Hello 2019: Garden Goals
January is such an optimistic month in the North. Obviously, with a start of a new calendar year, there’s an opportunity to do a reset - and not just in our garden planning, but also an invitation for spiritual renewal and commitment for the year ahead. For Minnesotans, there’s usually a soft blanket of snow covering our now deeply slumbering garden, and the hope for so many of us has already sprung. We are collecting new and returning favorite seed varieties after pouring over the beautifully enticing catalogs that have been rolling in since late November.
At Seed to Fork, we had a pretty great 2018 and certainly intend to do more of the same, which is striving to feed ourselves off our land for as long as possible. The biggest shift in achieving this goal arrived with the construction of our root cellar last summer. This meant we suddenly had a large, walk-in refrigerator where we could store harvested produce, extending our harvest longer than ever before into those dark and often dreary Winter months. This year our top priority is to work toward timing our fall harvests for peak storage in that new root cellar.
Here are our top garden goals for the year and why.
Filling the Cellar
Now that it’s built, this will be the first full growing season to test our ability to fill it. One of these years we hope to have this root cellar dialed in and filled with copious veggies to get us through the Winter. Some vegetables that can store well include peppers and tomatoes that can last several months in good conditions. We aren’t aiming for those just yet as I haven’t researched the best pepper varieties for storage, but we certainly hope to improve on what was a mediocre start to root cellaring. Gardening to fill a root cellar is a completely different mindset than planting a summer garden, and as we learn what works well for us, we will share those learnings with you.
We fell so short of this goal last fall, with several empty shelves. It’s kind of a large space to fill, and I’m still trying to get my head around exactly how we will change our growing mentality to successfully fill it. The biggest shortfall was that we didn’t store a single cabbage, and this is a food we eat regularly, year round, and is the cornerstone vegetable of our root cellaring goals and our diets.
Needless to say, we are far from perfecting the timing of our fall brassica succession. Summer is so hot and we forget that it will soon be over, and then it cools off so suddenly that plants literally stop growing by early October, so we need to give our cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower an extra few weeks in the heat of the summer to get going in order to be harvestable before the cold fall air settles in and stunts their growth. This means for us we need to sow our fall brassicas by mid-June instead of July 1, excepting broccoli. I will be publishing an updated succession planting guide later this month to reflect what we learned last season.
A Carrot A Day
An essential food for our family of four are carrots. Carrots are consumed on a daily basis in our home, so why not try to grow enough for us to enjoy on a daily basis? It seems simple enough, but if you’ve ever grown carrots you may agree it sounds like such a big goal when I put it into words like that.
We are fortunate in that we’ve had great luck with carrots over the years, and one reason is that we really focus on creating loamy, rich soil for our garden beds. Carrots are one of my very favorite crops to grow. We sow multiple successions of carrots and have fresh garden carrots from early July to well beyond the end of the growing season. In fact, we still have carrots in the root cellar, though I’m digging blindly at this point into a bin of damp sawdust, anticipating to come up dry when I reach in for a carrot any day now. We put about 16 pounds of carrots into the cellar around Halloween.
We’ve been eating carrots from the garden since July — that’s 6 months straight of homegrown carrots. So, I guess I’m halfway there! If I had to quantify this goal, we need about 1,000 carrots/year to serve our year round habit. This is an area where we simply need to dedicate more space for summer sowings and be more diligent with our watering when we sow them as germinating carrots in the heat of summer is not an easy garden task.
Spicing up the Peppers
I had a moment of enlightenment last summer when I was staring down our half dozen hot pepper varieties — they are quite beautiful and relatively easy and fun to grow. We have grown the usual suspects for many years now, varieties such as jalapeno, habanero, serrano, and Thai chili. The problem is they end up in the compost bin as often as on our plates. I persevered and made a fermented hot sauce with them this fall, though it remains stored in our refrigerator and yet to be used. Something has got to change.
