Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Summer of Gardening (photo heavy post)

FYI, that title is total click bait. What I really should have titled this was, "How to Successfully Garden in the Absolute Laziest Way Possible" because that's really what I did this summer.

I also spent the summer intending to post about the success of said garden, and then my posts about other stuff kept getting longer and longer so for the most part I left the gardening stuff out, except for the occasional picture (both here and on Instagram), and this one post right after we built the thing.

But since I spent a chunk of yesterday morning clearing out my garden, I thought it'd be a good time to post my reflections on the project. Get ready for loads of pictures and details of the project, start to finish (but also kind of mish-mashed since I want to organize by topic)! I've also included the photo date for every picture so you can get a bit of a chronology going for the pictures.

I'll break it down into chunks, so you can skip between bolded sections if there's something you're particularly curious about. In case you wanna skip between, they are:
  • Getting Started
  • Time Commitment
  • Cost
  • Space
  • Construction, Planting, and Growth (includes pictures of assembly and some growth)
  • What I Planted
  • Harvests (includes pictures of produce and a few harvests)
  • Conclusion
And absolutely, the first thing I'll say is that I'm really, really glad I took the time to do it this year. I will definitely be gardening in the future. Now on to the details.

Getting Started

Before I started, I found a book called Small Plot, Big Harvest, at a book sale at work and I learned soooo much from it. It really served as the impetus to get gardening this summer, though I'd been interested in the prospect for the last few years.

I also perused a few websites and forums, like /r/gardening on reddit, but also some of the places you can buy seeds from.

Finally, many things were learned the good ol' fashioned way: from listening to my mom. She used to have a huge vegetable garden when we lived in the city, and she was invaluable in this process. Having someone who can kind of guide you through when you have random questions is very useful!

Time Commitment

I know that this is one of the first things people will wonder about, and that a lot of people think they "don't have time" to garden. To give you some perspective, I spend about half of my weekly free time (3-4 day of my nights and weekends) at Cam's house, so aside from the two initial Saturdays spent building and planting, I did all of my "gardening" in the other 3-4 days of the week when I was home. This time was usually right after work on Monday or Wednesdays, with anything more intensive on the occasional Saturday or Sunday, depending on which I was home for. And remember...I did all of this while training for a half marathon, going on vacation, working (including overtime), and studying for my first CPCU test. You can totally do it if you want to.

Also...it was a huge help that I never really weeded (lol).

I'd say I spent a total of 10-12 hours over 6 1/2 months doing "hard labor" (from the first weekend in May to yesterday, October 17th). The initial building was one part - though admittedly Cam and our friend Daniel did most of that while I removed sod and laid weed paper and stuff. We spent about 5 hours that day building and putting in the bed and filling it with dirt.

Two weeks later, my mom and I went and got all the plants and I put them in. This whole process (not including plant buying) took me about 1-2 hours, including planting items in pots. No, my mom didn't help, she was doing other garden work. So this was the estimate of doing it alone.

After these initial time investments, I spent very, very little time "tending" the garden. I spent 30-60 minutes cleaning out dead stuff and debris two or three times all summer (which included removing or repositioning plants); I never, ever weeded (except pulling some stuff out with the dead leaves and when I did that); and I went out and picked stuff all summer long (not hard labor, but ~10-15 minutes at a time, 2-3 times a week). The last session of "hard" work was picking the last bit of everything, pulling plants out, and turning over the soil yesterday..which took about 75 minutes.

There are pictures of all this in the section titled Construction, Planting, and Growth.

Cost

A large bulk of the cost for this came from the necessity of building a raised bed. The soil where I live is terrible (most soil is not ideal for gardening without heavy prep), so the bed was a necessity.

The full cost (wood, dirt/manure/compost, chicken wire, trellises, plants, etc) came to about $800 - and I'll give my mom total credit for funding this project. She'll use the bed for future gardening, so she judged it a good investment when I said I wanted to do it. A majority (~$600) of that was a one-time cost for the wood and supplies, as well as the initial soil investment. In the future, the soil will need to be topped up and 'fed' to replace nutrients, but the plants easily covered their own cost, and we still have items in the freezer to get through.

