We have a nice-sized yard, but it’s a mess. The dog has free rein. The chickens have free rein. The yard is rocky and sloped. We’re not great gardeners, but we’re learning. Here you’ll find updates on what’s gone into our vegetable beds over the last few years, and some other general gardening notes.
A successful garlic crop in the urban backyard depends on a lot of factors. We tell you what went right this year for us, what we might do differently, and one option for roasting your garlic once it’s harvested.
There’s a line early on in one of those first-generation text computer adventures – Colossal Cave or Zork or Adventure itself, I think – where the game asks you if you’re a wizard and what the secret incantation is, requiring that you’ve played the game already, or you’ve been told the secret by someone else who has (this was way pre-internet, remember, and this wasn’t the sort of information that libraries tended to know). If you do answer that you’re a wizard, and you get the code wrong, the game scoffs at you and tells you you’re a charlatan.
Gardening is a bit like that. Some years you feel like a wizard and some years you feel like a charlatan, like an actual wizard left you in charge of their garden and you’re just randomly throwing things into the ground and seeing what comes up. I wouldn’t say that I have an innate skill by any means, but I do have an immense amount of fun getting things to grow and gradually, slowly, learning by my mistakes and the variations of the growing season. Last year we put up straw bales for the first time, and had great success there with most of our seedlings. At the time, the raised beds that I’d been relying on were retarded by the branches and roots of nearby maples, which I took down at the end of the summer. This year, the raised beds are going gangbusters, but the straw is not so successful. On the one hand, shazam!!!, but on the other hand, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
A few notes on our success in the garden this summer … as well as our failures.
Comrades! While Emily is entertaining you all indoors with delicious seasonal goodies, I thought I’d update you with news from the garden to show you what’s been going on outside the house this year. This is technically our third full spring/summer, but our first since we bought the house. We were loathe to install anything permanent during our rental period for fear we’d do irreparable damage to the property – now of course, we’re quite merrily doing plenty of irreparable damage and NOT GIVING A HOOT.
So: the garden. Over the last couple of seasons I’ve built two 8’x4′ raised beds. I’ve planted vegetables that we tend to use most in cooking – garlic, onions, dark greens and squash – with varying success. The first year, we had what seemed like two fresh zucchini every day. We’d eat them, go down to the garden the next day and pick off two more. The second year, we didn’t notice ANY squash growing until late in the season, I moved a leaf aside and found one enormous zucchini that must have been growing un-noticed for a month. [Emily: I wish we had taken a picture of it because it seriously would have needed an NSFW tag]. That was the first and last squash we had that year.
I like to tell people that growing up in England, and particularly in the Garden of England™ that is the Kent countryside, you naturally absorb, as if by osmosis, an understanding of the ways of nature. You find yourself in easy harmony with the plants, and the trees, and gardening and horticulture come as easily to you as walking, or talking. (But not walking AND talking together, let’s not fly too close to the sun, Icarus.)
It’s all bollocks, of course. My Nan loved to garden, my Mum loves to garden, I had a Big Book of British Trees (“Number 4: The Larch. The Larch.”), but other than that, the very few nuggets of natural lore that still rattle around my skull are things I remember from Scouts. (For example, did you know you can tell compass directions by looking at the moss growing on the side of a tree? I’m pretty sure it’s the north side, unless it isn’t.)
Moving back to the countryside after so long, we’re forced to cram a lot of greenery know-how into our increasingly osssified crania. For example, we have two large black walnut trees, laden each summer with green, perfumed globules, which, come the autumn, are released from their arboreal prison and sent careening into the ground. Or into a face.
It’s October, and the bulk of the vegetable garden is finished for the season. Of course, our herbs are still going strong on the deck, and we’re still pulling out ripened tomatoes, but the soil beds are now empty. For our first year, we didn’t do too badly. Here’s a recap.
Although last winter wasn’t particularly cold, it was really long – snow persisted through March, and this meant that nothing happened in the garden until early April, when I built the raised bed. Emily’s mom Diane had given us a gift certificate from White Flower Farm, so we ordered potatoes, leeks, zucchini, cucumber, garlic, shallots, and a selection of herbs. I also picked up some carrot seeds from the supermarket. The farm sent us plants when they were ready, so from early April I planted each set of vegetables as they arrived.
