By Lisa Brunette
If I had to sum up my first real vegetable garden season here at Dragon Flower Farm in one phrase, it would be this: It's all information, and information is good.
First, let me just say that I'm proud of my resourcefulness in trying to grow most of our vegetables from seed. This was a huge cost savings, as I avoided losing expensive starts when things didn't work out. Because we're members of the Missouri Botanical Garden, I picked up most of my seeds on a Member's Day discount of 30% off at the Garden shop. These were organic, non-GMO, open-pollinated, untreated seeds put out by Botanical Interests. The rest I purchased from Seed Savers Exchange, a wonderful organization doing its part to "conserve and protect America's culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage."
For those keeping track, I'll note the seed sources below with the abbreviations BI (for Botanical Interests) or SSE (for Seed Savers Exchange).
Here's what worked.
Chervil. This was one of the first seeds (BI) to hit the soil, as early as March 7, and it was amazingly prolific. If you've never tried Anthriscus cerefolium, let me introduce you to this wonderful early spring herb. It tastes a bit like a basil-y licorice and makes a delicious pesto. Anthony loves it. When it dies out in early summer, it turns a lovely deep red. All hail, chervil!
Arugula. On a crisp, clear day at the tail end of March, I planted a big, 3-gram packet (BI) of Eruca vesicaria, also known as rocket. It germinated within five days, the rabbits avoided it, and we had a great arugula harvest - until in short order, it bolted. The high was 66°F and the low 46° when I sowed the seeds. Next year I will try sowing in mid-March instead of waiting those extra two weeks. Even though I planted them next to the fence where they would get some shade late in the day, it just got too hot for them too early in the season. But at least the flowers are edible.
However, I'm about to get a second, fall harvest from the same plants. After they went to seed, I shook the seeds into the earth, bent the plants over for a week, and then covered them with a tarp for another three weeks. When I lifted the tarp, the plants had died down. I pushed them aside as a mulch, leaving a row clear for the new seedlings, which have sprouted in great numbers. This move was inspired by a talk given by Dean Gunderson of Gateway Greening, who suggesting using a tarp to squelch a cover crop and then planting directly into the dead plant matter.
Kale. On April 5 (high 53°F, low 46°), I sowed a huge, 10-gram kale blend pack (BI). These went into another part-shade area, near the base of the elderberry bushes; I read somewhere that they are companion plants. This kale has outperformed every other edible annual except chervil, with a high rate of germination and continuous production all summer. It's just now petering out.
Nicola potatoes. By April 8, the temperature spiked already to 90°F, and it was on this day that I planted the first batch of seed potatoes (SSE). They did very well planted in a bed that had been mulched the previous fall with leaves (obtained free from neighbors). We only hilled them once, to about 6 inches, as suggested by Paul Wheaton of Permies.com. I just harvested about 3 gallons from one bag of seed potatoes. I don't have anything to compare this yield to, but to me, it was exciting to see all those potatoes.
Borage. As far as robustness goes, this plant gets the blue ribbon. We've had huge borage plants all summer after sowing seeds (both BI and SSE) on April 15. They're a bee magnet, and we've enjoyed the edible flowers (taste like cucumber) in salads and as a water flavoring. We tried the leaves as a sautéed green but were not impressed with that use. It also has medicinal properties, so I might harvest for that.
Sunflowers. These are so easy to grow here in Missouri! I believe the squirrels planted one (our neighbor grows them) that bloomed last year by the back shed. I spread the seeds from that one last fall, and this year, we had a huge patch of sunflowers, all for free. To that patch, I added the variety 'Orange Sun' (SSE), which is just now blooming. I've been dutifully harvesting the seed heads, leaving some for the birds. The goldfinches make quite a meal of them.
Scarlet Runner Beans. After first getting devoured by rabbits when they sprouted (SSE), these have rebounded and are in flower right now, making the hummingbirds happy. They've wound all the way up our flagpole. Planting them May 15 seems to have been a good move, but they need protection from rabbits, at least until established; they're leaving them alone now.
