The thought of gardening conjures up a variety of pleasing images – plump, juicy red tomatoes; succulent strawberries; cucumbers, squashes and peppers begging to be picked; peas and beans growing gently skyward; lettuce and herbs offering their tasty leaves; and the rainbow of colors flowing from your perennial and annual flowers.
Perhaps the best thing about gardening is that it is year round. Winter finds you pouring through a myriad of seed catalogs that seem to arrive almost daily. You always have your favorite plants, but last year’s experiments that didn’t pan out have to be replaced with new varieties. Spring, of course, is when the action heats up as quickly as the soil. Bulbs push new shoots out of the ground while forsythias, dogwoods, and so many others show brilliant flashes of color that wash out the dreariness of winter. It’s also time to get all those vegetable plants and seeds into the ground.
Summer takes center stage as every plant reaches maturity and its maximum growth. Every morning is an adventure in your garden. There are vegetables to be picked for salads and cooking, and flowers for attractive and fragrant centerpieces on your tables. Insects add to the excitement (and frustration) of gardening. Out come the gardening books to help identify the hungry intruders, then once their lifecycle and needs are understood you can do battle.
Autumn is the foundation for insuring that your beds are properly prepared for next year. Leaves, vines, flowers, and discarded vegetables must be composted, then added to the soil to over winter and leach vital nutrients back into the soil. Leaves need to be raked to prevent areas from hosting insect larvae and disease organisms. And bulbs need a protective layer of mulch to help insulate them from winter’s frigid blasts.
Yes, gardening is a lot of work. It’s getting sweaty and dirty. It’s enduring insects and temperature extremes. But it’s also soothing, relaxing - even therapeutic. You can solve the world’s problems and make peace with yourself while toiling silently and thoughtfully in your garden. The only voice that breaks the trance is yours as you talk to your plants or cuss at bugs. You feel whole, complete – at one with nature. Isn’t life grand?!!
Vegetables are the staple of our vegan diet. Our greenhouse makes it possible to harvest many of our vegetables up to 10 months of the year. Our raised beds give us a jump on spring, thus increasing our yields.
Our greenhouse is 9’ X 16’ and it’s heated with a Dayton 220-volt electric heater. The greenhouse came in kit form – panels of 4’ wide tempered glass set in wood. We prepared for the arrival of our greenhouse by laying down a 10’ X 17’ floor using 12” X 12” pavers. Then we put down 4” X 6” pressure-treated timbers for the walls of the greenhouse to rest on. This, in effect, made our greenhouse 5½ inches taller, plus it got the glass walls away from the ground. It took two days to assemble the kit into a greenhouse, then another day to install plumbing, a sink, and faucets, plus 110-volt and 220-volt electric lines and receptacles. We were ready to go.
We built our 12 raised beds out of 6” X 6” pressure treated timber. That made each bed 22” tall with a 4’ X 8’ outer dimension. It’s the perfect height to sit on the edge when you weed, and you can easily get at all your plants since it’s only 3’2” across the beds. By raising the beds, the soil warms up quicker in the spring and dries out quicker. Instead of being in New Jersey at 39 degrees latitude, our beds have growing conditions similar to North Carolina about 200 or so miles south. That’s a big plus.
Our growing season usually begins around Halloween. We plant six varieties of regular red tomatoes, two grape tomatoes, two sweet peppers, seven leaf lettuces, two spinach’s, a zucchini, and a yellow squash. Except for the tomatoes – which we plant one pot of each – we plant three pots of each variety. That pretty much fills our greenhouse. Within six weeks we are already harvesting some of the lettuces and spinach. In 10 weeks, there is greenery all the way to the ceiling via the tomatoes and squashes. It’s about then that we’re also harvesting peppers and the squashes.
The tomatoes need pollination to turn their little yellow flowers into succulent fruit. By early March (or even late February), we open the greenhouse doors during the warmest part of the day to allow insects access to do the pollination. In April, some tomatoes are ready for picking.
