January 14, 2022
If New Year’s resolutions have taught me anything, it’s to not set New Year’s resolutions. True, I set general goals for myself and re-evaluate my vision for the Homestead; but to me that is an ongoing process instead of something I dictate on January 1st. I always strive to do better and be better than the years prior, and one key element of that equation is taking inventory of my past successes and failures. This year it will require another multi-part series, with each part relating to a different aspect of our Homestead. Last year I did an entire garden review series, but there is so much more to cover for 2021 than just the garden; so many changes happened around the Homestead. For the sake of time and space, I will dedicate only this first edition to the garden review (squeezing it all in here:) documenting the highs and lows that comprised our 2021 garden and harvest season.
So much has happened over the past 12 months and beyond. Not just around the Homestead. No one needs me to give a nod to current events here… but I will say this much: Having witnessed the aftermath of shortages and panic buying in 2020, I knew in my gut that if I was ever going to get serious about sustainability and food security, it was 2021 or never. (I wrote an article on preparedness HERE.) My focus was on growing as much of “the basics” as I was able. For our family, those basics include green beans, tomatoes, beets, corn, and 2 things I’d never had much success with growing previously… onions and potatoes.
For the first time, I ordered live onion starts from Dixondale Farms and planted them in late March. I ordered some of each color (red, white, yellow,) all storage varieties, and followed the directions regarding when to plant them, even though everyone told me I was nuts for planting them in late March… Boy, was I blown out of the water by those onions! Never again will I buy those old sad, shriveled up onion sets from the hardware store. Not if I can help it, anyway. Those 120+/- starts provided us with around a bushel of onions at harvest. There weren’t any huge ones, most were medium sized onions, but they were the perfect size for adding to recipes. I’m still using the ones that I didn’t preserve with the freeze dryer, and they are storing just fine 6 months after harvest. If you’re in the market for onion starts, I can’t recommend Dixondale Farms highly enough (and no, I don’t get paid for telling you that!)
With the onions in the ground, I directed my focus onward to potatoes. I purchased 3 bags of seed potatoes from a local farm store, cut them up, cured them in the shed for a few days, and then set to work. Before long I had a 100′ row with a mix of Adirondack Blue, Red Norland, and Kennebec taters buried in a trench beside my onion row. I’ll be completely honest with you. Planting them at the end of March made me nervous. Really nervous. I lost sleep because of those potatoes. As I mentioned earlier, we had an unusually late winter storm and hard freeze in April, after my onions and potatoes were in the dirt. The day that the storm was set to roll in, I spent all of that chilly morning tediously covering the tiny, tender plants with layers of straw and pine shavings, anticipating what was to come. No sooner than I made it inside but big, fluffy snowflakes began dumping down, coating everything in sight, (followed a few hours later by freezing rain) before the temperature nose-dived into the teens with brutal winds that night. That snow and freezing rain combination, in addition to the protection I had provided, saved those plants from the freeze. All of them. I was stunned, relieved, and proud. In the end, those seed potatoes grew into big, bushy plants that showed no damage from pests, were a breeze to care for, and produced over 130 pounds of food for our family. Not only that, but we entered some of the better specimens into a local county fair and placed in all three categories. I would call the potatoes a definite success for 2021!
On a fascinating side note, I observed “tater maters” for the first time in my life. Unbeknownst to me, when the weather, soil condition, and level of pollination are all perfect for the potato plants, they produce potato berries, which are essentially full of tiny potato seeds. They were small, round, hard pods the size and texture of a green cherry tomato, and apparently they are very poisonous if consumed. Upon the advice of others, I did not harvest the berries with the intention of planting them in 2022. I removed as many of them as I could from my garden, as I was advised that the berries never produce true-to-type potatoes, and often only produce green tops and no tubers.
After the previously mentioned winter storm passed through and the soil dried up enough to be workable, I proceeded with planting beets. Over 240 row feet of them. Yes, we all really like beets, but I was also growing them for my mother-in-law who only plants beets to feed her local wild rabbit colony. Not intentionally, but the rabbits get to them first every time. I tried Chioggia beets (white and red bullseye pattern) for the first time, as well as Cylindria beets (deep red, long, slender taproots.) Both produced well and tasted great, but in the future, I will stick with the darker types of beets, such as these Cylindria or some Detroit Red varieties. No one around here wants to eat the Chioggias because they “just don’t look like beets” once they’re pickled. There were many late nights spent canning in the kitchen, the warm, damp air heavy with that distinctively musky-earthy-vinegary aroma of pickled beets. I entered some of my finest canned pickled Cylindria beets into the fair as well and brought home a blue ribbon.
Intermingled in my beets were assorted radishes. I tried this method primarily so I could see the beet rows right away, since radishes germinate in what seems like a day or 2, and beets take over a week to pop up. I will be patient from now on and not do that again. After we ate a few raw, used a few in salads, and roasted some, we were done. And have you ever tried giving away radishes to people? Especially some like these black Schwarzer Runder radishes that were humongous and tasted hotter than the surface of the sun? I seriously thought my esophagus was going to evaporate after eating just one nibble of those bad boys. Do they use Scoville units to grade radishes? They should. I think I could’ve cooled the burn with a jalapeño. Never, ever again. Traditional radishes, maybe I’ll plant again in smaller numbers, but the black death radishes will never grace this soil again.
