Backyard Suburban Gardening: My Year 5 Harvest
We had our first frost at the end of October, so year 5 of gardening is a wrap! The outside work of growing and harvesting is done, anyway—a month later, I still have a few boxes of green tomatoes slowly ripening in my kitchen. I also have a list of yard cleanup tasks to finish before winter.
Read about my gardening journey so far:
How we built garden beds
Year 3's plan, how it went, and why and how we preserved food
Year 4's plan, and how it went
Year 5's plan
Our weather felt fairly typical this year! The spring was not unusually long or cold (it was last year); I had plants in the ground by early May. The summer was the usual hot and dry, with fewer heat waves and smoke days than last year. It felt more mild overall. L
We got our first frost in late October, which is fairly typical, too. Compare that to Gardening, Year 1, when we were hit with a surprise snow and ice storm the last weekend of September! That taught me to keep a close eye on the weather at the beginning of fall!
The main difference this year was that I had to start harvesting well in advance of that first frost date because of the sheer amount of produce still on the vine or in the ground compared to previous years. The tomatoes alone! Let's talk about tomatoes.
Tomatoes, as I've written before, are one of the main reasons I garden. They're just so much tastier from the backyard than from a grocery store! They have the biggest differences in flavor of all the vegetables and herbs I've grown. They are so, so worth the effort!
When I more than doubled our garden size this year, I filled half the new garden beds with tomatoes. And this year's primary finding? When you plant 60+ tomato plants in beds filled with a fresh 50-50 topsoil compost mix, your tomato yield is through the roof!
I have spent the past three months picking, washing, chopping, and canning tomatoes. All told, 14.4 gallons of tomato puree; 5 gallons of salsa; 5 gallons of tomato jam. I also dehydrated a ton of tomatoes, probably not quite literally, but it was a lot. And that's not including all the tomatoes that we snacked on, made into salads, soups, and sauces over the summer, and shared with our family and friends. Tomatoes galore!
This year, I tried to weigh the boxes and baskets of tomatoes that we brought inside. I didn't actually weigh every single tomato that we pulled off the vine, but this gives me a lower estimate of how many pounds of tomatoes the garden yielded this year. The number was: 488 lbs. And that's the low estimate! So you see why I was busy processing tomatoes.
I had a lot of fun with the new heirloom tomato varieties I tried this year! The black strawberry tomatoes were so pretty; we loved the purple! The spoon tomatoes were tiny and fun to snack on, great flavor. The candy cherry tomatoes were a great hit with the kids, so sweet and good for snacking. With uneven watering, though, they split more often than any other tomato in the garden. Next year, I'm putting in drip watering for sure.
Fun thing: I had saved seeds from my heirloom tomatoes last year for this year's plants. I think I'm getting bigger yellow ones now! I had quite a few weigh in at over a pound, while last year, the largest was a mere 0.78 lbs. I think maybe they are getting bigger! Or maybe the plants were happier and healthier this year in the new beds, and grew better fruit. Next year will be the test. I saved seeds from the yellow monsters again, in hopes of getting more large ones!
I got enough cucumbers to do two batches of dill pickle relish, plus some for snaking and for making sandwiches. The plants didn't yield nearly as many as I had intended, though—I was planning for far more pickles. Several of my cucumber plants just didn't do well, perhaps because they were shaded by other plants, or in suboptimal locations in the garden. Maybe next year will be a better cucumber year. I say that every year. I always intend to do more pickles, and never have quite enough cucumbers to make as many as I'd like.
I was happy with our peppers! Nice, sweet, good flavor, classic bell pepper. I think I actually planted enough, given how slowly they grow in my climate. I filled one 4x6 bed with peppers, and had a few extra scattered here and there in other places as well. Once they got big and green, it felt like I had enough to easily use them for salsa, pickle relish, roasting over the fire, adding to salads, and so on without running out. I let plenty sit and turn red, too; they were extra delicious carmelized with onions and tossed on fresh garden pesto pasta.
Herbs and flowers
Every year I plant more flowers, and every year I think I should plant more flowers than I planted.
