For many, winter’s dormancy is empty and cold. Gone are the days of summer abundance, with leaves, fruits, flowers in profusion. Green fades to gold and gold to brown. Beneath the hard, bare, ground, life hums. The world is not dead during winter, but sleeping. Asleep, the earth dreams until it’s ready to stretch then stir into life again in the explosion known as spring.
This cycle of activity and repose used to be entrenched in human lives as well. Winter was a time to rest, to catch up on chores, to learn new crafts, to think, to plan, to be still. That ebb and flow is missing from life now that most people do not rely on the land for their living. Without rest, action is ineffective. Without reflection, action lacks purpose. During the dark, cold hours of the year, our bodies yearn for stillness. While I haven’t had the luxury of granting myself this much-needed winter repose, I have felt dormant.
Now, midway through the mercurial Kansas winter, life is beginning to stir again in me – as I know it is in my garden. It’s still invisible, but the seed of an idea has started to germinate.
Last summer, Tyler and I planned a garden for the first time together. We’ve had gardens before – haphazard affairs or half-forgotten plants in pots, and I used to help with our family garden – but this was the first time I embarked on gardening as a serious hobby of my own. Tyler built me 3 raised beds (2-4’x4′ & 1-8’x4′) out of cedar, which I stained and helped fill with soil. The two square beds were tiered with smaller 2’x2′ beds centered inside them. We thought these would be plenty, especially considering we had isolated most of our herbs in another part of the yard.
By the end of the summer, our garden had overflowed its banks.
We planted snap peas, carrots, radishes, onions, lettuce, spinach, green beans, garlic, brussels sprouts and kale in the large bed first, planning to follow early season crops with warmer-weather plants.
We were careful to be completely organic with this effort so our beds would be “safe” to use for many years to come. We never use chemicals on our plants (although Tyler does use fertilizers and other products on the lawn from time to time).
Within a few weeks, we were enjoying the first fruits of our efforts. However, due to a series of cold snaps, we didn’t plant most things until the last weekend of April. So, our “early spring” vegetables were enjoyed around Memorial Day.
One of the square beds will be dedicated eventually to strawberries, although for this year the were contained in only the top tier. An overbearing variety proved true to its name and started producing almost immediately! Learning as you go is a lot more fun when the prize for a successful experiment is a sweet red strawberry.
Surprise successes: Leafy greens! We picked basket after basket of lettuce and spinach late this spring and well into summer. Picking leaves instead of harvesting whole plants extended our harvest for weeks and kept us well-stocked. We had plenty to give away. As usual, tomatoes, okra, peppers, eggplant, carrots, radishes, onions, basil and other herbs performed well. Surprisingly, the leeks I started from seeds did great, too. It was a sort of random experiment that paid off nicely! Cucumbers and Armenian cucumbers thrived and we are still eating freezer pickles.
Miserable failures: Broccoli, kale, and brussels sprouts. The brussels sprouts were the constant target of ravenous little caterpillars, as was the kale. The broccoli I unknowingly planted next to peppers and both were stunted as a result of their proximity. I managed to get some kale to eat, but the other two plants did not produce and zapped my time fighting off the pests. The snap peas struggled, planted too late to thrive before summer heat. The green beans had trouble getting established due to window and blazing sun on the seedlings.
All in all, the garden would have done much better if we had been able to plant before late May. Hopefully this year, the weather and our schedules will cooperate! Several extended vacations also took us away and made it hard to get an accurate count on the harvest. The tomatoes also struggled a bit – I planted them in late June as discount transplants from a going-out-of-business garden center. This was the first year I tried square foot gardening and many of the plants were simply too crowded. It was also a year for learning about the sun in that location – many plants suffered from too much sun initially, then grew too shaded later on. All of these things have been excellent learning experiences!
The bounty (approximate):
- Snap peas: (bust) Equivalent of 1 package
- Green beans: 60 oz.
- Cucumbers: 14
- Summer squash: 11 – biggest weighing 2 lb. 10 oz.
- Okra: 210 oz.
- Eggplant (Ichiban :): 23
- Hot peppers (jalapeños and otherwise): 45
- Radishes: 32 oz.
- Carrots: 40 oz.
- Strawberries: 48 oz.
- Cilantro: 4 bunches
- Basil: 10 bunches
- Dill, parsley, other: 5 bunches
- Zucchini: 10 (biggest: 2 lb 14 oz)
- Onions: 8
- Armenian cucumber: 22 (biggest: 3 lb 11 oz.)
- Tomatoes (cherry): 320 oz.
- Roma tomatoes: 10
- Heirloom tomatoes: 15
Planning for my garden this year is underway and I am ready to leave the period of dormancy and spring into action once more! This year I plan to expand further, set up more hands-free watering solutions, and use pots for some of the root vegetables and herbs, to name a few of the items on my to-do list. Have you started planning your vegetable garden yet? I’d love to know what you’re planting!