Obviously, an annual cost will be the plants, but I'd feel confident giving seeding a try for certain things, like tomatoes and peppers. The few seeded plants I had this year did really, really well, so I'd like to try this method of cost cutting next year. Growing plants from seeds and then transplanting them would save a TON of money (like 6000% percent, seeds are so cheap for so many), and give more control over the number of plants I would have to commit to (i.e. I can just seed 5 broccoli plants as opposed to buying 2 4-packs of broccoli because that's how they're sold)

Space

Our raised bed ended up being 12 feet long by 4 feet wide by 1 foot high (12'x4'x1'). This was plenty of (cramped) room for all the stuff I decided to try. Though the depth was a concern going in, I lost very few plants, so I'd say this size is just fine.

In all, it didn't take up too much space. Mine and my mom's biggest far was that it would get in the way during our Fourth of July party, but even then, it didn't cause much of a problem, and people really enjoyed peeking in to see what was growing!

The garden is directly behind the white tent, and didn't cause problems with space at all!

Construction, Planting, and Growth

Cam and Daniel get full credit for constructing the raised bed. Cam measured, cut, and bolted all the wood together to form the frame of the bed. There is no bottom to it - we (me and Daniel) simply pulled up the sod underneath, I laid weed paper, and then the three of us set the frame down.

As for the type of wood...we bought treated cedar at Home Depot, and paid attention to what it was treated with (as in, I googled the chemicals to make sure they wouldn't leech into the soil). Make sure you check that if you decided to build a bed for a vegetable garden. There's tons of literature on the topic, so I'll leave it there.

We did NOT dig post holes, because I didn't know I had to call JULIE in advance to do so (clearly I'm not an adult yet), and we really only had the one weekend to build the thing. In case you're wondering - there was absolutely no problem with not having posts. All that dirt holds things in place.

Yeah, we got wood.

He used our patio table as his workbench :P
Though the weed paper extended a good six inches beyond the frame in all directions, and though I double layered it as best possible, I still got growth from the grass up through the bed in a few places (near the frame). Oh well, that's Mother Nature for you.

Once it was finished, the boys and I split bag after bag of dirt into the bed. I bought a combination of soil, manure, and compost. I believe the ratio I used was 50% soil, 30% compost, 20% manure (ish):
I ended up having to send my brother out to buy even more mix. I believe we got another 3 large bags of soil, and one or two of each compost and manure.
I also had the guys drop 6 stakes on the inner perimeter of the bed (in the soil), because the very last thing we added a few weeks later after planting, was chicken wire, and I needed something to zip tie the wire to. If you plan to make a vegetable garden DO THIS. I am totally, 100% convinced that the chicken wire is what saved a huge portion of my stuff from being eaten by rabbits, chipmunks, birds, squirrels, and Stewarts. I know a lot of people lost certain things to critters, and I honestly only lost a few low-hanging runner beans all season.

So yeah...chicken wire. When we put it around we made it so there was a kind of gate in the front of the garden, like this (garden green, frame black, wire gray):
So we started in the front middle, and wrapped around the right side, back, and left side. Cam and Daniel helped to hold the wire flush with the base around 3 sides while I stapled it in place and zip tied to the stakes, but the entire front portion was left open and unstapled (that's why it comes away from the base in the picture. We then overlapped the wire in the front, and used zip ties to hold it shut (there's a picture where you can see this further down).

This worked really well, though there was some grass growth between the wire and the frame that I trimmed down once during the season, and again yesterday morning (because it couldn't be weed wacked). I was able to harvest over the wire pretty easily. If you're shorter it might be harder, but the zip ties can be easily cut and the wire rolled to the side if you need to get in the garden (which is what I did when I cleaned up yesterday).

Bottom line...use chicken wire.

Other things to mention: I fed my garden twice with Miracle Grow: Once right after planting, again after seeding the green beans and runners (which was about three weeks after the initial planting of everything else). I did not use any pesticides or that kind of stuff, and I had zero problems with bugs...honestly, spiders kept pretty much everything away, and respun their webs when I accidentally destroyed them during harvests. It also rained heavily here in June. It was the wettest June on record for Illinois. That is probably why my tomato plants were effing massive. When it stopped raining, I watered at least twice a week, normally three times, depending on other rainfall.