In early May, we move the vegetables into the beds. The first year we put each variety in its own bed, but that monoculture mentality led to the devastation of some veggie plants by bugs. We learned our lesson and now plant no more than one of each variety in a bed. With each variety spread out so much, the insect loss is now just 25% of what it was that first year. We also plant marigolds in each bed as a bug deterrent. One exception is our strawberries, a perennial that solely occupies its own bed. We begin picking the berries in May and the harvest last about six weeks.
With the greenhouse cleared out, more lettuces are planted in pots and kept in the greenhouse all summer. With all eight windows open, a screen door, and a big fan blowing, the lettuces do well. One particular kind of lettuce – mizuna – gets gobbled up by small, green caterpillars outdoors, but inside it thrives. So we still move our winter mizuna outside and consider it an offering to the caterpillars so that other plants may live.
Our planting of the beds is completed by setting out herbs, eggplant, brussel sprouts, peas, beans, etc., which we purchase as small starter plants. In hindsight, we probably should have gone with a much larger greenhouse – maybe 15’ X 24’ – but space was a factor and we never imagined we’d outgrow our 144 square foot greenhouse. Then we could have started everything from seed.
We use only organic fertilizer. Our favorite is “Down to Earth” brand Seabird Guano. I use the 12-8-2 as the plants grow, then switch to the 1-10-0 when they’re ready to fruit. I buy it over the internet at Peaceful Valley Farms in California. I purchase most of my organic seeds via the web from Territorial Seed Company in Oregon.
While there are some plants I absolutely can not successfully grow and some seeds I can’t even get to sprout, we have also had considerable success. Last year our nine tomato plants yielded over 3,000 tomatoes. We slice, dehydrate, then freeze many of the tomatoes to be used all winter and spring. Three cucumber plants gave us 200 cukes, six pepper plants coughed up 150 peppers, and we were rewarded with about 30 of each kind of squash. We fresh pick leaf lettuce every morning from December through October.
Besides the organic fertilizer, our success is the result of three other factors – good soil, pest control, and growing the plants upward. We build our soil by adding carrot shavings and carrot pulp on top of the beds October through March.
Let me explain the “carrot” thing. We juice carrots so that we have a constant supply of carrot juice. We use a 50-pound bag of California carrots every five or six days. That makes 38 glasses (8 ounce), or about 20 pounds of juice, leaving about 30 pounds of pulp and peelings. That’s 850 pounds of organic matter that we put on top of our 12 vegetable beds during the fallow season. The other 850 pounds we get during the growing season goes into a compost bin along with our other vegetable scraps. Eventually that breaks down, then it’s mixed into our leaf mulch and spread onto our flower beds. Nothing goes to waste and nearly everything we use is not discarded, but recycled.
Pest control can be achieved by being vigilante in checking your plants several times a day. Since we use no pesticides or chemicals, removing insects by hand is our method. The biggest “criminal” is the horned tobacco caterpillar, aka the horned tomato worm. This large green caterpillar can grow as large as your pinkie finger and two or three on a plant can devastate it in a few days. Their green color exactly matches the tomato leave, so they are often difficult to spot unless you are quite thorough. Often their droppings – found on leaves or the ground – tips you off to their presence. Once you locate the scoundrel, the best way to remove them is to grasp the branch in one hand and the caterpillar just behind the head with the other. He has a strong grasp as you pry him off the branch. Then just drop him on the ground and “squish”, it’s all over. Finding them is an event in our garden as, “No. 37”, is yelled out. Our final count was 123 last summer on our nine tomato plants.
We grow plants upward by using homemade cages and bamboo stakes. We start with a 50-foot roll of 3-foot high green-coated fence with 2” by 3” openings between the wire, which can be purchased at Home Depot. It can be cut to any size to custom fit around a particular plant. The cage gives the plants plenty of support and the 2” X 3” openings allow the tomato, pepper, cucumber, and squashes to easily send branches through the openings. Using this method, our peppers grow to 4’ tall and the tomato and squashes exceed 6’ tall. The surprisingly prolific tomato plants spread as wide as 6’ across. As the various plants send shoots through the cage and out the sides, bamboo stakes are used to support the new branches, which will soon be heavy with vegetables.
