As vegetation goes dormant during the colder and darker months in the Northeast, the marsh takes on a simpler, yet mysterious form, still teeming with life. Northern Pintail duck, Mallard, Wood duck, and billions of aquatic life forms are abuzz in this water-world. When you look out onto the marsh, the world comes to a halt with sky above and sky reflected below.
In the previous post, I described some vegetable gardening failures at our previous residence – a “hail mary” project doomed from the start due to lack of light. We were fortunate to move to a new house with some sunny areas on the property. Today, there are some new failures, but there is more success today than failure. I don’t think it is possible to be a gardener and not experience failure, but that is also what makes success more enjoyable once we attain it. The space I chose to plant a new vegetable garden was once used as a volleyball court by the previous owner, so it was already nice and level.
Still, I had 2 main issues to contend with – deer and weeds. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love all plants, but I don’t want certain ones crowding out my cucumbers, if you know what I mean. Deer are cute too, but I don’t want them eating the fruits of my labor. Sorry, but y’all gotta go!
Here’s how it went:
To prevent most weeds, I put a layer of cardboard down to smother out the sod grass. Next, I put wood chips down over the cardboard to create a weed-free-lawn-free-soft-to-walk-on space on which to garden. Now we have a space that doesn’t need to be maintained at all – no mowing no weeding, no nothing. And, it smells great thanks to the decomposing wood chips, if you like that sort of thing. The wood chips also add organic matter as they break down.
To prevent deer from entering, I put up a tall, yet cheap and simple deer fence. If it must be anything, it must be tall. Deer can easily clear a 6-foot tall fence while pirouetting backwards in their sleep. I’ve also heard that they can clear an 8-foot fence under extreme circumstances, like when frightened. For the fence, I used 10-foot T posts and tough deer netting. After pounding the posts into the ground, about 7 feet apart, the height of the fence was about 8.5 feet. Not unstoppable, but pretty good in my opinion.
Lastly, I built a gate/door out of PVC pipe by connecting the pipes together with straight joints and 90-degree joints where needed. I then lined the gate with chicken wire. The gate opens and closes, as it pivots on a steel 5-foot rod. A couple climbing carabiners hold the gate shut. I may improve upon this system in the future, as it feels a bit improvised, yet not inconvenient.
In the 1st year of this project, I built several raised beds and supplemented most of the remaining open space with large growbags. 3 out of 5 raised beds contain “teepee trellises” – a cost-free way to grow vegetable producing vines vertically by tying together 3 or 4 sturdy dead branches. In addition, I used twine to create little step ladders to help the plants climb. These beds would be used to grow cucumbers, pole beans, and butternut squash (I also snuck a few zucchini plants in there). The cucumbers were a big success, but I’m still not sure about the pole beans and butternut squash. I’ll make that call at the end of the season.
One of the other raised beds was used to grow several kinds of lettuces (Green and Red Salad Mix, 2 types of Romaine, and Tropicana), arugula, russian red kale, endive, broccoli, carrots, and beets. Not all at the same time, some in successional plantings. This too turned out to be successful (except for the broccoli). And my favorite and final raised bed was set aside for the strawberry. I say favorite because I don’t need to do anything to it, as these ever-bearing strawberries will keep coming back with more vigor year after year, without my intervention.
The 10-gallon and 20-gallon grow bags were reserved for 3 types of tomatoes (Cherry, Homestead, and Brandywine), all of which are indeterminate types (meaning they’ll keep growing and setting fruit until the frost kills them). The tomatoes got a late start due to a very cold May, but they did alight once they got going. Banana peppers lived in some of the other grow bags and they did quite well. Only 1 Bell pepper made it to maturity and is slowly making its way.
Sweet potatoes, red potatoes, and white potatoes were planted in the remaining growbags. The Sweet potatoes seem to be doing quite well, but we will know for sure in the fall. I decided to harvest the regular potatoes because something completely devoured the plants. Luckily, I got a decent harvest anyway.
So, there we have it – more success than failure so far in a garden that was thrown together quickly during a mild winter. Next, I’d like to build some more raised beds and figure out a way to use the space more efficiently. I’m also thinking of growing blueberries and blackberries in this space. I have already been using the garden as a small nursery to grow plants for a native plant meadow project in our yard – another exciting project that will replace a bit of lawn with native plant habitat.
I am a newbie when it comes to growing food. I have had both success and failure gardening with native perennials but attempts to grow fruits and vegetables have mostly resulted in failure. In 2017, we owned a small house on a very shady 0.14 acres. I supposed we were doomed from the start, but we decided to experiment with growing vegetables anyway.
The south side of the house was shaded out by the neighbor’s large Pin Oak, and to the west we faced a 1480-foot mountain (Bearfort Mountain), which resulted in an early sunset. Stationing the raised beds on the east side if the house would have been more productive, but that was the front of the house where shrubs and various other plants were proudly displayed. The north side was our last resort, so we placed a few 4’x 4’ raised beds where the plants would receive a few hours of morning sun before the sun became hidden behind the house and trees.
Before the fence. Did anyone bring a level?
We started way too many seeds indoors and we had space for only 3 raised beds, so many of the seedlings had to be thinned out eventually. We put the beets, carrots, cucumbers, summer squash, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant in the ground around Mother’s Day. The plants did grow, but they just did not get enough sunlight, which meant a very low yield for some plants like peppers and eggplant. The tomatoes developed slowly, and many remained green into the fall. We pulled them off before the frost killed them in hopes that they would ripen on a windowsill, but they weren’t that far along.
Mildewy Squash. A trellis would have helped.
