Food from the Backyard

backyard garden permaculture
This is only half of the garden

I thought I’d take a little break from writing about contemplative hiking this week and instead do an update on our home permaculture garden and its ongoing bounty.

Last fall we expanded our backyard food garden by about a fourth with a sheet mulch method of putting down cardboard directly on the lawn, then layering cow manure, horse manure, straw, amendments (powdered sea kelp, ground rock) and dead leaves into a foot-thick pile that slowly decomposed over the winter to form very nitrogen-rich soil. Before learning this method from Sandy Cruz, a permaculture teacher in the Boulder area, in past years we would purchase and haul in bags of potting soil and compost from the local nursery or Home Depot to expand our garden. No more of that! This sheet mulching method is far superior and far cheaper, as a bale of straw is maybe a few bucks and a pickup truck load of fresh manure is either free or, where we get it from, $5. There’s a little more labor involved with shoveling the stinky stuff into a wheelbarrow and out onto the soil lasagna, but it’s worth it. There’s no amount of MiracleGrow that can compete.

Compost - from the bottom of our bin and one year old and ready to use

Although we don’t have a perfect permaculture design in our backyard garden, we have incorporated some techniques to make gardening easier, because we’re allowing nature to do a lot of the work.

We diverted the rain from a nearby drain down into a pipe that we buried under the garden. The holes in the pipe allow for a slow, deep moistening of the soil when it rains. Before, the drain would just gush out into the middle of our lawn and form a pond – a total waste of good rainwater. No more.

We mulch our garden with any weeds that may have reared their resilient heads (as long as they haven’t yet gone to seed, and NO bindweed as mulch – that stuff will germinate from its roots). The weeds decompose and return the nutrients back to the soil, and they act as a moisture barrier for the soil around plants they’re covering.

onions growing under apple tree
Planting onions under apple trees deters pests

We planted things to have multiple purposes. The green beans and peas are nitrogen fixers and “feed” the squash and cucumbers, and in turn the squash and cukes shade and cool the ground and prevent weeds from growing. We planted onions underneath the apple tree to repel those moths that bore holes in apples, and it seems to be working for the most part, at least for now. The apples are still the size of apricots, but are looking rosy and healthy. We planted clover, another nitrogen fixer, under the plum tree and around the pumpkin and squash plants, because clover will feed the soil.

We also have raspberries in the low spot behind the vegetables, where they can partake of a wetter environment since that’s where all the water goes when it rains. We haven’t had many berries this year because the birds get to them before we do. That’s ok. The birds deposit their own fertilizer on the soil around other plants we enjoy, too.

Instead of planting the same crop in neat clusters or rows, we planted kind of hodge-podge, so that pests can’t congregate in one area and destroy an entire crop. This has helped us avoid such pests as flea beetles, horn worms and other nasty things. Having flowers around our vegetables also attracts pollinators and letting birds partake of berries and worms no doubt helps with pest control, too. (Although worms aren’t pests. But caterpillar larvae and slugs are.)

The climate around the Front Range has been bad for the cool weather crops this year. It was cooler and wetter than normal for a while in April and May, and then, bam! It got hot pretty quickly. The cool weather plants had a slower start due to the cooler spring, then just petered out when temperatures hit 90 degrees. Therefore, we got only a handful of peas from at least the dozen plants we sowed, and the broccoli heads were pathetically small. We also learned that beets don’t like fresh manure, so our beet crop was generally non-existent due to some of the manure mulch still not being decomposed enough in April. We enjoyed a lot of lettuce, making salads not just for ourselves but for several big family get-togethers in June.

The tomatoes were the funniest story this year. As we always do, we started about three dozen plants from seed in late February. I don’t know what happened, but the good psychic energy we gave the plants paid off and in April the plants were green, bushy and 2-3 feet tall and ready to go in  the ground! It was way too early, though, as temperatures need to be at least 50 degrees overnight and that just wasn’t happening (and wouldn’t be, until late May). But we needed to do something. We started hardening off the tomatoes by placing the pots outside for several hours a day of sunlight. That made them grow taller and leggier. They were getting fragile and spindly, and hard to protect when transporting them around.

green tomatoOur solution was to plant them in the garden and make a miniature hoophouse around each plant. We encircled the plants with wired garden fencing, wide enough to accommodate the growth, and about 3 feet tall, then wrapped each cylinder with clear garden plastic, covering the whole thing with remay cloth each night. The temperature in the mini hoophouse stayed a few degrees warmer and thus protected the sensitive tomatoes from getting chilled.

So far so good… But one day in May a warm front moved in and wind began to whip through the neighborhood. I looked out the window to see tomato cages strewn about the yard and a couple of the plants snapped in half – at the base of the stem! Argh! I had to quickly rush out to remove all the cages that day until the wind died down, then replace the cages again that night. What a pain in the ass.

Those tomatoes are damn prima donnas, with all that early seed tending, the weeks of marching the pots in and out, in and out of the house. We even did some frantic covering with chairs and tarps in the middle of a lightning and hail storm in early June in a desperate attempt to protect them. All I can say is, they better produce a fine crop this summer. And in fairness I have to admit that so far, they’re coming through.

tomatoes peppers cucumbers
Late July harvest of peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers

We planted a Bulgarian variety of heirloom tomatoes called “vorlon” which has proven to like Colorado weather. The leaves are dark and robust, the fruit is large and one of the first to ripen. The flavor is a bit less acidic than the average variety of tomatoes. It’s like the Hercules of tomatoes in our garden. And yes, a bit less prima donna.

I have to say that so far I’m happiest with the cucumber crop. We planted at least 15 plants and have been picking flavorful cukes, one each day, for a couple of weeks now. We also have a lot of peppers, but with them being neither sweet nor spicy, I’m not quite sure what to do with them.

I’m looking forward to tasting our Italian plums and apples later this summer and partaking of some of the unusual varieties of squash we planted – Pennsylvania Dutch and Honeyboat.

kale and collards
kale and collards everywhere!

We’ve had one serving of green beans so far and about 40 pounds of collard greens. The collards are amazing. They just keep growing and growing, and it doesn’t matter the weather or soil quality. I’m a little burned out on collards, as well as chard, and kale. Not only are we getting it from our garden, but we’re bringing it home from the half-share CSA we have, too. I’m feeling rather bovine-like with all these greens every meal of the day. We’ll have to blanch that stuff and freeze it for fall and winter, to put in soups and stews. I think I’m done for a while.

There’s nothing like the feeling of getting food from your backyard, though, or biting into a tomato or cucumber you just picked a minute ago. It’s a worthwhile venture, and it never really feels like work. I enjoy going out there in late afternoon or early morning, listening to the birds, watching the bees, and zoning out while I water everything. But we come nowhere close to producing all of our own food, just enough to not have to buy vegetables for a few months from the store. I’m sure that if we had to survive off what we grew, the effort would be exponentially larger. Our anxiety would be, as well. I once asked Dave, what if our survival depended on the success of our garden? He admitted that we would be protecting that garden like crazy, never leaving the house if there was even a small chance of a hail-producing thunderstorm.

For now, thankfully, this is just a pleasurable and educational hobby.

purple pole beans
Purple pole bean blossoms