Green beans, which are consumed regularly in this household, were among the top producers again this year. I canned right at 50 quarts (and freeze dried several more quarts) which allows us to eat 1 jar a week if we so choose until the garden comes in again in 2022. The varieties I grew this year were Jade (a repeat from 2020) and Royal Burgundy. The Royal Burgundy beans were intriguing; their foliage was a rich emerald green which allowed me to see the contrasting plum purple beans and pick them very easily. The magic happened in the kitchen though: when these beans were heated, they lost their purple hue and became a true “green” bean. The taste, disease resistance, and ease of growing for both varieties made them clear winners!
The year was not one filled with only champions, however. My tomatoes and peppers, which I started from seed in our garage, started out fine enough and transplanted well. Then it rained. And rained and rained and rained. Being planted at the lowest point in the garden, the water pooled at that northeast corner and drowned nearly half of my tomato and pepper plants. No problem, I thought. I always account for losing a few, we’ll still have enough. Well… that’s before the tomato hornworms discovered the area and decimated the entire patch of tomatoes in one night. I counted as I removed 17 worms that had stripped those dozen or so remaining plants to nothing more than stalks. The plants were just fine the day before. Big, bushy, full of blooms and immature fruit. The worms even ate through the green fruits themselves, not just the leaves. Begrudgingly, I removed all 17 hornworms and thought I’d give the chickens a little treat, and to get revenge. My chickens wouldn’t touch them! Now you know theyre nasty little critters when a chicken won’t even touch them.
To offset my loss, I purchased a bushel of tomatoes and some peppers from a neighbor a few miles up the road. With the help of my trusty canner and my new freeze dryer, I was able to preserve diced tomatoes (canned and freeze dried,) pico de gallo (freeze dried,) and freeze dried some gorgeous slices for snacks!
In the loser category, for the first time this year, was squash. I’ve never had trouble growing squash in all of my years gardening, but this year the squash bugs were everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Since I try to do things as naturally as possible, I sprayed them with insecticidal soaps and neem oil solutions and the bugs just laughed at me. I tried picking them and their eggs off and “squash”ing them. There were twice as many the following day. It was like a plague. At last, I surrendered and called it a total loss. I think I harvested about 10 yellow crookneck squash in total before the plants, and my patience, succumbed to the pest pressure.
I planted two very long rows of sweet corn, which germinated fine and looked really nice as it began to grow. But I failed to fertilize it as I should. We got less than 10 small ears from that endeavor. I ended up buying around 15 dozen ears from an elderly couple that live a few roads over. They’ve probably had a sweet corn patch they’ve sold from for longer than I’ve been alive. I processed and froze 5 gallons of that delicious, juicy, fresh sweet corn.
One lovely surprise was a small specimen of huitlacoche (pronounced witlaˈkot͡ʃe), also known as “corn smut,” Mexican truffle, or corn fungus. Despite the disdain of my family members (it doesn’t look particularly appetizing,) I harvested, sauteed, and ate it in an omelet. It was surprisingly delicious! It tasted earthy and savory, like a cross between mushrooms and corn flakes. While I was disappointed that my sweet corn crop was less than satisfactory, the huitlacoche was a nice gift.
Oh, and another way I failed: weed control. Weeds of all sorts took complete control of my garden. While food forests are all the rage right now, I’m sure not many people can say they have a food jungle. That’s what my garden felt like last year: an overgrown food jungle. Overall it was fairly productive, but between having so much rainfall (making things a muddy mess) and not mulching around my plants properly, I couldn’t keep up with pulling and cutting the weeds. I dropped the ball in a major way, and I have to resolve to improve this year.
As is typical fashion for my garden, it was bordered and interspersed with little patches of happiness. Sunflowers and borage reseeded naturally from 2020 and popped up wherever they pleased, so I transplanted many of them to avoid the walk paths. To create a ” privacy fence” of sorts, I install a living wall of sunflowers along the western (and longest) border of my garden each year. We have neighbors within view on that side of the property, so the living fence idea really works wonders! (I also won the prize for “largest sunflower head at the county fair!) Marigolds were planted around the border near the tomatoes and peppers, but I’m not sure that they accomplished much pest control. Finally, because they are one of my favorites, I sowed 2 short rows of various sorts of Zinnias, which made not only a beautiful place to rest the eye, but also a perfect source of nutrients for pollinators passing through the area. Eastern Giant Swallowtail butterflies, like the one I captured below, visit these beauties every single summer and it brings me so much joy. In the times in which we find ourselves, we should ensure that we plant a little “joy” in our gardens!
This article was lengthy, and for that I wish I had a remedy. This sort of documenting is for my benefit as much as anything else; so that I don’t forget and repeat mistakes, and also so I can reproduce what worked well. 2021 had its share of slip ups, but over all it was a productive year during which I was able to grow hundreds of pounds of nutritious food for my family.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you. Did you have any garden successes or failures in 2021 you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about it!