Years Later

I’m back.

I should probably know better after being gone so long, but here I am.

My condo gardening experience has had ups and downs in the last several years. The main thing that has changed is that I’ve stopped growing in the ground and am using large plastic pots filled with potting soil instead. (I’m talking 16-17 inch across the rim.) Since we live in a condo, the grounds are managed by a landscaping company that sprays weed killer too liberally around the units. My wife worries that the chemicals will get in the soil and be absorbed by the vegetables, so we grow in pots now.

But it can be expensive. At a certain point, you have to ask yourself whether it’s worth it. The potting soil to grow them in is not cheap, nor is buying 4″ pots of vegetables at the garden center at $2-$4 a plant. (I remember an article some years ago about the $45 Tomato. Pointing out that, given the expense, you could buy many times the numbers of tomatoes at the store than you could get growing them yourself.)

So why do it? I don’t really have a convincing answer other than, for a gardener, there’s a gravitational pull to plant something every year when spring comes. I find myself turning off the road when passing a garden center or wandering over to the garden department when at one of the big box hardware stores. I may have come in for a part for my grill, but leave with a handful of spring bedding plants.

So I’ve taken up this blog again. It’s not that I’m an expert in small space gardening. What I really want from this blog is a conversation with other people who want to garden, but also have very limited space in which to do so. I want to learn what they are doing and how they have met the challenges of their own version of condo gardening.

Retrospective: Reviewing this year’s garden

Now that the growing season is almost over, it’s a good time to review how my experiment went this past year. What worked, what didn’t, and why. What to do differently next year?

I’d sucker the tomatoes for one.

Mass of Tomato Vines

The plants got much too big with too few tomatoes. Of course, to a certain extent, plants getting too big is unavoidable in my situation. If you’re growing full-sun plants in just a half day’s sun, you’re going to get stretching and plants are going to outgrow your space. The less sun you have, the more important to stake them. Hard to get long enough stakes/cages in a front bed.

I’d also like more tomato plants. I had three in the front and two in the back yard – the ones in the back didn’t do much at all. More plants for more tomatoes. Maybe I should try to root the suckers I remove for more plants? Or, conversely, maybe if I had suckered them, they would have produced more. Hmmm… Sounds like an experiment for next year.

Don’t plant so many cucumbers, and plant only the burpless variety next time – for whatever reason, the pickling cukes didn’t do well. Poor yields and a lot of misshapen fruit.  The burpless variety looked much better and my wife says they tasted better as well. Also, I should have staked them, even though they were supposed to be a short ‘bush’ variety. They began sprawling out onto the lawn and tried to grow up into a rosebush (ouch!) and the shrubbery planted nearby.

The tomato cages I bought at the local big-box hardware store were too short and too lightweight. They are fine for beans, but too flimsy for tomatoes – especially the indeterminate variety. The tomatoes just keep growing and producing. (The determinate kind set fruit all at once and are done with it.) The increasing weight of the vines and fruit crushed the cages and it looks very messy. I’ve thought about using wire fencing, but its kind of a bad look for the front of the condo.

The zucchini was a bust. Huge plant, but only 2-3 zucchini for the whole season. So I pruned it with a shovel. I’ve recently seen a seed company advertisement for a smaller plant that you could grow in a pot. Hmm…

The miniature watermelon wasn’t worth the space it took. To make matters worse, it was a mini watermelon – the fruit was smaller than a volleyball – and even as small as it was, it just wasn’t worth it.

Despite planting 4-5 basil plants, just one vigorous plant would have been enough for our needs. The one in the front bed is four feet high and almost three feet wide. The problem is that I never know if the one plant will be a good grower – I may plant four, but only one or two do well, that’s only a 25-50% success rate – so I plant several.

Next time, plant more beans. The wife really enjoyed them. For the fall garden, I’ve planted five pole beans and 3-4 half-runner beans. They’ve pretty much swarmed up the four foot tall tomato cage I put around them and are trying to find something to grow up even taller. It might have been better if I had made a tall tripod of bamboo stakes for them to grow up. The bush beans I planted in the spring did very well, but she wanted pole beans…

Leeks in a Planter

The leeks have done surprisingly well. They are nowhere near as big as the ones you find in the grocery, but I’m surprised they did as well as they have. They are still growing, so we’ll see. However, next year, I’ll put less soil in the planter’s to begin with. That will allow me to mound it up as they grow to produce more of the white part of the leeks.

The garlic started turning yellow in June. I dug them up and they had formed bulbs – tiny, but quite hot-tasting. The bulbs were bigger than marbles – more the size of shooters, if you know what I mean. What I didn’t know when I started was that garlic needs to be planted in the fall. There isn’t enough time for them to form good-sized bulbs if planted in the spring. I’m planning on planting some fresh bulbs next month. We’ll see how they do over the winter.