Instead of growing all these peppers we only use occasionally, I realized we could instead use that same space to grow peppers we actually seek out in the kitchen on a regular basis, like paprika. The plan is to dry, grind and blend into spices we know we will use weekly. In addition to paprika, we will be growing peppers for enchilada sauce and for kimchi spice (Kochu pepper). This is an exciting new area of growth for us, growing spices, and I look forward to exploring different blends and hopefully growing enough to use in our home and to gift during the Holidays in the years to come.
Tomatoes are a food we took a break from several years ago due to food sensitivities and a specific diet our family was pursuing for improving our gut health. Ever since this time, and really as long as I can remember, we’ve never grown copious amounts of tomatoes. I think the most we’ve ever grown was a dozen varieties, but only one plant of each variety.
We have been without homegrown tomatoes for too many months now, and one of our standing goals is to work toward being as self-sufficient as possible; growing tomatoes is an area where we definitely need to up our game to close the gap between our family’s need for this food and our ability to produce it. I know we can produce more than we did last year, it’s mostly that we haven’t allocated enough space to tomatoes. Yet.
To that end, I have invested in several new tomato varieties for the coming year. Two notable varieties known as good producers of excellent saucing tomatoes are the Juliet paste and Costuloto Genovese tomatoes. I’ve also added several of Wild Boar Farms tomatoes to our seed collection including Afternoon Delight, Blue Berries, Blue Beauty, and a fourth one I can’t remember (I’ll be surprised when they arrive in the mail). Needless to say, we will be dedicating more space than ever to tomatoes. And hopefully that translates to canned tomatoes and sauce we can use well into the off season.
Perfecting the Cured Onion
Growing onions has been one of those surprisingly enjoyable crops to grow from seed. The first few years we grew them from seed, we our bulbs were no larger than 1.5”, modest but a start. As the years have passed, the onion harvests have become much more respectable and some years they’ve store easily until March. Sounds ideal, right?
Well, I must confess last summer I was so excited to convert our onion bed into a fall garden that I pulled all the onions up what now seemed a bit too soon. Or maybe it was that we cut back the tops before they fully cured. We have several bins half full of onions, and should make it until possibly April before running out of homegrown alliums. It’s not the quantity that is lacking in this case, it’s the quality. I just didn’t get the harvest/curing thing right.
To ameliorate that mistake, I am pledging to let them sit in the ground those extra few weeks in late summer, and this will be much easier this year because we are adding a new garden bed (30”x30’) just outside deer fence specifically for onions. Onions are one of those wonderfully hardy, deer resistant crops, so knowing this bed will just be for onions makes it all the easier to let them rest until the ideal time for harvest. Here’s hoping those onions store until Mother’s Day 2020.
My husband gets 90% of the credit for all the fresh frozen berries we’ve been enjoying for the past several months. He froze about 15 pounds of strawberries and 5 pounds of raspberries throughout the summer and into fall (fall raspberries). He also happens to be the largest consumer of these frozen treasures as he regularly drinks a protein smoothie after his weight lifting. But, why buy berries when you can snack on your own all year? As our berry patch matures, we will be individually quick freezing (IQF) more and more berries and hopefully one year soon I will be proclaiming we have achieved homegrown, year-round berry consumption.
The Hardscaping Continues
This year we, and by we I mean my handy and dedicated husband and partner in crime, will build the terraced raised bed for the remaining four blueberry plants. This is partly for aesthetics but also to help control the creeping weeds - ahem, Mr. Creeping Charlie, from invading the precious ground around the blueberries, who definitely don’t like to share root space with weeds. I secretly love the formality a raised bed adds to the garden so I am really looking forward to having all three beds on the northwest slope framed off and tidied up.
Finally, we will keep growing what works for us and what we love to eat. We formulate our grow list starting with the must-grows, the tried and trues, the foods the boys love to munch, and then fan out from there to include some just-for-fun varieties. The latter includes Armenian cucumbers, peanuts, Japonica striped corn, heirloom dried beans, and specific colors of Benary giant zinnia to spice up our vegetable garden this summer. I’m looking forward to sharing it with you as the season progresses.