By Lisa Brunette
When we began growing annual vegetables last year, we came to the task with at least some experience, but we certainly had a lot to learn. Still, I'm amazed by how much food we're getting already out of our little 1/4-acre homestead habitat.
This summer's bounty is something we're both really proud of... and we can see the benefits in our increased health and well-being, too. I have lost a whopping 21 lbs since I began eating in earnest out of my own garden. Anthony claims better sleep and vigor, if not dramatic weight loss (I don't think he had it to lose like I did), and neither of us has been sick since then, either... not so much as a sniffle between us!
So far this year, I've already told you tales of our (mostly) great early-season harvest and bumper crops of both onions and garlic. Now I'd like to share the results of our summer harvest. You might think of this as "mid-season," though for most folks it's the garden season, smack dab in the middle of summer. To explain: Here in USDA zone 6/7, you can get 3 seasons if you begin in March with the early season, plant the usual summer plots in May-ish, and then extend your yield with a late-season fall crop, which is exactly what we've tried to do.
As you can see by the photos, we had a great cucumber harvest this year. In very early May, I planted both seeds I'd saved from our 'A&C Pickling' variety last year as well as a packet from Gateway Greening's sale, generic Ferry-Morse seeds, the 'Spacemaster' bush-type variety. They both grew like gangbusters in soil I amended with a mix of compost tea, coffee grounds, and spent kitty litter pine pellet sawdust (which might contain trace nitrogen from Chaco's urine but no poop; that goes into the hot compost to further break down).
The vines were so robust, they grew up a neighboring Amorpha fruticosa plant (a nitrogen-fixer, which also might have facilitated growth). One became lodged in the fencing we use to block the resident Eastern cottontail family from nibbling.
Coinciding with this harvest was an equally abundant amount of dill, perfect for making pickles. I planted three types:
- Seeds I'd saved from last year's harvest, a Botanical Interests variety
- A Ferry-Morse packet of 'Bouquet' dill
- Another Ferry-Morse packet, this time 'Long Island Mammoth' dill
They all did well, though my saved seed plants weren't as robust as the others. They all received the same mix as the cucumbers: compost tea, coffee grounds, and pine sawdust.
Anthony has become quite skilled at making pickles; this is the type that need to be refrigerated, so it's not a brine ferment. We're working up to that eventually.
The dill not only provides us with an excellent herb for both culinary and medicinal use, but it's also a host plant for swallowtail butterflies. We were treated to caterpillar sightings for much of the summer.
The Fruits of Our Labor
Of course I'm talking about that glorious savory fruit known as the tomato. If you can, you should grow tomatoes; what you get at the grocery store is not even in the same league. You simply won't be able to eat supermarket tomatoes once you've had your own. While tomatoes are tough to grow if you're in the Pacific Northwest, happily for me now that I'm in the Midwest, they grow exceptionally well here, and they should: They're native to the Americas, and the climate here suits them.
We went about this tomato strategy carefully: After the peas were done, we harvested the remainder and left the pea vines to decay in the soil. We also added coffee grounds, pine sawdust, and eggshells to the plot, as I know tomatoes like that last one, for the added calcium. We sowed seeds of two varieties directly into the soil in mid-June:
- Heirloom 'Abe Lincoln' from Ferry-Morse
- 'Early Girl' hybrid pelleted, also from Ferry-Morse
In between, we sowed marigolds - both Ferry-Morse 'Dwarf Bolero' and 'French Double Dwarf' - a couple of packets of basil, and some sweet pepper seeds I saved from farmer's market produce last year. The tomatoes did wonderfully well, both varieties. The marigolds didn't germinate at all, and the sweet peppers were weak. We got one terrifically robust plant from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange packet of 'Mrs. Burns' lemon basil, but the 'Bolloso Napoletano' also failed to germinate. Lucky for me, my friend Carlyne Webber gave me one of her basil starts, so we were assured a steady supply for the summer!
