by Arielle Illia
Planning This Year's Garden
Ah, just the word garden has the capability of transcending me to another world. Being someone that actually had a black thumb in my early adulthood I never thought gardening would be a passion of mine but I stand here today to tell you it is. It really is.
I truly can't make sense of it. There are many things in life I love that I understand but this one constantly baffles me as to why I enjoy it so much. There's the excitement of seed ordering, just seeing a seed catalog my inner light radiates thinking about flipping through the colorful pages, and then there's the true magic of planting a teeny tiny seed and watching it transform into a productive plant.
Maybe it's the feeling that I get when damp earth touches my skin as I dig into soil, or perhaps it is the act of tending to and caring for something, even if it is just a plant. But above all of that, there is a sense of serenity I get when standing in our garden, like all is right in the world. It is complete and utter bliss being surrounded by life, insects and all. And for that, I thank you Mother Nature, for you have shown me everything I know.
Last year was our fourth year of gardening and although we tinkered around with it in our home state we didn't really get serious about the matter until our time in Oregon. It became more of a science to me, I read for hours and hours online in bed at night to try and absorb as much information as I possibly could to help me become a better gardener or better at gardening should I say. When we first started gardening, we failed miserably but we continued trying and we learned.
Since we are on the subject, what does a successful garden mean to you?
For me, although it's nice to have healthy plants with great yields, that is not truly what gardening is about. Now of course I would love if everything germinated, the weather was just right, we harvested on time and there wasn't one "bad" bug in sight, but that just isn't reality. Every year will bring new pests, new struggles and as an outcome you will learn. That is what I really feel gardening is about, it is an experience.
The day where I can say I know absolutely everything there is to know about gardening just simply doesn't exist, nor should it. On another encouraging note, what makes gardening so wonderful to me is that folks are successful at it all around the world in different climates and growing with different methods and techniques. So go ahead and banish the words right or wrong, it's your choice.
Without further ado, let's jump in. A quick review of last year, we sectioned off an area of our yard to start our future garden, paying particular attention to the sun here throughout the year. We decided rows would be best for us for production and opted to build a 12 x 36 foot high tunnel for the warm cops that benefit from the additional heat. The entire area would be enclosed and protected from moose with an electric fence.
After yards and yards of soil, manure, compost, spent grains, and straw were brought in and assembled to look like mounded rows we got right down to it and started planting.
The once rocky and seemingly lifeless dirt transformed into lush foliage and colorful blossoms in an expedited time frame. Last season went better than we could have imagined being our first year in Alaska but as always we did learn a lot. We had some crops not do quite as well as I would have hoped (for various reasons) and on the upside there were others that did far better than they ever did in Oregon.
Since this isn't a soil building blog I won't go too into depth on this subject but if I could sum up our three most valuable learning lessons and how we approach gardening this would be it:
Microbial life - there is a teaming world of fungi, worms, bacteria and other organisms that are interacting and thriving in soil, they do a tremendous amount of work and our goal as humans is to disturb this process as little as possible and only try to promote a better environment to help these amazing friends. This is commonly referred as "No Dig Gardening."
Compost - I am a big fan of compost. I also advocate that using small amounts of fresh manure buried in the soil and not the outermost layer is not a criminal offense. From my gardening experience, generally the more compost the better, at least initially when you are building up the garden soil or gardening in a new site, but from there after only small amounts should be needed to sustain the vitality of your soil.
Mulch - I personally love straw but this definitely isn't the only option and I encourage you to consider mulch because ultimately it can help you water less, decrease weeds, protect seedlings when germinating, and promote microbial life. Basically it's a way to get the care free garden that we all desire. Think of the mulch as the protector of the soil. And for those shouting in the back of your head, "but what about slugs!" Well I would answer that I believe in Mother Nature and if you take care of your soil it will take care of you. We've had bouts of pests in the past but focused on the long term goal which is balance not eradication.
When it came time to shut down the garden for the season we prepared the garden rows and beds in the fall by dding spruce tree bark, leaves, horse manure, and alfalfa hay. This spring we plan to top the rows with aged compost and spent grains and fertilize as necessary.