We harvested tiny carrots and beets, which did not develop well either due to due lack of sunlight (and probably insufficient soil depth). Some plants shaded out other plants due to the arrangement of the raised beds, but we had no choice due to property boundaries. The only good news was that we did not experience and major pest issues that year. At the end of this little experiment, we confirmed that that adequate sunlight and soil depth (depending on the crop) are essential. If we continued to live on that property, I think we would have used that same space to grow shade tolerant herbs or replace the beds with more shade-loving, deer resistant native perennials.
Today, in our new location, we are armed with more space, a greenhouse, and better light conditions. It is time to give the vegetable garden another shot. Mistakes will be made, from which I hope to learn and adjust what needs adjusting. Happy gardening!
Usually, early January is when I get the impulse to start growing things. How do you decide what to grow? For some it might be the exclusivity of growing something rare. For others, it might be the dream of self-reliance by growing most of what they eat. Or, it may simply be the challenge of getting things to germinate that do not germinate easily. For me, it is whatever has caught my attention this time, but usually there is influence from the realm of “grow it to eat it” or “grow it for the native ecosystem”.
And, occasionally I get distracted by shiny things like a cat after an orb of light reflecting from a piece of glass. For instance, I recently sowed the all too common Nasturtium because, well, they’re pretty. But subconsciously, I may have decided to sow them because they “grow before your eyes”. What else would be as fun to watch unfurl in green splendor in the middle of winter? The best part is that when the round peppery leaves start to stretch out of control, I get a snack. You might think that there are better things to munch on, but I have seen this plant used in “serious” restaurants as both garnish and salad ingredient.
This year, the “grow it to eat it” influence seems to be at the forefront of my plant obsessed brain. After I completed the greenhouse in November, I got to work on planning a vegetable garden. Throughout the winter, I have been driving T-posts in and building raised beds (and a garden gate made from PVC pipe). But that wasn’t enough, so I grew sprouts in a mason jar and microgreens under LED lights. Both the sprouts and microgreens were a success, despite some aphids that showed up unannounced. Later, I found a ladybug in my daughter’s room and then I unleased it on the aphids, which seems to have declined in numbers drastically since then.
Recently, I had a bout of the “grow it for the native ecosystem” syndrome. I raided the fridge for any remaining native plant seeds. I was determined to sow any 3-year old seed reserves because some species may no longer be viable after a few years. I grabbed Paw Paw (Asimina triloba), Gray Birch (Betula populifolia), Striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum), Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Late Purple Aster (Symphyotrichum patens), and Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). I sowed these seeds in plastic trays inside the greenhouse under another mini-greenhouse to experiment with giving the plants a jump start on the season. When it warms up enough I will move the tray out into the main greenhouse.
What will I do with these plants? Care for them for a little while, plant some where I can, and hopefully give most away to friends and family. The recipients of these plants might be curious about them because these species aren’t typically sold in commercial nurseries, though species like Paw Paw are quickly gaining popularity. The plight of the honey bee and the monarch butterfly seems to have been heard loud and clear. Maybe most are ready to hear about what it means to garden with native plants.
As luck would have it, the former owner of our new home is a dirt digging, hose wielding, wheel-barrow commanding, gardener! A good fellow, for those reasons. As a result, the garden beds are already made, layers of mulch are already decaying, and a newly inherited compost bin awaits! But there is also a big disadvantage – you inherit plants you’re not crazy about (and disposing of them, if no one else wants them, is a drag). Imagine being surrounded by an army of Miscanthus ornamental grasses when you subscribe to ideas from books like “Bringing Nature Home” by Doug Tallamy.
I should point out that, without an 8-foot fence, the plant palate here is limited thanks to a cute, but extremely over-abundant, 3-foot tall, plant-eating-machine called…white-tailed deer. Surely, you too have nightmares about this creature, as you recall getting out of bed, peering out the window, and shrieking wildly in despair at the sight of what remains of your precious flower garden. For this reason, I completely understand why the entire property is decorated with Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii), Butterfly Bush (Buddleja spp.), Japanese Spirea (Spiraea japoniza), and Miscanthus grasses. These plants are easy to find in commercial nurseries and they are the last resort for deer.
But, I’m not a purist either when it comes to natives. I’m a sucker for blooming Crocus, Daffodils, and Tulips when most other plants are still dormant. There are few things more comforting and inspiring than the sights of Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellate) and other ornamental magnolia blooming in early spring. Among all the inherited ornamentals, I found a new mysterious plant I knew nothing about. Its speckled and contorted branches turned and twisted in odd and interesting ways. I could not resist investigating further.
The more I looked, the more familiar the plant became. I noticed catkins, which were very similar to catkins found on the Betula (birch) genus. The leaves now started to look familiar too; much like that of American Hazelnut (Corylus Americana) but larger and rounder. Finally, I was convinced that it was some sort of Hazelnut hybrid. Turns out; it is a Hazelnut cultivar commonly referred to as Contorted Filbert, Corkscrew Hazel, or Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick.
The plant’s Latin name is Corylus avellana and it is originally from Europe and western Asia, but according to online sources, the contorted variety was derived from a shrub found in the UK and named after a famous entertainer from Scotland. I do not mind this shrub at all and I am enjoying the winter interest it offers with its weird twisting branches. Soon we will find out if this shrub will produce Hazelnuts, but I will be surprised if it does. I am realizing that sometimes to gain a certain aesthetic appeal, a cultivar is a necessity that I can learn to embrace if most of the plants in my yard bring value to wildlife (especially native insects) in the form of food and reproduction.