Since I wasn't sure where to put them in this, here is the appearance of the yard, start to finish, plant growth included:

A blank canvas! (April 11th)

Bed built and soil added! (April 11th)
After the initial planting. (May 10th)
Stuff's starting to get bigger! (May 22nd)
The season in full swing. Those tomato plants were about 4 feet tall! (June 29th)
The first "clean out" session. (July 1st)
Everything cleared out, except for the sprouts which should last until November. (October 17th)
And actually, all of it was very pleasant. I enjoyed pulling dead stuff out and replanting. I loved harvesting my veggies, and I was sad to pull everything up today and know it's gone for the winter.

What I Planted

I'm sure you're now dying to know what I planted and all the details thereof, so here's the full list (not including herbs, which were like basic Italian herbs + cilantro). Quantities are bolded, types in normal font, survival notes in blue, and satisfaction/future notes are in purple:
  1. 8 Brussels Sprout plants
    • 7 left, one pulled early because it wasn't developing.
    •  Amazing so far, I'll do them next year but pull the leaves off earlier so the sprouts can grow better.
  2. 4 Tomato - 3 Big Boy and 1 "early" blossom plant
    • All flourished throughout the season, but the early plant did not flower early, it bloomed with the others. 
    • Next time, 2 plants will suffice. I now have like 3 dozen green tomatoes in my freezer to see if there's something I can do with them. My grandma also got buttloads of tomatoes because they kept growing so fast.
  3. 4 Eggplant - 2 Nadia (like Asian Eggplant) and 2 Black Shine
    • I pulled one of the Nadia in July, but the others produced all season.
    • In the future I'll only do Black Shine as they yielded better harvests.
  4.  2 Zucchini
    • They did well, produced consistently, but required a lot of trimming because the leaves go everywhere.
    •  2 plants is plenty, and I was sad when their season was officially up (mid August). They need to be harvested consistently though otherwise the low hanging produce will rot easily.
  5.  12 Broccoli
    • 8 were planted in my garden, 2 in a pot at Cam's house, 2 in a pot at my house. The potted ones that went to Cam's were fine (just smaller than the gardened ones). The pots at my house were raided by Stewart the Everything Eater. Of those in the garden, 1 did not fair well, 1 was small, and two were huge. I was disappointed that one of the big ones flowered (because apparently it does that if you don't harvest it soon enough) while I was in Idaho and was inedible. The 4 heads we were able to eat were delicious.
    • Broccoli grows HUGE, and thus takes up a lot of space. In the future, I'll pot them (1 per pot) so I have room for other stuff in the raised bed.
  6. 4 Bell/Sweet Pepper - 4 bell, 1 cherry sweet
    • I replanted two of them after removing the broccoli plants in July. One did not make it, another did not flower (or bear fruit) at all. The other two only produced a few (7-8?) peppers through the whole season. The sweet cherry pepper plant did really well, but they weren't my favorite to eat because of how many seeds they had.
    • I'll probably do 2 full size pepper plants next year, but I think I'll pot them like the jalapenos.
  7. Seeded Green Beans - ~ 10 plants in all (~12 seeds planted)
    • These were amazing. They were one of the few items I did from seed and I was so pleased. I got multiple (about 6) great harvests from them, even one after I thought they'd stopped producing. It was so fun planting the seeds and watching them sprout and grow that way.
    • I will definitely plant them again and give a little more room to grow, as well as staking them so they can grow taller. They were one of my favorite items from the garden, crisp and delicious, and I loved having them.
  8. Seeded Scarlet Runner Beans - ~10 seeds planted, 7 plants left)
    • My next favorite item were these Runners. Oh goodness, they are delicious. They're not as common in the States but they're very popular in England, which is how we knew about them. The plants did so well, started flowering around July, and they had a great harvest all the way up until I dug the plants out today. Easy to pick and cook for a quick addition to any meal.
    • Duh, I love them. I'm doing half the garden in Runner Beans next year (kidding...only a little)
  9. 2 Cucumber (pickling size)
    • One died, perhaps from lack of sunlight due to the broccoli's size. The other flourished!
    • I loved having cucumber and I'm sad that the one died, but I think I knew it was going to. It had a good harvest, around a dozen cukes. I may try cucumber from seed next year, and I'll make sure they have a big more room and sun.
  10. 6 Swiss Chard 
    • Of the 6 plants, 5 survived and thrived. We had Swiss Chard literally all season, and ended up giving what amounted to buckets of the stuff to my Grandma, as well as having tons for us too. Easy, no fuss, just wash and cook.
    • My mom loves Swiss Chard, so this was her thing because she really, really wanted it. It took up quite a bit of space though, and we probably would have been better with only 3 plants. I think I'll try this from seed next year because it fared so well all summer.
  11. Bok Choy (2 pots)
    • I seeded a lot of Bok Choy, saw it all start to sprout, and then it was gone practically overnight. I tried to cover it with nylon, but an animal (probably Stewart, since I saw him pulling stuff out of the second pot) tore through the nylon and ate it.
    • I want to try Bok Choy again, and next time I'll chicken wire the pots. Apparently it grows all season (much like the Swiss Chard) so it'll be an adventure for next year!
  12. Lettuce - 3 varieties, can't remember which (Red Leaf, Butter...)
    • We harvested the lettuce a few times, but a lot of it got eaten by the rabbits :(
    • I'm willing to try again! CHICKEN WIRE!!!!!!!!!
  13. 6 Jalapenos 
    • One died. The rest did not, they grew like freaking weeds and nothing ate them (duh). I had jalapenos growing out the wazoo and ended up having to slice and freeze a bunch of them.
    • I actually loved them. I made jalapeno poppers twice for parties and they were really great. I'll totally grow them again because they were so easy and even fun!
Harvests