We have several goals for this growing season but one that is in the forefront is production. Throughout our years of gardening we have tried numerous crops and varieties of plants but these past two years we have kept our focus on yield and cost of seed. A new interest of ours is storage capabilities since we are in a different climate than before and we only have about 110 days of frost free growing.
Another goal is to plant only what we need and have minimal extras. Every year it never fails I say we are going to plant less and have more room and we always end up cramming things in and having an overabundance to harvest. Don't get me wrong, I fully believe in high density gardening and group planting then thinning out as the plants grow but we have found that generally speaking there is competition among plants when they are spaced closely which may not pose an issue dependent upon how you will be harvesting and of course if we have less plants they will receive better care than if we have more.
Then there is the need for selecting the strongest plants, in our experience the healthiest, most vigorous plants do not succumb to pests but interestingly noticeably weaker plants will be affected, and all to make matters more perplexing is when two plants are directly next to each, one healthy and the other not, the bugs prefer the distressed plant and generally the robust plant will be untouched.
We as gardeners can pay attention to this from the very start and see which plants are strongest when they germinate. There will be some that are exceptionally sturdy and grow quickly, then there will be others that are scraggly and fall behind. Ideally only the best would be planted, however such a simple concept has been difficult for me to follow through with because even the delayed seedlings are determined to grow and it saddens me not to give them a chance. Ultimately though, in the gardening world selecting the strongest plants and thinning out is a necessity.
Continuing with our goals, another technique I have yet to master is succession planting. I'd like to place emphasis on this during this season for continual harvests, as well as spaced out harvests, such as cabbage early in the season for fresh eating and preserving and a later maturing crop for storage directly in the root cellar. We also are hoping this approach helps with a longer harvest from our oriental greens which tend to bolt quickly with the long spring days.
Two changes we will be implementing from the previous year is planting less of our leafy crops and herbs and more peppers and tomatoes that did remarkably well in the high tunnel.
We also will be moving high tunnel crops outside with intent. The high tunnel looked shy of a jungle last year and it took quite bit of effort to trellis and manipulate the plants, including hand pollination which still resulted in poor squash set, this was even with the honey bees being in and out all summer. We plan to protect these crops outside with low tunnels and hopefully they will mature in our condensed, cool season and receive better pollination by insects and the wind.
A recent interest of mine has been learning to save seed. I am embarrassed to say I have only saved a few flowers and herb seeds but I am switching that up! Because of this we are growing open pollinated varieties and less hybrids than previously. Hybrid seed is wonderful however, it is typically a little costlier and not reliable for saving seed. It isn't realistic for us to be able to save all the seeds from the plants we grow but we are going to be experimenting to see what will work and is economical.
This spring we will also be able to determine what successfully overwintered and if the mulch covering was enough protection from the deep frost. This includes our perennial berries, asparagus, herbs, and flowers.
Last year we incorporated several flowers into the garden despite that not being the long term plan. We would like to have a miniature orchard with perennial flowers, including natives close to the bees but we have decided to just tackle fruit trees this year and not the flowers. It pains me to postpone planting our flower mixes for another year but I just keep reminding myself all in good time. We will still be planting a few of the usual suspects like borage, marigolds, nasturtium and sunflowers.
At the end of this season we can assess what was worth our effort for the yield and decide what revisions we will make for the succeeding year. Below is a rough plan of what we are planning to grow and where we will be planting it.
Perennial Beds Row 1 Row 2 Row 3 Row 4
Raspberry Spinach Potatoes Kale Carrots
Haskap Swiss Chard Celery Cabbage Parsnips
Asparagus Mustard Greens Celeriac Brussel Sprouts Beets
Sunflowers Bok Choy Lovage Collard Greens Turnips
Flowers Lettuce Kohlrabi Salsify
Row 5 Row 6 Row 7 Row 8 Row 9 High Tunnel
Winter Squash Garlic Onions Strawberries Corn Tomato
Summer Squash Herbs Shallots Herbs Pepper
Pumpkin Peas Leeks Eggplant
Zucchini Cucumber Herbs
This is what the garden looks like in late February.
Our newly germinated plants have a long road ahead of them until this white blanket has melted and the soil beneath unthawed. Grow strong my young seedlings for the midnight sun awaits you!