I'm sort of on the fence about my decision to sow tomato seeds direct in mid-June. On one hand, by waiting until the soil had fully warmed, and we could sow into the pea patch remnants, we might have sealed our success. On the other hand, we had to wait until September for tomatoes. We don't have an indoor seed-starting area, as Chaco will dig them up, and we don't own a greenhouse. However, I read that you could bring your tomatoes inside on the vine and let them ripen in fall if the temps drop, so we did that last weekend, and...
...lo and behold, it works! We've been harvesting them out of the basement all week.
Since tomatoes are in the nightshade family, I honestly wasn't sure if I could eat them regularly, due to possible mast cell reactions. But I discovered this summer that with all of the other health moves I've been making, tomatoes from my garden are just not a problem for me. Hooray!
Sweets to the Sweet (Potato)
Last year's sweet potato harvest was a real disappointment, but out of those ashes rose this year's phoenix.
We planted slips of two varieties:
- 'Carolina Ruby'
- White 'Haymon'
The 'Carolina Ruby' far outperformed the 'Haymon,' so we'll likely focus on those next year. I love sweet potatoes; they are low on the glycemic index, full of fiber, and a fantastic food for most diets. A pretty much perfect mast cell meal for me is a grass-fed beef patty and baked sweet potato: zero symptoms, and I feel satisfied. They're beauteous, too.
Both varieties were from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, where I now buy most of my seeds, as they seem to be best suited to our hot, humid climate. We planted them on top of a hügelkultur we'd created a couple of years ago when we buried lilac branches after giving our tree a hefty trimming. We further amended the soil with compost tea, coffee grounds, and pine sawdust. They went into the ground on June 6, with protection from rabbits (the vines are edible for both us and them), and we harvested them on 9/11.
Sweet potatoes can seem a bit fussy, as they have to be cured in a warm, moist place for a few weeks before going into long-term storage. We put them in cardboard flats in a closet off of our office room. The closet isn't insulated very well, so it stays warm there even if we're running the A/C. We included a pot full of water for the moisture. That seemed to do the trick. Now they're in flats in the basement.
Next year, I'll grow my own slips, as the cost of these sort of works against the benefit of growing your own. I'm looking forward to the challenge.
A Handful of Other Harvests
Besides those main summer crops, we enjoyed a handful of other harvests. These were:
- Rhubarb - I planted 5 rhubarb roots in 2019, and only one survived. Originally, it was the runt of the bunch, but it's now lovin' life! A perennial plant, rhubarb will continue to bear stalks for years to come. I harvested enough for a huge freezer bag to last through a winter of baking projects.
- Coriander - You might know this as cilantro, but it tastes like soap to me until it goes to seed. I love the seeds and have been saving them and replanting each year now for three years, all off one packet!
- Foraged Mushrooms - As you might know, we're big fans of foraging mushrooms, but only after safely identifying them. We're pros at this, and Anthony even has his own special mushroom knife for the endeavor.
- Evening Primrose - Our native evening primrose plant exploded all over the garden this year. It's a source of the fatty acid known as GLA, or gamma-linolenic acid, which is renowned for counteracting lady problems. I've harvested enough for tea and will let you know how that goes. Since mast cell f**ks with my cycle symptoms, I'm excited to have my own source.
- Calendula - The flowers are pretty enough to warrant growing just for that reason, but they're also good for your skin. On my list to try with beeswax.
- Hibiscus - Another native plant with medicinal and culinary properties, we have huge groupings of these in our rain garden and near the side of the house. We were treated to audacious blooms all summer. It's the host plant for the hibiscus turret bee, and it makes a tasty tea.
Why You Do Me Like That, Zucchini?
Anthony and I often joke that the one veg you can always count on to give you more than you asked for is zucchini. So it surprised us to find that our zucchini crop was pretty paltry this year, with just a few of the usually ubiquitous green summer squashes making a showing. Hmm... There's always next year!
How was your 2021 harvest? If you started gardening during the pandemic, did you keep it up this summer... or not? Tell us in the comments below.