This was the first year I planted violets and zinnias, which came in lovely colors! The zinnas, in particular, were an awesome addition, since they worked very well as cut flowers for bouquets that adorned our kitchen table every week.
One of the older garden beds was filled with volunteer snapdragons; those also worked nicely in my bouquets!
For herbs, my perennial sage, chives, oregano, thyme, and various mints have continued to grow happily. I scattered basil throughout the garden around the tomatoes and peppers. There was plenty to make basil tomato sandwiches and salads all summer, plus several batches of pesto!
The new yard has a huge amount of lemon mint under the crabapply tree. So much lemon mint. I felt like I harvested a ton of it, dehydrating most for future tea, and there is a ton still there. Mints tend to take over when not planted and containers, and this mint was not planted in a container by the people who owned the house performance. So it may end up being a challenge too. Keep it from taking over the lawn. There's already been to the line. At least the lawn smells nice after you mow it.
Flower garden out front
The front yard flower garden continues to be a work-in-progress. The highlight, as I mentioned in my first garden post this year, was the bulbs. The tulips, daffodils, crocuses, grape hyacinths, and so on were a wonderful addition to our curb! I need to add a few more; there's one stretch that was disturbed due to construction on the sidewalk and I'm not sure whether the bulbs are still intact. I'm also thinking of planting some bulbs in other parts of the yard, too.
But after that, there were times when there were some flowers blooming, but not nearly enough continuously. Especially after bulbs—turns out I had mostly summer flowers, with not as many late spring flowers. I'm thinking of adding more Columbine, which blooms late spring. I can start some in the winter to transplant. I also need more flowers that bloom in late summer. Next year, I should probably also interplant some annuals that bloom continuously all summer, such as calendula and marigolds, to fill in the space.
There's a lot of empty spots still, too, between the other plants and closer in from the fence. I mulched along the whole fence this year. I also added a few new perennial plants this fall that I picked up on sale at a local nursery. The end-of-season sale has been a fantastic way to get $400 worth of plants for a quarter of the price—and reasonably established plants, too! I added a couple more sages, since they've done very well—two with pretty variegated leaves, one Russian sage. I also added a couple pink yarrow (we have lots of white yarrow elsewhere, but no pink!), and some lilies.
We planted a couple potatoes, and harvested just a few more than we planted. They were small. Probably because that garden box was full of ground cover weeds that really took over. The box is falling apart, too (it was a used box when we got it five years ago). If I want to use it again, I'll need to do something serious about the soil to get rid of the bishops weed… though, given its location in the front yard, I'm considering removing it and putting in a bench for sitting on while I admire the flower garden.
Beans and peas
I planted way more peas than in previous years. We got to the point where the kids would no longer snack on them when they found ripe ones, so I guess we reached pea saturation.
The purple beans were fun. But, disappointingly, they turned green when cooked! I was hoping for a big bowl of purple cooked beans.
The desi squash was fun! It produced a decent amount earlier in the summer, but slowed down in the heat. Then it picked up powdery mildew in September, and although we ended up with another month of good weather, I didn't bother trying to do anything about it.
They're about the size of large baseballs or softballs, skin a little tougher than a zucchini but not as rough as a pumpkin, easy to chop up and use like you would a zucchini. Mild flavor, great grilled. I dehydrated a bunch of them for later use in winter soups and casseroles.
We also got six tasty pie pumpkins, each around 4-5lbs, off a couple plants!
My oldest son (who was 6 when we planted), had one garden bed for his own plants. He planted watermelons and marigolds! He reports that he started 14 seeds, indoors with mine in April. Not all sprouted; he put ten watermelon plants in the ground in May. I helped him determine the plant spacing, and he did the rest. He was responsible for weeding his garden bed. We got 6 or so watermelons, 4-6lbs each, pretty tasty. He was very pleased with the outcome. He saved seeds from one of the melons and has plans to start them for next year's garden.
I also planted a couple kajari melon plants. They're a small, personal-size melon. We got a few, but they didn't do that well; I'm not sure why.
Kale and other greens
We had lots of kale again! Some volunteer; some that I planted on purpose elsewhere in the garden (including purple kale!). I dried a lot of it this year instead of freezing it. Freezer space is at a premium. Dried, however, the kale crumbles easily and is great for adding to sauces, soups, and breads. It is perhaps even more versatile than having some frozen kale on hand. And it stores longer! And takes up less space in my freezer!