The garlic and shallots were apparently doing very well, until we returned from our three-week trip to the UK and found them rotted. Our theory is that they got too wet. I do want to try again with both of these, since we use them all the time in cooking. Garlic can certainly be planted in fall for an earlier harvest, so I’ll get the raised bed ready to plant again probably around late October. We picked up a few bulbs of hardneck garlic some weekends back from the Cold Spring farmers’ market; I’ll try diverting these cloves from the kitchen table to the garden bed in a few weeks. (What’s funny is, some of the “failed” garlic I abandoned in June is now re-sprouting there. I don’t know if it will yield anything, though.)
A not-so-fringe benefit to growing squash is having access to the loveliest edible of the summer. Squash blossoms! So dang perty. They are usually stuffed with ricotta cheese and fried in batter which is (of course) delicious but we didn’t have a lot of them and didn’t want to do a whole fried bonanza so we just sautéed them in a bit of olive oil until they were wilty and brown and then frizzled some capers and garlic to go over them. It took about 5 minutes and ended up being really tasty. The fried zucchini blossoms become silky and translucent, almost like stained glass. Of course, they wilt down to nothing so don’t plan on this being dinner but if you grow squash, fried zucchini blossoms is a pretty good way to use the flowers without a lot of fuss.
We used the last of our green garlic (young, hard neck garlic from the farmers market) which is milder than regular grocery-store garlic. Either would work though so don’t sweat it.
I have a confession to make. I’m actually a little freaked out by “nature”. I mean, it’s beautiful and keeps us alive and I hate that we do terrible things to the Earth. And of course I love farmers markets and fresh, organic produce. That being said, I’m the person that steps off the pavement and immediately gets stung by a bee. Or trips on a tree stump. Or gets stuck in a bramble.
I’ve lived my whole life (until recently) in New York City and haven’t had a lot of experience with non-urban life but Matt really loves the country and I really love Matt so now we live in Beacon, NY. It’s not exactly the wilderness but it’s a pretty small town in the Hudson Valley, about an hour and 20 minutes from midtown Manhattan. We’ve been here almost a year now and I’m liking it much more than I anticipated but adjustments had to be made. There is almost NO restaurant delivery around here (which means we end up cooking a lot more which is good). Going out for dinner often means a 20 minute (or so) drive unless we just go into town. That also means I had to learn how to drive which is no small accomplishment for a city girl who’s never had a license. Now that I finally learned, I love driving everywhere. Even to the mall (I’m still tickled that we have to go to a mall sometimes).
It’s been … er, a while (a SEASON) since I posted about our garden. We’ve had mixed success: the raised bed went in in early April, along with a good deal of mixed potting soil, top soil and compost in a ratio governed only by general internet advice. The vegetables from White Flower Farm started arriving soon afterwards, and in early April I planted garlic and shallots. I dug a separate patch for potatoes, and planted carrot seeds alongside them. Finally, in May, leeks, squash and cucumber all arrived. Other than the carrots (seeds from a packet), all the produce was sourced from White Flower Farm and planted in whole vegetable form. In other words, the farm essentially sent us a bag of potatoes, a bag of garlic bulbs, some baby leeks, and so on. Before we left on our spring trip to the UK, the garlic and shallots were looking great, and the potato shoots were just starting to appear.
This is our first year in the country with a yard. It’s great to have all that space, and Arya loves having the freedom of running around the house and barking at cars and passers-by, but right now that’s really all it is – space. Almost from the first time I saw it, I have been wanting to dedicate some of it to planting vegetables. Emily’s lovely parents gave us a gift certificate to White Flower Farms, which sell seeds, flowers and other accoutrements. So why not give it a go?
There are quite a few challenges to the practical use of our garden. Most of it has a slope of some degree – quite severe around the back of the house, and less so elsewhere, but there are very few completely level areas. Where there IS level ground, tree roots tend to limit how much digging can be done. I planted crocuses alongside the porch in early December (JUST beginning to see them emerge…) and most of the trowel work involved battling the root system of nearby trees.