I rotate my “crops,” alternating legumes (which fix nitrogen in soil) with other plants like tomatoes, peppers and squash (which suck it out). But that alone is not enough to replace nutrients used up in a season. My garden is a fenced collection of 4×4 or 4×8 boxes of untreated wood that look like square foot gardens (SFG) but are not exactly. It’s fenced because these adorable dogs love to eat vegetables, particularly green beans:
In case you’re wondering, the fence is 16′ x 48′ and cost about $500 in material but $0 in labor. We built it 3 years ago with the help of EG, his 3 cousins and my sister-in-law so it’s about paid for itself.
There’s a lot to be said for SFGs but they are basically container gardens, requiring a yearly investment in growing medium. My soil, if you want to call it that, blows. So I require seasonal infusions of soil amendments and nutrients, as well as some growing medium, but I think it’s inefficient to start with a fresh new load of dirt every year. Even if I weren’t such a tightwad, Metal Pig would see the expense on my spreadsheet and estimate the cucumbers’ worth at about $5 each.
But the headline says I’m suspicious of organic fert and compost, which is true. The first thing I think of when I see labels like “organic” or “all natural” is slaughterhouse waste. You might argue it’s a good use of waste, and I don’t really want to focus on that subject, but I’d rather avoid growing with animal parts if I can. There is a mushroom farm I can drive to and get a trailer load of compost that consists only of mushroom fragments and the wood shavings they’re grown in, and it’s been great for mixing with vermiculite and the existing crappy soil as a growing medium. I’ve also sucked it up and gotten city compost, which is made from stuff my fellow townspeople discard and I’m pretty sure that includes bones from chicken wings and other body parts, but it’s heavy on the nitrogen. I probably won’t do it again but I support the city’s composting program. Throughout the season I’ve added alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, something called Texas green sand and compost tea. It’s been tempting to just use something made in a lab like Miracle Grow though.
The beans pictured below are being allowed to mature for drying; they might be the speckled ones pictured (Greasy Grits, from Baker Seed Co.):
I immediately put the tray of sprouts under lights. Because last year, for the first time ever, I lost all the little planties I started in January to damping-off disease. It’s something that usually only n00bs let happen. After that I planted a second round, which flew across the sunroom when I tripped on the door jamb while carrying them. A third round gave me a some plants, but not until April, which is late. I managed to get 90# of tomatoes over the whole season, which isn’t terrible. I harvested lots of other food, like this example of a morning’s typical greenbean haul; I believe this includes Cantare, Henderson Black Valentine and McCaslin 42 varieties, all of which I recommend:
The sunroom used to be all windows, which is why it was called a sunroom, and it was terribly inefficient. Blazing hot on nice days and you could see your breath on really cold days. So Metal Pig changed the floor-to-ceiling windows to walls and installed an operable window. This didn’t let in enough light and may have contributed to the damping-off disease, but mostly I blame the commercial potting mix I bought, which I hadn’t used before.
Today I planted 70 seeds in little Jiffy pucks puffed up with water. It’s not the first time. I’ve been growing heirloom vegetables for 12 years and I’m starting to get the hang of it. Previously I’ve put 3 seeds in each, in case they didn’t all germinate, which is Mel Bartholomew’s instructions. But he snips 2 of the 3 if they all germinate. What has happened is usually all sprout and I can’t bring myself to cull two of them. So I’d scramble to find room for them all both inside and out in the garden, like a hoarder, although I’d let a few select people adopt some. This time I put one seed in each cell. If one doesn’t sprout in a week, I’ll replace it.
Golden King of Siberia: I’ve never grown this before but it’s going to be the one early season variety I’ll try this year. In the past I’ve also grown Stupice, a red, golf ball sized Czech tomato that’s pretty prolific.
Speckled Roman: I’ve grown these for I think 9 years in a row, some with seeds I saved and some from seeds ordered from Baker Creek seed company . They’re actually striped red and orange, not speckled. They’re strikingly beautiful and taste way less boring than other Roma tomatoes.
Old Italian: Never grown these. Old-fashioned big red tomatoes I’m hoping will remind me of my grandpa’s garden.
Golden Jubilee: I’ve grown these for 10 years and save the seeds, which germinate even 2 years later. They’re not picky about our extreme temperature fluctuations and seem somewhat disease-resistant. They aren’t very seedy and the flavor is sweet but not insipid. When ripe they look like oranges. They make a pretty soup too.
Pantano Romanesco: I started growing these 5 years ago; I save these seeds too and get good germination. They are a saturated red color and a little seedy, but robust and not watered-down tasting at all. I will always have room for these.
Cherokee Purple: These are pretty purple tomatoes with green shoulders that remind me of Brandywines, but are regular leaf. I like them raw although when they get too big I think they’re kind of watery.
Solar Flair: This is the first time I’m growing this round, yellow and red striped variety.
Lucid Gem: I’ve never grown this either. It’s a new type developed by a guy named Brad Gates who must be a real tomato nerd. It looks like a bright yellow and pink tie-dye.
Kellogg’s Breakfast: This is another big orange tomato that never lets me down. I saved the seeds from 2 years ago and if they don’t germinate I’ll use the ones I ordered as a backup.
Paul Robeson: It’s a “black” (really purple-dark red) tomato named after this amazing performer and overachiever which Metal Pig jokes that he thinks is racist. Because it’s a black tomato. Whatever, it’s beautiful and slightly smokey flavored, and a respectful tribute to Mr Robeson.
White Wonder: Just trying this out to see if I can tell the difference between it and Great White.
Pink Brandywine: BW is the only potato-leaf variety on this list and the biggest plant. I only have 3 and if they all make it, they will be taller than I am and take up a lot of space. The fruits are also big, so that’s impressive if size is your thing, but they’re also delicious or I wouldn’t make room for them.
Here in Colorado, suburban agriculture can be considered kind of a luxury. The soil, without amendment and nutrients, is worthless for growing those plump, colorful vegetables you see at farmers’ markets. It can go for months without raining in the summer or snow and flood in the spring and fall. Daytime temperatures can be double the nighttime lows.
It’s possible to grow a lot of food in a small space without using an unreasonable amount of water or other resources. This year I’m tracking the expenses as accurately as I can and will calculate or estimate the return on my efforts as I pick them. I grow a lot of beans, which are eaten fresh and dried, and the ornamental-looking plants produce a lot of enjoyment and nutrition in little space. Tomatoes and other nightshades are not so easy. In the past I’ve only weighed tomatoes, a good yield for one summer being 200 pounds. You could say that’s almost a thousand bucks worth of food when you consider that these types of heirloom fruits cost $4-$5 at markets (if you can find them). But that’s only a legitimate return if you sell them or would normally buy 200 pounds of heirloom tomatoes from August to October. I make damn sure we eat, share and preserve all of them, and it’s worth it. To me. But this year I’m going to look at the actual numbers and calculate some hard, cold figures. I’m not entering time as an expense, even though time is money, because I love gardening. So it’s not billable time unless I skip work to do it.