2020 garden update: pond, pot and potatoes

2020 garden update: pond, pot and potatoes

Over the seven years that we’ve lived in our current home, we’ve transformed the backyard into a robust urban garden. We moved here in August 2013 and left things as they were for the first year. In 2015, we built a fence to enclose the back part of the yard that had previously been used as an RV parking spot, and installed four garden boxes:

backyard garden
The start of our garden in 2015.

In our previous two homes, we had a massive garden patch in the backyard that was dug straight in the ground. Without fail, every year by late July the garden completely got away from me and evolved into hopeless tangle of weeds and whatever vegetables could thrive in the chaos, mainly zucchini, spaghetti squash and dill. I remember one year pulling out something like 30 spaghetti squashes. Low carb noodles all winter long! 

I prefer to dig in the ground, but garden boxes work better for me on a psychological level. I feel more in control. The weeds still go crazy, but it only takes a few minutes, maybe up to an hour, to completely weed an entire box. The rest of the boxes may be chaotic, but restoring order to one box gives me a dose of accomplishment that carries me to another one the next day, and then another the day after that, and so on – thus keeping things at a relatively low level of chaos throughout the season.

backyard garden
The garden in 2016. OK, even with boxes it still got a bit wild.

However, even garden boxes didn’t save my garden from wholesale neglect the last couple years. I was pregnant in 2018 and then had a newborn baby in 2019, so I didn’t do much gardening. We did throw some seeds in the ground at the start of each season, but I did barely any maintenance. By the end of the summer we only pulled out a handful of veggies while the thistles and sunflowers had completely taken over. Plant sunflowers once and you will NEVER HAVE TO PLANT THEM AGAIN, trust me. The same goes for borage, catnip and yarrow, all of which find new and exciting places to pop up in our yard, year after year.

Granted, I do love sunflowers (and borage and catnip and yarrow) – as do the neighbourhood birds and bees. Sunflowers are natural bird feeders and borage/catnip/yarrow are premium pollinator forage. There’s a wonderful symbiosis when you let your yard get a bit (or a lot) unruly; it buzzes and flaps with life in the spring/summer/fall. Even in the divine stillness of winter, it’s deeply heartening to look out your window and see flocks of sprightly sparrows alighting on towering sunflower stalks. Plus, leaving dead plants and fallen leaves in your yard throughout the winter is good permaculture practice, as this provides home for all sorts of beneficial critters, like ladybugs.

sunflowers in snow
Sunflowers in the snow, 2017.

Two seasons of neglect made for a lot more work this year. The thistle population is nuts. I’ve mostly kept on top of it, but it’s an unending battle. We’ve also got creeping bellflower invading from our neighbour’s yard – it’s pretty, yeah, but it’s also super invasive and I get annoyed every time I see those little heart-shaped leaves popping up further and further into our garden.

The raspberry patches are sprawling everywhere, as raspberries are wont to do. We’ve kept them contained to a reasonable area, but I swear the entire place would turn into a thorny wilderness of raspberries and thistles if we let it go another couple of years.

backyard garden
The garden in mid-July 2020. This is about as in control as I could get it this year.

We did a lot of work on the yard this year: building a new deck, building a greenhouse, installing a sandbox/play area for our daughter, and creating a small pond fed by one of our rain gutters. The latter was an impromptu decision that we made early in the spring, when we were wistfully staring out at a frosty yard and planning the season to come.

I absolutely love the pond. It’s natural, with no pump or filtration system. Hordes of birds visit it every day (it’s basically a fancy bird spa). We bought some aquatic plants which have established themselves beautifully, and a pair of goldfish which have tripled in size. We aren’t feeding them; they work in cooperation with the plants and bugs and creepy aquatic invertebrates, feeding off each other. It isn’t stinky at all and the water is very clear and clean. No expensive pumps or heavy-duty maintenance required! Actually, it’s the most successful permaculture project in our whole yard.

The pond is in full view of our kitchen window so I look out at it multiple times a day as I’m standing at the kitchen sink. Observing the growth of plants, the blooming of unfamiliar aquatic flowers, and the visitations of the birds has had provided such an amazing mood booster throughout the dark days of 2020. I never would have thought a little pond would fill me with such joy, but seeing this little oasis as I’m going about the drudgery of daily chores has really helped me through some of the tougher moments this year. Whatever happens, my little pond is there, the goldfish darting among the plants, the birds dipping and ruffling.

The pond in September 2020. Note the unruly patches of yarrow in the foreground, borage in the background, and catnip on the left.