Square-foot gardening This was a mixed bag. Almost everything I grew got too big for the square it was in. Now, I’ll grant you that the way I’m going about it is more of an adaptation of the techniques than purely by the book. While I do have raised beds, they are not raised very far. I don’t have any kind of edging to hold the soil in, I didn’t have clearly defined squares, and I’m using topsoil rather than the growing media that they recommend. (Though, I have to say, from my experience back when I ran a greenhouse, their light, friable growing medium would have resulted in even bigger plants!) I love the square-foot gardening concept, but the actual practice… not so much.

Suckering Tomatoes

Ugh, that title sounds awful. But that’s the proper term for it. I haven’t grown vegetables much before last year. For years, all I grew were flowers and I somehow missed out on this piece of information.

As a tomato plant grows, it adds leaves, right? We all know that. However, at each point where a leaf grows from the stem, a new sprout will grow from the joint. If allowed to continue growing, it will become a full, growing vine just like the main stem. These sprouts are called suckers – I guess because they suck nutrients and water from the rest of the plant. What I didn’t realize is that I was supposed to prune off these suckers so that all the growth goes into the main plant so it can produce fruit.

Long story short – I didn’t do that.

Oh, I have my excuses… I was so pleased when they began growing and filling up the tomato cages that I just didn’t want to cut any of it off. But some time in August, I realized that I had a great mass of plant and not many tomatoes. All the strength of the plant was being dissipated by these multiple stems. I knew I had to do something, but between the heat of the dog days of August and the enormity of the task, I kept putting it off.

Mass of Tomato Vines

Finally, with the arrival of cooler weather in September, I got out there and began pruning – tentatively at first, but eventually whacking away at the sprawling vines. Honestly, I have no idea whether I was doing it right or not. I found that many of the vines had flowers and some had small green tomatoes on them. I hated to cut those, so I settled for cutting the vine just above the fruit and hoping that they would go ahead and ripen anyway. As the cuttings piled up, my wife brought out a big black plastic garbage bag and I started stuffing the cuttings in it. There were only three tomato plants, but I filled a bag and a half with the cuttings. When I was done, I stood back and looked at the whole bed. As you can see from the picture, it barely looks as if I had pruned anything.

It’s only been a week since I cut them back, but it seems to me as if the remaining fruit are growing faster. A little. It could be my imagination, or wishful thinking. Next year, I’m going to have to stay on top it and sucker them as they grow.

Update: It’s now a month later and I have a lot of green tomatoes that are sloooowly ripening. It’s now a race to have them ripened before the first killing frost, which usually occurs around the first week of November.

Garden Backlash?

This summer, I have come across two different news stories of homeowners being prosecuted because they are growing vegetables in their front yard. In each case a neighbor complained to authorities (city council? Neighborhood association?). The first instance was a couple of months ago. It involved a mother of four in Michigan who was growing food for her family (unfortunately, I have lost the URL for the story). The picture I saw showed four neat raised beds (square-foot gardening!) arranged in a square in front of her house. And now this week comes a story of a man in Memphis Tennessee facing charges for growing a garden. The man is a high school teacher who is using his garden to teach his students where their food comes from.

Gardens can look messy

The reason that these stories struck me is that this is the kind of thing that I’ve been worried about long before I started to grow vegetables in front of my condo. It was part of the reason I waited so long to try. I’ve been very pleased with being able to garden in my flowerbed, but I can’t help but worry what my neighbors think. After all, if you’re not a gardener (and the majority of my neighbors are not), it looks pretty messy with tomato plants overflowing the cages that support them and beans swarming up and over their supports. It would only take a complaint from a neighbor (and in a condo complex, you have a lot of neighbors) to put an end to my gardening.

Getting Ready for a Fall Garden

It’s the middle of August and I don’t really feel like going out into the heat to do anything. It’s this way every August.

The cucumbers are pretty much played out. Of the two varieties of cuke – Pickling and Burpless – the Pickling vines went first, turning yellow and withering. That was just as well. We had way more cukes than we could use. Plus, my wife (who is the only one eating them) liked the burpless much better. Pulling out the dying vines made more room for the others, but now, even the remaining burpless are looking rough and are only producing an occasional cuke.

The tomatoes stopped setting fruit a while back when the daytime temperatures got too high. (Tomatoes set fruit in a relatively narrow range of temperatures. If the daytime temperature goes much above 85 or the nighttime temp goes below 70, the flowers fall off without setting.) Fortunately, enough fruit had set so that only now are we coming to the end of it. Equally fortunate, our long spell of 90+ days are nearing the end. Here in the Atlanta area, the heat of the dog days should break in the first week or two of September and then, we hope, the vines will get back to producing new tomatoes for the fall.

