Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Perfecting the Kitchen Garden

There's a house down the road from us with an admirable kitchen garden. I first noticed it on my daily commute, shortly after we moved into our home. It seemed there was something happening every day during spring and summer, from little shoots rising out of the earth, to mature corn and tomato plants and who knows what else (after all, I could only take in so much as I drove by).  I came to appreciate the seasonal rhythm of the neighbor's garden and I thought, why not have a go at this myself?

I started with a smallish plot near the orchard:
I planted several different crops, from strawberries to tomatoes, peas & green beans to potatoes.  I considered it nothing short of a miracle when they began to sprout and, lo and behold, bore fruit (or veg, as the case may be).  To cope with the avalanche of strawberries and tomatoes, I tried my hand at canning jam, salsa, and whole tomatoes.  I loved being able to eat from my own garden well into the winter months.

Meanwhile, I continued to drive past the neighbor's garden.  My now-more-trained eye noticed how, well, tidy their garden was.  Mine was a mess; the surrounding grass and weeds were a constant battle.  We decided to relocate the kitchen garden to a sunny spot in the pasture, and did a better job clearing and marking off the beds.  We also thought that, if our first garden was good, a garden four times the size would be four times better!  Right?!

On the plus side, we had plenty of room for new crops like carrots, leeks, onions, parsnips, peppers, melons, and pumpkins.  The design was easier to maintain, rivaling our neighbors in tidiness.  On the other hand, there were too many crops.  There was no way we could eat it all, and we didn't have the ability to preserve much of it, either.  Sometime in mid- to late summer, I would throw up my hands in despair, unable to keep up with it all.  Oh, and did I mention this garden was quite some distance from the house?  Our role-model neighbors need only step outside their kitchen door to ingredients for dinner.  We had to walk clear to the outer edges of our property.

When Chris began thinking about situating a formal garden right behind our house (I'm sure he'll have more to say about that later), we decided to allocate space on the end for a new kitchen garden.  Learning from previous experience we started small, and focused on crops we were certain would make it to the family table.  Now, at the end of our first season, I'm mulling things over, still searching for the perfect kitchen garden:
  • What crops do we actually enjoy eating? (or: why grow pumpkins?)
  • How much do we need? (or: enough zucchini already!)
  • How do you design a kitchen garden that is pretty as well as functional?
These questions, and more, will be agonized over, and hopefully answered, between now and next spring!

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Rough Start, and Lessons Learned

When I look back at these early photos, I'm not sure if it was optimism or hubris that spurred us on in our efforts.  What at first glance was an empty canvas. . .

. . . quickly took on the look of a demolition zone.

But the elements that drew us to the property -- the pond, the pasture, and the varied terrain were there from the start.

The first order of business was to remove all evidence of its checkered past as some sort of archery/automatic weapons practice field and/or killing zone.  (Just this week, while planting trees, we unearthed what was identified as an AK-47 shell casing.)  This included removing a dozen or so bullet-and-arrow-riddled deer decoys as well as a hunting tower straight out of "The Most Dangerous Game"

We learned very quickly that our builder had no interest in the terrain outside of some arbitrary zone around the house, and that the backfill would be an awful mix of Wissahickon Schist, sand, and clay.  On the upside, the kind soul who ran the digger re-routed a drain pipe to miss a beautiful old sycamore that we enjoy to this day.

Major areas of conflict were also laid out pretty early in the process.  Our first encounter with the imperious, crazy-like-a-fox, dairy magnate who tried to convince us that we should pay for 1000' of fencing to hold in his cows because, "that's the way we do things around here" ended in a stalemate. 

More distressing was the notion that every Elmer Fudd within a five mile radius was put out by the new "NO HUNTING" rule imposed on what was once their prime territory.  When the first shotgun-wielding visitor came tip-toeing across our back yard, I let loose a less than impressive Bertie-Wooster-cum-Jeffery-Lebowski, "I say, this is private property, man!" protest only to have him raise his finger to his lips in a "be vewy qwuiet, I'm hunting a wascally wabbit" shushing motion.  It ended with me in a screaming contest with an armed man.

But, I had a circa 1953 International Harvester tractor and an endless supply of rocks.  I had no reason to complain.