We made the greenhouse from old deck boards and a bunch of heavy-duty plastic wrap. It only took Matt and our fathers a day to build. We filled it with tomato transplants and a couple cannabis plants. The latter grew wonderfully in the hot and humid environment, though we learned the hard way that we need to improve the air circulation in there, because one of the cannabis plants developed bud rot. I got excited when I discovered that this is the same fungus as botrytis, which is called noble rot in the wine world and is responsible for some of the world’s best dessert wines. Matt was much less excited, because unlike the salvation of becoming Sauternes or Tokay when wine grapes are infected with botrytis, cannabis buds don’t transform into anything but compost.

Still, even though he lost a good chunk of one plant, his cannabis harvest has been extremely good this year. I love that his supply is now 100% homegrown. Plus, the return on investment for growing your own cannabis is insanely high – initially I griped about the cost of the seeds ($12 a pop – do you know how many carrots that is??) but he now has a year’s worth of weed from a $48 investment.

The tomatoes are a different story. The plants grew HUGE in the greenhouse – just look at these monsters:

It might not look like it here, but these are taller than I am.

The only problem? There’s no friggin’ tomatoes on them!! The fruit set was very poor. Here we are, a week (or less) away from first frost, and there are only a scattering of very green fruits on these massive plants. And they are still blooming!! I’m going to go through it this weekend, cut everything down and pull out all the fruit that’s in there, as the temperatures are going to be too cold overnight within a day or two. We might not get actual frost, and the plants are protected in there, but the fruits won’t ever ripen (even indoors) if they get hit with too cold temperatures. I can’t stand the idea of completely losing the little crop that we did manage to grow.

I’m still trying to figure out what went wrong. It might be a lack of fertilizer; I’ll add more compost next year and may fertilize throughout the season, depending on how they are doing. I think another major factor was lack of pollination – we open the door every day, and there’s an opening in the roof and a couple small windows, but I don’t think any bees really got in there. I can’t believe I didn’t think about this sooner. The deep irony is that the greenhouse is located right where our old beehive used to be. The bees didn’t survive last winter and we decided not to get another colony this year, as we are too busy managing a toddler, full-time jobs, and the rest of the garden.

Secret tomato.

The potatoes, however, are doing fantastic. Matt built them in vertical stacking potato boxes which worked well last year, when we first tried this system out. You keep stacking boards and dirt as the plants grow; to harvest, you just unscrew them all (a power drill makes this go very quickly – it would be another story completely if you didn’t have this tool) and the potatoes come tumbling out – no digging required. As you can see, the plants are still thriving and green with some flowers, so this weekend we are going to shred the leaves in the hopes of getting the tubers to start toughening up before we harvest them sometime next week.

The potato plants sprawling out of their vertical box.

The rest of the garden did OK. Everything seemed to start a bit late and the plants stayed really small for a while. Because we have a mature garden that’s several years old now, I think we need to add a lot more compost to the soil – seems like there’s a lack of nutrients. I’m also going to try floating row covers next year for my kale, collard and chard, because the f@#&ing cabbage moths completely overwhelmed the plants and riddled them with eggs and little green caterpillars. Between them and the slugs – which absolutely exploded in population with all the rain this year and absolutely ruined my beets – the greens are in a pretty sorry state. There’s still plenty to harvest, but it takes FOREVER to wash all the eggs and caterpillars off. I shouldn’t be so uptight, but it grosses me out, man.

The carrots did well and every year I always vow to plant more carrots next year, because we go through them so fast. The peas and green beans also did well. I’ve left a bunch of peas and beans on the plants to mature and will harvest them dry. The peas are about ready to come out; the beans need more time. I’ll save these for planting next year. Seed saving is a very good idea that stretches your garden investment dollars even farther – and is why you should only buy open pollinated varieties. I may also try cooking some – I used dried beans and peas to make soups and stews all the time but for some reason I never put it together that I could grow my cool heirloom garden varieties for this purpose. I was reading about all the cool beans that Rancho Gordo sells earlier this year, and it inspired me to explore this more fully next year.

Royal Burgundy beans drying before harvest. Note all the slug/caterpillar damage.

I’m already planning for next year. I’m going to stick the basics, to minimize garden labour and maximize calories. Fresh greens are nice, but I’d rather have a couple hundred pounds of potatoes, carrots and beets in the root cellar. (Also for next year: build a root cellar.)

Each growing season is totally unique. I’ve learned that there will be always be some things that thrive in certain years and absolutely fail in others. Sometimes I get disheartened that everything didn’t grow perfectly, but I try to remind myself that the garden is life. Life grows in different areas each year, but not all areas at once. Some things flourish; others wither. The seasons turn and the cycles repeat, spiralling forwards and backwards in time.

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