Lettuce. This went in on May 16 (high 80°, low 64°), which also seems to have been too late. I could have sown it in early March, according to this St. Louis-specific gardening calendar, which I now have in my arsenal. We had some great lettuce harvests until they bolted, too quickly. I used a mesclun mix (BI), but it was heavy with a couple of varieties that were too prickly to eat, and it also contained a good deal of arugula, which duplicated that patch. For the fall season sowing, I'm avoiding the mix.
Cilantro, Dill, and Lemon Basil. I sowed all of these (BI) on June 7, and they did marvelously well, the dill coinciding with the cucumbers nicely for use in pickling. Lemon basil is amazing in pesto. I'm actually not a huge fan of cilantro, so I let it go to seed, and I've harvested a ton of coriander seeds. I think these all could have gone in a tad earlier, though.
I realize that's not a lot of successes, but considering we made no soil amendments whatsoever, and this was a first attempt in this climate zone, it's not bad. The soil had been turf grass converted through sheet-mulch method to garden space. So it was basically clay soil with a layer of decomposed grass, cardboard, and mulch as a thin topsoil. We did have a small amount of compost. We watered with diluted compost tea around the vining plants on the squash arch and in the cabbage patch, and we spread compost in just a handful of spots.
A few things did... OK.
Amish Snap Peas. Delicious, and the rabbits thought so, too. We finally got some after the rabbits moved on to better fare later in spring. Next year, I'll get more packets, too, as one (SSE) didn't do it, and protect them better. I'll also sow with the chervil in early March.
German Chamomile. Again, one packet (BI) not enough, but this is very nice to have.
Sage and Rosemary. The saddest seed loss was that none of the perennial herbs germinated, except for a couple of sage plants and two rosemary seedlings. All of the seeds were Botanical Interests except the rosemary, which was from Seed Savers.
Nasturtium 'Black Velvet.' After a good soaking overnight, these seeds all germinated, but they either needed to be sown earlier than April 30, watered better, or both.
Sweet Potatoes. These actually came from Stark Bros. (where I've purchased many of our fruit trees) as sprouts. The rabbits chomped them down when they went in May 1, but they've since recovered very well, at least judging by what's above ground. We'll see how the harvest is this fall.
'Waltham' Butternut Squash. Two ginormous ones grew from one seed packet (BI) sown May 15 and graced the bamboo arch before it toppled in a severe storm this week (more on that later). We saved them, don't worry.
Cucumbers. We sowed the 'A&C Pickling' variety (SSE), and they've mostly come in misshapen. But we have managed to get some pickles out of the bunch. These and the squash above could have gone earlier in May.
Red ('Red Acre') and Green ('Copenhagen Market') Cabbage. I've been babying these things ever since sowing seeds (BI) on June 7, way too late, as it turns out. Next time, we sow in early March. A crop of the reds expired during a dry patch, and I replaced them with another set, which I've watered and composted around. They looked really promising until this week, when it seems some insect has discovered them and is making lacework of the leaves just as they're beginning to ball.
Ground Cherries. I didn't think these seedlings (SSE) survived my transplanting, but four of the plants did, and they are doing quite well. These native plants bear fruit that resemble tiny tomatillos, and they taste like a cross between a pineapple and a cherry tomato. Definitely a keeper, and their low habit trails well over our violet ground cover.
After that comes the clear failures, of which there are admittedly many.
Sadly, there were a ton of perennial herbs that never germinated: lavender, parsley, summer savory, tarragon, thyme, marjoram, lemon balm, oregano. None of the bulb onions worked out, and neither did the chives, though we did get a handful of spring scallions, which I grew in part shade. The sorrel was devoured by rabbits. Two attempts at beets failed, though we did get a handful in the second attempt (Chioggia style, with stripes, as in the below image). The carrots grew tops but not roots, the lovage didn't sprout, the turnips made a poor showing, and the comfrey seeds simply ignored me. I don't know why amaranth, which seemed to suggest such wonder, decided life wasn't worth trying. Parsnips made a liar out of whoever told me they like compost, and the broccoli, rue, and St. John's wort all failed to transplant.
What grade would you give us on our gardening report card? I'm going with a C.
Maybe that sounds harsh. After all, we got some food out of our backyard! Not many people can say that. But I feel like a C is fair. It's passing, with plenty of room for improvement. The biggest question is, can we make the A-list without purchasing soil amendments? It was good this first time to see what we can do first on a bare minimum. But next year? We shall see.