So it’s time to start thinking about what I want to plant for the fall. The tomatoes will stay, but the cucumbers will soon be removed. Two weeks ago, I planted seed for eight pole beans (just shy of a square – if I was doing full-on square foot gardening, I would have planted them in three rows of three to fill a one foot square) and they have already sprouted. Today, I planted eight half-runner beans in the square in front of them. Beans take around 60 days from seed to harvest. Our average date for the first killing frost is between the last week in October and the first week of November -so I’m cutting it kind of close…

Other things we want to plant: Onions, Garlic, Spinach, and Turnips. I’m thinking that some of these can be carried over the winter – onions and garlic in particular.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but somewhere early on, my wife and I got in the habit of cooking from scratch. She is a pretty good cook and I’m not bad. We were never much into using pre-prepared foods like jarred spaghetti  sauce or canned vegetables. You know all those articles about how bad processed food can be for you, especially in regard to added salt, sugar, or fat? Well, cooking it yourself from scratch avoids these problems. After all, you control what goes in to it.

Cooking isn’t some special ability that only some people have. It’s mostly experience plus a little knowledge. You can start by getting a good cookbook and following the recipes. (I started many years ago with the Joy of Cooking, then James Beard’s American Cookery, and lately I’ve been favoring Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.) These will give you a place to start and recipes to follow. After that, it’s just a matter of practice.

So, we’re obviously not averse to making things ourselves. However, that’s not to say that it always turns out well. I had been thinking that it wouldn’t be hard to make our own breakfast sausage. After all, I already had a meat grinder (it came as a bonus when we bought a KitchenAid mixer a while back) and recipes are easy to come by. What with the ground beef recalls, I had been reading how it was cheaper and healthier to grind your own meat. You just bought a good piece of chuck (or whatever) and you knew what was in it – unlike commercially produced ground meat where you had no control over what cuts of meat went into it. Yes, it is more trouble, but not that much more.

The recipe called for ground pork. OK, no problem, I’ll just go to the grocery store and see what looks good. My first thought was pork chops, but were too lean. Like it or not, sausage needs a certain amount of fat. Usually fatback. Unfortunately, fatback is hard to come by. I had never seen it in our grocery store, so I needed something else – something not too lean.

The boneless short ribs looked good, the price was good, and I had good luck with other short rib recipes. I cut the ribs into one-inch chunks, mixed them with the spices and put the in the ‘fridge overnight. The next morning I set up the mixer with the grinder attachment and ground the meat. I shaped them into patties and fried one up to check the seasonings.

The texture was terrible! Like eating sausage-flavored gravel.

Turns out, the reason my other short rib recipes had worked so well is that they were all braises – dishes that used long slow cooking break down the tough connective tissue in the short ribs. Without slow cooking, the sausage was almost inedible. Fortunately, I had only made a small one-pound batch. I froze the rest to be used in the future when we make spaghetti sauce, chili, or some other slow-cooked dish.

It hasn’t put me off of trying to make my own sausages. I consider it another experiment. Next time I’ll choose better.

Tomatoes vs. Cucumbers

Of the different vegetables we’re growing, tomatoes and cucumbers have been the most productive. (The beans were previously the most productive, until a little rabbit ate them all.)

However, once picked, cucumbers are difficult to keep for any length of time. They really need to be eaten soon after picking. The only way I know of to preserve them is by pickling them. The problem is, we’re not big pickle eaters and a single jar of pickles would last us a very long time.

We’ve given them to neighbors and I’ve taken two sacks of them to work and left them in the break room. At first, they were snatched up and I got several emails thanking me for bringing them in. However, the last time I took a  batch to work, the last three cucumbers stayed in the breakroom for two days before I finally threw them away. I think I had reached the cucumber saturation point. To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t any way, other than pickling, to preserve an overabundance of cucumbers.

Tomatoes, on the other hand, can be frozen for future use. One big reason for growing them is that we use them a lot in cooking (as opposed to slicing for a sandwich or other raw use). I suppose we could can them, but since we tend to have small batches (four or five tomatoes), it’s a lot of trouble to go to just for a jar or two.

We’ve cooked them into small batches of sauce and then frozen it in one- or two-cup amounts in plastic freezer bags for use during the winter. We’ve also blanched the tomatoes, removed the skins, and frozen them whole. (Not one of our better ideas. The little red cannonballs take up more room in our little freezer compartment and since we can’t get all the air out, we get big ice crystals and freezer burn. Next time, we’ll roughly chop them so they’ll take less room.)


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