I planted bloody dock, which is a lovely and tasty perennial green—good for salads, and for cooking! We also foraged chickweed and dandelion greens from the yard for salads and smoothies.
We got lots of rhubarb, like usual. I love that plant; it's so prolific! I made a bunch of jam (about 2.5 gallons) and a couple pies.
We filled one 4x6 bed with sweet corn and peas. The peas happily climbed the corn stalks. Our corn yield was small, as expected. It wasn't that many plants. Although the cobs were small, too, they were delicious, and my kids were delighted to pick corn from our own garden—which is why we planted it in the first place! Not everything in the garden has to be as high yield as possible. Some of it can just be fun, or a learning experience.
Raspberries were plentiful this year! The runners are coming up in my raised beds, though; I had to dig up and transplant a bunch back into the row along the fence.
We got a decent number of liberty blueberries off the front bushes. The back two bushes—the small ones—didn't fruit at all. One of our front bushes died. I replaced it with a little apple tree that a friend gifted us.
I've been trying to learn about pruning plants, so I pruned the blueberries in spring.
Last year, we got about 20 lbs of green gage plums from our tree. This year was about the same, an estimated 18-20lbs! We snacked on a bunch and I dehydrated the rest for prunes and fruit leather. It takes a while to smush all the pits out, but the result is tasty. (The plums are small, and when ripe, soft enough that you can smush the pit out with your thumb—no need for a cherry pitter, but that would probably work too.)
This was one of my fun experiment plants. The ground cherries look like a tomatillo, but they're sweeter. Tasty in pies! I don't know if I'd plant them again due to the amount of work in "shelling" the fruit.
New Garden Skills
Last year, I'd resolved to learn more about pruning. I pruned the blueberries! We also pruned the plum tree, and given this year's yield, it clearly didn't hurt.
I also got a scythe for mowing (as mentioned last year). I used it some; I'm not an efficient mower yet. And apparently we don't really think about mowing unless we're going to have people over the next day, at which point there are so many other things that I also need to be doing to have company that I let Randy mow with the gas mower… But I trimmed the grass a few times, and even if I'm not an expert, it's such a fun tool! I'll practice and improve.
I don't think I added a specific skill this year, unless managing a larger garden and scaling up my efforts counts! (Sure, why not.) The challenge was to keep up with all the yard and garden stuff, despite how much there was, and how much else we're doing!
One thing I'm trying to learn is how to minimize garden work but maximize garden output. Isn't that the goal of most gardeners? One thing, for instance, is how time weeding drastically reduces once the tomato plants are a couple feet tall—then they shade the ground, and weeds have a tougher time sprouting. After a certain point in the summer, I usually give up on weeding anyway (unless I'm looking for snacks for the chickens), because it feels like it's more effort for less output at that point. Once the plants are established, weeds won't do as much damage, right? I hope.
When we set up the new garden beds, I was hoping to put in a drip watering system so I wouldn't have to rely on the overhead sprinkler attached to the hose that we dragged back and forth to water either end of the garden. Drip watering didn't happen this year. There is just too much to do. I still want to have that, and maybe next year will be the year. We'll see!
Preparing for next year
In October, I've cleaned out most of the garden beds—pulled out the old tomato plants, and so on. Most of this garden waste has been bagged and tossed. I don't have a good location for a large compost pile; we have been attempting to keep a compost pile in the chicken run, but it hasn't really made any compost yet.
I also raked aside some of the mulch, added leaves, and put the mulch back. In beds that didn't have a lot of mulch (because they were already filled with snapdragons, e.g.), I just added leaves. Time to build the soil! I'll add compost again in spring.
Besides that… I thought about planting garlic, but got to it too late. I wanted to add more bulbs, but again, didn't get around to it because I was too busy processing tomatoes. We've been talking about potential locations for a small heated greenhouse that I could use for seed starting, but that will probably be a next year project. Pretty soon, it'll be time to think about ordering any more seeds I need, to complement the ones I've saved, and get planting!