Finally, allllll the pictures you want to see!

Bok Choy (half eaten) lettuces (about to be eaten) and jalapenos. I got rid of the nylon once the lettuces went. (June 29th)
Eggplant flowering! They were beautiful plants :D (June 29th)
The first broccoli crown to flower. (June 29th)
My first tomato! It was a LONG time before I harvested it. (July 6th)
The zucchini were the first things to flower and produce, next to the broccoli. (July 6th)
Just to get an idea of how big the broccoli was getting. This was the first head I harvested. (July 6th)
AS SOON AS I picked this, Nigel tried to eat it. I had to trim off what he got. Grr. (July 6th)
I manged to get some of the herbs before they died...basil, thyme, and oregano for a pizza one night. (July 6th)
These zucchini went into hulk mode while I was in Idaho! (With some flowered broccoli on the side...I was so sad!) (July 20th)
For reference...he's 6'6" (July 20th)
It got stuffed. (July 20th)
I was also SUPER STOKED about the first green bean harvest when we got back!!! (July 20th)
Zucchini for the Presidentress and family!! (July 26th)
More zucchini, if you look carefully... (July 29th)
Eggplant!! They were so cute! The large one is a Black shine, the small very purple one at the bottom of the photo was a Nadia. (July 29th)
The Scarlet Runners flowering. They ended up producing steadily through August, September, and October. (July 29th).
My first runner bean, hanging out with a cucumber. (July 29th)
Just for kicks, some of those Jalapeno Poppers I mentioned (before they were breaded and baked). (August 9th)
Runners and tomatoes! (September 18th)
Runners, tomatoes, (the last) green beans, peppers, and eggplants. (September 26th)
Conclusion

So...there you have it! Though there are lots of harvest pictures, it's nowhere near the total sum of all my harvests. There are no pictures of the swiss chard or Brussels sprouts, I only showed you one head of broccoli, you didn't get to see very many of the tomatoes either...just trust me, you're not seeing lots of things that grew and ended up in my belly...or in the case of some of the tomatoes, spoiling on the counter :(

Hopefully this post was a bit fun and informative for you. It's been really exciting for me to look back and see how much my tiny little garden accomplished this summer. If you're interested in the idea of gardening and can spare a bit of time and energy doing so, I highly recommend it.

Questions and comments are welcome! I'd love to know what you think, if you've gardened before...anything. I loved doing this and am looking for everything from tips and tricks to advice on starting plants from seeds. I would love to chat about this!

Aside from that...peace out, and enjoy the rest of your Sunday (and the week ahead)!


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