Once the vegetables begin to ripen, it’s time to pick. The lettuces, spinach’s, and herbs are picked each morning before the warmth of the day sets in. I use scissors to clip just a few outer, lower leaves off the plants that are ready. Unlike a commercial operation that takes the whole plant, I selectively “snip” and my plants reward us with about a four month long harvest.
The peppers, when possible, are permitted to turn from green to red before harvesting. However, when we need a pepper I’ll take a green one if that’s the next most ripe. We try to harvest the cucumbers and squashes before they get too large so that they are still quite tender. Some of the other veggies – like eggplant – get quite large before they ripen enough to pick, so they determine when they are harvested.
Tomatoes are my favorite. I just can’t resist picking a few grape tomatoes to eat every time I pass the plants, no matter what time of day. They’re almost addictive and sometimes I’ll eat 30 in the course of a day. Regular tomatoes are picked when ripe or real close to ripe. Some days 50-60 find their way into the basket. Like all the fruits, veggies, and leaves we harvest, the best time to pick is first thing in the morning while the dew is still present.
Flowers serve a dual purpose. They are pleasing to the eye and leave colorful memories of your outdoor space that endures through the bleak, stark winter months. They also serve as an attractor of butterflies and hummingbirds, which almost mystically brings your garden to life.
To highlight our flower gardens, most are raised above ground level. We accomplish this by building rock-walled planters, which can be done easily. A pallet of stones costs under $200 and most garden centers will deliver it to your home. Choose a pallet that offers stones that are fairly flat, for easy stacking. Go with a color that blends well into the environment of the region where you live. Here in South Jersey we use a natural fieldstone that comes from nearby Pennsylvania.
Once your pallet(s) arrives, you’ll have to do some shuffling to get to the biggest rocks. Once located, lay them out as the bottom layer of your wall. Then go to the next size down, continuing around your bed laying the stones. Finish with the smallest stones on the top row. You may end up with 4-6 rows, depending on how big your planter is. One pallet of stones generally will make a rock wall 50’ long and 6” high. Two pallets will give you 100’ at 6”, or 50’ at 12”. You get the picture.
Once the wall is finished, pack dirt against the inside of the wall to stabilize it. Use your fingers to pack the dirt into the crevasses between and around the rocks, leveling the stones as you go. If you have gaps on the outside of the wall, use the very small flakes of rock leftover from the pallet to wedge into the openings. Now wheelbarrow in a nice topsoil/compost mix to fill up your bed and you’re ready to go.
Keep two things in mind when planting flowers – height and color. Put the plants that will attain the most height in the back row, or in the center if it’s a bed that can be seen from all sides. Then successively plant until the smallest plants are in the front.
For ideas on what flowers to plant, visit your local garden center, surf the internet, or check out such gardening magazines as my favorites – Garden Gate and Birds & Blooms. When purchasing the plants, choose a garden center that has their own greenhouses. These folks – even if they didn’t grow the plants from seed – have the most knowledge of what flowers thrive in your area. They should be able to explain how big the plant grows, when the flowers bloom, and for how long they bloom. You want to have a garden that has different flowers blooming at different times, so that you always have plenty of color.
Beware of stores that sell plants by just sticking them out in front of their store. These plants are often shipped in from down south and while they might look good at the moment, they’re not acclimated to your particular climate or else they’ve been forced to bloom early so that a week after planting the color is gone.
Growing flowers is a learning adventure that never ends. No one knows everything about flowers, so don’t be disappointed when some plants fail to perform as you expected. Just try a different plant the next year. After a few years you’ll start to understand what does and doesn’t grow well on your property. You’ll also learn which plants can’t be crowded, which need support, which creep along the ground, which don’t like too much water and which demand water twice a day. It’s never ending – but extremely satisfying!
If you have questions about the gardening methods we use, feel free to email us through the Contact Us section of this website.