ago I let my then 2 year old daughter pick out several cultivars from the seed catalog in hopes that she would want to eat what she grew. This worked, but the way, and the reason that it did was because everything she picked was purple. Purple beans, purple peppers, purple tomatoes, purple carrots. Those carrots were cosmic, which are purple on the outside and orange inside. But the Black nebula carrot is deep purple throughout. When you eat one it stains your mouth as purple as a grape-flavored hard candy. We made chicken and dumplings with them in the broth and it was a perfect zombie soup feast. Plus, they matured first of all our carrots and because the seeds are larger than most other cultivars I didn’t have to thin them as aggressively as the other varieties.

Lessons learned

This year it got hot so fast that the early crops of spinach and peas were overwhelmed. There is no reason to expect that this is not the new normal. I had planted taller plants like broccoli and Brussel sprouts on the southern side of these most heat intolerant plants, but they had not had time to get big enough to act as a proper sunblock. I will need row covers for next year. By the time it got cool enough to plant fall spinach [the first weekend of September] I was too exhausted to figure out where I wanted to put it. We’d be better served if there were more fresh spinach in July because of row covers than in trying to get a few more ounces out of September. Maybe I will improve at this, but I’m not sure. I intend to make row covers over the winter and do the research at least.

Though I made an effort to plant things together with companions that I thought would make them happy [basil, onions, calendula and marigolds with tomatoes as mentioned above], and I measured everything out for proper square foot gardening to use all available space, ultimately it was a terrible bother to have lots of varieties of plants in each bed. Even without the above failures, the growth of the Brussel sprouts eclipsed the leaf lettuce, I lost carrots under my broccoli, the eggplants and peppers were too crowded. Though monocultures offend me viscerally, these are annuals and I can rotate them through our 8 beds to deal with some of the issues related to intensive agriculture. Probably no fewer than 2 varieties in a bed going forward, and some marigolds for color.

I had wanted to have a wide variety of different vegetables, what would have benefitted us was more of the stuff we already knew we liked. Though we grew 7.2 pounds of broccoli, it’s the sort of food we can eat a pound of a week. So really, I should grow more of it and devote less space to so many peppers that are beautiful and good as gifts but stressed me out endlessly. Also: more garlic and more onions. I had not had time to put any garlic in last year [because we didn’t build the beds until March] but this year I have some in already, in a bed on the north side so the garlic can come up first with nothing blocking its view. I intend to plant a lot of spinach around it as well and then put a row cover over it when needed to handle the bolting.

Had all the tomato plants yielded well, I would have been hip deep in tomatoes again this year. I need a better plan for preservation. Sure, I was able to freeze a bunch of kale in small batches, but some fruits come in all at once and you need to process them quickly. By the end of the season I had lost a lot of steam and it is hard to fire up the water bath canner when it is still 80 degrees outside [and 70 inside] in August. I am seriously considering getting a small stove so I can process things outside without turning the house into an oven. Our operation is too large that we can expect to eat everything in season. We need to up our preservation game. This is a goal anyway. I want those winter soups full of summer veggies we grew ourselves and not some flown from halfway around the world to us. I am also glad I didn’t have to figure out how to pressure can beans this year because as it was the gift beans we got went to the chickens because I couldn’t get around to processing them. Preservation is where the 40 hour work week and the subsistence farmer lifestyle reach an impasse. I might have to try to work a month of 30 hour weeks for the last two weeks of August and the first two of September next year, so I don’t die. The idea of wasting food because I am too tired to preserve it offends me.

Death to all squirrels. I have told my better half that I am not going to eat some manky, urban trash squirrels, but I am in favor of whatever it takes to get them out of our fruit trees and our squash and melon match. If the dog would stop digging up the fishmeal fertilizer around the fruiting shrubs, I would let her chase them all day. She did an excellent job of keeping them out of the sunflowers in the back yard, all of which they ate before I could harvest any seeds last year. So we’ll see what strategies we come up with to destroy the squirrels. I love all god’s creatures, even aphids [ladybug larva need something to eat], but squirrels better stay out of my garden [or else].

And finally, I did not have enough fun this year. It was a growing season of climate anxiety, concerns about soil quality and water shortages, but not one of joy [other than that melon]. That seems a shame. I love plants, but I barely got to enjoy them this season. Much of that was biting off more than we could realistically chew. That’s my perennial problem already, and having more things established should make next year easier. But I need to remember the fun.

Things to try next year

Beans again. But maybe just one or two varieties. More winter squashes. We did ok, but I desire all the pie pumpkins, delicatas and blue hubbards. Maybe even some acorns and butternuts. I really like winter squash. Cauliflower. Maybe some watermelon? More peas. Corn. I would like to get good at corn, like a heritage variety.

And permission [for myself] to just make small blog updates about the farm instead of having some larger theme. It’s a parsimonious season for words. All the work is going into the garden.

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